More Thoughts on the Studio Model

August 30, 2015

“Architectural education” was a hot topic for debate when I was in school two years ago, from conferences on exactly that topic, to the annual architectural school rankings, to my own dean’s comments as he prepared to step down from his post after a decade of leading the school. I think “design thinking” is still a hot issue, and within architecture, the pertinent questions seem to be whether architecture school prepares you well for practice, whether it’s similar to practice or not, and whether it should be.

The Stanford, a project built by my firm (Cody Anderson Wasney Architects); image courtesy of the

Mark Wigley, the architecture theorist and aforementioned previous dean of GSAPP, told one of my classmates - our class representative, who was questioning the lack of career services provided by the school - that students came to GSAPP to “join the think tank,” not to prepare themselves for a career of practice. My classmates and I found it difficult to believe that the dean of a professional school, which grants accredited degrees that lead to licensure and, thus, practice, could have such a limited view of what should happen in architecture school. Architectural research is great (at least, I think it is), but I think the true test of a design idea is when it gets built and real people have to use it. Since architecture is a very practical art, getting to practice it is, in a sense, the goal.

Now that I have a couple years of distance from studio, I think I can finally look back and judge whether architecture school prepared me for practice. In many senses, the answer is yes, but perhaps not in the ways one would immediately guess. In school, I spent a lot of time figuring out what the problem was that I wanted to address with my work, and then solving it. In practice, the problems are often immediate and obvious: This detail doesn’t work. That product isn’t available. The design busts the budget. The solutions are still elusive, however, and the dogged pursuit of answers in the face of complex problems is common to both school and practice. The importance of “studio culture,” of mutual support, learning from one another, and learning to work together, is another commonality (at least in the firm where I work now). And, for better or worse, the cyclical boom-and-bust of rushing to meet a deadline and working overtime to get it done, only to be followed by weeks of inactivity during, say, the DSA review process, has continued on in practice. The difference is that I now have many projects going on at once, so when one is dormant, the others take over, and there is no summer break. But I do usually get to go home at 6pm (one of my complaints about school was that there were no free evenings).

The actual “design” part of the equation is harder to judge as to whether school prepared me for practice. I think so. In some sense, good design is the result of experience, so gaining experience in school thinking about different types of problems / programs / scales, etc, did prepare me for real practice. And the similar type of educational training we all experienced makes it easier for my coworkers and me to work together - we share a common language, set of tools, and background. Even if we each focused on different specific projects in school, we learned a similar way to tackle them.

Studio is the crucible in which we forge new architects, and thus, its rigor is useful and important. Real architectural practice is difficult, involving constantly-changing technology, politics, money, multiple stakeholders (even private homes get approved by someone other than the homeowners), multiple personalities and businesses (from suppliers to installers), legal consequences, and yes, somewhere in there, a design vision. Submitting your design ideas to the critique of your peers and professors is only a vague approximation of the real-world architectural process, however. I wrote at length on this approximation two years ago, shortly after graduating. I still agree with much of what I said in my previous post – I still think the critique process in school, which generally involves only other architectural professionals, is too insular – but I’ve come to appreciate more how school and practice are similar rather than different. The remaining question, of course, is whether they should be.

The NAAB and NCARB seem to think school and practice should be aligned. NCARB’s recent proposal to introduce licensure upon graduation is one way they’re signaling that the path to professional practice should be more integrated into architectural education in the future. On the other hand, I think “design thinking” in general is coming to be more recognized as a valuable tool in fields outside architecture (see: the Stanford, linked above), so perhaps there is value in an architectural education apart from practice. Certainly there are plenty of people who took their architecture degrees elsewhere in the recession and seem not to have returned to architecture despite the uptick in construction over the last few years.

As for me, I’m starting to think that the tension between “pure” architecture theory / research and “applied” architectural training is a productive one, and it’s probably good that architecture schools invest in both. For all Dean Wigley’s comments about the “think tank,” there were plenty of highly practical courses at GSAPP, from curtain wall detailing, to woodshop classes, to GIS and mapping. I’m sure a motivated person could find a way to make nearly any class more research-y or more practical based on his interests. That’s the beauty of letting students choose their own adventure in grad school - you can get the education that you need, or at least the one that feeds your interests. I think I was able to navigate a course that gave me a healthy dose of both practicality and craziness (design a new transit network for Tokyo!), which, in the end, served me well for practice. If you think that there’s an inverse relationship between how much you like school and how much you like practice, that’s probably because you’re taking the wrong classes, and because the intense studio schedule is terrible. Getting paid to do the work you wanted to do anyway, and not having to do it on the weekends, is admittedly pretty great. If you can’t find anyone to pay you to do the work that you loved in school, that would be equally pretty terrible. So I can maybe see where the stereotype came from.

I will close by saying that personally I enjoy getting to do a variety of tasks: design, solve problems, write, and research. In architectural practice, I’ve gotten to do all of these things, although not at the same speed of turn-over that I had in school, where I would have all of these tasks at the same time. So sometimes practice feels a bit dull, because I spend weeks on only problem-solving, then weeks on only design, or days of only writing or research. The constant mental stimulation of school isn’t quite matched by real life. But when I take a breath and step back from it, I can see that I’m still getting to do nearly all the same things I did in school. In that sense, it was good preparation, and I wouldn’t change it. (I would still change the “culture” of no sleep and too much work in school, though, which sets you up to think that’s ok during real life.) There are improvements to be made, but the variety of possible experiences in school makes up for a lot of problems - if you hate your studio, you can pick a different one next time. The studio model isn’t all good or all bad, but I think it does a decent job of preparing you for practice, and that’s probably all we really need from it. The rest is up to each student to figure out for herself. And if you really want to join the think tank, there are post-professional degrees and PhDs for that!