AUS School of Architecture and Design

American University of Sharjah; Interview with Dr. Martin Giesen, Dean until 2004; photo tour.
By Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt | Sep 2004

The American University of Sharjah was founded 1997 – by His Highness Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qassimi, Member of the UAE Supreme Council, Ruler of Sharjah – as an institution where young women and men study together. The "American" in its name merely refers to the American educational model practiced here.

The university is composed of four faculties, which include the School of Architecture and Design. In April of 2004, as invited speakers we attended the "Design Talks," a symposium organized by Prof. Mark Pilkington, Chair of Design, and Prof. Tarek Al-Ghoussein.

When looking at the building’s exterior, one cannot imagine, that inside it displays an open architectural structure that seems to foster a feeling of togetherness, as well as dialog and creativity. We had this impression during the few days of our stay, and we hope to convey it in part through this article.

Interview with Dr. Martin Giesen
Dean at the School of Architecture and Design (until summer 2004), about its history, concept and programs.
Universes in Universe: Your arrival in Sharjah is connected with the beginnings of this school. How exactly did it start?

Dr. Martin Giesen: I arrived here in 1997, after being asked by the university’s planning committee to give consultation on the curriculum development for a school of applied arts. What they had in mind was a grouping of majors that didn't seem to make much sense to me for a serious university. What quickly developed from our discussions was the concept we have today, namely that of an autonomous school of architecture and design, where we offer undergraduate degrees in architecture, interior design, visual communication, multimedia and design management. Presently, we have about 500 students, and the overall initiative dates back seven years.

It was an extremely exciting period. And the challenges that we faced were tremendous in terms of trying to build an internationally respected and experienced faculty, and learning how to deal with a student body derived from 50 different countries with, of course, different languages, all of them having to work in a lingua franca themselves, and most of them brought up in a school system that was geared to single-solution problem solving and drawing results, as opposed to developing process-oriented solutions; it was a system contrary to the design process. That continues to be a significant challenge, but I think that we’ve been reasonably successful.

UiU: Where does the name 'American University' come from?

MG: Well, you could almost call it a brand name – but a brand not actually owned by anyone. I call it a brand name since in the Middle East there have existed (and still do) two famous American universities – one in Cairo and another in Beirut. The Beirut institution, founded in 1866 as a Syrian protestant college, has been in existence for more than 140 years. The universities in Cairo and Beirut have so great a reputation among the Arabs, and among Gulf-based Arabs in particular, because in the past no other universities existed here, nor in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar or anywhere else. The majority of gifted students, largely male students, were sent to either AUB or AUC.

When the ruler of Sharjah decided in the mid-1990s to establish a Western University, he commissioned a planning team from the American University of Beirut to carry this out, and it was only natural to call it the American University of Sharjah. We have no direct affiliation with another American University in the States, but we do have a management contract with AU Washington, and with Texas A&M University in College Station, whose management contracts are limited to providing personnel for the senior management. We don’t answer to any supervisory authority within an American University. The university is headed by a Board of Trusties that celebrates an international membership: the vice-chancellor of Cambridge is a member, the Ruler of Sharjah is the chairman, the president of AU Washington is also a member, and, as usual in such cases, several industrialists have a voice as well.

UiU: You already mentioned process-oriented education. With Dubai so close and the Western influence so strong, how do you deal with the problem of developing one’s own language of design among the students? Are there specific models, or are you more concerned with trying to awaken an understanding of the need for one’s own language?

MG: Well, of course the educational model is communicated by the faculty, and we hire our faculty members from design schools worldwide. I don't think that we subscribe to a specific language as such. In his or her own way, each faculty member participates in the formulation of a language. We have people from the Rhode Island School of Design, Cranbrooks Academy, Berkeley, Harvard, and other leading institutions. What they all bring here is their belief in the importance of independent thinking, in critical thinking.

I think it would be better to discuss all this while looking at the work. It would be worthwhile, for instance, to ask a second-year architecture student how he or she went about developing a particular project. They receive a brief synopsis, a plot, the minimum of information, saying, for example, we want you to design a two-storey residence for a family that consists of an ophthalmologist, a pianist, their twins, and a dog. And two or three weeks later, the synopsis is added to a statement announcing that the aging mother of the pianist has decided to move in, and therefore requires access points for the disabled. These types of shifts in motivation, or changes in the conditions, broaden our students’ exposure to the designing process. Another typical situation would be that one of the parties requires far more light than another, or sound protection, or space to play in: fundamental issues that deal with the quality of spaces.

Also important for our students is to recognize how, in the design field, if you have 30 students you can also have 30 correct answers. They can all be more or less correct, but will always be different from each other. Recognizing that the answers are, indeed, different, because each answers evolves from wrestling with one’s own notions, and with the notions put forward by the project, is an experience that’s marvelous to watch develop.

Another challenge for us is developing a ‘studio culture’. By that I mean a fundamental respect for everyone's creativity and space. Even though it looks disordered and messy, and one might think that there’s no respect for the actual space; but this is how students experience a totally new concept of teamwork, and a new way of taking full responsibility for their own lives and actions – in a way never done before.

Of course this is nothing new. It makes up a part of the college or university experience almost everywhere, but the shift from the protected homes of our, let us say, more conservative students from certain Arab countries here, into this totally free-form and co-educational situation without much supervision, and with studio spaces open until midnight – that’s a shift into a lifestyle that requires a tremendous adjustment.

And we’re proud to say – knock on wood! – that we were able to motivate and excite them from Day One. The first day I arrived, the university closed at 6 in the evening, and parents couldn’t believe that their students gladly stayed on to work after it was dark. Now the buildings stay open until midnight. The students mingle and even spend evenings together; they go out to Dubai, go on field trips, and tour Europe together – things thought to be almost unconceivable when we first got started.

UiU: The openness of the school surprised us. Has there ever been a problem with the ruler or the authorities because this kind of educational atmosphere?

MG: Well, I think the history of the university explains some of that tension: The ruler had originally planned to build an American University of Sharjah, and had no intention of building a Sharjah University as well. When he built this University, many conservative families in Sharjah said that they couldn’t send their daughters to the American University because it was co-educational, and they asked when a university would be built for the Sharjah people. That was when he went to the contractor, who built this university, and said: “I want the plans for a sister university to be erected down the road, and I want them in two weeks.” In no time, out of what was originally a small Islamic college developed a full-sized university with a male and a female campus. Mainly for Nationals, but also for other local Arab students.

So what the ruler did was this: basically, he partially sidetracked any criticism, so those who don’t feel they can handle the openness of this University have a different option. That was good. In addition, he also has surrounded us: when you look at the beautiful fences that encircle the university, you might feel that somebody is trying to lock us in. But since a part of that tradition really does exist in Middle Eastern universities, because Middle Eastern universities have often been like hotbeds or incubators for revolutions – in Cairo, AUB Beirut, Iran, and many other places, things get out of hand – there might even be a good reason for the fencing. Yet the main reason is not so much to keep us inside as to protect us from any unnecessary scrutiny – from the conservative population. And it works out rather well So, to answer your question: no, we haven’t had any significant problems or interference in terms of behavior.

Sharjah, of course, has an imposed dress code, and people often talk about this dress code, but no one has ever really seen it because it’s never spelled out. And that, too, points to the wise approach of this ruler. He doesn’t tell you that your skirts have to hang five inches below the knee, but he does remind us that our interests lie in exercising our liberty within the traditionally required cultural norms in the Emirates, and within those of the Sharjah in particular. And by reminding us of that on occasion, everything works out. I think that it’s also important to say that Arab students are generally speaking, unusually polite. Or better: there’s a fundamental respect toward elders – something rather uncommon in Europe – and that helps.

UiU: Meanwhile there have been several classes of graduates, and so how is the job market here in Sharjah and in the region?

MG: Well, a general observation is that local graduates, that is, Emirate graduates, have had no trouble to finding work in specialized segments of the economy, for instance, in the Government sector and in the banking sector. There has been a big push to make room for these graduates, but, to a great extent, the private industry sector has resisted hiring Emirate graduates, simply because they feel that they might demand more money, and they do. They also demand better working hours.

Fortunately, in the school of architecture and design we are dealing with majors for whom there’s a real need. And I’m glad to say that our service has shown that, a year after graduation, 60 % of our students are working in their field. This is an almost unheard of, even in Germany. Can you imagine it? One year after graduating with an architectural degree, how many students are actually practicing as architects, or graphic designers, and so on? But that also has a lot to do with there being so little competition here. Yet other universities have begun offering architectural studies as well, and, in graphic design, we have been so technologically driven and conceptually oriented that we could encourage the strongest of conceptual skills in our students. And when you combine that with solid technical training, plus the internship requirements that we have here, anyone who wants a job and shows a degree from this school finds employment. Maybe not right away, but after a year they usually do.

UiU: What about girls from the more traditional families? Do they want to work too?

MG: Some do, and others even think this is a great education to have. Some of our best students (I’m thinking of two in particular) decided - after they slaved for years, as good, hard-working students the recipients of prices - to return to their families, marry and have children. That doesn't mean that their lives won’t change again at some later date, but we also have so many examples of things developing differently. For instance, a local girl, who got an architectural degree, is now heading the crew for building one of the tallest skyscrapers in Dubai – and we’re talking about working directly on the site.

Another example is a student from one of the prominent trading families of Dubai. She studied photography, won awards, and together with our encouragement, we were able to convince her parents to send her to a graduate school in England, and that’s something never considered possible once. But now you can feel the change.

UiU: Is the education free for Emiraties?

MG: No. But students with good grades can receive scholarships financed by the Sharjah Electricity Company, for instance. The yearly tuition is about 12,000 Euro. Added to that come the dormitory costs, one’s food allowance, and so on. So it‘s not cheap, and it wouldn’t be fair to say that all our students are wealthy – even though you can get that impression when you see the student parking lot. The students drive the Porshes and the BMWs while the faculty members drive the Mazdas. But that, too, is misleading, because many students come from backgrounds that aren’t financially stabile, and they depend on scholarships.

UiU: Is it possible for students from other countries to receive scholarships from here?

MG: Not for their first year. During the first year they have to prove themselves to be good students. But if an Indian national is attending the Indian High School of Dubai, and if her or his grades are rated 90%, then this student is automatically given a scholarship here.

UiU: What is the proportion of males to females in the student population, and has it changed much from the beginning?

MG: I don't think it has changed much. What’s interesting, though, is that in the Emirates, more women than men attend universities. The American University of Sharjah is probably the only university where you find more male than female students – but architecture and design are fields where 65 % of the students are girls; but in engineering it’s the opposite.


Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt

Publishers of Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art and of Nafas Art Magazine. Based in Berlin, Germany.

College of Architecture, Art, and Design
American University of Sharjah
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