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Is studio culture dead?

Student Shows 2014: Essay by Murray Fraser

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The short answer to this question is no - design studio culture in British architectural schools is alive and kicking, but it is changing.

Studio teaching is by no means exclusively carried out on what is usually called the design unit system, yet that remains the most vibrant model available to us today. The term refers to the flawed, but undoubtedly creative, system whereby two (or more) tutors are appointed to teach their own sub-group of around 15 to 25 students.

I personally went through the Bartlett at a point when it ran a whole-year system for around 40 students in each cohort, and I have to say that it was dreadfully boring.

Now that architectural schools are commonly accepting 100 students per year - sometimes even more - the situation has become more extreme. How could one ever have 100 different and original responses to a particular design challenge?

There was an earlier version of unit-based studio teaching pioneered by the École des Beaux-Arts, which evolved into the atelier system that Le Corbusier so detested in the early 20th century. But the modern version of the unit system is more properly attributed to that inspired ringmaster, Alvin Boyarsky as head of the Architectural Association (AA) from 1971 to 1990.

Boyarsky faced two key problems. The first was how to isolate and control the ‘big beasts’ who were teaching in the school during his time, which included, inter alia, figures like Elia Zenghelis, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid and Bernard Tschumi. Boyarsky’s second concern was how to deal with the fall-out from the AA losing its state grants for students in the early-1980s as part of Thatcherite cuts.

In essence - as Katerina Ruedi Ray was the first to point out - what he did was to map the unit system onto a neo-liberal, free-market economic model that encouraged tutors who were on precarious and poorly paid short-term contracts to fight among each other like proverbial ferrets in a sack.

In this regard, the fulsome introduction of the design unit system at the AA by the 1980s was part of the more general ideological change in British architecture from the ideal of architectural schools as the trainers of standardised servants who could fuel the post-war Welfare State, to a situation of differentiated market choice wherein students were encouraged to display a more distinctive, individual take on design.

However, it would be wrong to reduce the issue simply to economic forces; given that studio culture has changed so notably over the decades since then.

During the 1990s, after spreading from the AA to other schools in London and its environs, the dominant tendency was to mimic the conceptual art being produced by the Young British Artists at the time. Design units produced lots of fun stuff, but generally it was shallow.

Now in the best schools there is a depth and strength and variety in design units, which is quite remarkable, and so much superior to what was on offer to me all those years ago. There is now a real maturity to the unit system as operated in London schools like the Bartlett, AA, the University of Westminster and London Metropolitan University, or outside the capital at schools like Oxford Brookes University or the University of Nottingham. Students are being offered an incredible choice. The vibrancy of the end-of-year shows in these schools is something to behold.

Cynics might claim that the model is outmoded and that digital design is dispelling the need for collective studio teaching, but they are as wrong as those who once said that computers meant the end of cities. Just as increasing digital communication is bringing more and more of us to live in cities as part of our desire to be near other people, so too the demand for studio culture holds strong.

Innovation in digital fabrication, for example, requires that we keep students together so that they can enjoy the fruits of well-appointed workshops. There might, of course, be weak architectural courses around, but that is because of their general lack of ambition, and nothing to do with studio teaching per se.

Nor is studio teaching too expensive, as the myth would have it. Architecture courses are now among the best recruiters for any subject in British universities, and are attracting increasingly qualified and talented students. As student fees rise, as they surely will do, the ability to recruit students onto courses is going to become ever more the economic driver for universities.
So the question is not whether studio teaching might be too expensive, but rather why so many universities are now opening up architectural courses?

The truth is that these architectural courses are highly profitable for universities, and that studio teaching is their premier selling point. Indeed, in pedagogic terms, the design studio culture of project-based learning carried out in groups who help to teach each other is more and more, recognised as the paradigm for all tertiary education.

I have no doubt that studio culture has never been as good as it is today, at least in the top schools. Yet it is also clear to anyone who has gone through and then taught architectural courses that the subject is constantly in a process of change.

What we would have been expected to learn as architects in Britain in the 1930s was nothing like what we were learning in the 1980s, and similarly what students do today is very different from back then. Architectural education will continue to evolve, but we also need to hold on to some continuity.

The future can only ever be built upon the recent past. If I were to suggest a change that we need in the near future, it is for the pattern of learning architecture in Britain to become much more flexible and tailored to the differing needs of students.

Furthermore, universities have to find better ways to blend themselves more effectively with architectural practices, while both players need to keep a sense of their own identity so that each can also continue to do what they are best at.

Murray Fraser is professor of architecture and global culture at the Bartlett School of Architecture

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