courtesy Pexels

For all the problems with the inherent racism in architecture that I laid out in my previous blog, I love walking into an architecture studio at a university. Wandering around our open spaces at the architecture school where I teach, Virginia Tech, seeing the messy desks filled with laptops perched on wads of paper with half-built models towering over them while small groups of students and faculty gather around the walls to discuss what, at first glance, are incomprehensible sections gives me a sense of design happening in the here and now, as exploration, experimentation and sometimes just fun.

Beyond the racism in the content, however, is studio culture for everyone? Is it productive, efficient, or even fair? Is it truly available for everybody at the school, and do its methods serve to educate future generations to create a more sustainable, equitable, open, and beautiful human-made environment? These are the questions that we must confront as the relevance of not only making buildings in the traditional manner, but educating future architects to do so, is in question.

The problems start with the basic mechanics of the studio. Take that mess of models and drawings and laptops. The latter must often be a souped-up version of what your average student might use, often with built-in gaming engines, and can cost thousands of dollars. We assume that they will last the length of a student’s career, and we subsidize their purchase when necessary, but these days they often have to be replaced within a few years. This cost comes on top of whether these computers influence the designs themselves in ways we do not yet fully understand. Then there is all the filament for 3D printing and the extensive paper prints that have replaced yellow “bumwad” as the way students can communicate their work. These costs also continue to rise, while the mounds of material going into the dumpster at the end of semester also keeps growing.

Laptops upgraded for design, as well as architecture software programs, can run up the costs of an undergraduate architecture studio by thousands of dollars.
courtesy Pexels Laptops upgraded for design, as well as architecture software programs, can run up the costs of an undergraduate architecture studio by thousands of dollars.

The costs, whether physical or environmental, do not stop there. At our school, we believe in the value of hands-on experience, not only in the studio and the workshop, but also through extensive travel. We encourage our students to travel as much as possible, from short field trips to studios we offer in Chicago and Boston and Switzerland, to longer trips across Europe. All that costs money, as do many other ways in which we urge students to understand their built environment so they may make it better. It also creates a large carbon footprint.

That much we know, and many schools of architecture have developed, with some success, ways to identify financial needs and to make it possible for as many as students as possible to partake in both the studio and travel culture that most believe is central to the formation of a future designer, while also looking at ways of off-setting or minimizing waste.

Then, however, there are the costs we do not quite account for. Students in our National Organization of Minority Architecture Students chapter reminded me last year that, for instance, the cost of being “on charrette” exceeds the bill for materials and printouts. It assumes that the student has a social structure that surrounds them to cushion the cost, both physical and mental, of such intense periods of work. These costs range from the emotional support of friends and family members to help with simple tasks like doing the laundry. Unfortunately, too many students do not have the family or friend network, not to mention the financial wherewithal, for housekeeping and other daily matters that can support them as they concentrate on their work.

These are not trivial issues. Studio culture is based on the assumption that students come from privileged families who have the resources and backgrounds that allow them to take full advantage of the learning resources we offer, while that network supports them in their college and university pursuits. In many schools, the privilege starts with admission, as preference is given to students with good portfolios, which assumes they had access to classes that help them develop those documents and even a knowledge of design and what its possibilities are.

Moreover, there is continued pressure in architecture and elsewhere, to make the college and graduate school experience more “productive,” leading students to become licensed upon graduation and to have the skills—and only the skills—they need to serve as licensed architects. There is an equity issue here: We need to increase the “return on investment” so students can start profiting from their education as soon as possible, especially if they cannot rely on family support or trust funds.

All of this represents an intense case of a larger problem, which is that the very ideal of the American college, with its four years spent in the often bucolic and sheltered environment of campus, while you learn how to become a citizen and figure out the rest of your life in a delicious limbo in time and space, assumes that same privilege and is a delicious waste of time and space. Yes, universities work hard to make that sojourn available to more and more people, but the barriers that remain are formidable.

Studio culture is based on the assumption that students come from privileged families who have the resources and backgrounds which allow let them to take full advantage of the learning resources we offer.

Should we abandon the campus model, the notion of a liberal arts education, with or without a professional focus, or the studio model? We could, moving to certificates and skill-based training. But I think we should instead strengthen what our undergraduate-embedded studio culture offers. If we as a society believe that we need informed citizens who learn how to be part of and help shape their community, which is what our undergraduate programs do so well; if we see our architecture schools as research and development laboratories for the future of the built environment; and if we believe the experimental and integrative notion of design speculation is a good model for how we can develop scenarios in a setting that is the epitome of the campus ideals, while fostering the kind of creative thinking we need in our society; if we want to develop skills that include world building and critical action as well as being part of a service profession; then we should make the studio an even stronger core of the campus experience.

Obviously, I believe all these things. I also believe the studio is a way we can learn collectively, experimentally, and in a public manner that provides the kind of direct and open relation between students and between students and faculty that is exceedingly rare in other parts of the academy.

So how do we make it possible for students to attend architecture school, and do so as part of a general education as undergraduates, or a directed course of research and development aimed at addressing the central issues (sustainability and equity) facing our society?

The simple answer is money, not only in terms of scholarships and tuition reduction or outright elimination (yes, I support free college for all and student-debt forgiveness), but also for ongoing support to allow students to make full use of the hardware, software, and materials they need, while understanding that they need social support during certain times of the semester.

Beyond that, I would argue for making the studio culture even more of the core of an architecture student’s education. If we understand it as an open workshop where diverse forms of knowledge and research come together, are discussed and explored in a small community, and then lead to the exploration of how we can address issues in concrete form, in models (in both senses of that word) for addressing social issues, then let’s make that what the education is all about. Let’s support the studio.

What we need to do, in other words, is make the studio what architecture education is all about. We need to focus our resources on making it available to all. We need to promote its adaptation as a learning model before college and after graduation. We need to see it as a way of developing critical and integrative thinking, applied knowledge, skills, and ways of seeing and knowing, and as a model for community building. We need to worry less about how it will train students to be licensed architects and more about how it will prepare them to build better worlds.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.