To Build or Not to Build: Going Live is [Not] Just Being Practical!
Olweny, Mark R. O.
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Increasingly students and faculty alike are calling for a “hands-on” approach to architecture and building construction as an integral part of the architectural education. Schools of architecture have implemented courses to address this need, notably: the Harvard Graduate School of Design's 'Project on the City’; the design-build ‘Rural Studio’ run by Auburn University; and the Over-the-Rhine Design-Build Studio out of Miami University. Such activities are considered a good way to enhance problem-solving skills, dealing with client groups, working with different materials, construction techniques and methods, and preparing students for future practice. The courses run largely in parallel to the established design studio, mostly as electives or summer courses, but nevertheless, present as a ‘tectonic shift’,1 moving from the traditional structure of architecture education, based largely on the studio, with associated support courses, to an approach that seeks to supplement the learning through interactive projects that expose students to a range of experiences to enhance the architectural education experience. Regardless of the significance of these moves internationally, there has been only limited penetration of this approach in architectural education in East Africa. In the context of East Africa, the studio is regarded as being where students demonstrate their creative abilities, viewed as designing flamboyant buildings, often without any real sites or context to deal with - in effect, poor imitations of the real world. The notion of ‘practical’ gets lost within the context of architectural education as the nurturing of individuals who are ‘Master Builders’ or ‘Experts’, but not versed in the actual production of architecture, and how to respond directly the needs of clients. A perennial plea from applicants to the architecture programme at Uganda Martyrs University (UMU) is to join a ‘practical programme’. This indicates a demand for something more, or different, from architectural education, although it does raise a question: ‘what does practical mean in the context of architecture education?’ From a practice point of view, this suggests practice-ready graduates. However, with students only exposed to limited architecture practice as part of their educational experience, this raises two questions; how do students acquire the necessary skills to enhance their educational experience, and more significant, what is the purpose of architectural education? This is important with regard to future practice in the context of an unknown future. The lack of engagement with practical courses makes teaching of architecture somewhat difficult, with students generally unable to seek innovative solutions as a consequence. Thus, there is a need to engage students beyond mere book knowledge as part of their architectural education. A design-build workshop, hosted by Uganda Martyrs University (UMU), was to introduce students to some practical aspects of architecture, in this case through the use of research on poured earth construction. The three main objectives of the workshop were to: expose students to the nature of materials; engage with a learn-by-doing construction approach and; to educate in collaboration with fellow students. This paper reports on an initial venture into live projects in the context of architectural education in Uganda. It looks at the opportunities and challenges associated with this educational approach in the context of numerous north-south initiatives, but only a few schemes initiated from the global south.