MITx course aims to start worldwide conversation about global architecture

4.605x A Global History of Architecture offers fresh perspective on the principles and forces at play in the discipline.

Mark Jarzombek, MIT Professor of the History and Theory of Architecture, is already deeply familiar with the concepts behind global architecture—he has authored and co-authored two highly regarded books in the field, "A Global History of Architecture" (Wiley Press, 2006) and "Architecture of First Societies: A Global Perspective" (Wiley Press, 2013). Starting this September, however, he’ll gain a whole new appreciation for what it means to teach globally when he launches 4.605x A Global History of Architecture. “I used to teach this course to 35 students each semester, and now I will be teaching it to 35,000. Of course,” he jokes, “I don’t know how many of them will survive till the end.”

A favorite among students for his engaging lectures, Jarzombek takes his subject matter very seriously. “I learned architecture in a very Eurocentric fashion. My first survey course covered Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. But the gap between today’s assumption that we live in a global world based on our economic inter-relations, and how little we really know about the cultures within that world, is becoming so extreme that it’s a problem. This course is partly meant to help build our ability to think globally.”

4.605x A Global History of Architecture offers a fresh perspective on the principles and forces at play in architecture. A variety of influences, Jarzombek explains, can determine how a civilization develops its own architectural style. The Greeks used technological advances in iron to rapidly cut stone and build enormous monuments. Just as often, however, the transformations exercised on architecture are metaphysical: “Buddha generated a whole revolution of thought around him, but he never said anything about what a temple should look like. There was no architectural script, so its adherents began making essentially prototypes of what a proper Buddhist temple should be,” explains Jarzombek. “The Christians, on the other hand, used Roman architecture as a model, without referencing its pagan temples. They chose the law forums — the basilica — and began to customize it for themselves. In both cases, their architecture was never frozen in time. It continued to change and reflect the core dynamics of human cultures.”

While all the content presented in 4.605x comes from the original MIT course, the comparison ends there for Jarzombek. “I actually don’t think it’s useful to compare MITx to a live version of this course,” he insists. “A classroom always will have strong levels of interaction, but MITx has its own very real pedagogical advantages. First of all, the audience for this course has fabulous potential to start a truly international conversation about how we should be teaching global history. Moreover, we’re already in the process of extending and expanding the material in a way that’s impossible with a live course. We’ve added eight additional lectures that were not part of the original course, and by next year it will be twenty. That means that students can follow different tracks. Maybe they want to take a course that just emphasizes the civilizations of the Pacific Rim, or a course on a set of major monuments. In either case, the idea is for the student to see history at different scales, from the big picture of trans-regional histories to the local history of a building and its site.”

As he and his colleagues prepare the course for its September release, he has learned that it takes a lot of work. “It looks easy when students use the final product, but the background work and development is substantial. We’ve added a great deal of interaction in the form of questions, quizzes and assessments. There are maps, diagrams, timelines, and even the different parts of buildings that we’ll ask students to assemble themselves. We also hope to have a lot of discussion.”

To create the original course was its own journey of discovery for Jarzombek, requiring several years of preparation. He visited many of the sites he describes in the course. In one case, he visited a remote, isolated monastery on the Ethiopian-Eritrean border, called Debra Damo, which was built in the 5th century. “You have to climb a cliff to get to it, and you certainly don’t want to fall because it’s about a six hour ride through the desert to the nearest village, and then a plane ride after that to the nearest city.”

Drawing from the experience, he notes that creating a massive open online course (MOOC) is clear evidence that we live in an information age, but we are still in the dark ages when it comes to truly understanding our global architecture heritage. “There are an amazing number of things about our past that can be learned from these buildings. But for a great number of important sites like [Debra Damo],” Jarzombek explains, “There is still very little scholarship. No plans, no drawings.”

He cites another location, Angkor Wat, as one of his favorite examples. “In terms of understanding European architecture, let’s say we’re at 90 percent — no one is going to discover a new Chartres cathedral tomorrow. But what we know about Angkor Wat probably only represents 10 percent of what there is to know. Imagine: this was one of the world’s largest cities in 1000 A.D. It had a population of one million, yet no one has done a sustained study of its growth as an urban landscape.”

Inspiring students and teachers around the world to continue this type of scholarship, and to see architecture as a living force in our society, is precisely what Jarzombek’s hopes to impart through teaching this course. “The point of this course has nothing to do with the rote identification of slides and monuments. It’s about recognizing that architecture is always looking ahead towards some sort of future.”

Topics: Architecture, Education, teaching, academics, EdX, Global, Learning, Massive open online courses (MOOCs), MITx, Office of Digital Learning, online learning

Back to the top