On the Road to Building Better Architects
Using the world as a classroom, Texas Tech professor Joseph Aranha is teaching his students how to weave culture into construction when creating buildings.
by Sally Logue Post
A love of travel and a passion for how culture is reflected in buildings has led Texas Tech architecture professor Joseph Aranha to take students around the world to give them a better sense of their chosen profession.
“We are losing the meanings that used to be an integral part of architecture and which made each place special,” he said. “Today we design buildings just to meet a budget or a deadline. We see buildings that look the same whether they are designed for New York, or cities in China or the Middle East. These are very different places and cultures, but the buildings do not represent that; they look and feel the same. Local architectural identities are lost as a result.”
Sense of Place
Aranha believes that architects should have a sense of place when designing buildings. Citing his research studies in Bali as a prime example, he says much of life for the people of Bali revolves around religion, and traditionally their religious beliefs have been incorporated in how buildings were designed and gave them meaning.
“In the last 40 to 50 years Bali has grown from a little island to a top tourist destination,” he said. “All the tourist-related development is changing the form and meaning of the traditional environment in Bali. Balinese people now have money and access to ideas from all over the world. So you’re seeing tourists living in buildings that look traditional, and the local people are building concrete boxes because they cannot afford traditional materials.”
Aranha’s research interests in traditional architecture have taken him to many parts of the non-Western world as a recipient of two Fulbright scholar and lecturer grants–Zimbabwe in 2000 and India in 2011.
Four years ago, on a third Fulbright Scholarship to Ethiopia, he began documenting traditional buildings in the northern regions of that country. Aranha explains that in Ethiopia, and in many parts of the world, people are moving away from traditional structures in favor of new, modern buildings. The indigenous stone buildings in the remote northern region, where there is limited transportation, are built in the same way as they have been for centuries and are constructed using materials that are close at hand.
“I want to document these buildings before they disappear. There is much to learn from them,” he said. “I want to know how these buildings were appropriate for the people who use them. What can we learn from them that we can apply to contemporary building? If we want to improve sustainable building, there are many lessons to be learned here.”
Building Better Architects
Aranha wants the students he teaches to understand that it is not harder or more expensive to design with cultural aspects in mind. Architects, he contends, need to look around them and be sensitive to local differences.
The focus of his class, Architecture in Non-Western Societies, is on how culture is reflected in architecture. At the end of the course, he takes his students to India to get a first-hand experience of some of the buildings and cities studied, thanks to a collaboration with the Rai Foundation in India, which provides some transportation and housing while in the country.
“I think that for my students, traveling to India has been life changing,” he said. “Traveling to many places in Europe, students see a similar standard of living to what they see in the U.S. But in India, it is very different, and I believe it opens their eyes.”
- Aranha at village of Hamar tribe, Omo River valley, Ethiopia
- Students learning about Hindu temple sculpture at a temple in Tiruchirapalli, India, 2013
- Student being blessed by an elephant in a Hindu temple in Pondicherry, India
- Students at an archeological site in New Delhi, India, 2013
- Aranha doing fieldwork at village of Hamar tribe, Omo River valley, Ethiopia
- Study abroad students sketching at the Taj Mahal, 2012
- Study abroad students at Teotihuacan, Mexico, 2006
- Aranha with students in San Sebastian, Spain, 2004
For Valeria Sierra, now a graduate student in the College of Architecture, it was indeed an eye-opening adventure.
“We immersed ourselves in the culture, experiencing it, not in a touristy way, but as a human being introduced to an entire new world,” she said. “India was a burst of colorful energy with the most generous and welcoming people. That, overall, made the trip the most humbling and eye-opening experience I have been on. Seeing people who were making the equivalent of about two dollars per day humbly offer you chai and always engage you in a wonderful conversation was probably one of the biggest rewards of the trip.”
Because Aranha is from India, he believes his knowledge of the country allows the students to see neighborhoods that the average tourist would not venture into.
“I don’t want the students to just see the major tourist attractions,” said Aranha. “I want to give them a different experience, let them talk to ordinary people and see the buildings in which these people live and work.”
Sierra agrees, noting that Aranha advised the students to get rid of any expectations and just experience the country.
“I believe this allowed me to not get ‘culture shocked,’ but rather ‘culture educated,’” she said.
Aranha also takes students on study abroad trips to Texas Tech’s campus in Seville, Spain, and to the Universidad de las Americas (UDLAP) in Puebla, Mexico. The latest class visited in mid-February 2014.
Sierra also accompanied Aranha on a past trip to Mexico. While she is a native of Mexico, she said Aranha was able to shine a different light on her native country.
“We experienced the true blend of Mexico’s bright architecture, its magical history and how culture has changed even over just a couple of years,” she said.
The project that her architecture design studio worked on in collaboration with students from UDLAP was related to a national program aimed at developing tourism and creating jobs in certain architecturally special small towns designated as “Pueblos Magicos,” or magical villages, through preservation of architectural traditions and sensitive insertions of new buildings.
Travel with a Purpose
Aranha believes it’s vital for young architects to travel, pointing out that many great architects did not reach the peak of their careers until they had traveled. His study abroad trips are only a small part of the College of Architecture’s efforts to give students these experiences. When he began taking students abroad in 2003, there were very few study abroad programs across the university. The number has grown considerably, and every student in the College of Architecture must spend a summer abroad before they graduate. In addition to Aranha’s trips, the college offers summer programs in France, Italy and South Korea.
“I believe that students come back with a different view, and it can also give them new ideas about how to design spaces and use materials differently,” he said. “One may read about a place or see it in pictures, but there is no substitute to actually being there. Being in a different place inspires creativity. It allows one to observe things one hasn’t thought of before, and I hope it gives them a better understanding of architectural meaning and context.”
For Sierra, it was a lesson she has taken to heart. She learned that as an architect, getting to know people and their cultures and making the effort to better understand their needs is a big challenge, but also can result in better buildings.
“These trips shifted my awareness toward seeing architecture as a way of not just looking at the building, but instead, Dr. Aranha showed us how it is actually more about the people and their needs,” said Sierra. “By getting to know a culture and a city firsthand, you explore it in a more intimate way; exploring its unseen corners that books and images don’t show you. It’s about feeling a connection with the people and their space and suddenly realizing that you can now call it yours too, because you understand it.”
Texas Tech Classes Around the World
Through its Study Abroad program, Texas Tech offers students a world of opportunity to travel and earn course credit at the same time.
From art in Italy, to architecture in France and India, to language study at the Texas Tech Center in Spain, about 1,000 Texas Tech students take advantage of study abroad opportunities each year. The university offers programs at about 350 sites in 70 countries. There are around 65 faculty-led programs scheduled for summer 2014.
The university operates a center in Seville, Spain that offers Spanish language, literature, culture and history classes, as well as courses in other disciplines taught by Texas Tech faculty. Both semester-long and shorter classes are available at the center.
There also are a number of Texas Tech faculty-led courses offered in the summer and the Maymester period between the end of the spring semester and the start of summer school. Through a number of agreements with universities around the world, Texas Tech offers a variety of exchange programs.
The first step to study abroad is to attend an information session held at 4 p.m. any weekday at the study abroad office, located in the International Cultural Center. No appointment is needed.
Connect with TTU Study Abroad on:
Sally Logue Post is Director of Research & Academic Communications for the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University. Photos courtesy of Aranha.