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Keeping the studio alive as architecture schools reopen

Words:
Eleanor Young

Collaboration, practical work and online learning: what’s waiting for students as architecture schools reopen

  • The level of this year’s student work, completed over lockdown, has been widely praised. Shawn Adams’ final year design project at the RCA was titled ‘Plinths and Tapestry’ and addresses precarious conditions of the electronic waste settlement in Agbogbloshie, Ghana. It was one of a select few projects that got a real live exhibition, at the Betts Project, London.
    The level of this year’s student work, completed over lockdown, has been widely praised. Shawn Adams’ final year design project at the RCA was titled ‘Plinths and Tapestry’ and addresses precarious conditions of the electronic waste settlement in Agbogbloshie, Ghana. It was one of a select few projects that got a real live exhibition, at the Betts Project, London. Credit: Shawn Adams, courtesy of Betts Project
  • The level of this year’s student work, completed over lockdown, has been widely praised. Shawn Adams’ final year design project at the RCA was titled ‘Plinths and Tapestry’ and addresses precarious conditions of the electronic waste settlement in Agbogbloshie, Ghana. It was one of a select few projects that got a real live exhibition, at the Betts Project, London.
    The level of this year’s student work, completed over lockdown, has been widely praised. Shawn Adams’ final year design project at the RCA was titled ‘Plinths and Tapestry’ and addresses precarious conditions of the electronic waste settlement in Agbogbloshie, Ghana. It was one of a select few projects that got a real live exhibition, at the Betts Project, London. Credit: Shawn Adams, courtesy of Betts Project
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At the core of architecture, perhaps more than any other profession, is the bonding of years of education; seeing a beautiful section over someone’s shoulder, borrowing a presentation idea off a studio partner, looking up and just asking ‘how?’, shared moments at the kettle boiling water for pot noodles, waiting for the bandsaw with a mate, scrambling for a last minute lecture seat. We know all of that disappeared in the lockdown. And we know this was distressing, one Part 1 first year asking ‘how am I supposed to learn like this?’ and reducing student satisfaction by 58% according to the National Design Studio Survey by Bath University and sponsored by SCHOSA, which represents heads of schools of architecture. 

Now students are back in school what can they expect? What does it mean for them and the profession? The picture is mixed from school to school, depending on the space, location, and rules and commitments of the universities to which they belong. The buzz word is ‘blended’, a mix of face to face and virtual learning. But across the board any contact time is in smaller groups and time in the campus limited, from 4-8 scheduled hours a week at the schools we spoke to. Then students must leave the building and campus. We spoke to The Bartlett UCL, University of Reading, University of West of England, ­University of East London, University of Bath and Falmouth University about their plans.

‘Design studio really relies on that physical space and accidental interactions,’ says David Gloster, RIBA director of education. He was impressed with the quality of student work post lockdown – as evidenced in the digital shows and in the submissions for this year’s Presidents Medals – and shown here by the work of Shawn Adams of the Royal College of Art. But, Gloster points out, the live relationships were already established and the ambition set. First years coming in, students with different studio leaders, and fourth years turning up at new schools after time in practice, likely working at home or perhaps on furlough, have few existing relationships. 

 

 

UWE Bristol Outdoor learning hub.  To be built by students and staff in October 2020 with project team Aine Moriarty, Andrew Bourne and James Burch.
UWE Bristol Outdoor learning hub. To be built by students and staff in October 2020 with project team Aine Moriarty, Andrew Bourne and James Burch.

Prioritising the design studio

Staff are also worried. Alan Chandler, reader at UEL, looks back to what fired up him and his peers: blue sky thinking about design ideas. Now there is Covid-19 and a whole set of technical demands from climate emergency to fire engineering, with RIBA and ARB criteria under review. ‘People say we are changing everything in the tool box, but we don’t even know the tools,’ he says with a hint of despair. ‘We are negotiating all these in an online medium where nuance is lost.’

Most schools RIBAJ spoke to are prioritising design studio in the time their students can be in the buildings. Studio space, as a levelling place of exchange where access to knowledge, support and resources are evenly shared, is only offered twice a week at many universities. Alex Wright of Bath, co-author of the National Design Studio Survey, says Covid 19 will exacerbate a move away from studio culture, accelerating a 20 year drift.

But for now UEL is lucky to have large spaces so units of 20 can be split into two and work across the studio. Bath architecture school’s fairly new open plan double height studios has avoided screens but will be divided by stickers on the floor, the tables locked rather than endlessly reconfigurable. Room size and ventilation determine occupancy of other rooms. At Reading some studios will be just three students and a member of staff thanks to room sizes. UWE is extending the teaching day to 9pm to give students more chance to be there (first years will get six hours a week with four hours for other years). Head of architecture and the built environment Elena Marco is looking at other spaces, thinking about enlivening the empty shops in Bristol city centre and, more immediately, at a temporary building outside for an airy spill out space. Designed by one of the tutors, the plan is for staff and students to build this simple timber construction in the first month of term. 

The Bartlett, UCL, is looking at taking over office buildings and halls of residence for space on what has always been tight city centre campus. It has also taken the most radical steps around the design studio and decided to teach units remotely. Instead workshops are taking over the building with equipment moving out onto the generous landings of each floor. The concentration will be ‘exploring the physical realm,’ says Bartlett acting director Barbara Campbell-Lange. 

 

UWE Bristol Outdoor learning hub.  To be built by students and staff in October 2020 with project team Aine Moriarty, Andrew Bourne and James Burch.
UWE Bristol Outdoor learning hub. To be built by students and staff in October 2020 with project team Aine Moriarty, Andrew Bourne and James Burch.

Online benefits
Questions about extra bookable hours in university buildings seems to be a matter of convincing institutions. UEL and UWE have dispensation for longer hours in the evenings, in Bath the question of allowing students in seven days a week is still for the future. For some universities extra time is bookable, say for workshop time. As the narrative of opening up starts to be undermined by rising UK infection rates this seems particularly ­vulnerable to being withdrawn. 

Most schools we talked to plan to have fully accessible online teaching – with studios available both online and in person. Other modules will have a mix of live and asynchronous elements, so maybe live questions and answers and pre-recorded lectures. Full online accessibility should get round local lockdowns and students who are unable or unwilling to attend, particularly international students. Moving continent for this amount of live, geographically specific teaching certainly looks less compelling at the moment. 

Some online delivery has already been going on since March through the virtual learning environments such as Blackboard and Moodle. But it hasn’t always been clear. One second year Part 1 surveyed for the National Design Studio Survey admitted: ‘I am in a constant state of confusion’. Schools are now consciously trying to make things far simpler. For the Bartlett that is a hint that two hour lectures might be a bit much. For ­others, ‘lectures’ have become 15 minutes sessions followed by interactive activities, then a task and an online seminar. At Falmouth expectations and support will be spelt out and projects broken into five steps including reflection and round up. ‘We want to be really super clear,’ says head of architecture Tom Ebdon. Binge-watching of lectures will not be encouraged; videos will be released to a conventional timetable. ‘We have to help students, especially first years, understand the pace of learning,’ says Lorraine Farrelly, chair of SCHOSA and head of architecture at Reading.

 

Rule of 6, test for studio beach project at Falmouth School of Architecture.
Rule of 6, test for studio beach project at Falmouth School of Architecture.

Shrinking world

Digital poverty is particularly acute for architecture students who need specialist design software, computing power to run it and decent broadband. To give them a boost some schools offer money towards better computers, £800 from UWE for those who can make the case. Also important is universities buying software as a service so it is available to their students wherever they log on. 

And how about all those amazing field trips that underpin projects? The strategy is either choose places in walking distance, or go global virtually. The same goes for speakers and critics. ‘It has opened up a world,’ says Campbell-Lange. Ebdon in Falmouth – two hours from the nearest sizeable city, Plymouth – feels this even more keenly and has been able to secure involvement from the US as well as other parts of the UK. And as well as less travel, less paper is being generated. Another fit with sustainability and a way to ensure easily fileable records of student work. 

So will we see the same sort of partnerships and practices emerging from these constrained years? Think of Office S&M, Feilden Fowles or Richard Rogers and Norman Foster. Reading’s Farrelly met her husband while studying. Wright from Bath knew his first client from another course at university. Can the hugely limited pandemic university create links like this? Perhaps not, but beyond the super control are halls of residence and houses, parties and bars. They too set the course for future development, even with a second spike manifesting itself •


University of Falmouth
Most of the way down the south west peninsula lies Falmouth. It has around 40 architecture students, each of which will have a cap of eight hours of design teaching and tech workshops (workshop inductions will be niftily virtual to allow more time with the tools). 

Virtual seminars will include up to nine students – as much a factor of how screens split as anything else – and any presentations will be devised for the small screen as mobile phones have proved to be the way many students access them. 

The school wasn’t too badly affected by the A level fiasco, and is up slightly on student numbers. That is because each applicant was interviewed and staff knew their portfolios and level of commitment, so had to rely less on the UCAS point tariff. 

Like most schools, staff here have been dealing with late submissions from students and the transition to pandemic teaching right through the summer and then working to ensure digital content is ready in advance. This year also sees a new masters course – happily always planned to be a mix of intense weeks and remote digital learning while students are in practice. 

Head of architecture Tom Ebdon has been contacting people around the UK and across the Atlantic to bring in contributions from leading practitioners on the rural and semi-rural condition. First years will have an actual studio day and a virtual one. And for project sites? There is a huge amount of opportunity on Falmouth’s doorstep, all chosen to be in walking distance. 

For more on dealing with uncertainty see this film from Future Architects

Into employment

Moving beyond school has also been dramatically impacted by the pandemic. In a survey by the RIBA of 398 students 10% had a job offer at a practice but it was withdrawn, 9% have lost a part-time role and 5% no longer wish to become an architect. 48% are worry about being able to get a job as an architect when they complete their studies.

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