10.15.04 Design Studio
“Now that you and your wife have separated, you’ll have more time for studio.”
“My computer crashed the night before the project was due. My professor stayed in studio to help me rewrite my abstract and design statement, and even helped me render my facades.”
“The hardest moment of studio was watching my friend’s model dropped on the floor and stomped on by our studio professor.”
“My professor said to me, ‘You have so many talents and gifts. I hope you stay with it. We need more people like you to be architects.'”
These were among the stories shared by the 47 participants of last weekend’s Studio Culture Summit, ranging from collateral organization presidents to second-year students. The summit was convened by the AIAS and hosted by the University of Minnesota. The charge: to develop a roadmap of healthy studio practices, focusing on how the studio environment shapes architectural education and the profession. No small task.
What emerged during the two and a half days we spent together was a resounding endorsement of the value of the studio model. Any problems, the group decided, are not with the core of the studio model–Socratic dialogue, iterative development, learning by doing, innovation, one-to-one dialogue. However, dysfunctional practices, added abuse, arbitrary judgment, and physically unhealthy behaviors have become a dominant part of studio. A booklet summarizing the Summit proceedings, findings, outcomes, and areas for requiring further examination will be circulated by the AIAS in the coming weeks.
One highlight of the Studio Culture Summit was a presentation by host Thomas Fisher, Dean of the University of Minnesota, College of Architecture & Landscape Architecture. The text of Dean Fisher’s presentation is reprinted below and provides crucial background for understanding the unique history of the design studio as well as the promising future of architecture education.
–Clark Kellogg, facilitator, Studio Culture Summit
“The Past and Future of Studio Culture”
By Thomas Fisher
Studio has come to define design education, and yet that has not always been so. For most of the history of architectural education, students worked alongside architects on the job site or in the office, as apprentices. Architectural education emerged from the craft guilds that arose in Europe in the 12th century, which served as the major way of organizing work, exerting control over membership, workplace conditions, markets, and relations to the state. The craft guilds also determined who could join, and the length of apprenticeship, the dues and fines members had to pay, the means of production, the pace and hours of work, and who could practice in what market. There was little separation between work and education, and between design and construction.
The rising power of capitalistic enterprises and the growing influence of free-market thinking in the Renaissance led to a weakening of the craft guilds, as capitalists saw the guilds as a hindrance to free trade, eventually convincing the state that guild monopolies were more expensive and less efficient than capitalistic competition. As a result, the craft guilds in Europe had largely disappeared by the mid-1500s, replaced by construction trade groups competing in the marketplace. At the same time, building designers in Europe, starting with Brunelleschi in Italy, began to call themselves architects and took in apprentices to teach in exchange for their labor.
Some specialized architectural schools eventually emerged, most notably the Academy of Architecture in Paris, founded in 1671, which evolved into the Ecole des Beaux Arts, the progenitor of modern architectural education. The Ecole sought to train top civil servants to work in the French government, generating prototypes for provincial government and civic buildings, built for unknown clients by local contractors. As a result, the students rarely took design beyond the schematic design phase, tended to have a dismissive attitude toward the eventual users, paid little attention to construction detailing or technology, and focused on the prototypical nature of the work. At the same time, the competition for positions was fierce, which led to the tradition of “burning the midnight oil” and to “charrettes” which focused on how fast students could work.
Here you have the seeds of our own studio culture: the long hours, the intense competition, the schematic design focus, the absence of users, the relative disregard for how things get built, and the emphasis on the development of prototypical solutions.
How this came to influence American architectural education was more a twist of fate. Educators such as William Ware, who helped found the first program in the U.S. at MIT, studied at the Ecole and brought it as a model to America in the mid-19th century. But to understand why this took hold here, we have to look at the context.
Professional education as we now think of it did not exist in most institutions of higher learning until the 19th century. The rise of architectural education, at least in the United States, came in the wake of a populist revolt against the idea of professions. From the 1840’s through the post-Civil War period, professions were seen by many citizens as anti-democratic elites, causing states to repeal certification for professions such as law and medicine.
Their weakened position in that populist, free-market era led many professions to form associations (the American Medical Association in 1848, the American Institute of Architects in 1857, the American Bar Association in 1868) in an effort to re-establish some control over their practices. From the 1880s through the 1920s, these associations swung public opinion around, convincing state legislatures to enact licensure laws that became the basis for the professions as we now know them. They emphasized their commitment to the public’s health, safety, and welfare and recognized that the monopoly that licensing laws gave them was necessary if they were to advance the state of their knowledge for the greater good.
Key to the latter was a move away from an apprenticeship education toward the establishment of professional schools, often in the newly formed state land-grant universities established by the Morrill Act of 1865 and in research-oriented universities such as Johns Hopkins and MIT. After Ware’s establishment of the first program at MIT in 1867, other schools followed, such as Cornell in 1871 and Illinois in 1873. By that time, this 150-year-old model of education, from a country with a very different political culture than our own, had become firmly established.
There were tensions between these first architecture schools and the institutions they occupied. The professional associations had considerable influence over the curricula in these early professional programs, with faculty drawn from either current or former practitioners. This represented a major intrusion into the territory of academics. As a result, the professional schools occupied an uneasy place in universities, separated from the traditional academic disciplines.
That does not mean that the professional schools offered only a vocational training. In architecture, educators and practitioners worked out a system early on in which the schools would focus on areas such as design, history, and theory, and the profession would educate interns about such matters as running a firm, managing a project, and detailing and constructing a building. But unlike some other professional programs, such as medicine or engineering, architecture schools remained largely teaching oriented, with relatively little funded research or published scholarship.
Professional architectural education has remained fairly stable for more than a century. Despite changes in ideology, as a Classical education gave way to a Modernist and then a Postmodernist one, the design-oriented, studio-based pedagogy has remained largely unchanged. While remarkable in its durability, this doesn’t explain why it has remained so dominant.
To answer that, we need to look at some of the strengths of studio education:
It offers a synthesizing form of learning, in contrast to fragmentation and specialization elsewhere in professional education. One of the last forms of what Lewis Mumford called a “generalist” professional education, our pedagogy enables us to bring together many other forms of knowledge: art and science, social science and engineering, philosophy and mathematics, history and theory.
Architectural studio also represents a Socratic form of learning, in contrast to the lecture and lab formats so common in other fields. It is conversation and question based, with open-ended problems that encourage exploration–one of the earliest forms of learning in the West, with Plato’s academy. Studio remains one of the few one-on-one forms of learning, especially in undergraduate education, still left, with extraordinary amounts of contact between professor and student.
Studio offers a project-based form of learning, in contrast to the abstractions in so many other disciplines. Research in education has shown that many students learn better and retain knowledge longer when having to apply it to projects, in simulations of real-life situations. This is what studio education does, and it has become a focus of study among other educators as a model for K-12 learning.
Studio also offers a creative form of learning, in contrast to a discipline form found elsewhere in higher education. Many fields focus on learning a well-defined core of knowledge, with the goal of eventually adding to that core through research. Studio education, in contrast, is wide-ranging and often free-floating, eliding over many disciplines, with the emphasis on creativity more than in-depth competence in any one area. Yet, in a world in which creativity has become the way to add value, other related discipline-oriented fields like engineering, are starting to model studio education in an effort to get students to think outside the box.
However, the inherent strengths of studio education alone do not explain its durability. It has also become a way of retaining our “calling” as a profession. Sociologists of the professions, such as Elliott Krause and Christine McGuire, have looked at professions as both serving and seeking autonomy from both the state and the marketplace, both the public and private sectors. That struggle for autonomy goes back to the struggle between guild-like professions and free-market capitalism. Guild-like professions thrive when the free market has been either disorganized, as in the Middle Ages, or considered untrustworthy, as happened after the Civil War in the U.S. At such times, the state has granted monopoly status to professional groups in exchange for their attending to the needs of the public and their raising the standard of care of their members.
But when the ideology of the free market becomes ascendant, as happened in the 18th and early 19th Centuries or in our own era, professional guilds must fend off the criticisms of inefficiency, elitism, and unfair advantage. The rise of fee bidding, the attacks on quality based selection of professionals, the increasing pace of design and construction–all reflect efforts to measure the architecture profession according to the values of the marketplace.
With the rise of the global economy in the last two decades, the free-market critique of the professions has had greater influence and a broader thrust than ever before. In previous eras, the state often served as a haven for professional activity. But today, the government itself has begun to fashion itself in the mold of the private sector, emphasizing its efficient use of taxpayer money and its adoption of business practices. This has resulted in an almost unprecedented alliance between the state and the marketplace against professions, evident in the Justice Department’s anti-trust ruling against the use of fee schedules by architects or in the widespread use in the public sector of design-build as a project delivery method intended to drive down costs and speed up construction.
The free-market critique of the professions has also reached into the universities, threatening the guild of scholars as never before. This has taken many forms, from proposals in some schools to eliminate the tenure system to efforts in others to impose corporate-style management to attempts in still others to tie budgets to research productivity. Some of this activity has come from outside groups–efficiency minded state legislatures or free-market-oriented university trustees or regents–and some has come from faculty and administrators themselves in an effort to gain flexibility or financial independence in the face of increasingly unstable government support or prescriptive donor requests.
The other allegiance that the professions once could rely on–the public at large–has also withered in recent decades. Public support for the professions exists in proportion to how much the professions devote themselves to the public good and resist taking advantage of their monopoly position in the marketplace for private gain or to unfairly advance the interests of private clients at the public’s expense. That often unspoken understanding has existed in periods when the public sector has supported the professions. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, for instance, most architects and educators adhered to this unspoken agreement, advocating public control over the private realm or individual expression, be that in the form of Beaux Arts Classicism or Modernist urbanism.
In such a context, the professions viewed themselves as a “calling,” a devotion to the common good or the truth. But professions now rarely use the word “calling” to describe themselves; instead we see what we do as a career, a way of making a good salary and of finding personal satisfaction while serving the needs of one’s paying clients or students. The difference between a calling and a career may be subtle, but it has had a profound effect on the public’s support of professionals. As some professionals’ incomes have risen higher and faster than most non-professional occupations, the public has had difficulty believing that the professions still put the common good before private gain.
This public disillusionment with the professions has led, in the case of architecture, to proposals in several state legislatures to suspend architectural licensing laws and to eliminate the profession’s unfair advantage in the market as we have become too much like just another service business. In the case of the academic profession, public support for such things as tenure or tuition increases has also subsided.
Such is the context today in which we might evaluate not only the durability of studio culture, but also the forces leading to its change. In addition to it strengths as a synthesizing, Socratic, product-based, creative form of education, studio remains the place in which we can rediscover our “calling.” This has its downsides, when that calling leads us to envision utopias out of touch with the lives of ordinary people, as happened in the heyday of high modernism. But, in the face of market pressures and careerist cynicism, studio becomes one of the few places in higher education still focused on envisioning a better future, as opposed to focusing on the past as so often happens in the humanities, on the world as it is, as in the sciences, or on the powers that be, as in professions like law and business. Studio is one of the few places that asks what could be and shows what that better future might look like.
Despite its real advantages and great potential, however, studio culture has also begun to change in some fundamental ways, suggesting that we might apply the speculative, future-envisioning skills acquired in studio on studio itself. The changes have a lot to do with shifts in technology and in student demographics. They have been gradual and have gone largely unnoticed by the profession, but they are real and evident when we compare studio culture to what occurred even a decade or two ago.
One change has been the widespread use of computers, especially laptops, in studio. In many colleges with wireless systems and laptop requirements, students can now do their studio project anywhere. This has not led to the paperless studio; in some ways, it has increased the amount of paper as students print out their work for desk crits or reviews. But it has led to very different work habits. Studios have become places to meet professors and be with fellow students, but increasingly students are doing work in more flexible ways, outside the studio proper and at widely varying times.
Another change has been the increasing age of students in studio. As growing numbers of schools expand their graduate programs and as the BArch programs have become a relatively finite number, the average age of students has gone up. This has led to a student cohort that often has families, previous work experience, and even sometimes a more advanced age than some of the junior faculty teaching them. These students tend to spend less time in studio, and certainly have a more mature response to studio life and studio reviews.
A third change has occurred with the increasing diversity of students, both in terms of gender and ethnic origin. This, too, has affected the culture of studio, moving it away from the sometime juvenile or macho traditions that once prevailed in schools composed mostly of white men. Studio culture remains a source of camaraderie and mutual learning, but it has become more civil and more tolerant in character.
On top of these has come outside pressures for change: one is the pressure on schools by their institutions to use space more efficiently, making the extraordinary amount of real estate devoted to resident studios increasingly hard to find or to justify to provosts dealing with tight budgets and space allocations. This has led to the evolution of “hot seat” studios, “workshop-type” studios, and other models that use space more efficiently.
Another pressure from the universities involves the time involved in studios, whose credit loads are way out of line with the contact hours, creating workload pressures on both the faculty and the students. Every time a new provost or president arrives at a university, the dean must educate them as to why studio violates the credit/contact hours rules of the institution. Schools, as a result, have experimented with shorter studios, evening and weekend studios, mixed studio and seminar courses, and the like, all of which bring studio more in line with university policies.
Pressure, too, comes from students, some of whom rebel against the amount of time studio takes and how that precludes them from doing other things, be it having a private life, engaging in extracurricular activities, or even simply taking advantage of the larger social and intellectual offerings of universities. This conference is itself evidence of the growing dissatisfaction among students in the all-consuming nature of traditional studio culture.
At the same time, students and younger faculty have wrought a change in studio reviews. The older tradition of browbeating or berating students at reviews in front of their peers has largely ended, as reviews now often involve a greater diversity of reviewers, some of them from outside the school or discipline, and less of an absolutistic view of what constitutes good and bad design. Students, too, have started to stand up to abusive behavior on the part of some studio reviewers.
These changes also reflect a change in the context of higher education: the greater market orientation of our culture, in which students become “consumers” of knowledge; the greater pressures on universities to become “lean and mean,” with sometimes dramatic declines in public funding; and the greater pressure on the part of the profession that students be productive as soon as possible in the office upon graduation. There has been, in other words, an ever-increasing squeeze on time, space, and resources and an ever-greater expansion of expectations on the part of students and the profession.
To do that, we need to identify what we want to be sure to preserve in studio education, and what we don’t; as well as what changes have occurred in studio and which of these we want to support and reward. At the same time we need to identify a mechanism to reinforce the deliberate changes we want to make. Studies and recommendations can easily end up on a shelf and be ignored, so we need to find a way for the schools to pay attention, such as making a review of the best practices in studio a part of the accreditation process.
I also think we should ask ourselves what we want studio to be, rather than spend a lot of time justifying it as it was or explaining how it has changed. I think we need to infuse studio education with a larger purpose, the “calling” I talked about earlier, in which the education of students to become architects is part of a larger intervention on our part in improving the lives of people and the quality of the environment beyond the university’s walls.
So, in addition to making studio more electronic, more flexible, more tolerant, and more permeable, we need to make studio make a difference in the world. One of the great potentials of studio lies in its possible integration of the three missions of most universities: teaching, research, and service. Usually discreet activities in most departments, these three missions can come together in studios in which students and faculty pursue learning, conduct research, and engage in the community all at the same time.
Studio, in other words, can be a way of applying our skills to and expanding our understanding of the most critical problems that the public faces. As such, studio can become a major public face for the entire university, as well as a major force in addressing the social, economic, political, and environmental inequities in the world. Were studio to make a difference here, we might even stop worrying so much about studio culture. There is nothing like focusing on the larger problems of the world to put our problems in perspective, and I suspect that once we truly engage with the world, many of the silly or self-destructive traditions of studio life–the all-nighters, the obsession with grades, the ridiculous competition to see who can be the most original–would disappear or seem irrelevant in light of these larger purposes. The solution to studio culture, in the end, may be to make studio a real part of this world, and to finally let go of our attachment to the traditions of mid-19th century France.
Dean of the College of Architecture & Landscape Architecture at the University of Minnesota, Thomas Fisher is a noted author and critic. Click here to learn more about Dean Fisher’s research and writing.
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