The Studio Reframed: Architectural Education for the Anthropocene

Author of Revolution? Architecture and the Anthropocene, Susannah Hagan, reflects on the current situation and potential future of architectural education...

Cabaret de l’Enfer, Paris, 1910. Photo: Eugène Atget, Wikimedia Commons.

Architectural education has so many moving parts, it’s next to impossible to discuss it as a collective noun. ‘Collective’ it isn’t. Instead, it is, and has been since the 1980s, a collection of disparate and historically antipathetic disciplines that can be crudely divided into the building sciences, history and theory (usually, though not always, of architecture), and of course, design. Beyond the basic requirements of professional validating bodies, these disciplines keep to their own languages and agendas, unable to agree on whether they are there to train students pragmatically for a profession or educate them to be culturally literate critical thinkers.

Plenty of teachers of architecture see the achingly obvious need to do both, though few if any schools deliver both in equal measure. Instead of the integration of the building sciences, history/theory and design within the studio, they are still taught separately in a majority of schools, allowed only guest appearances in the studio for specific projects. This provides ample opportunity for the three cultures to diverge ever further from each other and continue speaking mainly to themselves, something that frustrates many students and fails to adequately equip them for their century. Cross-disciplinary alliances are usually supported only insofar as the group proposing them leads them. A studio initiative to bring in building science as more than simply the fulfilment of a bureaucratic requirement for technical input is rarely if ever allowed to influence the studio to the point where a permanent transdisciplinary team is formed to teach design, though this happens in practice to deliver it.

The norm is therefore three very different cultures that view each other with mutual incomprehension, if not hostility. Among those teaching history and theory can be found a distaste for measurement, i.e. for performance-linked criteria that are themselves linked to the status quo rather than a critique of it. Similarly, among those teaching building science is an impatience with the intellectual snobbery that privileges ‘pure’ knowledge over applied, critical awareness over performance, though both are equally important. And among those running studios is a resistance to anything from any quarter that threatens the supremacy of the studio in general, and their studios in particular. As schools of architecture are schools of design, this is hardly surprising, but design should be in step with the building sciences and history/theory, not holding them at arm’s length. 

Where there are synergies and fertilisations across the three cultures, it is usually because an individual has managed to manoeuvre themselves into a position where they can operate between two or more of them: a history/theory academic running or helping to run a studio, for example. In this way, they can individually embody a transdisciplinarity to which schools now make obeisance, but rarely allow to affect existing pedagogy and distributions of status and power.

Vélodrome d’hiver, Paris, 1903. Photo: Jules Beau, Gallica Digital Library, public domain.

And yet this is precisely what is needed in today’s studio-based education. As architecture schools all-too-slowly turn themselves round to confront the consequences of our master-slave relationship with the planet and assess themselves in the light of it, it’s clear that studio tutors, however dedicated, however brilliant, cannot encompass all the knowledge now essential to effective thinking and practice. They need other contributions in the studio. And yet the same epistemological separations continue: building sciences assess the state of things and respond in their way; history/theory in theirs. The studio assesses it any way it likes, sometimes more practically, often more speculatively. The ‘If I ruled the world’ approach to design projects is still highly influential, producing end of year shows that are more fine than applied art. Alright in the past, not alright for the foreseeable future. There are fascinating exceptions, but not yet a critical mass to ensure that engineer speaks unto theorist, and designer speaks unto engineer as members of a studio producing new ways of seeing and doing. 

A graduate in architecture who is technically competent but incapable of critical analysis is as ill-equipped today as a graduate who is adept at political critique, say, but has little idea of the how’s and why’s of assessing the environmental impact of their design choices.

The Bauhaus, Dessau, 1928. Wikimedia Commons.

In the present context of the Four Horsemen of the Environmental Apocalypse, ‘metrics’ isn’t a dirty word, ‘theory’ isn’t just for academics, and design can’t solve everything. The studio needs to respond faster and more radically, especially at undergraduate level, where the foundations of design are laid. If knowledge is power, it’s past time for some redistribution of both.

~ Susannah Hagan, 2022


You can order your copy of Susannah Hagan's book HERE