Teaching Architectural History to Architecture Students: An Interview with Mohammad Gharipour

Jan 13, 2020 by Sarah M. Dreller

Welcome to The SAH Data Project’s process blog, a series of short-form reflections and interviews about the Society’s study of architectural history in higher education. By Sarah M. Dreller, Postdoctoral Researcher in the Humanities. #SAHDataProject

Like many of the SAH Data Project’s stakeholders, I landed in my first architectural history course while in architecture school. It was the basic introductory survey and I recall it being mostly populated by the architects and buildings that I later recognized as the standard Western canon. Unexpectedly, though, my professor taught the whole thing in reverse chronological order, systematically working backwards from Postmodernism. His point was to expose the whole foundation of constructed genealogies that position the current moment as more advanced than previous epochs and the creators of the past as significant insofar as they contributed to the evolutionary trajectory that led to the present. I didn’t have the contextual knowledge to appreciate the revolutionary spirit of this choice at the time but I still remember quite vividly his passionate explanation during our initial class meeting. I’m sure starting out this way influenced my own approach when I began teaching, both as a model for experimentation and as a demonstration of how meaningful the experience can be for students when professors embrace transparency to the classroom.

This episode has been on my mind a lot lately as I help the SAH Data Project develop avenues for architectural history program administrators, faculty, and students to share their own insights into how courses have been or could be taught. Determining what the project needs to ask in order to really uncover—in the form of analyzable data—the most impactful aspects of our field’s current and potential pedagogy has been a pretty challenging task. Fortunately we can seek guidance from the SAH Data Project Advisory Committee, twelve thoughtful people who themselves bring a very wide range of architectural history education experiences and opinions to this work.


Mohammad Gharipour at the SAH 2019 Annual International Conference in Providence, RI.

I recently reached out to one of the SAH Data Project’s Advisory Committee members, Mohammad Gharipour, to gain his perspective on teaching history to architecture students and to give you a chance to hear directly from him, too. Trained as both a historian and an architect, Gharipour is now professor and director of the Program in Architecture at Morgan State University. He has authored and edited eleven books on Islamic buildings, cities, and landscapes and is the director and founding editor of the International Journal of Islamic Architecture. His forthcoming book is on healthcare facilities in the pre-modern era.

SMD: What is the historian's role in a professional design program today?

MG: In my view, my role in teaching architectural history is to enhance critical thinking, to help students think globally, to make connections between past and present, and to teach them how to enjoy architectural history through readings and real-world observations.

SMD: What were the major milestones in your career path toward your current position? What advice would you offer someone who would like to teach architectural history to architecture students?

MG: The major milestone in my career was founding the International Journal of Islamic Architecture. After almost nine years, this journal has become the main reference in the field of Islamic architecture and is making an impact on architectural history teaching.

I would advise my young colleagues to be themselves, to find their own strengths, and to not let conventions block their creativity. I think it's important for each of us to see how we can contribute to the field and how we can personalize the teaching of architectural history in a way that helps us have a stronger contribution to our students’ education.  Furthermore, I believe the old techniques are slightly outdated as they neglected the diversity of students and their needs. The student body is quite diverse these days, and this requires using different techniques and tools to make our classes more effective.

SMD: How is your approach to being an architectural historian related to the fact that you teach in an architecture school?

MG: When you teach in an architecture program, and especially if you are involved in teaching design classes, you need to stay more relevant and make the teaching of history more connected to the students’ design education.

Many of us are teaching in NAAB accredited programs, so whether we like it or not what we teach is being influenced by the NAAB criteria. But what else can we offer and how can we make the teaching of architecture history more design-oriented in a way that not only helps students understand it but also enables them to apply that knowledge in their design projects? I know that many of my architectural historian friends don't like this kind of approach.  Some of us may say that we don't need to justify why learning architectural history is significant and that its relevance does not lie in its relevance to design.

Nevertheless, I think that we can't just expect students to simply learn history and feel passionate about it. We need to know our audience, and we need to see what is more effective in their education and careers. In fact, the impact of our classes lies in what happens beyond our history classes.

SMD: Which aspects of your history classes elicit the strongest responses from your architecture students these days? How has this changed during your teaching career?

MG: I have almost always avoided exams in the graduate classes that I have taught in the last ten years. Instead, I have found individual research projects to be great tools to personalize education and internalize architectural history. I want my students to realize that architectural history is not about just memorizing information—it's way more than that. I use architectural history as a setting to teach students how to conduct an in-depth research project on architecture, and this is crucial in professional architecture programs where students are not as exposed to research and writing as they are in the humanities. They learn macro and micro skills to comprehend the complexity of architecture and how it addresses contextual issues. Over the years I have learned to become more flexible and to come up with techniques to make both lectures and assignments more engaging and enjoyable for students. 

SMD: In what ways have you contributed to student design reviews/critiques as a historian? What are some memorable examples of students incorporating architectural historical knowledge in their design projects? 

MG: As a historian who teaches thesis research and design studios, I tend to raise questions that challenge my students’ understanding of history and push them to analyze historical precedents in a meaningful way. My goal is to make students more conscious about the relevance of architectural history in their design projects. They may not remember our lectures or specific information on buildings or architects in a few years, but my questions and comments could influence the way that they experience, study, and design architecture for a long time. 

I have many stories of students incorporating their historical knowledge in their projects. But I would rather students internalize this information than claim they are using it in their design projects. In other words, I think our teaching becomes more and more invisible as it is adopted by students and as it subconsciously affects their work.

SMD: Is there a pedagogical reason your program at Morgan State University refers to its required graduate history surveys as Built Environment History I and II instead of Architectural History I and II?

MG: Yes, our graduate department at Morgan State University, for which I am responsible as the department chair, consists of three different graduate programs: architecture, landscape design, and urban planning. The way that architectural history classes are being taught here reflects the inclusive approach dominant in our graduate program. Traditionally, we have looked at built environment history as a phenomenon that covers a wide range of topics, such as urban design, planning, landscape design, and architecture. For me, personally, there is no way to separate buildings from landscape and cities, and this multi-scale approach is reflected in my publications and classes.

SMD: How do you describe the importance of teaching history in a professional design program to people who are not in the architecture community?

MG: The fact is that in the professional design programs we are training future architects, not academics and researchers. Architects will be dealing with real issues and making design decisions on a daily basis. And that's why the more we try to make architectural history relevant to their design education, the more we can influence their careers. Another aspect of our job is to help our students utilize architectural history as a tool for critical thinking so that they can become visionary architects who can go beyond codes and rules.

SMD: What do you hope the SAH Data Project will tell us about the state of the field of architectural history?

MG: One thing that I should emphasize is that in the last five years I have been collaborating with scholars in health-related fields, such as medicine, public health, and psychology and I have been really amazed by how inclusive these fields are when it comes to interdisciplinary collaboration. Honestly, I feel that we as architectural historians are a bit tense and less welcoming to transdisciplinary collaborations, especially with scholars whose fields seem distant from architectural history. I have personally learned so much from these partnerships, so I do hope that the SAH Data Project helps us find ways to make the field more accessible to practitioners and scholars in other fields, to open doors to this new world of opportunities and possibilities.

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