In a posthumous 1990 essay “A Black Box: The Secret Profession of Architecture”, Reyner Banham warned of architecture’s corrosive trend toward insulating itself from discussions outside of the discipline. Decades later, architecture finds itself in an even more dire state of affairs. Despite a transformed global context, the same paternalistic model of studio culture that has existed since the Beaux Arts remains in place. “Studio culture”, as currently practiced, promotes an outdated and parochial understanding of how design knowledge is produced, valuing expertise over synthesis and image over process and practice.
It also affects the health and wellness of students. Over ten years ago, the AIAS (American Institute of Architecture Students) and NAAB (National Architectural Accrediting Board) created a new requirement for accreditation, requiring all schools to address these precise concerns through a written policy on studio and learning culture. However, many schools of architecture across the country still do not educate students about this policy nor seem to follow it.
While there are certainly creative strengths and a generalized camaraderie fostered by traditional studio models, they do not adequately prepare students for navigating the global present. We believe there is an urgent need to reconfigure the institution of studio in order to address the pressing academic and professional issues of our time. We are putting forth what we feel are the guiding principles which must inform a progressive studio culture: agency, balance, flexibility, diversity, interactivity, interdisciplinarity, and sustainability. It is our hope these principles spur debate and much needed action for fundamentally transforming studio culture.
Students are under tremendous social, economic, and cultural pressures in school. Because of this, most do not realize they could have far greater agency in the formation of their education. The default tendency is for students to uncritically accept the premises in a given curriculum, syllabus, or studio problem, thus negating their stake. This acceptance appears to be necessary in order to focus on the task at hand, much like the way a subordinate in a professional office operates. This is in no way meant to be pejorative but rather to highlight that these behaviors are so inculcated that students often do not realize how little they are shaping or participating within them. This begs us to ask what role faculty members can play in helping students to realize their agency and utilize it. The studio contract (see flexibility) is one way to intervene in this relationship, but others are needed in order to foster a culture of action that can translate into an engaged profession.
A recent study on mental health in architecture school paints a bleak picture of the experience of studio culture. The idea that “all-nighters” are a necessary part of any project work schedule is an accepted and often expected practice. While few studio professors believe this is a wise use of time, among students the practice of staying up all night, sometimes multiple nights to meet deadlines, persists. That most architecture school buildings maintain 24-hour accessibility doesn’t help the matter. The NAAB Handbook is quite clear in its support of a balanced life, however the advice is habitually ignored. Architects from Virtruvius to Le Corbusier have claimed to hold the responsibility of teaching society how to live productive, artful lives. But if architects can’t maintain these standards themselves, a great degree of hypocrisy persists. Maintaining a healthy, balanced life is a critical component of 21st century studio culture.
While the architecture studio is still a site for a range of creative transactions, the ways in which students work are often informed by inherited constraining habits. As educators, we teach students to be nimble thinkers and designers, moving between various digital platforms, modeling and mapping software, and honing their public presentation personas. But what does it mean to be flexible when it comes to life-work balance? And more importantly, how do students learn to be flexible?
Overturning ingrained practices can be incredibly difficult, but instituting a negotiated contract is a promising method for catalyzing change. In a studio class led by this article’s co-author, Lori Brown, at Syracuse University last fall, Brown proposed a contract with her second-year undergraduate architecture students. Openly negotiated with all of the students, the basic tenets included banning all-nighters as well as texting and watching videos during studio class time. Additionally, an agreed upon schedule was decided on, enabling students to work and make it to their non-studio courses alert and well-rested.
A 21st century studio culture must take on a more inclusive understanding of knowledge practices if it is to serve a globalized community. The dominant studio model traces its lineage back to Euro-American precedents like the Beaux Arts, the Bauhaus, and, in the US, the Texas Rangers, but these are inadequate even in an American context, where a large portion of architecture students identify themselves as “international”. Likewise, the fact that these early studio models served primarily white male students should make us question the assumptions and power structures embedded within studio culture. Proponents of the disciplinarity of architecture praise the virtues of “the canon”. But why should a student from China, for example, be heavily invested in the work of Andrea Palladio or Peter Eisenman? These are certainly valid and well-supported models, but they should be considered just a few among many. The need for diversity in studio culture goes beyond merely accommodating demographic shifts. In a globalized world, it is no longer possible to think simply in terms of the local. Learning to not only cope, but thrive within diverse cultural and social contexts is fundamental to a renewed studio culture.
As discussed above, the studio is a site of tremendous creative energy. Unfortunately, the ways in which this energy is channeled and the ways it is evaluated is incredibly hierarchical and non-interactive. The “jury” model of reviewing work is a relic from another era. Despite technological breakthroughs in recent decades encouraging unprecedented levels of social interactivity and new forms of representation, the staid jury model has remained the unquestioned centerpiece of architectural education. Creative work in the 21st century calls for ways of learning which encourage participation and dialogue rather than judgment and discipline. This might be phrased as bottom-up versus top-down "expert" form of teaching. Studio instead seems like a job with a “boss” rather than a place to play and experiment with different modes of critique, discussion and learning environments. Transforming this atmosphere is necessary for a reinvigorated studio culture.
What additional areas of education do architecture students need in the 21st century and how are we preparing them for the ever-evolving landscapes of practice? Interdisciplinary educational models are imperative for the future of the profession. If architects are to remain vital to the built environment, we must cross disciplinary boundaries in order to broaden the discipline’s role politically, socially, and materially. In the face of rapid technological change, it’s imperative that architects learn to work collaboratively with a widening expanse of experts in other fields. Retreating into a disciplinary bubble is not an option.
While the need for sustainable built environments is certainly a pressing issue that architects continue to grapple with, less talked about is the idea that the studio culture which produces architects itself is premised on a wholly unsustainable model. Central to this model is the fact that we are teaching students to undervalue their time. Students are aware of the unspoken expectation that you must work however long it takes to finish their work. This directly translates into undervalued professional practice, the norm of unpaid internships, incredibly long hours, and dreadfully low wages in comparison to other technical professions. What role does value play - the value of our time, the value of our work, and the value of our life? We are all complicit in the perpetuation of this unsustainable cycle. As we are in part responsible for this, we must dramatically change it. Architecture schools need to seriously reckon with this system and invent alternative models - or we will continue to involute into a blacker box.
AIAS Studio Culture Task Force, 2002. The Redesign of Studio Culture A Report of the AIAS Studio Culture Task Force, Washington D.C.: American Institute of Architecture Students.
Architecture Lobby, http://architecture-lobby.org/.
Banham, Reyner. 1990. “A Black Box: The Secret Profession of Architecture,” New Statesman & Society, October 12.
Brown, Lori A. 2011. “Introduction,” Feminist Practices: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Women in Architecture. Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited.
Caragonne, Alexander, 1995. The Texas Rangers: Notes from the Architectural Underground. Cambridge MA and London: MIT Press,
Godlewski, Joseph. 2011. “On the Persistence of Juried Architectural Reviews,” Crit 72.
Linder, Mark. 2005. “TRANSdisciplinarity” Hunch #9.
NAAB Handbook 2009
Whelan, Jennifer. "Mental Health in Architecture School: Can the Culture Change?" 21 Apr 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed 05 May 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=498397>