Thoughts on the Studio Model

August 27, 2013

In which will be discussed architectural pedagogy and its bizarre relationship to the real world, with the caveat that apparently all architects love talking about themselves, so I can’t help it.

Studio.  I wish I could say it’s not usually this messy, but that would be lying.

Studio. I wish I could say it’s not usually this messy, but that would be lying.

I can’t speak to the long and surely interesting history of the studio model, which I expect is a holdover from the days of medieval mason’s guilds, but I can speak to its practical effects on my life. And having survived almost two three years of it [this post has been a long time in the making], I’m ready to make a few remarks. (For those without any experience in this mode of instruction, this pdf gives an excellent outline of the recent history & current structure of the typical architectural design studio. Ignore the weird characters - I think something went wrong with the pdf generation.) Since I spent at least one semester in an “experimental” studio setting, and many others in more traditional studios, I am especially interested in this topic, so bear with me as we think about The Studio and about architectural education more generally.

It’s a relatively common platitude that architecture students' enjoyment of studio is inversely proportional to their enjoyment of actual architectural practice. In other words, those who enjoy studio the most, dislike “real” practice the most, while those who suffer in school can still enjoy practice significantly. I think it’s natural to wonder why this would be the case - isn’t professional school preparing you for practice, and if so, isn’t there something wrong with a school that gives you the opposite impression of what practice is really like? I’m in the process now of finding out to what extent this stereotype is true, but let’s consider what studio is like versus (my limited experience of) practice.

Each student in studio - and here the emphasis is on each - is expected to produce her own creative, unique solution to the semester’s design problem. She is welcome to speak to her peers, bounce ideas off them, and make changes and refinements to her approach, but the more her solution diverges from her peers', the better; she is more likely to get individualized feedback that way, and more praise. In architectural practice, however, we work in teams. The Howard Roark model of architecture is a myth, and a dangerous one at that, in my opinion. Even the architect of single-family homes, who needs little help from engineers, city planners/officials, contractors (dubiously possible), or others, surely still needs a client, who acts, effectively, as a partner in the design. Even Roark needed clients, and couldn’t simply build on his own for his own ends. That’s part of what makes architecture interesting, I think - the confluence of resources (money, materials), design goals, and problem-solving. But in the architecture studio, we have only our critics and ourselves, and the critics are not good stand-ins for clients. Yes, critics may give us constraints and sometimes assume the role of a client, but the critic is first and foremost an architect, with his/her own design agenda and with the mandate to teach us what he/she knows. Our critic is still our “master” in the master/apprentice model of teaching that suffuses the architectural studio, not our partner or client or consultant.

There are some architecture studios, at Columbia and elsewhere, that have real clients for the design problems. Often these are design-build studios, where the goal is to provide a finished building within a school-year timeframe. But even this is hardly realistic training for the majority of us; how many of us will work on single-family homes (as these projects nearly always are)? And how often will our “real” projects have artificial limits placed on them like the length of the summer vacation and our ability, as untrained students, to build what we design? The critics of these studios have to account for our limited building (as well as designing) abilities when they guide the projects. But in the “real world,” the constraints we will face are, hopefully, somewhat different. Yes, we will always have to take into account the type of labor available, its training, etc, but our options won’t be quite so limited!

In short, the individual starving student/artist model that is perpetuated in studio hardly reflects the realities of architectural practice. Even sole practitioners don’t really do all their work alone - there’s always the building department to deal with!

Other studios try to address this problem by requiring students to work in pairs or groups, or, in the case of the experimental studio I participated in, by working first individually, and then in groups, but all the while exchanging design pieces and ideas on a weekly basis. While I think this is a step in the right direction, I don’t think it’s enough; a pair or group of us, meeting with our critic, is still just a bunch of architects who aren’t necessarily going to be able to give the right sort of feedback. But perhaps only by working on a “real” project, with all its stakeholders, can we learn how it’s done - and simulating this in studio may be beyond the resources, and patience, of students and critics alike. Perhaps we could try inviting a wider assortment of professionals to our final juries, to get more accurate feedback, instead of just inviting the most famous architects who happen to work nearby.

Yep, Thom Mayne was at our final review.

Yep, Thom Mayne was at our final review.

Speaking of feedback, the jury method of evaluation is yet another puzzle to me. Except in the case of firms who constantly enter architectural competitions (I won’t say “firms who receive most of their work from competitions,” because I don’t think such firms exist), rarely will we face a jury of our peers after architecture school. We will face groups of people who act as juries, certainly, but these juries will be composed of our clients, subcontractors, contractors, vendors, and a host of specialists who know something, but not necessarily a lot, about architecture. I suspect many architects spend more time explaining to clients what it is that they do, and how they’re going to do it, than explaining the precise merits of their design, as they would to a design jury. Even if our final evaluations, as students, do not depend on the results of the final design review, it’s still a harrowing experience that is essentially for naught: we may or may not return to these projects, and the comments we get, if our projects are well-developed, are often about unimportant formal aspects of the project. (Not to imply that formal aspects themselves are unimportant, just that it’s the unimportant things, and often formal things, that usually get targeted in final design reviews.)

This mess brought to you by the letter A, as in “Architecture with a capital A.”

This mess brought to you by the letter A, as in “Architecture with a capital A.”

My final critique of architecture school is the culture of continuous work. I want to be careful to separate this from “studio culture” more generally, because I enjoy the collaborative aspects of working in studio: learning from one another, working as a group on similar problems, etc. What I find troubling is the expectation, both on the part of (some) critics and on the part of (some) students, that we should be working literally all the time on our projects. I do not mean “figuratively” here - I mean that students are known to apologize to other students for not being in studio at night, or to make excuses for why they weren’t there, because they really believe that they should spend every waking moment working in studio. Of course, not everyone, or every critic, feels this way, and some students are able to maintain a remarkably decent standard of living while in school. But I can at least speak for myself in saying that the pressure to produce, the expectation of having “something” polished and ready for every desk crit, three days a week, is sometimes extremely onerous. I know that some firms actually do work this way, requiring late nights of unpaid overtime for all their staff, but I have vowed never to work for any of them; it would be too painful, and unfair to my family. I’m not proposing that architecture school should be made less challenging, just that we should step back and take a more realistic view of the urgency of our own work. No one will die if we get some sleep. (In fact, bad calculations/decisions from lack of sleep seem much more likely to lead to deaths.) All that coffee and all those all-nighters can’t possibly be good for us. Can we collectively agree that this is crazy, and actually go home on the weekends or after 6pm some nights? If we can make a pact to shun unpaid internships, maybe we can also change the way studio works. If we do it together, then the critics will have to go along with us. It’s not laziness that will motivate us to push for more humane working hours - it’s self-preservation.

All that said, let’s return to my initial question. Is studio, at least as it’s run in all the architecture schools I’m aware of, not simply different from actual architectural practice, but somehow inversely related? Maybe not. My current firm has weekly “crits,” where we pin up projects we’re working on for office critique. This process is very similar to the pin-ups or crits we had in school, although less freighted with tension and theory. We do still work hard and sometimes long hours. But importantly, we’re getting paid for this, and there’s an expectation that we must deliver something that the client wants, not just what pleases us. I think the additional constraints and variables in real practice are really helpful. So, a mixed bag - some similarities, many differences. I would, however, like to tell anyone considering architecture school to be aware that architecture studio doesn’t give you the whole picture of what the profession is all about. A further question, perhaps to be explored later, is how to change/improve on the current model - but that will have to wait for another time. I leave you with an image of the patron saint of studio at Columbia GSAPP, “Head of Statue Wearing Corbu Glasses,” as he beneficently surveys the sixth floor.

Serious Statue says, “Architecture is very serious.”

Serious Statue says, “Architecture is very serious.”