Architecture schools can be self-obsessed and claustrophobic

Japan: 4; Ireland: 5; Australia: 1; Thailand: 3; Poland: 2; Brazil: 2; Taiwan: 3; China: 4.

This is the makeup of my current group of students at the Shibaura Institute of Technology in Tokyo, where I teach in English – the language that becomes the university’s “de facto” language of communication. This transition gave rise to interesting curiosities, such as the elective lectures on Japanese metabolist architects of the 1960s, given by a Japanese Harvard graduate to a class of ten Japanese students in English. But “internationalization” – a concept that was, for many years in Japan, only a slogan – is now more and more at the center of university ambitions. Most of the major Japanese universities now have, or are in the process of establishing, architecture programs based on the English language. At Tokyo University of the Arts, where I taught from 2009 to 2019, we only had fifteen Japanese students each year, plus six to eight international students. This high percentage of “visitors” created an interesting school culture and an exciting sense of the future direction of the school. The same was true of the international workshops that we organize each year with visiting professors and students from the AA School, the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, the University of Queensland, the Bond University. and the University of Sydney. Architecture schools everywhere can be self-obsessed and a little claustrophobic, but I think these “mixes” have opened eyes, minds and doors.

For Japanese universities, it has been relatively easy to establish the “international level” that attracts interesting foreign exchange students. Internationally renowned designers such as Kengo Kuma, Kazuyo Sejima, Ryue Nishizawa and Manabu Chiba have been appointed full professors – which is not possible in Australia, where a doctorate is the “necessary key to the quadrilateral” – and the appeal of the aesthetics and exoticism does the rest. But inside universities, I think exchange students are sometimes seen as a time-consuming inconvenience… that doesn’t pay a fee! And, of course, exchange programs do not work if universities do not invest enough energy (and money) in their organization and supervision. But we need to see exchange students as ‘message carriers’, as people whose life experiences and previous studies may bring different perspectives to our local debates. And as professional Australian architects pursue their own internationalization, working around the world and rightly winning more and more international awards, the value of student exchange programs will become more evident. When I graduated in 1975, exchange programs were – I think – barely existing. The complex bureaucratic agreements that international institutes have forged have given current students flexibility that my time could not imagine. Perhaps, therefore, these students will also create architecture that we could not imagine.

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Architecture Australia, January 2020

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