Over the summer, Amanda and I have been meeting once a week using one of the usual online platforms or sitting in the park at Coventry Gardens physically distancing the obligatory 2 meters from each other. Although neither method of connecting is preferred, we’ve come to live with these forms of engagement and have simply moved on to the tasks at hand. We’ve been working on a paper about the use of the “World Café” as a pedagogical tool in introductory first year classes. Stay tuned for its completion; we’ll let you know when we’ve released it into the world.
During the research process for our paper, we began talking about Amanda’s experience at the end of the winter 2020 semester when she was moved to an online format to complete her classes and prepare for her MArch thesis defense. In Architecture School “studio” is such a major component of a student’s life that I’d even go so far as saying it’s the “raison d’être”. It’s at the core of every student’s learning with all other subjects organized around it. It is more than just a physical space but is a reflection of community life, with a very complex set of social and cultural dynamics associated with it. I was curious as to how the multifaceted elements linked to “studio culture” were reinterpreted in Amanda’s online experience. So we began to steal a bit of time during our work sessions to talk about her experience during the last 6 weeks of her graduate study focusing on the highly valued “studio class”, the time-honored location of problem solving, testing, solution development, and execution. Below is a brief transcript of some of the conversations we had this past summer.
VM: From the perspective of an architecture student in the VABE program could you talk about your perception of the purpose of design studio classes and what role they have played in your own academic and professional development?
AG: Design studio classes are creative places where students work on their design projects. Every semester each studio class is assigned a major project, and the architecture students focus on designing a structure/space. Each student approaches the project differently based on their perception of the neighborhood, analysis of precedent studies, and communicating with clients for whom the project is proposed. The studio is where we go through the process of taking the relevant information and creatively turning it into a building. Studio is scheduled 3 days a week for 4-6 hours each session. During this time we develop our designs, consult with our professor, and work with other students on new ideas and techniques. But this process is far more than just sitting in a classroom; the studio is “our home”. Students have an individual desk that is exclusively their own personal space, like your bedroom or your house. It is private, filled with your materials, books, and ideas, and used the entire semester. I think of the studio as a neighborhood; you are close by friends whenever you want to talk or get new ideas, and there are large tables, couches, and other spaces that allow for informal/formal gatherings, like a public square. A studio is like a community.
This makes it really easy for a collegial environment to emerge. Students work together to problem-solve when stuck, and learn new ways to approach their design when struggling. There is always work on the walls to learn from, or give feedback to others. People are frequently building study models and you can watch and learn from them during this activity. It’s a great place to connect with others, and create professional relationships with your colleagues and professors. It is very different from a traditional lecture class, one-on-one time is frequent and encouraged with professors as they mentor you through the design process. This is a space where experimentation occurs freely, trial and error is encouraged, and we learn by watching, sharing, and supporting others in our space.
Studio is the root of all the other classes architecture students take. What we learn in our lectures about structural behavior, environmental technologies, and the history of architecture is directly reflected in the skills we show in our projects. The knowledge we gain can be directly implemented into studio processes. This is a great environment to be in, not only because of the comfortable and experiential nature of studio, but also because it directly mirrors the operations of an architecture firm in the professional realm.
VM: Wow your description of the studio makes it sound like an exciting and energetic environment to be in. One gets the impression that it is a vibrant site allowing students to engage in different sets of activities individually and as a collective. Could you describe how a studio is physically structured and how the layout/ configuration contributes to the student dynamics within the studio?
AG: The furniture in design studios is often designed and selected to be flexible for the students. The entire room is an open concept space, perfect for seeing what others are working on and for having easy access to materials and people in the room. Desks are frequently moved or adjusted to better fit each student’s needs. Tables are pushed together to form large workspaces or meeting areas, and chairs are constantly moved to allow for group work or individual consultations. Students are free to set up spaces to work together in groups, or to take individual time to focus on their own design.
The open concept also brings in an element of accountability. While class is occurring, it is hard to hide from your professor and not do work. You can see everyone else, and they can see you as well. It is each student’s duty to ensure they are working hard and being productive during set studio times. Again, this brings a sense of responsibility into the workplace once students become professionals, as they become familiar with working surrounded by others and always being productive at their workstation. Ultimately, this teaches skills that go way beyond the specific academic design studio and lasts a very long time in one’s professional life.
VM: The ability to reconfigure the design studio and adapt it to the immediate needs of the students and instructor makes it sound like a place that can accommodate a multitude of demands and situations. I’m particularly interested in the kinds of exchanges that take place while you’re in this open concept studio and the types of things you might discover and learn from your academic colleagues while there?
AG: In studio, seeing other people’s work is often an inspiration. When designing, it is easy to get stuck in the rut of what you know, what you want to do, and this can stop new ideas from developing that could help solve a particularly difficult problem. Being able to work with others allows us to see new points of view regarding the task at hand, which translates into new ideas about the site the structure is located on or the perspective of the community and the people who work/function there. Students freely give feedback to one another, which often spurs on a better approach to design and the generation of new ideas. Varying methods or strategies of design can be assimilated into your thought process, thereby teaching you new skills and expanding your repertoire. As a student, I often learned new graphic techniques from others. I struggled with making maps, but by looking at how other students used color, line weight, icons, and text on their maps, I was able to improve my own graphic skills. This is just one example, but it could also be used for rendering techniques, site analysis, structural systems and diagrams, and environmental strategies. The nature of studio is that there is always someone else there to offer assistance or guidance in learning as an architectural designer.
VM: There is a long-standing belief in the importance of the serendipitous nature of the studio and its significance in facilitating discussion, self-reflection, and creativity. From your personal experience can you comment on whether this confidence in the power of the “happen chance” is actually appropriate and what its benefits are?
AG: As we spoke about earlier, there are always people around in studio with whom one can discuss issues and offer assistance, and this is a great benefit. The serendipity of coming across the right person or the right drawing/model at exactly the right time can breathe fresh air into your project and can lead to a creative breakthrough. In architecture school, fellow students generally don’t feel like competitive rivals, they’re more like collaborators and allies. Since no two design projects are ever the same, it’s easy to share techniques and ideas because no two people use them in exactly the same way. The architecture studio is set up to encourage exchange. Not only are students encouraged to showcase their work in the classroom, but projects are presented in various phases throughout the entire semester. During these presentations, students from all academic levels/ years are encouraged to attend. These presentations occur in hallways, computer labs, exhibition spaces, or even outside the building itself. The purpose is that we want other students to walk by our work, be intrigued, listen, watch, question and learn from one another. Wandering the halls, going to grab a coffee, or eating your lunch outside, is all a part of architectural learning in studio. This means the dialogue between students is not forced or prescribed, it is fluid and spontaneous. You never know who you will see and what they will be working on, and it is exciting to hear other people’s approaches to problems and share your thoughts on it.
This spontaneity is not only between students. Architecture professors are also seen roaming the halls or attending critiques with other students in different years. This brings the architecture community together like an extended family. Students are familiar with their professors in all years and are always encouraged to talk to them to get feedback or additional help. Like students, different professors have different research interests and are always willing to share their expertise should you ask. Since we spend so much time discussing ideas with them inside the classroom, students feel comfortable discussing ideas outside of the classroom and asking for assistance. There is always someone close by who is willing to work with you presently and then in the future within the professional realm.
VM: As you’ve indicated, there has been a tradition with studio classes that they occur in large blocks of time, several times a week, with students working on their projects within the physical studio, even when classes are not in session. Could you describe how your days were shaped during the pandemic not having a physical studio to be in?
AG: Shifting to an online studio was a major challenge for me. Being a Canadian student going to school in the United States, there was considerable uncertainty about the border remaining open or possibly closing in early March, which was also when our master’s studio began preparing for the final presentations of our thesis. Once the school officially closed and students were sent home, we had to make many adjustments. We were set to have a large presentation the week that school closed, but since we could no longer present in person, we had to change our way of presenting to an entirely online format. This was just the first of many adjustments that occurred. Face-to-face studio encounters became online Zoom meetings. Formats for presentations became PDF documents designed for screen sharing. But what had the most impact on students, is we lost our ability to connect and be together. While we all knew this was for our safety, there was an underlying sadness to the situation. We were so used to being together while we worked that I felt quite lonely working at home without my peers.
Personally, I find seeing the work of my colleagues as a motivation and inspiration to push myself to learn more and work harder. For me, this element was lost with the online translation. No longer could I walk up to a friend’s desk and see what they were working on, or accidentally encounter someone building something in the hallway. That happen-chance meeting no longer occurred. It also became more challenging to hold myself accountable to ensure that I was working during designated times. I had to create a makeshift studio in my bedroom, but I no longer had access to the same tools and workspaces that I had in studio. I would find myself staying up all night working, thinking I would be able to sleep more because I no longer had to commute to school, but then would have the overwhelming sensation of fatigue and fall asleep during online meetings. Studio changed immensely! Gone were the days of us sitting together at the table and talking about our challenges from the past week and discussing our progress. We could no longer have tutorials as a group in areas we were struggling with. We had lost the “magic” of the studio. The enchanting environment, that somehow always motivated and demanded from us to strive to be our best, was totally gone!
I found this separation from the studio space especially difficult, as part of my thesis research was exploring learning environments and spaces. Before the pandemic, my studio professor/ thesis advisor and I had many stimulating and lively discussions, which I always looked forward to. We both had a passion for art and we decided that to express my own learning, I would explore the artistic representations of my research. Typically, I would have chosen to use infographics and digitally made research graphs but the dynamic studio exchanges with my professor encouraged me to explore other means of expression. After the pandemic hit, we could no longer sketch together, experiment with new media of art, comfortably explore new styles, and have impromptu communications about my interpretations and visions of space. Oh I could still send him my sketches, and he would promptly send me his thoughtful feedback, but the spontaneity of the moment was lost. It was quite a challenge for me, as well as very isolating and distancing.
VM: Your narrative certainly highlights the significance of both student-to-student and instructor-to-student learning during studio. Now that you’ve had an entire summer to think about your recent experience, what advice would you give your student colleagues as they prepare for the fall semester? What kinds of activities should they engage in? What strategies might they use to help facilitate that sense of constructive studio for themselves? What should they be sure to avoid?
AG: For students I’d give a few different pieces of advice. At the beginning of the semester, it’s always best to set a schedule for yourself, the same way you would while attending in-person classes. I often blocked out my days in time chunks to note when I would be in classes, meetings, or commuting to campus, and would then fill in the remaining times with homework or assignments I needed to be working on. I continued that strategy even when classes went online. I found that although I reduced the time spent commuting, I still needed to visually lay out what needed attending to and when. A calendar either on your wall or your computer should always be readily available and filled with due dates. This allows you to see what deadlines are approaching, and easily make adjustments should deadlines shift or be adjusted.
I also found doing video meetings with my colleagues outside of class time very helpful. While this may sound redundant, it was positive in many ways. It definitely added a more casual time to working in studio. Typically when you need a break, you roam through studio and chitchat, but online this is more challenging. By having less formal video chats with friends and colleagues, you can communicate with people without feeling it must be about school. It can be about how you’re handling the work, what struggles you’re facing, or even a funny story you heard that day. These types of discussions bring back the spontaneous and impromptu nature of learning, making connections in studio that may possibly be lost online. I found this relieved a lot of my stress, and helped me a great deal refocus after taking a break.
In terms of physical space, I recommend finding a space, no matter what type of space, where you feel comfortable to sit down to work and focus. For me this space was my bedroom, but I had to be careful. When working in my bedroom I felt the most comfortable sitting on my bed. But this also meant I was temped to lie down, take a nap, and relax. This is definitely what you want to avoid. You need to have a designated workspace, and a “separate” designated relaxing space. This does not mean you need separate rooms, but perhaps you sit at your desk to work, and when you take breaks you lay in bed. This was what worked for me, and may be different for others. For relaxing, some of my friends would work at the kitchen table where they were able to have casual social interactions with their roommates as they’d enter or exit their domicile. For others, their public workspace was the living room couch where they could converse with family but also complete work. There needs to be some trial and error on this, but I definitely recommend a private workspace where you’re comfortable and have room to be creative with peace and quiet to focus.
Lastly, avoid putting yourself in environments that are too comfortable, for instance your bed. Typically my bed is where I would come home to each night after a long day on campus and in studio. Here I would complete an additional few hours of assignments or studio work before closing my laptop, putting it on my nightstand, and heading to sleep. Once I shifted to online learning, I found this habit problematic. I’d stay up all night working, only to fall asleep in the middle of class. I was so conditioned to stay up at night working there, that I stopped getting enough sleep, and then later in class would succumb to its soft and warm blankets and fall asleep. So it’s best to have separate work and relaxation areas. Oh there is nothing wrong with casually browsing precedents or making a to-do list from your bed, but save the tough work to a nearby workstation at home.
VM: Your reflections certainly demonstrate the importance of establishing suitable work areas that are individualized and manage to complement the online environment. Your cautionary tails about the challenges faced in making the transition are also quite helpful. Now shifting the focus a bit, what would you recommend to studio instructors as they plan for and create their virtual studios? What could help them mimic that collaborative studio environment you value so much?
AG: I found it quite challenging to replicate the studio environment when online. Not only was it hard for multiple people to have multiple discussions at once in a group Zoom meeting, but we felt further apart than we once were in studio. To combat this there are a few tools professors could possibly use. These include the blog post, the use of tutorials, and encouraging mentorship programs.
Blog posts are like virtual pin-up boards. Students can respond to questions posed by a professor or another student in an informal manner, and they can use text, graphics, or videos in their response. Links/ URLs are often encouraged to show others where they obtained their information. This has the potential to be a great tool because it’s a common area where students can put their work, their ideas, or their questions, and immediately receive feedback. Each student in our master’s studio, at least once a week, asked for another student’s opinion and sought their help. The blog is an easy place to do that. A professor can also monitor it so weekly submissions could be required in order to spark conversation between students. When attending classes in person, this was not a frequently used tool because we shared images on print outs in studio or asked questions whenever we wanted. Now that this is no longer possible, the blog area offers a similar environment where questions can be discussed freely without a right or wrong answer, while sharing valuable information that can be used by many.
Tutorials are absolutely key in studio environments. Whether it is a link to a YouTube video on how to learn shading techniques in Photoshop, a self-filmed clip of how to paint with watercolours, or a quick sketching session during a Teams/Zoom/Skype meeting, tutorials will be a much-needed tool of the professor. Some of the most engaging studio sessions during my thesis year were when my advisor brought out his watercolours, grabbed some paper, and started painting freely. He taught us how to evoke emotion in painting, how to control or let ourselves paint loosely, and how to capture the spirit of the drawing in watercolour. While all studios may not have had this focus, there were still many studio days we learned tricks in different software programs or had help learning search terms to use to find precedents. These tutorials helped us use time more effectively and be better designers. Many tools are available to help professors with this process, such as link sharing via email or BlackBoard group discussion boards, or screen sharing while in group-meetings. To keep the spirit of studio alive, professors need to be prepared with visual materials like canned videos or live streaming that can simulate/ represent the tactile nature of the work we do and teach students new tools/ skills to represent their work.
I also think professors should consider using mentors in their classes and initiate mentorship programs. More often than not, this is automatically built into classes and we simply don’t notice. Having a graduate or teaching assistant in the class is already an example of that. For studio having a recent graduate or current student come to give a presentation or sit in on a critique for new students can be quite helpful. This gives students the opportunity to be introduced to and possibly work with someone in the architectural program, who was recently in a similar position, and who they can comfortably relate to and make connections. This can help facilitate students asking questions, coming freely to their mentors with concerns, and being able to discuss areas that are challenging. Online learning is a new transition for all of us, and no one has all the right answers. But I found it especially challenging to connect with professors while only seeing them on the screen, whereas having friends who I could touch base with who were also struggling online made me feel a bit saner through the transition. If incoming students could hear how other students responded to these assignments online and the challenges associated with it, I believe they would feel more comfortable asking for help, which is a huge part of our studio culture.
VM: If the shift to online learning were to become a permanent part of architectural education what do you consider to be the critical elements that must be integrated into this new form of instruction? Would you find a hybrid combination of on-campus and online instruction to be satisfactory?
AG: I believe that connection between students and their professors is the most critical element that must be integrated into the emerging forms of instruction. Studio allows collegial relationships to be formed that encourage creativity, curiosity, and the betterment of each individual. If we lose these things, we’ve lost the spirit of the studio, and I believe that would lead to the loss of passion in most architects. It may take some time to figure out exactly how to create activities or online spaces that foster this communication and connection, but I believe it is critical.
If there is no choice to return full time to the classroom due to health and safety concerns, I personally believe a hybrid approach would be the best way to continue the studio spirit. Time spent in studio, even if it were just once a week, could be spent asking questions, practicing skills, making things, experimenting, and even debating with others. While studio days spent alone may feel like individual work time, group days in class could be for feedback and sharing ideas. Although I believe it is most ideal when you are seeing the same people each day in studio and are surrounded by physical space that is filled with drawings and ideas, one day a week may be enough to still trigger questions and creativity. As I’ve indicated, shifting online was a challenge for me, but I got through it because I had been working with my advisor, my professors, and my fellow students for over a year. They knew me, and I knew them. I felt comfortable asking questions, admitting I had gotten stuck, that I needed help, and sharing my work. Starting a semester with a new group of people who I’ve never or rarely seen in person would be a huge challenge, which I’d feel I had to undertake on my own. I would be scared to say that I was having trouble; I would feel uncomfortable reaching out. If we were to have hybrid classes, the in-person time could help make students feel more comfortable around one another and around their professors. Not only does this make time at architecture school more memorable and joyous, but it also prepares students for working in a physical, open space with others in an architectural firm in the future. So during the current pandemic, my preference would be a hybrid model that allows for a combination of teaching and learning approaches.
VM: Amanda thanks so much for taking the time to reflect on your studio experiences before and during the pandemic. I appreciate your openness and candor in sharing your thoughts. It has given us an opportunity to review, as well as celebrate, what we’ve traditionally practiced in the design studio and what may be possible in the future. I wish you the very best as you begin your architectural internship at J.P. Thomson Architects this Fall in preparation for licensure as an architect.