The Education of the Muslim Architect
The Education of the Muslim Architect Spiro Kostof
I am the child of a Greek family, born and raised in Turkey. I have, therefore, first hand knowledge of an estimable Islamic country, and also of the concepts underlying the daral-lslam, the millennial gift of that religion to secure under its aegis a community of disparate peoples and cultures.
My home town is Istanbul, the great city of Constantine, Justinian, Fatih, Suleyman and Ataturk. It is this city that engraved upon my mind, before all else, the power of historical continuities, of the remarkable ability of urban fabrics to bestir and adjust themselves through time, transcending the specificities of one tradition and living on to host another.
By training and practice, I am an architectural historian who believes his primary task to be the effort to recreate and convey the actual processes of designing, building and using the man-made environments of the past. I understand architecture to mean, quite simply, all buildings, the standard and the fancy, and their arrangement into landscapes of form. In my work I am concerned with context and ritual, with uses and users.
There are, in my view, two sides to the history of architecture, and they are inseparable — or should be. That history is, first of all, the documented account of, and commentary upon, our built world. But people lived in these places — and still do They have played and prayed and died in them — and still do. I consider it my professional imperative not to excise their story, not to speak of architecture as if it were a collection of empty, pretty shells. It is with that story that the history of architecture becomes a moving dialogue between ourselves and the place and time of our inquiry, and the historian a sort of moderator, an mediator if you like, between us and them.
Recently I published a general history of architecture with some of these directives in mind. In it I spoke of houses and monuments of the public realm, and of Muslim, Christian and Hindu architecture and their concurrence. I paired Florence with Cairo, Venice with Istanbul. I tried to look at the protean physical responses of world cultures to the common urgencies of human existence — faith, death, power and the anxiety of being abroad in a realm not entirely of our own making and beyond our comprehensive understanding.
Finally, you might wish to know in this apo logia pro praesentia sua that since 19651 have taught history in the school of architecture of the University of California at Berkeley, and that my repertory includes a course on Islamic architecture offered intermittently and with special fondness, more as a labour of love than because of any claim to pre-emptory scholarship. The course is popular, and most of the students who take it are of course non-Muslim They take it, at the most ephemeral level, because the material is different, exotic, unfamiliar, visually appealing But somewhere along the way I invariably glimpse a deeper motivation. So they expiate the stealthy knowledge that prejudice, chauvinism and the imperialist urge breed as readily at drafting tables as they do in the workings of regimes and the uncharted regions of ill-education minds. In the end, we are what we know.
I rehearse all this in order to lay bare the background for the remarks I have prepared by way of a prelude to your deliberations on the education of the Muslim architect. I realise that the title of the seminar is given as “Architecture Education in the Islamic World”. But those of us who teach Muslim students in Western institutions should not presume to know how it should be done in their home countries, or if, indeed, there has to be an architectural education in the Islamic world distinct from what that education should be in the Western world. If this is not the case, then the venue of that education should be of little consequence.
What is there, I wonder now, more to being a Muslim architect than that one is born and raised within the fold of Islam, which, as we know, ranges in intensity from the fundamentalist to the secular? Does it involve more than being desirous of contributing one’s talents to that great commonwealth of faith — a contribution which can itself range from doing architecture in an Islamic country in an Islamic mode, to doing good architecture anywhere, the excellence of which will ultimately enhance the fortunes and influence of Islam? I remember Mr Correa, in one of your seminar reports, saying that it was Le Corbusier’s work in India that blazed a trail for a whole generation of young Indian architects creating Indian architecture, and I have testaments of the trail of Hassan Fathy across the landscape of Western campuses galvanising the sensibilities of Western architects and their students with the fervour of his message.
Obviously I am manoeuvering myself into a position where I can argue, for the subject at hand at any rate, that the disjunction between East and West has been overdrawn. By this I do not at all mean that students from Islamic countries are well served by attending foreign schools of architecture, or others closer to home modelled after them. I mean, rather, to raise two immediate points of commonality.
Our architecture, too, has been through a long history- denying phase which caught up with us in the acrid ferment of the 1960s. We, too, have struggled to mitigate the often heartless, problem-solving, aloof orientation of an internationalist technocracy by pleas for consideration of the unempowered, searches for cultural anchors in the surging tides of efficient and formulaic uniformity, care for the needs of users and the encouragement of participatory processes And, when programmes such as the Aga Khan Award set out to restore a sense of historical depth to the making of a modern Islamic environment, we, too, had finally stemmed the culture-resistant asceticism of the Modern with a Post-Modern defence of place and time
So we may, after all, be in the same boat. The upheaval of the post-industrial era brought a crisis of culture to both of us, to the West earlier and in more protracted fashion. That search for us has yet to end. The East confronted a similar crisis more precipitously, but with similar reactions.
The main architectural question for all of us, in the East and in the West, may well be the same, central one of how we educate young men and women who wish to practice the venerable profession of architecture in the overwhelmingly complicated enterprise of our day
I have some thoughts to share with you on this head. They will not formulate a curriculum or propose a line of action They are the luminations of one who has taught in an unusual and first-rate school of architecture for twenty years, one who had the luxury of studying what went on during that time, reflecting upon it dispassionately, because he did not have to worry about ever having to do architecture
Let me rush into the breach with some bold assertions, and ask your indulgence as I elaborate upon them.
The reliance of the education of the architect on professional schools is, as history goes, a recent occurrence. It has to do with the professionalisation of architecture beginning a century or so ago, with licensing, with the increasingly specialised building types and building technologies, and other such developments that removed the architect from the intimacies of a craft- oriented trade and of apprenticeship, involving learning by doing Prior to that and since the 1660s, there was only the French academic tradition, which we loosely call the Beaux Arts, as a structured curriculum with claims of universality. The resistence to architecture schools, the urge to disparage such institutions, has always been there. For those who saw and see architecture as an intuitive and practical art, the rigidity of a curriculum propped up by book-learning was, and is, hard to take.
But schools are here to stay. The profession is, indeed, far too complex to master empirically, unless one strictly limits its practice. And so, we are saddled forever, it would seem, with the huge task of designing and redesigning curricula. My present point is that, inevitable though schools and the varying merits of their approaches may be, we should emphasise the exceedingly circumscribed role they play in the education of an architect. There is no substitute for the experience of travel that opens the eye and builds up a storehouse of impressions, no substitute for the excitement of association with a superior practitioner whose work one admires and whose path one wishes to follow on for a while.
And beyond that comes life and learning. We understand the needs of others to the extent that we have insisted on a full life for ourselves; we can provide for the settings of social institutions to the extent that we have been broadly educated, broadly read, given the wherewithal to reflect on the course of human affairs and to scan the reaches of human achievement. If the final ambition of the architect is not simply to accommodate programmes but to comment upon them, then the education of the architect cannot stop at structure and form.
We have long peddled the notion that architecture is itself a language of cultural expression, that you can read from buildings, without the help of any other documents, the intentions of the culture that produced them. But buildings do lie; or, rather, they will tell us only as much as we are able to read into them.
Thus, architecture is not a substitute for general literacy. A mastery of the sophisticated specialisations now encompassed by the practice of architecture does not exonerate the architect from grasping the fundamentals of the cultural realm that deal with institutions and social patterns and the creative orbit of the arts.
The process of professional initiation starts its course long before its formal unveiling at the schools of architecture.
By the time students have found their way to a school of architecture, they have been marked in a number of ways. Many are from privileged backgrounds, and they do not want for support and encouragement. Families that might cringe to have a son go in for painting or the theatre would proudly acknowledge his choice of a career as an architect. Architectural students are thought to possess certain talents — for conceptualising, say, or for beautiful drawing — which singles them out, and they are admitted to the school at least in part on the strength of this promise.
Professional acculturation has supplied two myths, and insists on perpetuating them. One of these is the familiar Fountainhead syndrome — the architect as triumphant genius, as Promethean form-giver, a larger-than-life figure who replenishes the repository of great monuments with visual or structural prodigies of his own.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with hero architects, no reason we should do without them any more than we should do without our great poets or painters. We shall not deny our cultures the heights attained by the likes of Sinan or Frank Lloyd Wright. But the possibilities for such superstardom come rarely in any culture; and the place for transcendent monuments is extremely restricted in the general business of making cities and villages, because we need very few of these beacons of community and very many of the standard, unremarkable buildings that surround them and give them their dignity, their iconic status. And, anyway, you cannot train heroes to be heroes, you can only tell them what it takes.
It is also at least arguable that in the final analysis, despite all our Selimiyes and Taj Mahals, we do not best change the world or improve human existence by the isolated gesture of grand design or by environmental fiat. It consists of forms and lives. It is a shell brimming with human content. It is also a vulnerable artifact, gossamer for all its evident solidarity. Big names in architecture and urbanism have enhanced and redirected it, but they have also torn and savaged it. Grand schemes, heroic monuments, we know only too well, come often at the expense of what was there. They can displace and dislocate; they can eradicate or render meaningless stretches of collective memory.
The second myth is a more idealistic one; it was common in the 1960s and early 1970s. It is that architects can rearrange priorities, make the world a happier place, help bring about an order that is more equitable and in which injustice will become more intolerable. We have had a long string of utopias along these lines that equated a good society with good design.
Alas, social happiness is a collective struggle, not just a professional one. Beautiful or reasoned buildings do not always bring about beautiful behaviour or reasoned response. And sometimes there are flashes of rare humanity and beauty in the worst of slums.
Now, I am not out to destroy myths. I believe sincerely that the act of design is more a solemnity than a simple skill, that it partakes of some elemental thinking about who we are and how we want to live. It has the power to order the land and ready it for attitudes. It can nudge those huge improbable configurations we call cities to liveliness and joy. It can lend dignity to our public institutions. But design is not enough. It does not in itself hold the key to social change. To flog the architect for society’s failings is a fruitless exercise. To credit him with its successes is false praise.
It is crucial, therefore, that we impart to our charges in the schools a fair image of creditable performance, that we paint judiciously the broad challenges of vision and the limited horizons of action. A good architect, we must insist, is one who gives his best whatever the assignment, whether a whole city or an interior remodelling, and we then must proceed to specify what the “best” should be. It is crucial for the beginning student to understand that those, too, contribute who mend and touch up and insinuate. You yourselves have elaborated in past seminars on the enormous task ahead to rehabilitate and conserve historic environments in Muslim countries. Much of this work may have to be done on an ad hoc basis. Such repair is not glamorous. It does not win magazine attention. The reward system of the profession as it is discriminates against cautious fine-grained work of this kind. That is why we who teach in schools of architecture must downplay old myths, and bring forth new models of professional worthiness. If we can convey all this, we will have a happier mood around our schools, fewer dropouts among our student body, a smaller number of graduating students who abandon the field for something else out of a frustration that comes from inflated expectations. The message should be that to be a good architect is like being a good citizen. One designs what is right and responsible, whether it is noticed or not, as one should vote, say, and refrain from spitting or littering, whether it is being noticed and rewarded or not.
3) Architecture schools should not consider the training of architects to be their only charge.
What is an architecture school? I think we are all agreed that, as we have them now, such schools are there to train students for the profession and propel them into it. In other words, they are there to make architects. Perhaps because I am not an architect and yet choose to teach in a school of architecture, I have long held that we have been missing a great chance to make architecture a vital part of the general discourse, a public concern like food and politics. We have been missing this chance precisely because we insist on looking at architecture schools exclusively as the training centres for young professional.
However, architecture does not depend on architects alone. Thus, its study should not be restricted to them alone. For example, by the time at which we in architectural seminars bemoan the destruction of our patrimony arid devise stratagems to forestall it, it is already many stages too late. Members of communities themselves must know what they have, be proud of it, and insist on holding on to it. This means that they have to be enlightened about the built environment somehow, preferably from grade school on. At an advanced level, schools of architecture could then become centres of general humanistic education, places where one comes to learn about architecture because it encompasses so much of the human adventure, regardless of whether one is going to be an architect or not, in much the same way that one might enroll in a department of literature without having the slightest inclination to be a professional writer This, then, will become the place that trains future preservationists and clients who will commission buildings for themselves and others, journalists and critics who will write about architecture, or educated people who become conscious of what a great legacy our built world is and what it takes to bring it about, and who will move on to another career with this consciousness in their mind, ready to impart it to their children, or, perhaps, exercise it in their neighbourhood. Architecture then can be a fundamental discipline of human learning, as, indeed, it is, and not always and finally only a profession.
4) The answer to the question, “Of what use is the study of history in the education of an architect?” is another question: “What kind of history?”
Whether we are training professionals or educating students who are simply “majoring” in architecture, history is central — and for the same reasons. The history of architecture, properly taught, has general validity. Or, rather, there is not, in my view, one kind of history for architects and another kind for others.
I am, of course, quite sensitive to the fact that architects are interested in history often as a rich quarry of form. He quarried it, stripped off its specific cultural programme, and surpassed it at Selimiye in Edirne. For this kind of formal recall there is no need for historians.
But form is always a receptacle of meaning, and architectural meaning is ultimately lodged in history, in cultural contexts. That is what must be explained, that is where the historian comes in. Every shape, every bend in the road has a precise explanation. Muslim students must know of matters like waqf of social programmes like kiilliyes, of the history of institutions like the tekke which are organisational and cultural concepts first, before they become architeсtural types. They should know about the ascendance of the state in the modern period and how it undermined the role of community groups, private patronage, and similar agencies of rapport between architecture and people. I agree wholeheartedly with Dr Mona Serageldin and Francois Vigier who deplore the superficial applique that passes for a renaissance of Islamic architecture, and who make it clear that in order to go beyond this cosmetic subterfuge, professional curricula will have to undergo major reforms. They have pointed out that architectural history courses must stress the social, cultural and ecological factors that gave rise to specific architectural forms, rather than treating these forms as a purely plastic art and that the evolution of institutions and their influence on the spatial organisation of cities must be understood.
I would go a step further As long as architectural history is taught as a separate academic discipline, it will remain poorly integrated with the instruction of design. We must find new ways to organise studios. We must incorporate the complicated historical processes at work on the environment into the immediate culture of studio instruction. Bruno Zevi has been attempting this fusion in his Istituto Storico-Critico in Rome, but it is form-making he has foremost in mind as students dissect the workings of Michelangelo’s dome for St Peter’s, for example, in clever analytical models and such. The building process is part of history, surely, but it is not what I have in mind. To make architectural history, as I understand the field, a partner in the act of contemporary design would indeed inspire continuities of the sort we so admire in great cities like Fez or Florence or Vienna.
At the practical level of conservation this partnership comes naturally. To do that job properly one has to know how to study and interpret building fabrics in terms of materials and techniques; one has to be able to read and interpret surviving drawings and other such empowering documents, and be able to resuscitate the physical reality that they record.
The current architecture education everywhere in world ill prepares the graduating student for the realities of professional practice.
This is in the nature of a summation, of course. All along I have been leading up to this conclusion. What I have actually delivered is much less prescriptive than you might have wished: I apologise. My purpose has been to establish a general climate for the study of architecture, to pinpoint misplaced intentions and suggest new attitudes, because I think schools of architecture are in some ways dusty and anachronistic as they are presently constituted.
I have not even touched on the question of preparing students for what is rather alarmingly referred to as “the outside world”. Basically, I think we might agree, students who come out are rather naive about the economic aspects of building, and the realities of clients and how to secure commissions. They have, as I discussed, romantic notions of their roles, and are quite coтfused as to how they should behave professionally, how they can be effective. And they have only the murkiest notions about ethics. They do not know how to be active in social and political issues through their profession. This is no longer a strong point in the architectural world. The architect as a public figure has been in decline for quite some time. The key issue here is this. An architect is a trained professional who solves design problems. A palace for a corrupt ruler is a design problem, so is a concentration camp. Should you design them? Somebody obviously does Would you change your mode of designing to continue being employed after a radical change of regime that favours a design language that is not your own?
At any rate, architectural education cannot be value-free. Who we are individually, who we are culturally, is part of the equation. If the architect has to persuade a client that doing things this way rather than that way will produce a more humane environment, or a more splendid one, or a more honest one, then his own convictions, his values will certainly condition his brief.
Here is a related issue: would you design, should you design, something for a culture that is not yours? Many Western firms, as we all recognise, do so with gusto You have seen their work in Islamic countries in all your seminars. Was this so because until quite recently internationalism was an article of professional faith? In a conference on educating students of the so-called developing countries in European schools, held a while back in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, John Habraken of M I.T argued that “a profeыsion can only be a profession when it shares certain principles, theories and methods that it holds valid and useful in all circumstances and in all places ” Now we are not sd”sure. We are also worried about spiritual trespassing, if I may call it that. Hassan Fathy said in one of the Award seminars that he could have designed the church at Gouina needed by the non-Muslim community, but he refused to do so, he called in a Christian to do the job Will Muslim students in the future refuse to design projects that are unfamiliar to them as Muslims, or antithetical to the Muslim way of life?
Here is where that core concern, the nature of Islamic architecture, comes in.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr argued that “There is no way of discussing Islamic architecture and evading the problem of the principles of Islamic architecture and what Islamic architecture means. There is no way of avoiding meaning. God is meaning (ma’na). We have to be at the quest of this meaning.” He proposed that Islamic architects be trained once again in the traditional way, that the old crafts resurrected, and thereby the old ways brought back. All this reminded me of Augustus Welby Pugin one hundred and fifty years ago and his advocacy of the Gothic style as the only vehicle for a reformed society. It reminded me of the moral arguments of the anti-machine Arts and Crafts Movement in England and elsewhere all through the later nineteenth century.
Dogan Kuban, the product of a secular Muslim country would have none of this. He said: Islamic architecture is “something created by those people who call themselves Muslims. It is as simple as that.” So, presumably, in this accepting view a skyscraper can be Islamic architecture and so, too, a five hundred room hotel, if they happened to be designed by Muslim architects.
This is no minor matter. If westernization is taken to be a fundamental disruption of Islamic culture, a terminus post quern non, then a whole range of building types from factories to office buildings would be outside the purview of an Islamic architect who wishes to remain within the bounds of his culture. The application of Islamic decor will not absolve the design, since a Frenchman could do as much and just as easily. The only honorable course might be to try to reinterpret the programme within the experience of Islamic tradition. Certainly apartment towers have their counterparts in things like the rab’ type of collective housing in Cairo. The hotel could also be reinterpreted in line with the traditional way of putting up guests and visitors — and work from that to a new form
that has nothing to do with the high-rise hotel.
I started this talk with autobiographical details. I spoke of being a Greek raised in Turkey, of Istanbul and its lesson of urban continuities. I hope you will not think me too preachy if I return to these preliminaries, in order to point out their relevance to what I have randomly been implying all through this paper. Because of who I am and what I do, I find talk about a violently disrupted tradition a bit unsettling. Westernised buildings of the nineteenth century in some Islamic countries are already on their way to being appropriated into the tradition, as the International Style, uncompromisingly historical to the last, has already been absorbed into the great historical traditions of the West. Time may mellow the appeal of more recent specimens of modern architecture in Islamic lands. History heals. Survival confers dignity. It would be counterproductive, if not impossible, to attempt to separate Islamic culture from modern culture. And this separation might not even be the Islamic thing to do. The unity of Islam from the start accommodated pluralism. It accepted and absorbed alien elements into its sturdy frame. The culture itself changed and developed all along; its vigour was its principal drive. To reduce the vast wealth of Islamic architecture to its “essentials” leads either to an unedifying catalogue of common features — minarets, mihrabs and the like — or else to such generic headings as “dexterous handling of scale”, “adoption of geometric forms”, “interesting structural forms”, and so forth. (I am quoting from the paper delivered by Mr Khwaja in your opening seminar of 1978). These reductions can only impoverish and restrict the education of the Muslim architect, and deprive the West of the benefits of our all too spasmodic commonality.
In our contemporary culture, architecture education is in a state of crisis. We have today a better knowledge in most fields than ever before, and better technological means at our disposal, but still, in most places, the built environment is decaying because of meaningless construction. Thus, we may talk about a general environmental crisis, and accordingly, a crisis of architectural education. As an architect and an educator,
I have been giving much thought to the reasons for this state of affairs.
My conclusion is simple: we have forgotten the language of architecture. Firstly, we have forgotten to experience architecture as a meaningful expression of human life in a certain place, and secondly, we have forgotten the use of the language of architecture as a means to serve man’s need for meaning and belonging. With the word language, therefore, I intend what keeps and communicates man’s modes of being in the world. To recover the language of architecture is the primary aim and the basis of architecture education. The purpose of this paper is to show what that means, using Islamic architecture as an illustration.
I do not pretend to explain Islamic architecture, but merely wish to demonstrate an approach that may help us to accomplish the needed return to architecture. Let me emphasise: before we can teach architecture, we have to know what architecture is, and at this seminar that means asking the question: What is Islamic architecture?
Islamic architecture is experienced as a positive fact as soon as we visit an Islamic environment; it is there as an immediately recognisable presence, from Afganistan to Arabia, from Egypt to Andalusia It is there as something which tells us that we are no longer in Graeco-Roman and Christian Europe. Also we know it when we are in an European city, rather than an Indian or Chinese one, and we know it before we encounter any human being or see any written sign.
When I say that we know it when we are in a European city, I may add that we also know that we are in an English rather than a German one. Yes, we even may distinguish a Tuscan one from a Sicilian one, but that would demand a certain level of knowledge on the part of the visitor.
The spaces we experience when we travel about are primarily public rather than private, and they may be urban spaces as well as interiors of public buildings. The difference between environments, therefore, stems from different spatial properties, which may be classified in the broad categories of volumetric types and various kinds of boundaries. We immediately perceive the suq or bazaar of an Islamic city as a distinct type of volume, and the same happens when we enter a mosque, such as the famous one in Cordoba To recognise an Islamic city, however, we do not have to visit particular places; we feel the Islamic presence everywhere, due to a characteristic treatment of the spatial boundaries, just as we experience European cities as such for the same reason. First of all, Islamic architecture becomes manifest in the wall, where the Islamic sense of being in the world is kept and visualised. Certainly, not all walls in all Islamic cities are treated in the same way, but basic properties and motifs are omnipresent, albeit with varying frequency. And, just as important, those properties that distinguish European cities are as a rule absent.