Collaborative design

The future of studio culture

The quality of architectural education depends heavily on its studio culture.  A studio is where students synthesize knowledge gained from support courses as well as the real world.  But the studio culture was forced to evolve rapidly as universities around the world embraced online learning to combat pandemic related shutdowns.   What is the future of studio culture as the pandemic wanes and life returns to normal?     

Studio culture

Architecture as a discipline involves a broad range of technical, artistic, and social skills.  The design studio is where these skills find a venue to grow and prosper.  It is where students research, propose, test, develop, and present ideas that synthesize lessons learned in the classroom and the real world. It is also a place where students explore creative solutions and celebrate the results of innovation and discovery.

 Intensive studio experience at Moscow School of Architecture
Intensive 24/7 studio experience at Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture 1

Transition to remote learning

Many schools of architecture were experimenting with joint studios with other architecture schools to expose students to the global nature of architectural practice.  Collaborative media technologies such as virtual meetings and video conferencing allowed seamless connections with students and critics across thousands of miles.  When the pandemic hit us suddenly, these schools were able to transition quickly to the fully remote learning environment, while other schools had to scramble to find workable solutions. 

Future of studio culture
Traditional studio experience 2

Democratization of the learning environment

The decentralization of architectural education has disrupted the old models by democratizing the learning environment.  Some of the differences between private colleges and public universities have eroded.  Anyone with a decent laptop and an Internet connection can participate in an online class whether it is hosted by a renowned university or a local community college.  At the same time, a professor can teach at various universities remotely without ever leaving his or her practice, making the expertise more accessible to all. 

Fostering studio culture for community engagement

As a laboratory for new ideas, a design studio thrives on intellectual curiosity, multiple points of view, mutual respect, and informality.  However, one of the criticisms of traditional studio based architectural education is that it has very little relevance to the real world.  In addition, despite the creative energy and intensity of the studio culture, architectural schools have very little impact on their immediate community.  The Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) took up this challenge and devoted their 107th annual meeting to focus on one question:  How can schools help students engage with local communities? 3

Outdoor exhibit of student work at the AA
Outdoor exhibit of student work at the AA 4

Leveraging remote studio culture

One way to improve community engagement is by using studio exercises to tackle real world problems related to architecture and urbanism.  In an award-winning essay published during my teaching career, I had suggested that by involving an entire architectural school in a selected community each year, we can not only create a visible impact but also prepare students for the real world better. 5  The remote studio culture will make it easy to adopt different communities each year whether they are near or far, as well as to engage with local experts.

The new normal

Most experts believe that life will never be the same after the pandemic.  The lessons learned during the pandemic such as remote learning and online collaboration can be leveraged to improve the studio culture for the better.  For example, the USC School of Architecture found a way to recreate the collaborative magic of the architecture studio by using a platform called MMMURMUR.  They realized that bringing architecture students together required more than just Zoom meetings.  Such efforts must be recognized and celebrated.

  • Title image by Mwooten86CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. 
  • 1 Intensive 24/7 studio experience at Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.  Photo by Александр СпиридоновCC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. 
  • 2 Traditional studio experience.  Photo by Ronaldccwong, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. 
  • 3 Sarah Rafson in Good Neighbors: How Architecture Schools Are Rethinking Their Relationship to Rust Belt Cities. (2019). Metropolis Magazine.
  • 4 Outdoor exhibit of student work at the AA.  Photo by Ronaldccwong, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. 
  • 5 Architectural Education and the Built Future, A Community at a Time, National Institute for Architectural Education Publication, 1992

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