First degree programme for Macau architects

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 September, 2009, 12:00am

Macau, long known for its old buildings, will have its first degree programme to nurture local architectural talent.

Fifteen undergraduates will begin on Monday studying in the new architecture programme at the Macau Inter-University Institute, which jointly awards degrees with the Catholic University of Portugal.

Rui Leao, vice-president of the Architects Association of Macau and co-ordinator of the new programme, said the launch of degree courses in architecture was long overdue.

'The city of Macau, built in a unique way over the centuries, has had the need for academic courses in architecture for a long time,' he said. The lack of such courses 'made it hard for local architectural culture' to develop.

The programme requires five years of study with a focus on heritage and urban planning.

Heritage buildings in European and Chinese style coexist on Macau's streets, echoing the city's tourism slogan, 'a world of difference'.

The historic centre of Macau, featuring monuments, streetscapes and piazzas, was in 2005 added to the World Heritage List compiled by Unesco, the cultural arm of the United Nations.

Despite this, young people aspiring to become architects have been forced to go overseas to study. They most often choose the mainland, followed by Taiwan, Portugal and Hong Kong, Leao said.

Ryan Leong, 27, a practising architect, has returned to Macau after getting a bachelor's degree in architecture at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

'Many of my peers have studied architecture on the mainland,' he said, 'Due to the language barrier, not many of them have chosen to go to Portugal.'

Leong said he would have considered studying in Macau if there had been a good architecture school in the city.

'It would have depended on the quality of the school. I would still have chosen to go overseas if it lagged overseas schools in quality.'

Leao said Macau was in great need of urban planning specialists after a period of breakneck economic growth had spoiled part of its landscape.

'There has been no clear planning strategy in Macau since the 1999 handover,' he said.

'There was little dialogue about planning between the public and the policymakers.'

Leao added that a relatively fair system of open contests for designing public works projects was scrapped after the handover.

Macau critics have mounted fierce attacks on the lack of urban planning in the wake of the Ao Man-long graft trial, which highlighted corruption and abuse of power in relation to public projects.

Ao, the former secretary for transport and public works, was in April jailed for 28 years and six months on 81 counts of taking bribes, money-laundering and other crimes.

The court heard that Ao and his friends had ridden roughshod over planning guidelines laid down for the Macau administration, overruling the rating of bids for public projects, changing the city's alignment rules to suit developers' needs, and leaking the government's infrastructure plans.

The city last year had its first open architectural contest for designing a public project in almost a decade, but its fairness was called into question.

Local architects responded warmly to the call for submissions in the contest to design Macau's new central library, organised by the Cultural Affairs Bureau.

But an employee of a consulting firm hired by the government to plan the central library project took part in the contest and won the top two prizes, fuelling speculation of conflict of interest.

Leao said Macau's casino boom attracted thousands of architects from overseas, as the pool of local talent was too small to meet the huge demands.

'Thousands of architects arrived for the huge investment but they left quickly afterwards,' he said, 'Little architectural knowledge and experience gained in the process stayed in Macau.'

Leao said Macau could offer valuable subject materials for studies in architecture, planning and conservation.

'We have a lot to contribute to the region,' he said.

'Some graduate architecture programmes in Hong Kong have used Macau's conservation as their subject of study.'