Sunday December 19, 2010
Prof Taj, signing off
ARCHITECHTURE INSIDE OUT
By MOHAMAD TAJUDDIN MOHAMAD RASDI
In this last issue for this year, we say goodbye to our rebel professor and his column of radical ideas on how architecture can help unite a nation.
THIS is my last column. No, I was not given marching orders by The Star. And, no, I have not been issued a show cause letter by the leadership where I lecture, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, concerning my criticism of national monuments and so called Islamic edifices. If readers will bear with me, I would like to explain why I am giving it up, thank those responsible for allowing me this four-year stint as a columnist, reiterate what has always been the column’s main thrust, and inform anyone interested about life after the column.
So, why am I stopping? Well, it has been four years – that’s 48 months and 47 monthly articles! (The first column appeared on Nov 12, 2006.) I can only make my main point (more on that later) in so many ways. Not there are no more interesting projects to talk about – my UTM students are working on everything from the Friendly Prison, and the Caring Elderly Day Care Centre to the Shophouse Comeback. But these areas don’t suit the column as I envisaged it.
The second reason for stopping is that I am very excited about finishing my forthcoming book, Architecture and Nation Building: Of Community, Politics, Religion and Education. This book will have all the column material in the unedited and “spicy” version. Not to say that StarMag editors “de-spiced” my writing but there were some small instances of censorship over the course of the four years. Very small censorship-lah. I’d say a mere 2%. And I don’t mind, it probably saved my behind from nasty action by various people....
And so, on to saying thanks. First of all, I would like to thank StarMag’s deputy editor Malini Dias for passionately editing my writing and making it more acceptable but leaving it still unmistakably mine. A big thank you also to June Wong (former StarMag editor, currently The Star’s managing editor) for believing in me and giving me the opportunity to reach out to so many people.
And I think I should thank people higher in the hierarchy, too, even if I don’t know specific names, because my friend, a former high ranking editor of a Malaysian daily, remarked, “Hey Din, I am surprised that The Star lets you write the way you write. I guess The Star is okay!” I know enough about politics in this country to know what he meant. If you don’t, then just forget you ever read this paragraph.
I would also like to go on record and thank three people at my workplace: the dean of UTM’s Faculty of Built Environment, the late Prof Dr Supian Ahmad, who passed away this year of cancer; UTM’s previous vice-chancellor (from 2001-2008), Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Zulkifli Mohd Ghazali; and the current VC (2008 to present), Prof Datuk Dr Zaini Ujang. I thank them for keeping silent throughout my stint as a columnist – after 24 years in the civil service, I have come to understand that silence can be construed as the biggest accolade of all (especially in architectural criticism)!
I did hear rumblings but when I asked the dean if I should stop writing the column, he said something along the lines of, “Some may not like what you do but they know that it is your right as an academic and as a citizen of Malaysia to say things responsibly”. In the end, the most difficult thing about producing this column was the awareness that I was, perhaps, causing certain pressures to be exerted on the dean and VCs. Sorry, guys, and thank you for supporting me by not stopping me.
And that means a great deal to me because I consider this stint in StarMag to be the pinnacle of my academic career. Not for the glamour nor the notoriety (and certainly not for KPI points – there are barely any) but for giving me the opportunity to obey what the Prophet Muhammad said, to “encourage good and forbid evil with your hand, with your pen or with your heart”.
I also did this in the hope that my children will live in a better Malaysia when they grow up. Changing this country for the better is not difficult: You simply choose to change and follow your conscience. Contrary to many opinions, Malaysia is not a dictatorship. The rakyat can change this country to what they think is best for their children. It’s just that we put up invisible barriers between ourselves and do not look deep enough into our hearts about what really matters. Allah gave us a mind and a heart. We should stop thinking with our skin and money bags.
So, what was the message I was trying to spread among people through my column throughout the four years? Simple saja-lah: Architecture must be governed by our values; our values are our lives’ construct of universal concerns (such as reducing crime and increasing children’s safety), of cultural-religious requirements (such as privacy and burning joss sticks), of the dictates of modern life (such as jogging and picking up children from school) and of the ideals of responsible democracy (such as non-ethnic biased architectural language in public buildings and multi-religious centres in universities). Itu saja.
Architecture is not about bringing back domes, minarets, Minangkabau roofs and monumental designs; it should be a simple and honest expression of how we live and how we would like to live.
To architecture students, stick with this idea and you’ll score As all through university. To architects, stick with it and you might regain the lost respect of the Malaysian people. To academics, stick with this approach and your conscience will be clearer than if you choose to get dubious KPI points.
To the people of Malaysia, you do not need an architecture degree to criticise your architect if he or she strays from that main theme. To the country’s leadership ... ah well, I think I’ll reserve my advice until after the upcoming election! Anyway, in my book, the rakyat are the leaders of this country.
Finally, what’s next for me? Well, apart from my usual work of maintaining two research centres and training new academicians to take over this job of educating the public in architecture, I thought I would dabble in non-architect-related writing.
I would like to share my thoughts on our disastrous education system, from the primary and secondary level right up to – and especially! – the tertiary level. We are way off the mark, people!
I am also contemplating writing about Islam and its true relationship with non-Muslims to counter certain over-zealous remarks made by over-eager politicians – and I would be doing that to keep this country safe for our children.
There are other plans in the pipeline but this column is getting too lengthy and I’m getting teary eyed.
So, thanks for reading and commenting on my column all this while. This is Prof Taj, signing off!