Thursday, November 29, 2007

Visiting MUST

A visit to the Mongolian University of Science and Technology has been on my agenda since my departure, and yesterday I met with Purev-Erdene Ershuu, architect and lecturer at the Centre for Architectural Research and Design at this university. The meeting had taken several weeks to organise, with much help from Munkhzhul Choiljiljav, former London Metropolitan University architecture student and AA school applicant. With both Munkhzhul and my CTC interpreter Ariunaa in my entourage, Purev outlined the Mongolian architectural education scene in fluent English. The largest of four construction education institutions in Ulaanbaatar, MUST's architecture school has a population of about four hundred students, having increased threefold since 1995. There are two graduating cohorts each year, about twenty in total, and an intake of about one hundred. Purev says a high attrition rate is necessary to maintain a high standard.

With the currently buoyant construction industry producing high demand, almost all graduates apparently find work in Mongolia. The curriculum is understandably influenced by the history of collaboration with Russian universities. Russian language is still a compulsory subject, and the language of many textbooks. However Purev claims the curriculum structure is largely based on the German system, because of the strong links there. The studio master system has been replaced, however, by team teaching, in order to cope with the staff student ratio for 14 full time staff like Purev. Russian 'didactic' teaching methods are criticised but still present, and the university sees design workshops as seminars rather than as a separate delivery method western universities call 'studio'. There is interest in English-language architecture and culture. International links include Korean (KOICA) and Japanese (JAICA) volunteers and exchanges in the school, a Romanian exchange project, and a link with Vienna University of Technology. I was aware of the latter through my contact with Prof Erich Lehner, at the Department of 'Extra-European architecture' (Ausser-europaeischer Baukunst), who, with Viennese students, has been partner in an ongoing project in a ger district.

A member of the eleven-strong steering committee of the Mongolian Association of Architects (Mong. Arkh. Kholboo), Purev expressed frustration that as there is no protection or promotion of title here, and that the association is 'symbolic' and 'dormant'. Similarly, architecture-allied careers like drafter, technologist, historian and built environment educator are not professionalised. It was a very useful meeting and my collegue Ariunaa claimed that finding a kindred spirit had made me happier than she had ever seen me. My hopes for learning more about the advisory role of the Mongolian Association of Architects or MUST in continuing professional development and curriculum development are, for the moment, however, dashed...


As I noticed the stray dog's tongue probing the eye socket of a discarded sheeps skull in the street, I wondered at the tenacity of his search for nourishment. Sheep's head being a local delicacy, the skull had probably been well picked by humans days before. Walking on through the ger district towards my work, I passed three men heaving a reluctant sedan into motion, a four wheel drive towing a belching lorry, and a well dressed woman with a bright red hat and immaculate make-up, walking in high heels on the dusty lane toward the city. Approaching the community centre on a hilltop, there was a gathering of people with water carrying equipment and bright sun illuminated the cold scene. A boy approached me, speechless, with an extended hand..

Thursday, November 22, 2007

another day closes

I alighted at my local bus stop (Khar Khorin Market) from a crowded microbus returning from work, and was bid good-bye by a particularly friendly conductor. I saw at the edge of the cold and crowded pavement a fellow, younger than I, but roughly dressed, spreadeagled on his back. Rough sleepers usually choose a warmer pose and some sunlight, given the sub-zero air temperature. I wondered if the man had been injured or had been the victim of a traffic accident, and looked on to see if he was breathing, as bus conductors and passers-by gestured not to look at him. One other young male bystander in the crowd seemed to share my concern and indicated he was phoning for 'a doctor' - he agreed to help me turn the casualty into what I understand from my basic first aid as a 'recovery position'. I felt for some faint warm breath at his nose, but there was no pulse and he was becoming colder. The traffic policeman attended but showed no interest in touching or moving the body. My collaborator gestured resolutely that we should say prayers.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Hospitals and Air-Con

At the top-level architecture studio lesson on Monday, I used the available teaching technology (paper on blackboard) to explain the principles of hospital planning, including workflow diagramming and functional relationship diagramming. The masonite blackboard surface has no tooth and the cheap chalk at the college crumbles at the touch, so that staff have to bring their own. I had prepared a schedule of about 14 functions and spaces from 'triage' to 'ward' to 'morgue' in Mongolian translation, and with my cartoons, students arranged and discussed the architectural requirements for each. I drew on EU examples from the UK 'architects for health' valuable website and showed some of the materials published there. However, the case study material I had translated from Bern's Small Animal Clinic (recently featured here on French cable TV) proved too complex for this lesson.

A construction sequence was discussed, with emphasis on the design brief development, facility management for uninterrupted service, and installation and commission of specialised equipment, and with a particular student interest in Crematoria and emissions. The students were most interested in the concept of air conditioning and mechanical ventilation which they had not experienced in Mongolia, and they were surprised to learn that these occupied extensive courses in many foreign architecture schools.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

How shall we teach?

After two postponements due to intervening staff meetings and off site meetings, I finally held the training session entitled "How to find construction teaching materials on the internet" on Friday afternoon. The session began (after another impromptu staff meeting) at 4.30pm, 'only' an hour and a half after the planned 3.00pm start. I began by moving the array of desks into a more conducive 'board room' style arrangement, and made a general introduction to my role at the college. One young English and Russian languages teacher had joined the college on her first ever day of employment, the very same day, after I had been asked spontaneously to interview her, the previous day.

We began by brainstorming and discussing the teachers' favourite websites. We debated the uses of Mongolian, Russian, English and German languages for research in the web, and touched on a comparison of search websites, academic websites, and wikipedia, among others. There was some debate among the staff about the superiority of Russian language materials on the web over English language materials.

For analysis, I had selected as an illustrative example, a simple architecture lesson plan for children from, and we looked at planning objectives, material needs, assessment, reference materials, adaptations and extensions. The teachers protested they were familiar with these aspects of lesson planning, although admitted to using predominantly 'chalk and talk' delivery methods. They wanted tailored materials for each of their specialisms - physics, mathematics, chemistry, language and literature, computing. It became clear to everyone that the process of sourcing lesson plan models from the thousands of websites available would be difficult to follow without very careful use of the English language. It also became clear that there were no universally applicable teaching support materials and that language would be a key to developing more active teaching techniques, given the 'resource-poor' environment here.

It was the culmination of my most 'interesting' week here to date, Wednesday being the first time I have ever arrived at work to find my desk severed in two. We had already been scheduled to move office, following the absence of any heating or lighting for the last few weeks, so the collapsed desk (resulting from the absence of a ladder for changing a light bulb) was removed in the process of relocating, and stripping and reinstalling the valued electrical and internet cabling. The new room is a great improvement, and hopefully will provide an opportunity for repairing the collapsing drawer unit and office chairs.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


I have had some interesting meetings this past week. On Friday I was at the Ministry of Construction, for two meetings about developing construction education. The morning was a gathering of construction industry representatives, lamenting the underpreparedness of construction graduates. One person at the meeting called for better pay for graduates, while others suggested the government do more research, claiming that the present consultation was too brief. In the afternoon meeting, the various construction colleges represented suggested that they should be working more closely with professional associations to assess skill shortages and demand for graduate qualities. They suggested the government do more research for them.

On Thursday I had helped to convene a new working group on Building Access in Mongolia. The meeting, hosted by the VSO director at the NGO headquarters, was also attended by the Wheelchair Users association, three architecture students, two teachers, and two translators including Bishrel, VSOs new champion for mainstreaming disability. Chuuluundolgor, the first mentioned representative, was carried up the stairs to the top floor meeting room. We agreed to work with the designers of the future VSO office accommodation, and to disseminate and further develop information about access standards already developed by the Wheelchair Users association. Existing accommodation standards were elusive and unenforceable, but the architecture students agreed to make a small presentation on incorporating accessibility in their designs. We also discussed an approaching action whereby fourteen wheelchair users would visit five public venues on international disability day, the 3rd of December.


The rather dusty and slightly drowsy looking fellow sitting next to me turned, extended his hand, and said in clear english "I am hungry". He had seen me get on the trolley bus and take a 1000 tugrik note (42p) and hand it to the conductor. She removed my 100 tugrik fare in notes from a prepared 1000 wad of change and gave me 900 in hundreds and fifties. It occurred to me that 900 would buy at least four khuushuur, the ubiqitous fried pasties people eat here, and my mind went back to last Sunday afternoon. We had been to a centrally located fast food place for tea and a snack, and had been detained at the door by a group of urchins - small boys known locally as 'hundreds' because of their habit of selling 100 tugrik items such as tissues, tv programmes, matches etc. They were saying they were hungry and asking for money.

As we sat down and ordered, a few men left the restaurant and also left behind large plates of uneaten food. The boys swarmed to the table, to be beaten back by the young female waiters dressed in american-style uniforms. I ordered some takeaway khuushuur for the boys to eat outside, but by the time we left they wanted more. Hunger seemed a symbol of living here. I thought of the stray pup I had seen curled up by the bridge on my walk to work through the ger district. On Monday I pitied it shivering and convulsing, and on Wednesday it was a hundred metres away from the bridge, just a dusty lump.

Thursday, November 01, 2007


The weather is certainly cooler, about -6C outside, although the office is like an ice box after the sun passes by the window in the afternoon. This morning at ten, walking to work through the ger district in the warm sunlight was quite pleasurable. There was a congregation of drivers gathering by a small bridge while somebody swept the roadway. I tightrope walked across a steel beam of another small bridge which has lost its timber boards, probably for someone's fire. I passed small groups going towards the town centre and some school children, although no one was queued at the community water tank today. Two men sat on a south facing bank sharing a glass of vodka and I passed silently.

Approaching the roadside of the larger sealed road, I noticed a dog in my peripheral vision. I then realised its outstretched legs were frozen solid and that the corpse had probably been removed from the highway. Turning the corner, a family of five sharing the benchseat of a lorry moved their household surmounted by folded ger and window dome, as a woman beside the driver read a mobile phone message.