Sunday, October 18, 2015

With students from Moratuwa University

Waking up early but not early enough perhaps to regain my equilibrium after a long day yesterday working with students from Moratuwa University. This in conjunction with an international student workshop that's slated for next Friday where I'm supposed to talk about urban coherence and incoherence, a slightly incoherent subject I think, which is the focus of the conference. 

It's 6:30 AM and I'm at a property some way out of Galle in a hilly-gully area studded with new construction. If I'm to guess by my absent host the houses were built by people like him, a banker. I've met him three times since we came and he's very hospitable. His place, pocket sized, immaculately designed and a bit roughly finished, was designed by one of the architects, Indika Ruparathne, who is in the master class I participated in (or taught) yesterday. 

As is the case about 100% of the time here I was in the dark about what we were doing, where we were going, and what we were to accomplish. Janet gamely came along, if only for the chance to re-visit Galle, which we visited two years ago on the cusp of its ascendency into a high-end retail and lodging destination with UNESCO heritage status. Along with us were four of the five students in this M-Arch program who ranged from a young protege of Janaka Wijesundara, my talented and accomplished colleague at Moratuwa, to a father of four in his forties, our media communications expert, who had just gotten off the night train from Jaffna, a nine hour trip he takes every weekend for this course. 

My "students" had spent several months studying Galle and especially the UNESCO-status Galle Fort, at one point spending a full week together onsite. To call them a tight cohort would not be an exaggeration, especially when they had the chance to break away from their duty of English conversation with us and had the chance to chatter, giggle, and roughhouse in Sinhala. This is what I've observed every time I've been in the company of junior faculty here, which is where at least a couple of them are headed. I haven't noticed this behavior among girls but for the record, there were no females in this coterie. 

To be fair I'd say with honesty that these people know their site. They've spent lots of time there. They know the terrain, the patterns, and the people. They claim to have done 200 interviews which is possible, though the "interviews" I observed were short and informal. No matter. These are Sri Lanka's future architects and planners and the standard of their learning, and more important, the quality of their questions is on par with my students at the BAC in Boston. 

Their main work is concerned with a master plan for Galle, a good idea since the World Heritage site at the Fort is sure to bring in more money and overspill its bounds. Galle town has to be developed in some kind of coherent way. But there I go again with the word "coherent." It's anybody's guess. The most accomplished architect in the group maintained a prissy attitude about the "disorganization" of the fish market, calling it "disordered" and "undisciplined," labels I can't accept personally, while another group member stressed the need for shade and people's need to move through (not sit) as they perform their daily tasks.  

So there is so much room for interpretation it's hard to know what they think as a group or how they've anchored their ideas or how they will present their work in a few days. 

Some observations are perhaps in order. I watched group decisionmaking over lunch and was impressed by how much conferring and cross-conferring needed to be fine before we could order. Ultimately everyone got the same thing-a family style fried rice and curry and everyone bent down and got to work. 

So many questions during our work. So many stated ideas and opinions. Sometimes people would both talk at the same time and it reminded me of when my twins were small and addressed me simultaneously with their burning concerns. 

We spent hours it seemed circling the Fort, trying out, repeating, restating ideas in a kind of circular way that matched our circumambulations. There were times it seemed like we weren't getting anywhere, times when group members disappeared but multiple phone calls were made back and forth. Times when the same divergent opinions were repeated seemingly endlessly. 

As a foreigner it became I thought impossible to decipher how people were communicating, what they might be communicating, or how I should respond. With one student I could see no point of agreement. No matter how politely I listened I couldn't seem to swallow what he said. Finally I took a direct approach and told him I didn't agree or worse, told him I disagreed. No matter. He kept explaining his philosophy to me. So is this a way problem solving is done? Just keep going around and around with ideas until some aspects of everyone's ideas are incorporated into a group consensus?

There were times that were frustrating and times that were maddening and times I thought I would die of thirst and times I choked on cigarette smoke or exhaust. Times the noise of trucks or kotti making stopped all conversation and times a heavily accented English just became too hard to understand. 

In the end our conversations were incredibly productive. Finally a series of questions was put to me: how should the presentation focus? What's the difference between an urban designer and an urban planner? How much must a designer know? And how much of their knowledge do designers have to incorporate into their work?

I found myself with a group of deeply curious students, well informed, and with a thirst for more answers. Answers which I couldn't pretend to provide. So in the end I threw back a few questions, digging deep to keep the questions good natured. I was way overtired. And then this morning came the students' response. 

"The questions you threw at us made us search for answers. And as we searched for answers to your questions we found answers to our own."

What better way to spend a weekend with a group of well-prepared students who were primed to learn and interact? A wonderfully rewarding experience for me and one that I hope will perpetuate many more discussions with these wonderful students. 

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