Ten years wasted producing architects for export
I remember taking a bus on my own to Kingston from Montego Bay at 17 years old for the first time and wanting to get to the College of Arts, Science and Technology (CAST; now the University of Technology, Jamaica). I was on my way to an interview for entry to the Caribbean School of Architecture.
The school of architecture was - and still is - the most difficult school to get into in the university. It was set up in partnership with the European Union to enable the training of Caribbean architects. Today, the school stands as the only English-speaking school of architecture in the Caribbean and has given many people, like myself, from lesser socio-economic beginnings who could not afford to study overseas, the opportunity to have professional architectural degrees. It is the most affordable architectural education programme on the planet, bar none.
I studied architecture for six years and completed my studies with a Master of Architecture. During that time, I won many awards: Student of the Year, Honour Student Award, first Stephen Lawrence Scholar, graduated top three of both degrees; and was even a national representative for Jamaica at international student conferences in the United Arab Emirates.
When I graduated from the school of architecture, the BBC came to interview me because of my affiliation with the Stephen Lawrence Trust. I completed my master's and was already published internationally by the age of 23. After gaining a master's degree in architecture, I was still not finished with my professional training and now had to secure an apprenticeship under the guidance of a registered (master) architect and continue two more years to get my seal and to become a registered architect.
LONG, PAINFUL ROAD
The road to becoming an architect is a long and painful one, with many sleepless nights and financial resources required for training. To fund my education, I worked during the summers and was employed in computer labs while going to school - tutoring other students and accessing loans to pay my tuition for the many years of study.
It was hell to pay back my student loans, based on amount of money I had borrowed, and it was a noose around my neck for many years. Where my colleagues stayed in Jamaica, they had to find other employment, sometimes completely unrelated to architecture, or leave in order that they could finish their apprenticeship towards becoming an architect. Most that had accepted jobs which were unrelated to architecture were woefully underpaid. After making my final payment, I stood on the steps of the Students' Loan Bureau and cried tears of joy and freedom and a feeling that I could now develop my life.
This situation has led to fewer registered architects in Jamaica because the laws of our country did not protect architects. Therefore, the Caribbean School of Architecture has, since its existence, been producing architects for export.
Times were hard for the local company I worked with, and I was eventually laid off because there was simply no work for architects. This was not because there was no work in the industry, but instead, the laws allowed anyone to submit architectural work for building approvals, even though they were of lower quality.
I started teaching at the local community college and decide to attend an end-of-year school of architects exhibition in Kingston, where I saw the head of school of the CSA, Nadine Isaacs. She offered me a place at the school teaching undergraduate and graduate studies. I took the job and was grateful.
I taught at the Caribbean School of Architecture for the next 10 years, while my colleagues who had left and gone overseas quarrelled with me every day for what they considered to be wasting my time and talent in Jamaica. Over this time, the CSA produced more than 500 young student architects, of which barely only 10 per cent have been able to find a job in an architecture firm or a related field.
There are students who graduated five years ago that can't find a job and still call me to make some link or to write a reference letter for them. I have asked myself if it was morally right for someone to spend so much money for training and not be able to find a job afterwards, and so many of them.
Jamaica currently has 70 registered, practising architects, and this includes the largest and smallest firms, so any of these may have more than one architect working within their teams. This is the landscape for employment faced by the architectural graduate.
Ironically, Jamaica, with the only school of architecture in the English-speaking Caribbean, has the lowest architect-to-population ratio, with even Barbados, being the size of one of our parishes, having more. For me, this amplified the feeling that architects are considered to be irrelevant in Jamaica and that our built environment will continue to decay.
WHY SPEND MILLIONS?
What is the sense of someone spending millions of dollars on an education when it can be put to no use? A few years ago, one minister of government commented that "architects where trying to remove the livelihood of the little man". This was in response to architects speaking about practising rights under the Constitution, safety and quality of built structures, and responsibility for structural integrity with designed structures.
Many of my students are the 'little men' that have struggled to positively change their future and the future of their poor (little man) families. I still fail to understand how a student from a (two-year) vocational training institute is given the weight, under the law, and given equal responsibility and value, as someone that has nine years of training and professional certification.
This is not about money. Instead, it is about the right to education and maintaining standards and to use it to positively develop our country.
Looking back at teaching architects over 10 years at the School of Architecture, maybe my colleagues were right. Maybe it is irrelevant in Jamaica. Maybe I should have left Jamaica a long time ago, and it is time to shut down this school and let this built landscape continue to be a free-for-all until another Haiti tragedy happens.
I'm not built that way. I care.
However, there has to be an urgent consideration for stopping the brain drain and erosion of talent and value leaving the country. Every year the School of Architecture produces 50 graduates.
- Damian Edmond is a former programme director and design lecturer. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.