A graduate option studio at the University of California, Berkeley meets via Zoom; each person chose a different architecturally significant virtual background to enliven the meeting.
courtesy University of California, Berkeley A graduate option studio at the University of California, Berkeley meets via Zoom; each person chose a different architecturally significant virtual background to enliven the meeting.

Architectural education has always been predicated on spending long hours in the company of one’s professors and fellow students. But in mid-March, when states and cities began to mandate social distancing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the same packed-to-the-gills, open-plan studios that have defined design schools for more than a century suddenly became their biggest liability. The stay-at-home orders that soon followed forced universities to close, confronted residential college students with the new reality that “home” could no longer be on campus (with all of its attendant resources), and required instructors and institutions to pivot their methodologies in order to keep teaching.

It wasn’t easy: “The last month has been the most stressful of my career and I know that I am not alone in that,” Jonathan Massey, dean at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning in Ann Arbor, Mich., said in early April. But, several weeks into the new world order, the clouds started to lift. “Things are resolving themselves in ways that let us plan forward,“ Massey says, though he acknowledges that much remains unknown about the pandemic’s lasting effects.

Emergency Response
When schools shut down in-person instruction, they had to answer the “how” of distance learning—and quickly. “The transition was an abrupt shift from a community engaged in high-level face-to-face teaching and learning to what I think of as ‘emergency remote teaching,’” Massey says. Michigan adapted in just four days, using an infrastructure cobbled together from existing G Suite workflows, the learning management system Canvas, and other online tools. “It was hard on faculty, and even harder on students who, in many cases, had to relocate in parallel,” he says.

At the University of California, Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, acting dean Renee Chow, AIA, says that same adjustment happened in just two days, starting March 9. “We all appreciate it now, but at that time, the messaging was different about how serious this was. California was ahead of it.” What gave Chow’s team a leg up, in part, was a disaster plan that had been developed and deployed to deal with closures due to the poor air quality during the Northern California wildfires in September 2018 as well as the rolling grid shutdowns implemented to prevent more fires in the fall of 2019. Though those situations were more brief and not all professors had to transition to remote instruction, “the campus knew about the infrastructure we could use,” Chow says.

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Ancient Rome | Student work from this semester’s History and Theory of Architecture and Urbanism I course, led by Rubén García Rubio @rubgarrub, #TulaneArch Assistant Professor of Architecture and Urbanism. Collages from students: @tnaftali.tulane @delaney.a.connor @archcollages @chaseisget @averysdesign @lethsaskin . The exercise intends to introduce the collage as an artistic expression in the history of art and architecture, and arrive at the digital collage as a teaching tool in courses of Theory and History of Architecture. The students are asked to use software packages and mobile devices apps in order to give a response to architectural concepts through digital collage. Students are requested to produce their collages, creating a digital composition of simulated spaces that can be obtained by combining fragments of notable buildings or composing together more abstract forms, with the aim of express the concept behind an architect, a style, or a movement. The experiment follows the theory by Walter Benjamin of the “art in the age of mechanical reproduction,” bringing architecture to the same concept of being a simulacrum of the source, and intends to respond with innovative tools to the call for action in architecture teaching. This visual expression combines the vision of the past with a critical thinking of the present and a following creative representation for the future, giving a new approach to the traditional pedagogical base applied in History and Theory of Architecture courses. . #ancientrome #architecture #design #digitalcollage #historyofarchitecture #architecturetheory #art #composition #architectureschool #Tulane #OnlyatTulane

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Disaster preparedness also helped the Tulane University School of Architecture in New Orleans. “We’re probably the best prepared for this because of Katrina,” dean Iñaki Alday says. “We were already doing training sessions on teaching remotely,” in anticipation of hurricane season in August. When COVID-19 hit instead, Tulane immediately asked all professors to revisit their syllabuses and reenvision them for remote teaching. The school halted classes for one week, the maximum amount of time, post-Katrina, that Tulane will allow closure in response to a natural disaster—during which students relocated. Prior to COVID-19, students were making a required transition to desktop computers to ensure maximum computing power. As part of its disaster plan, the university shipped these computers to students’ new addresses, and set up virtual PCs to provide extra computing power for those still using laptops.

Rapid Prototyping
Architects are trained to quickly iterate designs to improve on ideas and systems; that skill served professors well as they worked to morph an ad hoc set of digital tools into a holistic methodology. “A lot of people are talking about using the word ‘online teaching’ to describe what is happening now, but that is planned ahead of time, and organized according to a different set of paces, modalities, and expectations,” Massey says. A complication for architecture schools has been accommodating the many types of courses offered. Holding remote lectures and seminars is relatively straightforward with a videoconferencing service such as Zoom. More site- and task-specific courses require some ingenuity. For design-build and digital fabrication, which rely on special facilities and equipment, a transition to digital, rather than physical, modeling is the only option.

The toughest nut to crack has been the cornerstone of architectural education—the studio. “Everyone said, ‘You can’t do it,’ ” Chow says. “At first everyone was using PowerPoint, but the fact that it required images to appear sequentially was difficult. So we started using other software programs until we found ones that work. It is different, but we are doing it.”

A screenshot of a virtual studio review using the collaborative online whiteboard program Miro for a 3rd year undergraduate course at the University of California, Berkeley.
courtesy UC Berkeley A screenshot of a virtual studio review using the collaborative online whiteboard program Miro for a 3rd year undergraduate course at the University of California, Berkeley.

While technical hurdles can be overcome, what has proven harder is re-creating the camaraderie and connection of studio. This semester, students got to develop a rapport in person early on, but it has been a challenge to keep students engaged as studios have migrated online, Alday says: “Four hours in person is easy, but four hours online is very hard.” To try to combat this, Tulane is exploring a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning, especially for core studios. All students and the professor will meet at the appointment time for a kickoff. Then they break into smaller sections for discussion, or schedule one-on-one desk crits with the professor. Breaking the four-hour block into a combination of big group, small group, and individual interaction in a systematic way helps to keep students focused, Alday and his peers are finding, as do more frequent—even daily—deliverables that help track the progress of their work.

But not all students are the same: “With 650 students in our college, we’re seeing patterns across the board,” Massey says. “For some, it’s a struggle to engage, but other students find the communication more to their liking.”

At Berkeley, Chow’s team is administering a series of online surveys to the undergraduate and graduate students to see how they are weathering the transition. An initial response rate of only 25% of graduate students prompted administrators to reopen the poll, but the first-round results showed that 35% rated the remote learning situation “good to very good” and 50% reported it to be “fair.” The remaining 15% who are finding it difficult are now in direct contact with faculty to try to improve the situation. “Some of the impediments, not surprisingly, are increased anxiety, crowded living situations, and lack of Wi-Fi bandwidth or hardware,” Chow says.

Silver Linings
There are only four programs in the country that offer entirely online degree programs. So the scarcity of prescriptive ideas about online architectural education means that faculty is getting creative with new formats. For example, Tulane professor and cultural geographer Richard Campanella decided that if a stay-at-home order meant he couldn’t take his New Orleans Geography for Architects students into the field, he would bring the field to them. “He drove 150 miles around New Orleans with a camera, recorded narratives, and is editing it into a documentary series,” Alday says. “Seeing it on screen is not the same, but it has other values.”

Likewise, Taubman faculty, staff, and students are innovating ways to foster engagement from afar—and not just in the classroom. With just a week of prep time, the staff orchestrated a virtual career fair in which nearly 100 employers interviewed students for jobs. A cherished spring exhibition of student work is still happening, albeit on a website that was “built by one of our faculty members on the fly,” Massey says. Another faculty member hired a graduate to build an online community space where studios can share information about their own work—replicating, as much as possible, the experience of dropping in on a crit as you walk through the halls.

In addition to the technical innovations, remote education has other potential upsides—subtle ones, perhaps, but capable of allowing educators to improve their skills. “As a teacher working remotely, you have to be explicit in a way that you don’t in person, when you can look at people’s eyes—particularly in design,” Chow says. “I think it will make us, particularly architects, better communicators and teachers.”

The Path Forward
As this academic year draws to a close, schools are all asking similar questions: When can face-to-face instruction resume? And what will the future of architectural education look like? For now, many programs—including those at Berkeley, Michigan, and Tulane—are planning on a combination of face-to-face and remote instruction for the fall 2020 semester, with the acknowledgment that in-person learning will have to change in the mid to long term. “There will be all kinds of new public health measures, and there will be students, faculty, and staff who say, ‘I don’t want to be packed into studio desk by desk the way we used to,’ ” Massey says.

Professors at the University of Michigan created an online venue for an annual exhibition showcasing student work.
Courtesy University of Michigan's A. Alfred Taubman School of Architecture and Urban Planning Professors at the University of Michigan created an online venue for an annual exhibition showcasing student work.

Looming budgetary concerns add another layer of complexity: “When I talk to administrators, the concern is the budget for next year,” says Michael Monti, executive director of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. “Schools don’t know what’s happening. I’ve heard predictions of budget cuts from 10% to 25%,” which could take place over one to three years, he says. A major factor will be whether or not students are allowed to return to campus come fall. “The concern about not having students in person is that you lose the room-and-board fees, which pay for a lot of things,” Monti says. “It can have a cascading effect down the line.”

The situation is particularly worrying as remote education—in addition to introducing potential benefits—is also highlighting extreme inequities in the system: “Students and schools have different resources, and this could disenfranchise a lot of students,” Monti says. “Students of color and native students historically don’t have the same levels of access. And in architecture, which, as a field, struggles with access and diversity, this stands to be a potential setback.”

Massey hopes that combining in-person and remote learning may, in fact, bring needed perspective to a tradition of education that struggles with balancing the extreme positives of deeply interactive learning with the extreme, and exclusionary, negatives of demanding hours and overwork.

“I’ve been thinking about the gravitational slingshot: In a space movie, when your damaged ship is drifting toward a black hole, you use those last few ounces of fuel to set a gravity-assist course so the pull of the black hole, instead of consuming you, puts you on a new trajectory,” he says. “How can we respond to this pandemic by serving students better, rather than making them learn on terms set by previous generations? Maybe they have caregiving responsibilities, or a part-time job that is difficult to schedule around, or a disability. I believe there are accessibility and inclusion gains to be made by selectively adopting online and face-to-face methods in new combinations.”