Recollections of a Student Architect (TW)

by Thet Win

It was the first day of the first class at Architecture Department. Saya U Shwe was teaching Basic Drawing to a class of twenty odd students. We did nothing that day except drew lines free hand. Straight lines, curved lines, lines at an angle, lines with unique character, lines with attitude, lines, lines, and just lines . . . . all day. For those who selected Architecture as their first choice among majors available at RIT, that was fun. For the rest, it was a nightmare and set the tone for what to expect in the next few years as a Student Architect.

In the following days we migrated to drawing plan, elevation, and section of any chosen object. Any object you can see well enough in your minds’ eyes to draw it correctly. One of my classmates, Ko Kyaw Myint, whose family ran a popular café, chose to draw section of a Chinese pao (Pauk-Si) with interesting fillings inside. The class had a good laugh. He is now a successful businessman in Rangoon.

Our batch was a unique one. We were the first batch of the new system at that time (1979). After matriculation, two years of Regional College and a diploma in a technical field, we still had to sit for an entrance exam to get into RIT. Never mind what different technology path you went through during the second year of Regional College, here we were at the famed Institute of Technology in Rangoon.

The process by which raw space is turned into a comfortable living or working environment is a fascinating and difficult one, not entirely dissimilar to the process of becoming an architect. There were moments of great joy punctuated by ones of exhaustion and despair when you can’t seem to get the right configuration for the plan you are working on or can’t quite grasp the combination of mass and void to shape the space you want. But at the end of each day, there was progress, and at the end of many weeks, there was something beautiful and meaningful on the drawing sheets or as a model where form matches function.
Our teachers were there to guide us through this process and help us understand what 20th Century Architecture is (Saya U Myo Myint Sein), how form follows function (Saya U Hla Myint), what Urban Design really is (Saya Dr. Kyaw), why less is more (Saya Dr. Lwin Aung), and what it means to be an Architect in Burmese society (Saya U Win Htein).

Classes were not only held in our design studios, Nway-Aye (Warm-Cold), a favorite café on campus, was also used as our satellite class-room from time to time as students and teachers discussed various matters and debated architectural issues endlessly.

Soccer was also a part of our culture though teams selected from much larger talent pool consistently beat up Architecture team. On one occasion, Ma Hlaing Maw Oo (Maw Oo Hoke) promised to dance at the Fresher Welcome dinner if we can score a goal against the team we were playing. The other team cooperated happily so that we get to see her perform.
Saya Dr. Koung Nyunt opened up our eyes with his weekly lectures and slide-shows on Landscape Architecture. The department library had limited resources, up-to-date books and technical magazines. We all benefited a lot from Dr. Koung Nyunt’s recent return from Japan to not only share his experience, but his collection of slides and books.

A lot of our Sayas’ homes became our gathering places. These on campus gatherings at Saya Dr. Lwin Aung, Saya U Hla Myint, and Saya Dr. Koung Nyunt’s houses were filled with laughter…. and we learned something from each event. Bonds between student architects and architect-teachers were formed which last for decades. Some went on to form partnerships in architecture practice.

We also had close ties with other departments. Dr. Win Tin (EE) had an electronics club whose members were our close friends: Ko Kyin Shein (EE 81?), the late Ko Myo Aung (EE83), Ko Thu Ta (EE82), and Ko Ye Gaung (EE82, currently in San Jose). Dr. Win Tin’s group provided electronics and acoustic wizardry to campus wide events where our Association of Student Architects usually took care of the transformation of ordinary campus settings into one of festive environment.

During this time some former architecture students had especially close ties to the school and had positive influence on the students’ design philosophy and style. Two Architects stood out among the trend setters at that time: Ko Khun Tha Myint and Ko San Oo, who later joined the faculty. Both are now doing extremely well in Myanmar. Ko Khun Tha as a businessman, and Ko San Oo as the founder of Design 2000. Ko Khun Tha headed up Architects Cooperative (I am sketchy on the exact name of the organization) with Saya U Kyaw Thein who taught fifth year Design Studios and Acoustics.

Architects’ Co-op prospered for many years until the mid-eighties. A lot of former Co-op architects have went on to become quite successful in various parts of the country: Ko Myint Han (81), Ko Sai Yee (82), and Ko Kyaw Than Oo (82) in Mandalay for instance.

After a few years in the private industry, I left Burma for a job in Australia as an architect. I fell in love with CAD while working on the design-build team for an award-winning college complex. I later came to the Grad School of Architecture at UCLA in Los Angeles. That’s where I became a programmer in CAD, and then later in Internet technologies and databases (around 1995). I am now so removed from architecture that the only design I do at work is E-Commerce applications and infrastructure design as I run the E-Commerce and Travel group at Walt Disney Internet Group. But my heart is still in Architecture and Design. I caught up with some of the classmates in Rangoon last year.

Association of Myanmar Architects (AMA) has been in place since 1996, headed up by Saya U Hla Than, Sayama Daw Min Thet Mon, Ko Myo Tun (Bobby), Ko Myint Han, Ko Nay Zin Latt (80) and Ko Nyunt Win Lay (82) among many others. AMA publishes a newsletter regularly, and organizes lectures, tours, and competitions. In the spirit of competition I believe our new blood of student architects are better prepared to take on the world. Recent news of gaining recognition at international level is quite encouraging for the young Burmese architects. Back in November 1999, they were looking to raise funds and find enough talent to form a new private School of Design. I am not sure if AMA has made progress on that front. I hope that we can somehow manage to help this going.

I’d like to second Mr. Ivan Lee’s suggestion. As we juggle our busy professional and personal schedules spending time on the congested freeways/subways, I’d like to urge you to think of how we can work together to take advantage of this tremendous talent and experience pool we have here.

I’d like to think that this reunion is just the beginning of more fruitful endeavors to come and that we’d be able to put together something solid and plan for the future at the reunion.

Editor’s Note:

Many years ago, a teenager boldly challenged me to a game of Junior Mastermind. His father had multiple talents: a bilingual writer, translator, poet with famous pen names such as Mya Zin, Po Yaza, and Epsilon, an MPA from Harvard, Technical Advisor to National Planning, an accomplished Bridge player, a maestro in Vipassana meditation, and the Auctioneer in the “Myanmar Gems Emporium”.
His mother was a teacher well liked by her students. That teenager, now married to a famous Myanmar movie actor, is the web master of a prime e-commerce site. The couple will be in town for the Reunion. Despite a busy schedule, Ko Thet Win kept his promise [given several months back] to write a special article for our web site.
Ko Thet Win is a Double Architect : first, an Architect for buildings, now, an Architect for Computers.
His spouse completed the Los Angeles Marathon. She and her daughter would sing and dance at events.

Categories: RIT

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