Dr. Mostafa Alani & Dr. Zuhair Nasar (the authors)

Computations in Architecture: Advancing Architectural Education in Iraq’s Curricula

Mostafa Alani & Zuhair A. Nasar
Dr Mostafa Alani is a practicing architect and educator at the Robert R. Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Science at Tuskegee University and faculty member at the College of Engineering at Aliraqia University.
Dr. Zuhair Nasar is currently serving as an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Physical Planning, University of Kufa, Iraq.

Iraqi architects and researchers Mostafa Alani and Zuhair A. Nasar discuss the potential of developing architectural education in Iraq through the utilization of digital technology.

From the advent of glass to the emergence of concrete and the development of mechanical systems, technology has continuously been an integral part of architectural evolution. Technology have consistently facilitated the expansion of architectural possibilities, broadening the horizons of form and functionality. In an age defined by digital technologies, architects find themselves compelled not merely to conceive and construct buildings but also to explore possibilities and program building behaviors. From homes that can be monitored and managed via smartphone applications, to retail equipped to identify items and subsequently invoice customers for their purchases, to stadium that dynamically shapeshifts, architects and designers must swiftly acquaint themselves with the intricacies of designing, constructing, and programming in this digital age.

Digital architecture has transitioned from a mere trend to an imperative that architects must grasp, employ, and put into action. Failing to do so could relegate architects to passive users of these tools, forfeiting their ability to contribute to their evolution. An increasing number of architecture schools across the globe have acknowledged this paradigm shift and are taking proactive steps by integrating computation and digital technologies into their curricula. This proactive approach is deemed essential in equipping students with the skills needed to navigate the challenges and forthcoming trends in the field of architecture.

In response to these emerging trends, a collective of faculty members from the College of Engineering at the University of Basra has raised a pertinent query: Can architecture departments in Iraq adapt to this rapidly evolving landscape? To explore this question, they have reached out to us and other stakeholders to orchestrate a scholarly workshop dedicated to the discourse on digital architecture. The preparations for this inaugural workshop commenced at the University of Basra. In late 2021, the first of these scholarly gatherings, titled “Developing Architectural Curricula to Embrace the Advancements in Digital Architecture,” was convened. It drew together a consortium of architecture professors hailing from diverse regions of Iraq, encompassing institutions such as the University of Basra, University of Kufa, Aliraqia University, University of Karbala, Salahaddin University, Koya University, University of Diyala, and University of Thi Qar.

The discussions held during this workshop were centered on the exploration of the potentials inherent in digital architecture. Lecturers presented their teaching experiences within the realm of digital architecture, fostering a dynamic exchange of ideas. This workshop marked the inception of a conversation addressing the concepts and challenges associated with the integration of digital technologies into architectural educational curricula in Iraq. The primary aim of these deliberations was to underscore that digital architecture should be perceived as a tool, integral to both education and design, rather than an ultimate goal unto itself. Within this perspective, digital architecture serves as a means to cultivate innovation and drive progress in the field of architecture, rather than being an endpoint to strive for.

The workshop conducted at the University of Basra stimulated a dual response, encompassing both praise and critique. Consequently, the need arose for another gathering to discuss further the matter. In early 2022, the workshop, titled “Advancements in Digital Technologies and Their Applications in the Fields of Design and Architectural Engineering,” was convened at the Iraqi Engineers Union. This event was a collaborative effort between various institutions with speakers and attendees from University of Baghdad, the University of Basra the University of Technology, the University of Kufa, Aliraqia University, the University of Karbala, University of Wasit, the University of Diyala, and the University of Thi Qar. The overarching objective of this meeting was to explore the practical framework of digital architecture technologies within the realm of professional practice. Over time, the concept gained more resonance among the audience, emphasizing that the goal was not to replace architects with machines, but rather to enhance the capabilities of newly minted graduates in a way similar to what the invention of calculators did to the field of mathematics; calculators didn’t replace mathematicians nor render them unnecessary; instead, they expanded the horizons of mathematical exploration.

The most pivotal meeting, from our vantage point, materialized in the scientific workshop entitled “Digital Architecture: Challenges and Opportunities,” convened at the University of Baghdad in the latter part of 2022. This workshop held a clear-cut objective: to enhance the architectural curricula within Iraqi architecture departments. It witnessed a substantial turnout of architecture professors from across Iraq, facilitating a dynamic exchange of knowledge. During this event, a consortium of guest speakers and the University of Baghdad’s own faculty members proffered their insights. The guest speakers explored the diverse applications of digital technologies and explored the intricate interplay between digital technology and socio-cultural dimensions, with a keen focus on recent advancements.

Our discussions revolved around the recognition that computational systems possess the potential to exhibit biases, and algorithms lacking careful design can contribute to societal issues. To illustrate this point, Joy Buolamwini embarked on a project aimed at creating a mirror capable of motivating her in the morning by recognizing her face and projecting an image. Unexpectedly, she encountered a challenge when the face detection algorithm failed to recognize her face. Further investigation revealed that the data used to train the algorithm exhibited a significant bias towards individuals with lighter skin tones. This project underscores the critical issue of social equity in artificial intelligence and emphasizes the need for caution in fields such as architecture and urbanism, which are not immune to such challenges.

Text-to-image algorithms represent cutting-edge technology that empowers designers to translate textual descriptions into visual forms. These tools offer exciting opportunities and compel architects to rethink their roles in the future of design, necessitating the acquisition of new skills to remain relevant. However, they also raise essential questions concerning cultural inclusivity and the boundaries of creativity. For example, consider the images depicted in Figure 1, generated with the prompt “Islamic architecture.” These results predominantly showcase elements such as domes, arches, minarets, and ornamentation. Yet, buildings like the Bait Ur Rouf Mosque in Bangladesh, an Aga Khan Award recipient during the 2014–2016 cycle, challenge this limited representation by deviating from traditional architectural elements.

Figures shows images generated with text-to-image algorithms using the prompt “Islamic Architecture.” On the left is an image generated by DALL·E 2 as of 2022, while on the right is an image generated by Midjourney as of 2022. (no additional keywords or terms were added to the prompt besides “Islamic Architecture” to guide the image generation process). Source: Authors.
Bait Al Raou’f Mosque, Image courtesy of Dr. Sara Kuehn, University of Vienna

The University of Baghdad’s faculty members shared their perspectives on the existing architectural curriculum. During this illuminating session, one lecture stood out, as it delved into the historical evolution of the University of Baghdad’s architectural curricula, dating back to its inception under the guidance of Mohammad Makiya. This lecture highlighted the curriculum updates that had already been implemented and recommended further refinements to align with the ongoing technological advancements influencing the field of architecture. The following discussion proved to be divided, with some participants championing the preservation of the existing curriculum, while others passionately advocated for its expansion and the introduction of new subject matter. This fervent exchange of ideas set the stage for an engaging exploration of the future of architectural education in Iraq.

In our recommendations, we have put forth several critical proposals:

  1. Establishment of Digital Manufacturing Laboratories: We emphasize the urgent need to establish digital manufacturing laboratories within architectural programs in Iraqi universities, overseen by dedicated technical experts. This is essential because not all professors in architectural studios possess the technical expertise required to operate these devices, although they should grasp their fundamental principles. Digital design and manufacturing tools have gained global and regional accessibility, yet educational institutions in Iraq, both public and private, currently lack specialized centers equipped with the necessary tools to impart essential skills in digital design and manufacturing. The absence of such laboratories significantly impedes the acquisition of both scientific and practical knowledge, ultimately leading to a shortage of qualified individuals capable of undertaking advanced projects in the future.
  2. Enhancement of Architectural Design Studio: We propose the enhancement of the architectural design studio and computer application courses in collaboration with the digital manufacturing laboratory. This collaboration would enable students to progress from the stage of comprehension and understanding (in computer science) to practical application (in the laboratory), ultimately addressing specific architectural and urban challenges within the architectural application studio.
  3. Enhancement of Existing Courses: Integration of computational design thinking into curricula at various levels. For instance, courses in mathematics should align with algorithmic thinking, encompassing subjects like geometry, algebra, and trigonometry. Students should be trained to enhance their analytical capabilities in comprehending and applying appropriate technologies, addressing the “what, why, and how” aspects.
  4. Introduction of a Postgraduate Program: To further bolster expertise in computational architecture, we recommend the introduction of a postgraduate program dedicated to this field. This program should follow global models established by prestigious universities, such as Master’s and Ph.D. programs in computing, akin to those offered by institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

While recognizing the importance of computation in architecture, it is crucial to emphasize that it serves as a means to an end, not an end in itself. Architects leverage computational tools to enhance architectural outcomes rather than viewing the products of these technologies as standalone architecture. For instance, the primary educational objective of introducing such tools should not be to replicate Western architectural styles or erase local identity but to enrich local architectural identity with a contemporary perspective, avoiding mere duplication of the past. The ultimate goal should be to create environments that respect customs, traditions, and the natural surroundings of the people.

Rifat al-Chadirji, a visionary architect of his time, exemplified how architects can harness the tools and technologies available to them to not only foster but also reflect on the essence of Iraqi architecture. His work stands as a testament to the notion that the evolution of architecture is, in many ways, a dialogue between tradition and innovation. In contract, the resistance to contemporary tools and clinging to traditional methods often stems from a fear of losing touch with architectural traditions or an apprehension that technology will dilute the authenticity of the design process. However, this stance can inadvertently lead to architectural stagnation, hindering the exploration of new ideas and limiting the architect’s capacity to address contemporary challenges.

Rifat Chadarji residence, Kamil and Rifat Chadirji Photographic Archive, Aga Khan Documentation Center, MIT Libraries

We hold the hope that architectural schools in Iraq will shoulder the responsibility of evolving architectural curricula with the ultimate goal of enriching professional practice. It’s paramount to understand that digital technologies are not primarily focused on generating intricate or foreign architectural forms. Rather, their primary function is to engage in the study of architectural challenges, offer responses to these challenges, rigorously test available solutions, aid in their evaluation, and ultimately provide the most suitable solutions. These solutions can encompass a wide spectrum of considerations, including environmental, social, physical, and even cultural requirements. In essence, they serve as a progressive conduit for the evolution of local architecture, ensuring its alignment with contemporary needs and aspirations.

This article was written by Mostafa Alani and Zuhair A. Nassar.

Dr Mostafa Alani is a practicing architect and educator. He holds a Ph.D. in Planning, Design, and Built Environment, along with a certificate in Digital Ecology from Clemson University in the United States. Currently, Mostafa serves as a visiting Associate Professor of Architecture and Design at the Robert R. Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Science at Tuskegee University. In addition to his academic role, Mostafa is a board member at the Arab Society for Computer-Aided Architectural Design (ASCAAD) and holds the position of AIA ME country representative in Iraq. As a researcher, his primary focus lies at the intersection of computational design and contextual design issues, and his research has been published in several reputable journals and conferences, including the ARCHNET International Journal of Architectural Research and the International Journal of Architectural Computing. Mostafa has also dedicated his career to teaching architecture in various programs both in the United States and Iraq. He has emphasized the use of digital design and manufacturing technologies in architecture. His student’s work has been exhibited at various venues, including Tech Showcase, which was held at the Digital Building Lab Symposium at Georgia Tech, 2018. Mostafa participated in and won numerous architectural competitions. In 2017, he participated in the Rifat Chadirji Prize, which was organized by Tamayouz Excellence Award, UK, to reconstruct Mosul city fabric, and his project was selected among the ten top projects.

Dr Zuhair Nasar is currently serving as an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Physical Planning, University of Kufa, Iraq. He holds a PhD in Digital Architectural Design and Technologies from the University of Liverpool, an MSc in Digital Architectural Design (DAD) from the University of Salford-Manchester, and a BSc in Architecture Engineering from the University of Technology-Baghdad. His doctoral research focuses on the integration of digital design tools and contemporary energy simulation technologies into architectural education, specifically to enhance design decision-making among architecture students during the initial design phases. Dr. Nasar boasts a cumulative academic and teaching experience of approximately 17 years, which spans across international teaching roles in both the Middle East and the United Kingdom. His research interests encompass a wide array of topics within the realm of Digital and Computational Architectural Design, including Building Information Modeling (BIM), Building Energy Performance, Artificial Intelligence in Architecture, Urban Design studies, and Sustainable and Green Architecture Design. Notably, he serves as the head editor of the Arabic Language Team in BIM Dictionary, BIMe.

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