Thoughts on the Studio Model

In which will be discussed architectural pedagogy and its bizarre relationship to the real world, with the caveat that apparently all architects love talking about themselves, so I can't help it.

Studio.  I wish I could say it's not usually this messy, but that would be lying.
I can't speak to the long and surely interesting history of the studio model, which I expect is a holdover from the days of medieval mason's guilds, but I can speak to its practical effects on my life.  And having survived almost two three years of it [this post has been a long time in the making], I'm ready to make a few remarks.  (For those without any experience in this mode of instruction, this pdf gives an excellent outline of the recent history & current structure of the typical architectural design studio.  Ignore the weird characters - I think something went wrong with the pdf generation.)  Since I spent at least one semester in an "experimental" studio setting, and many others in more traditional studios, I am especially interested in this topic, so bear with me as we think about The Studio and about architectural education more generally.

It's a relatively common platitude that architecture students' enjoyment of studio is inversely proportional to their enjoyment of actual architectural practice.  In other words, those who enjoy studio the most, dislike "real" practice the most, while those who suffer in school can still enjoy practice significantly.  I think it's natural to wonder why this would be the case - isn't professional school preparing you for practice, and if so, isn't there something wrong with a school that gives you the opposite impression of what practice is really like?  I'm in the process now of finding out to what extent this stereotype is true, but let's consider what studio is like versus (my limited experience of) practice.

Each student in studio - and here the emphasis is on each - is expected to produce her own creative, unique solution to the semester's design problem.  She is welcome to speak to her peers, bounce ideas off them, and make changes and refinements to her approach, but the more her solution diverges from her peers', the better; she is more likely to get individualized feedback that way, and more praise.  In architectural practice, however, we work in teams.  The Howard Roark model of architecture is a myth, and a dangerous one at that, in my opinion.  Even the architect of single-family homes, who needs little help from engineers, city planners/officials, contractors (dubiously possible), or others, surely still needs a client, who acts, effectively, as a partner in the design.  Even Roark needed clients, and couldn't simply build on his own for his own ends.  That's part of what makes architecture interesting, I think - the confluence of resources (money, materials), design goals, and problem-solving.  But in the architecture studio, we have only our critics and ourselves, and the critics are not good stand-ins for clients.  Yes, critics may give us constraints and sometimes assume the role of a client, but the critic is first and foremost an architect, with his/her own design agenda and with the mandate to teach us what he/she knows.  Our critic is still our "master" in the master/apprentice model of teaching that suffuses the architectural studio, not our partner or client or consultant.

There are some architecture studios, at Columbia and elsewhere, that have real clients for the design problems.  Often these are design-build studios, where the goal is to provide a finished building within a school-year timeframe.  But even this is hardly realistic training for the majority of us; how many of us will work on single-family homes (as these projects nearly always are)?  And how often will our "real" projects have artificial limits placed on them like the length of the summer vacation and our ability, as untrained students, to build what we design?  The critics of these studios have to account for our limited building (as well as designing) abilities when they guide the projects.  But in the "real world," the constraints we will face are, hopefully, somewhat different.  Yes, we will always have to take into account the type of labor available, its training, etc, but our options won't be quite so limited!

In short, the individual starving student/artist model that is perpetuated in studio hardly reflects the realities of architectural practice.  Even sole practitioners don't really do all their work alone - there's always the building department to deal with!

Other studios try to address this problem by requiring students to work in pairs or groups, or, in the case of the experimental studio I participated in, by working first individually, and then in groups, but all the while exchanging design pieces and ideas on a weekly basis.  While I think this is a step in the right direction, I don't think it's enough; a pair or group of us, meeting with our critic, is still just a bunch of architects who aren't necessarily going to be able to give the right sort of feedback.  But perhaps only by working on a "real" project, with all its stakeholders, can we learn how it's done - and simulating this in studio may be beyond the resources, and patience, of students and critics alike.  Perhaps we could try inviting a wider assortment of professionals to our final juries, to get more accurate feedback, instead of just inviting the most famous architects who happen to work nearby.

Yep, Thom Mayne was at our final review.

Speaking of feedback, the jury method of evaluation is yet another puzzle to me.  Except in the case of firms who constantly enter architectural competitions (I won't say "firms who receive most of their work from competitions," because I don't think such firms exist), rarely will we face a jury of our peers after architecture school.  We will face groups of people who act as juries, certainly, but these juries will be composed of our clients, subcontractors, contractors, vendors, and a host of specialists who know something, but not necessarily a lot, about architecture.  I suspect many architects spend more time explaining to clients what it is that they do, and how they're going to do it, than explaining the precise merits of their design, as they would to a design jury.  Even if our final evaluations, as students, do not depend on the results of the final design review, it's still a harrowing experience that is essentially for naught: we may or may not return to these projects, and the comments we get, if our projects are well-developed, are often about unimportant formal aspects of the project.  (Not to imply that formal aspects themselves are unimportant, just that it's the unimportant things, and often formal things, that usually get targeted in final design reviews.)

This mess brought to you by the letter A, as in "Architecture with a capital A."
 My final critique of architecture school is the culture of continuous work.  I want to be careful to separate this from "studio culture" more generally, because I enjoy the collaborative aspects of working in studio: learning from one another, working as a group on similar problems, etc.  What I find troubling is the expectation, both on the part of (some) critics and on the part of (some) students, that we should be working literally all the time on our projects.  I do not mean "figuratively" here - I mean that students are known to apologize to other students for not being in studio at night, or to make excuses for why they weren't there, because they really believe that they should spend every waking moment working in studio.  Of course, not everyone, or every critic, feels this way, and some students are able to maintain a remarkably decent standard of living while in school.   But I can at least speak for myself in saying that the pressure to produce, the expectation of having "something" polished and ready for every desk crit, three days a week, is sometimes extremely onerous.  I know that some firms actually do work this way, requiring late nights of unpaid overtime for all their staff, but I have vowed never to work for any of them; it would be too painful, and unfair to my family.  I'm not proposing that architecture school should be made less challenging, just that we should step back and take a more realistic view of the urgency of our own work.  No one will die if we get some sleep.  (In fact, bad calculations/decisions from lack of sleep seem much more likely to lead to deaths.)  All that coffee and all those all-nighters can't possibly be good for us.  Can we collectively agree that this is crazy, and actually go home on the weekends or after 6pm some nights?  If we can make a pact to shun unpaid internships, maybe we can also change the way studio works.  If we do it together, then the critics will have to go along with us.  It's not laziness that will motivate us to push for more humane working hours - it's self-preservation.

All that said, let's return to my initial question.   Is studio, at least as it's run in all the architecture schools I'm aware of, not simply different from actual architectural practice, but somehow inversely related?  Maybe not.  My current firm has weekly "crits," where we pin up projects we're working on for office critique.  This process is very similar to the pin-ups or crits we had in school, although less freighted with tension and theory.  We do still work hard and sometimes long hours.  But importantly, we're getting paid for this, and there's an expectation that we must deliver something that the client wants, not just what pleases us.  I think the additional constraints and variables in real practice are really helpful.  So, a mixed bag - some similarities, many differences.  I would, however, like to tell anyone considering architecture school to be aware that architecture studio doesn't give you the whole picture of what the profession is all about.  A further question, perhaps to be explored later, is how to change/improve on the current model - but that will have to wait for another time.  I leave you with an image of the patron saint of studio at Columbia GSAPP, "Head of Statue Wearing Corbu Glasses," as he beneficently surveys the sixth floor.

Serious Statue says, "Architecture is very serious."


In Memoriam: John Barnes

John, we won't forget you.

I will remember not just our housing studio project together, or that first semester where we - you, me, Jenny, and the other non-architecture-students in Yoshiko Sato's studio - struggled to get a grasp on that thing that is architecture school; but I'll also remember the giant bag of chocolate-covered acai gummies you kept in your drawer, your endless series of documentaries to watch on your sticker-festooned laptop, your street art obsession, your fearlessness, and your crazy imagination.

Choosing a partner for the housing studio at Columbia is in many respects like getting married, requiring similar levels of commitment and determination to stick it out.  I should know, because I did both around the same time.  Our housing studio was fall of 2011, right after my wedding.  The housing studio semester can be amazing or terrible depending on one's choice of partner, and while John and I disagreed often and argued at length, I think our partnership was in the end a good one.  With his engineering background far behind him, John was always the more visionary of the two of us, pushing us to do crazy things with steel and concepts and programs.  We modeled our project in Revit while he did watercolors by hand and built our physical models to complement the drawings.  During our site visit to the Taino Towers, he convinced me to go up to the roof, where we got the photo that really made our project, the one I still use in the final image to represent that semester.

John was a night person, to put it mildly, and I would often find him asleep at his desk in the morning, curled up in his hoodie, with pieces of models strewn around him and - hopefully - a freshly-spray-painted final piece for that day's presentation.  Although he had his dark moments, John always put his best forward at reviews, and kept us all entertained with his stories and sketches.  I still remember the review in first semester studio where he sketched us each in turn.  The one of me showed me with a pie in one hand and a finished model in the other, labeled "the week before final review."  He was gently mocking my mania for getting things finished early, in contrast to his own more relaxed approach.  I don't think I ever had time to make pie before a final review after that semester, unfortunately!

John was a great artist, even apart from his architecture work, and experimented with glass blowing and spray paint.  He used left-over material from laser cutting as stencils, and fortunately I took some photos of his work, which he had pinned up around the studio.  The pieces below feature the x-shaped outline of our studio project.  One time I may have used the school laser cutter to make a Star Wars blaster for Halloween (although of course I would strongly discourage any current students from doing so).  John loved the stencil left over from the blaster, so I gave it to him to use in his art, but he never did get around to it...  I wish I could have seen the piece he had in mind.

We all envied John his nearby family, with their Costco membership and access to vehicles, but envied not at all his long commute to Queens.  I hope his family understood his dedication both to his work at school and to them, which led him continually to make the trips back and forth when many of his friends would have happily hosted him at their apartments near school.

The first time I met John was at our first group studio meeting, Day 1 of Columbia, with Yoshiko.  John was the guy who tried to speak to Yoshiko in Japanese and was immediately rebuked.  Poor John!  Everyone liked him from then on, the sheepish guy who was just trying to be friendly with our strict studio professor.  But I think even Yoshiko was secretly pleased with him.  Maybe she just didn't want to seem like she was playing favorites that early.  I can't believe that both of them are now gone.

John, I wish I could have seen the architecture you should have created, the art and ideas and music and poetry that you should have produced.  While we didn't have a lot in common besides our shared studio experience, I feel like I would have understood your work better than many.  I am sad most of all that no one will get to see it.  I think you lived your life with all the spirit and enthusiasm that you could, so I hope you had no regrets.  I wish I could have been there for your memorial service, where I'm sure your legions of friends made it clear how much you meant to all of us.  Crazy as you were, you were my studio partner, you were great, and I am really going to miss you.

All images are of housing studio work by John Kotaro Barnes, GSAPP M. Arch. 2013.  More of John's work is on his brief blog and sister blog, and an action shot of John at one of his reviews is here.  More images of our fall 2011 housing studio project are on my Tumblr here.


The Best of Times

Happy anniversary to the best friend, co-conspirator, and husband I could ask for.  Somehow it seems like it's been a lot longer than two years, and in some sense it has, but these two years have gone faster than I could have imagined.  If these have been any indication, then I have a lot to look forward to in the next two, and in all the years after that.  You're the best.

PS: Maybe this year I'll get around to printing some of our wedding photos?  Maybe.  No promises.


Hello Silicon Valley!

We've had a whirlwind couple of months since my graduation, and have finally settled down now in Mountain View, California, a town as suburban as they come, and a new challenge for me to navigate as a fledgling urbanist.  Three years in New York has changed the way I see urban environments, and so as I figure out how to find the grocery store, get up to speed on my new job, and finish unpacking from our move, I'm also trying to figure out how to grapple with our new environment.  I can't feel smug any longer in my relative lack of carbon footprint.  Our new circumstances mean that we are now car-owners and I have been driving to work every day.  But I think we've been successful in at least a few areas, so far, to reduce the impact of our new less-dense lifestyle.

While we do now own a car, we plan to have only one, in an area where almost everyone drives alone.  We chose our new apartment carefully based on location: Justin can walk to work (15-20 minutes) and my commute is only 3 miles (20 minutes in the car, in rush-hour traffic).  Once we get bikes, we can both commute to work without a car.  Our goal was to minimize commute time for both of us.  Further, since we are only 20 minutes (walking) from downtown, we can walk to the train station, the farmer's market (if we're feeling ambitious), and the other city amenities fairly easily.  We also live in a three-story apartment building, one of the very few buildings with more than two floors, so we live in one of the denser buildings around, although this was completely by accident.  The one bonus of living here over New York is climate: we don't need air conditioning in the summer, and we probably will only rarely need heating in the winter.  A year-round mild climate means less energy spent on heating and cooling, and of course, more cost savings as well.

Our reasons for choosing to live here instead of in San Francisco, where I was very tempted to stay, are complex, but some of the attractions of the suburbs are undeniable.  Our rent is very reasonable compared to what we expected to pay in the city - we have more space for less money, covered parking, a full kitchen with dishwasher, and even a storage space in the parking area.  Cheaper land means cheaper everything else, too, all subsidized by the federal highway system & mortgage practices (but more on this in a later post).  We actually have more space than we really know what to do with.  I'm currently trying to figure out how to make our living room look inhabited without having to buy a lot of furniture!

It seems fitting at this point to review my 2013 New Year's resolutions in light of our new circumstances.  I expect some things to be easier, and some to be harder.
  1. Don't buy things I don't need, especially durable goods.  This has already proven to be a tough one, since any move means getting rid of things and then re-acquiring them upon arrival.  We already had to do one major IKEA shopping trip.  I'll be trying my best not to "fill up" our new apartment with unnecessary stuff just to make it look good.
  2. Start Continue composting.  This will take some figuring out, since Mountain View doesn't have a city-wide compost program, and we don't have a yard in which to compost.  I've noticed that our local Whole Foods has a collection bin for compost at their store, however, so I will see how feasible it is to drop off compost there on a regular basis.
  3. Cook more at home and bring my lunch more.  With our new giant kitchen, this should be easier than before!  I will also try to buy more produce at the farmer's market, but this may be a challenge based on my Sunday morning schedule - to be determined.
  4. Ask for no utensils, napkins, etc when I do get takeout.  This is no longer an issue, since I don't think we'll be getting takeout much anymore.  Mountain View has also banned plastic bags at stores, so I'm now bringing my own bags everywhere I go, with less waste as a result.
  5. Eat less meat and processed foods.  Same same.  (See: An Omnivore's Dilemma and this article)
  6. Remember to be energy & water conscious.  California has more problems with this than New York, so it's probably even more important here.
Perhaps I can add a new resolution, to replace #4 above:  Walk & bike more; drive less.  And maybe further, exercise more!  We managed to get an apartment in a pretty good location, so now the challenge is to resist driving everywhere.  I don't have a bike yet, but once I get one I hope to bike to work at least a few days a week.  I also take encouragement from this blog written by an urban advocate in Los Angeles who gave up her car several years ago and has been getting around on foot, bike, and public transit ever since.  [Warning, there is music on her site that can't be turned off; I usually read her posts on RSS which avoids this problem.]  If she can do it in LA, a city notorious for its car culture, then why not do it here?  Public transit is pretty bad around here, but biking seems very feasible.  I intend to try!

Whovian Hiatus

If you're like me, you've been wondering what to do with yourself since Season 7 of Doctor Who ended in May.  Since we still have practically an eternity to go until the November 23rd 50th anniversary special, I thought I'd help out with a handy list of ways to pass the time until then.

1.  Cry.  I can't believe Matt Smith is leaving.  I will miss his hair.
2.  Find a local Doctor Who fan club, so you can cry together about the fact that November is so far away.  Sooo far....
3.  Cry while re-watching recent Doctor Who episodes.  (The end of Vincent and the Doctor always kills me.  Also every season finale episode, ever.)
4.  Do laundry?  Or something useful?
5.  Watch all the nearly 700 previous episodes of classic Doctor Who.  Or watch them again, depending on your age.  I started from the beginning in June, and have managed to finish seasons 1, 7, and 8, plus a random selection of episodes from other seasons.  I'm currently on season 10, with the Third Doctor.  More on that later.
6.  Stop crying long enough to reflect on Peter Capaldi and what he will bring to the show.
7.  Resume crying.  I miss the Ponds.
8.  Get a different hobby, like guitar, or macrame?
9.  Figure out the best way to watch Doctor Who legally.  I don't have cable (or a TV for that matter), so I don't get BBC America.  I don't have Netflix, or Amazon Prime, or any other internet TV service.  While I'm contemplating signing up for one of these, I'm not sure which one has the most Who for the buck.  Should I just give up and buy the DVD box sets, so I can own copies of Doctor Who forever?  And besides that, how am I going to watch new episodes without a TV?  These are important questions to answer before the next season.  Let me know if you have suggestions.  Note: volunteering your own TV for weekly group DW-watching is an acceptable solution.  Otherwise I might have to go all the way up to SF to watch with the local DW group.

And finally,
10.  Cry over your inability to do anything except wait impatiently for more Doctor Who.  Come on, November...