Thursday, May 14, 2009

Why Not [Here] No.3 - Formatting Education/ Debating Aspects of Higher Education in Kuwait and the Gulf...

View of Izmir from the IUE campus...

It seems like most private institutions of higher learning in Kuwait, or even the Gulf, are affiliated, both in approach and name, to foreign institutions on entities. One assumes the main reason for taking such an approach is to gain immediate validity, as well as logistical know-how (but with more emphasis on the initial assumed justification) for a new, budding institution. It saves time, and presumably years of concerted effort, on establishing a favourable reputation of ones own. Purchasing the name and rights of a trademarked American, English, French or Australian university (or linking the institutions name to one of these countries) is a convenient short-cut to collegial serendipity and credibility. This form of institutional packaging has also, of course, been done successfully with most types of retail outlets (franchised from international chains such as Boots or Starbucks) as well as more high-end cultural institutions (such as the Guggenheim – as in Bilbao, Las Vegas or Abu Dhabi, or even the Sorbonne, currently being built in Abu Dhabi), usually at a great expense, and it has, admittedly, had the desired affect – these ventures have received their fair share of both local and international publicity, be it only for the sheer audacity of the architecture or the costs involved.


Football pitch on the campus of IUE...

However, as advantageous such 'clip-on' endeavours might be, applying a formula that works in New York, Sidney or Paris might not necessarily suitable for a Gulf vernacular, where the cultural, social semantics and logistics are set according to quite unique and different foundations and patterns of behaviour. These range from issues such as the separation or distinction between the genders, to more subtle, more internalized and idiosyncratic, social distinctions within a society, such as the roles between locals and expatiates or the 'bedoun', or any of the alternate cultural hierarchies and chains-of-command (the key role religion plays in the set up of the nation, the way reputations and loyalties are interlinked between extended families, etc.). All such factors will impact, and occasionally clash, with the imported cultures of the institutions brought in from abroad. A successful enterprise of this scale will inevitably require time, patience, and bundles of perseverance and lateral thinking to survive and succeed. 'Tagging on' to someone else's reputation might seem like a worthwhile idea, but there's something to be said for building up, from scratch, a establishment of ones own. Allow it to develop organically into something distinct and a bespoke reflection of its own unique conditions and setting.

Do such institutions lack the confidence in setting up something which foundations stand on their own merit? Could one claim that such an approach is reflective of an inherent lack of imagination in defining an original set of academic criteria of ones own?


IUE glazed elevator shaft...


The Bauhaus, Vkhutemas, Black Mountain College, Architectural Association, SCI-Arc, are all institutions (the latter two still existing) that defined an unique approach to their particular disciplines. They all also celebrate(d) their individuality, their specific approach and philosophy, and pursued their particular plan-to-action according to ideas that usually were catalysed by perceived shortcomings in existing educational templates. Some of the aforementioned institutions didn't last much more than a decade or two (the Bauhaus, Vkhutemas, Black Mountain College), but are still revered and referred to in most textbooks related to the topic. Others are still going strong (the AA, SCI-Arc), and have by now, as in the case of the AA, been around for over 160 years. What they all have in common is a surprisingly diverse assemblage of characters, both students and tutors, who collectively developed a richly diverse setting for syncretic discourse. They questioned and adapted new stands of thought and novel paradigms of conception which inevitably enriched the way our doings and surroundings - the values and concepts we use to define them - could be conceived and perceived. This process of constant questioning and critical thought, derived from the sincerest form of curiosity rather than cynicism, is imperative in the betterment of our both cultural and built vernacular. It is this role, as an entity of both empirical but also inspired conception, an university should occupy. Perhaps the advantage of doing so through a private institution is that the usually more generic requirements of a state run university curriculum can be circumvented and alternative pedagogical routes can be explored.


The campus Amphitheatre, with trees sticking out from between the bleachers...


These musings came about whilst visiting the Department of Architecture of the Izmir University of Economics in Izmir, Turkey, a less than decade old institution that is fiercely dedicated to establishing its own brand, or take on things, rather than adopting someone else's. What struck me about this institution, located in a country and city I never visited before, was, in spite of its newness, how dynamic, aspirational and 'together' it was. The chain-of-command between the departments and individuals in those departments was clear and benign; required actions, be these regarding invoice payments or the realization of new facilities, were done on time or even ahead of schedule; the provisions of, and interlinks between, the different facets of the school and fulfilling the needs of both students and staff were efficiently resolved and always in process of being improved. Workshops exploring various more progressive approaches of architectural conception were standard. This was all achieved quickly, efficiently and within budget. The campus had a very amicable ambiance about it, and the staff and students I met all seemed to have a dedication and loyalty for the place.


The cable-car accessed mountain south of the IUE campus...

This emphasis on individuality and initiative to take action and responsibility of ones own would benefit all stratums of endeavours in Kuwait, regardless of discipline...

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