It was a hot, windless afternoon. Once again I am on the once familiar grounds of University of Malaya to a part that had not been there when I had been an undergraduate at the university. My venture to the university is for the express purpose of conducting an interview with the Head of the Department of Architecture of the Faculty of Built Environment, Dr Muhammad Azzam. To say I was taken aback upon meeting Dr Azzam (as he is more familiarly referred to) is an understatement. For one who is holding such a post, Dr Azzam is a relatively young man.

Coming from the state known as the rice bowl of Malaysia, Dr Azzam who is in his late 30s, had had the privilege of a unique education. For his primary education, he had attended the usual mainstream type of education at Sekolah Rendah Kebangsaan Iskandar, Alor Setar. It was his secondary education that marked the beginning of his pursuit for something more in his learning. Continuing his secondary education at Maktab Mahmud, Alor Setar, saw him including Arabic as another language into his language repertoire. It was here also that he began to reveal his academic excellence. As the first student for his school to score 9 A’s in his Pendidikan Menengah Rendah examination, he was subsequently emplaced on the Special Education Programme to pursue his education at Maktab Rendah Sains MARA (MRSM) Taiping. His admittance into MRSM meant that he had challenged himself further by switching from the arts stream into the science stream.

1996 witnessed yet another major academic achievement for Dr Azzam when he became the selected recipient for a MARA scholarship on architecture. He became the first batch of Malaysian A-Level students to be admitted into the prestigious London David Game College, South Kensington. From here, instead of pursuing  Architectural Studies at the University of Cardiff, he chose to be admitted into the MacKintosh School of Architecture at the Glasgow School of Art, an independent art school under the purview of the University of Glasgow. This was yet another strategic decision on his part for a school that was more artistic-based rather than the technical-based studies offered by the University of Cardiff. Upon graduation, he was apprenticed for nearly two years with Graeme & Sibbald Chartered Surveyors in Glasgow.

On returning to Malaysia, Dr Azzam was again fired for further academic excellence. Thus, after a brief stint working at AZR Architects Sdn. Bhd. in Alor Setar, he began to pursue Part II of his Bachelor of Architecture at the University of Malaya. Subsequently, he worked with Pakatan Reka Arkitek Sdn. Bhd. under the tutelage of Ar David Teh, Ar Effindi Ismail and Ar Menaha Ramanath whom Dr Azzam said taught him a lot about being professional in architectural design and practice. After nearly three years with Pakatan Reka Arkitek, he  decided to freelance while teaching part-time at the University Malaya.

Early 2008 saw Dr Azzam’s next climb up his academic ladder when he moved to Sydney to carry out his doctoral research. Both the Ministry of Higher Education and University of Malaya were sponsors for his research.

It was truly a measure of his academic excellence that Dr Azzam successfully completed his doctorate which he pursued at the University of South Wales, Australia in only 3½ years. His first supervisor was none other than Scientia Professor Deo Prasad, the world renowned expert on zero carbon buildings. He was also fortunate to have Dr Paul Osmond, a Canadian, for his second supervisor. Both supervisors saw to it that Dr Azzam’s postgraduate research and thesis were up to scratch. Being the hardworking student that he was, it was not surprising that during his doctoral research Dr Azzam won two UNSW Postgraduate Research Scholarships for conferences to Japan and to New Zealand.

Currently, Dr Azzam is the Head of Department at his present faculty. According to his colleagues, this tenure is a necessary rite of passage for him to acquire his professorship. With several lecturers more senior than him in terms of age, experience and qualifications under his umbrella, as well as being programme coordinator of several programmes, the post ensures Dr Azzam first-hand experience in management.

As a lecturer with the added advantage of having studied in Malaysia, the United Kingdom and Australia, as well as exposure to a wide variety of the teaching styles of a spectrum of ‘teachers’, Dr Azzam favours a more hands-on approach in his interactions with his students. His fervent hope is for all his students to graduate as quality graduates of a level that would make them worthy architects.

As Head of Department for his Faculty, Dr Azzam aims to attain accreditation and validation for all his Faculty Architecture programmes with the Board of Architects Malaysia specifically, and also with the Royal Institute of British Architects. At the ASEAN level, he had in 2014 and 2015 introduced and promoted the Malaysian School of Architectures at the ASEAN Architect Board Meetings.

Aware that the school enjoys a sound reputation on the local scene, Dr Azzam would also like to replicate this internationally. Consequently, he has focussed his energy on improving the school profile through garnering wider peer reviews by way of joint studio programmes in organisations such as the Asian Coalition for Architecture and Urbanism (ACAU) which represents a cluster of reputable Asian universities, and also by way of conducting summer school programmes both at the school and universities abroad. In this way, Dr Azzam hopes to be able to sign on new partners in collaborative student exchange programmes that would ensure the school to be known internationally. Presently, the school has established formal relations with reputable universities across the globe. Dr Azzam firmly believes that this networking with other international universities is essential to ultimately raise the ranking of the university both locally as well as internationally.

This in a nutshell is the Head of Department of the Faculty of Built Environment: the young, and dynamic Dr Muhammad Azzam with his perpetual quest for learning more and yet more. 


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