Interview with Louise Cox, President of the International Union of Architects (UIA)
RETHINKING WHAT WE ARE DOING IN DESIGN PRACTICE AND EDUCATION
One and a half hour conversation with Louis Cox, the President of UIA, was definitely a dialog full of inspiration and encouragement. Her statement provided some insight into the education and practice of architecture and their position within current society, especially in the local context of Indonesia. In particular, Cox emphasized on the needs for a deeper understanding of ‘what we are doing’ as an architect, how we should cultivate open mind and how we should teach accordingly in architecture schools.
Rethinking architecture and sustainability
Calling herself as ‘the worst person’ to be asked questions about architecture, Cox shared some ideas about how we should have a broader understanding of architecture not merely about building and technology; she talked much about nature, culture and community and the need to go back to these aspects in our design and education practice. Beginning her education as an architect at the University of Sydney, Cox chose architecture simply because she would like to be in the university for long time. Then she found not only the subject was interesting, but also the people and the things that she learned from other disciplines – literature, arts and others.
Such multidisciplinary view in understanding architecture was also evident throughout her career, especially as she took her role in the politics of the architecture profession. While being the President of RAIA New South Wales Chapter, Cox once invited people from various fields related to culture – people from museum, art, dance etc – because she believed that it was important for architects to understand culture. Sadly, she found that most architects had never been near to the culture themselves; they had never been to the ballet or the opera. She wondered what was wrong with the architects, and she believed that being architects was “not about being able to draw… you need to know history, culture”.
Her passion for history has also led her to some works related to history and heritage. In line with the global efforts in dealing with sustainability issues, she explained that UIA was promoting sustainability in relation to heritage. This was a dimension of sustainability that we needed to be aware of and go back to, rather than relating sustainability merely on high technology. Looking back in 1993, when no one had ever raised the environmental issues, Cox remembered bringing the issue back to Australia and began to develop their environmental policy, where they started to think what they were doing and why they were doing it. Then they began producing notes of environmental issues, selling them cheaply to the members and the members liked these notes. One thing she regretted was the fact that “… we all look at technology but we have not looked back to what have been done before.” Cox emphasized on the needs to go back to basics, to be aware that previously people had already done things sustainably, so thinking that only high-tech could give answers to everything seemed to be the wrong direction towards sustainable architecture.
She even gave a criticism to environmental rating systems that exist in many countries. The problem of these rating systems, she said, was that there was something wrong with the way of thinking. For example, she wondered why you got one point for re-using the building and nine points for having bicycle rack. Although she said that perhaps such rating systems were necessary, the main problem was that “it’s just not sending the right message” and the systems had tended to be just about high-tech and not dealing with reality. Furthermore, Cox also argued that the danger of such guidelines or rating system was that they could make people so lazy that they “want to be given things so that they can just tick boxes” which then made people stop thinking.
Revisiting local values and community
Within the context of Indonesia, Cox marked that “you have done things better than us”. She pointed on the local cultures that we had in Indonesia, the richness these cultures had and that “everything you touch has a design element on it” and those were the thing that she thought we should go back to. The indigenous technologies which were evident in villages had been proven to be very sustainable. Among the things that she mentioned – which she encountered during her short visit to a village in West Sumatra – were the simple roof construction with grass or leaves that could hold heavy rain perfectly without any needs for gutter, the water pond around the house that went to the paddy field and then went on to the river or wherever the water should go, and so on. “I just found the whole of this creation very interesting,” she felt amazed.
Apart from the very different directions of high-tech approach and traditional approach, the message towards sustainability that Cox kept saying was “I think what he have to do is to have awareness of what we are doing and rethink why we are doing it.” She believed that we needed to keep asking “Do we really need to do this?” It sounded like a very simple advice but perhaps we must have admitted that we had not done enough of such reflection in our practice as architects. The issue of not knowing what we were doing, she believed, was also the cause of many problems of human being at the moment. That was the cause of why people tended to move to cities, imagining cities as offering glitter and fortune, and in fact most of these migrants ended up in the worse situation then they had before.
Another caution that she pointed out was regarding our attitude to heritage. There has been a wrong tendency to preserve the traditional building and turn it into museum. She believed that “it should be a living building, space or place or whatever… We should be conserving, not preserving. She said this because preserving meant keeping the buildings still and not touching it and letting it fall down, indeed buildings needed to be maintained and renewed all the time. So the key of conservation of local built environment was to make people feel proud of it, which was hard to do. In general, Cox agreed that the education of the society mattered very much, in order to make people understand, and also to preserve local skills and knowledge that had existed in the society for long.
Cox also mentioned another thing that has been lack in our practice. “We are not talking to the community and ask what they want.” She had spent time during her visit to Indonesia talking about the importance of talking to the community, rather than just sitting in the office designing for a client and ended up with wondering why people do not like the design. She strongly believed that architects needed to talk to community – no matter when working with poor community or sophisticated community. She remembered that when she began to introduce the idea of talking to the community, everyone laughed, but she kept insisting how important it was because “If you bring the community with you, you will have no objection… It’s their opinion anyway, you don’t dictate”. We may interpret her statement as promoting a new direction for the architecture profession to get closer to the community.
She showed appreciation to various community projects that were aimed at empowering people. It was not only the design of the building that was important but rather the formation of mental perception of people. The global attention to such approach had been promoted through Aga Khan Award of Architecture and Global Sustainability Award, which made such community projects to have its respectable position within the profession. And more importantly, she believed that working on such community projects was not hard. “It’s not even difficult… people like us have all the things needed to do this.”
Asking how this idea may fit into the general tendency of architecture students who wish to be ‘star architect’, she replied “How many of them will be star architects? They have to be honest to themselves…” She intended to have a debate in the next congress in Tokyo, where she would like to question whether we really wanted star architects. She thought this was an issue because star architects were ruining our cities and ruining the way the students thought at the university. It was clear from her statement that we need architectural practices that are devoted to the community and not just about being star architects.
The need to think, the need to share
Cox also discussed a lot of ideas in relation to architectural education. She felt happy taking architecture as her major in university, since she considered it as the most complete education compared to others; it was a combination of science and arts, and most importantly it promoted interaction with other fields. The fact that only a small proportion of architecture graduates became architects was also realized by Cox. Nevertheless, she believed that the development of thinking attitude was the most important aspect of our education. “That’s what it’s all about, making people think in different way. And if only fifty percent finish off being architect, so what? At least we have a more educated society,” she argued.
Discussing more on education and its relationship with practice, Cox mentioned the need for a balanced education. She said that “The best combination is the person with interest in literature so that he could write well … not a lot of architects can even write… but also the person who can design.” It was important that the learning process in university pushed ‘design’ all the time as the main strength of architecture. It was not just about being able to draw – Cox claimed that she could not draw well and that the drawings of Mies van de Rohe or Walter Gropius were not so good either – but communicating your design ideas was more important. She was amazed with some innovative invention in the world – she gave one example of a water bottle that was created in a way that people easily could open the lid with the bottom part – which could only be achieved through design process that involved ‘thinking’. She kept saying that we always needed to make people think.
Education should also be seen as a platform of interaction. Her experience in architectural education was proven enjoyable because of the interaction she had with other disciplines. She believed that students of architecture, engineering, landscape, town planning, and urban design, should have their first three years together because we always work in team and we never do things by ourselves.
Collaboration is critical not only in working, but also in sharing ideas. The problems we had now was that “we don’t share enough”, she said. Very often people have done good things in one place, and others have done things in another place, but we did not know what others have done. It even happened with the UIA, which had done a lot of good things – guidelines, works on sustainability, heritage, education, and so on – but no one knew what UIA had done. Cox herself enjoyed her work going around from countries to countries, finding out what people had and shared with her.
Sharing the knowledge of architecture was also needed as early as possible. Teaching children about architecture, Cox believed, should begin as soon as they could learn – just like starting with building blocks. She pointed out that the works of Indonesian Heritage Trust (BPPI) to educate children was a very good approach especially for Indonesia with so all-round heritage, everything from dance, textile, building, space and place. There were also some works that had been done in other parts of the world to promote children’s awareness of architecture, and again Cox pointed out that the key was to share these resources and to learn from what others had done.
Sharing became important because people in different parts of the world did things differently. Cox pointed out how Eastern people were so different from Western, more philosophical in a way, and that with Eastern culture we needed to find out what was inside. On the other hand, Western education was more rounded, with history lessons taken during five years comprising architecture from Greek to 20th century, but not including Buddhist, Hindu, Chinese or Indian architecture. There was a danger that the Western wanted to be bigger and better than everyone else. What Cox mentioned may reflect the fact that there was no one better than others but the most important thing was to share.
Education is a key to many things, and Cox has encouraged us to keep thinking about how we should teach students in architecture schools with all these issues; teaching how to think, reflecting on what we are doing and why we are doing it, and also sharing with others. As Cox said, “The more you share, the more you learn, the better you are.” And this certainly leaves us some more homework for our professional and education practice.
Interviewed by: Yandi Andri Yatmo & Paramita Atmodiwirjo
Jakarta, 7 March 2010