Kennon M. Smith
Ph.D. student
Instructional Systems Technology
Indiana University
   Design Cultures
Design Culture in a School of Architecture

My introduction to studio culture came during my last two years of classes as I studied design at a school of architecture. The first two years of my degree had been filled with general education and a smattering of drafting, drawing, and design classes, but entrance into the Junior/Senior design curriculum was restricted by a competitive, portfolio-based application process. By the time we were formally accepted to the upper-division program, we were expected to have completed all outside coursework, and to be able to devote ourselves entirely to the history, systems, engineering, and design studio classes set forth in the architecture curriculum. With the exception of the design studio, we took all of our upper-division courses together and so we quickly became acquainted with the 45-or-so other students in our graduating class.
  The design studios were set up very differently from all our other coursework in a number of ways. For example, instead of being lumped together in a lecture hall, we were divided each semester into smaller groups of approximately 15 students, and assigned to one of three studios. Also, while most other classes were scheduled to meet approximately three hours a week, the design studio class was allotted about ten hours. Ostensibly, this provided us the physical space and time within which to work on our projects—much to the relief of roommates or family who had suffered through years of watching bedrooms and family rooms fall prey to whatever project we had underway.

The ten in-class hours required by studio was not much of an issue to students, as many spent far more time than that in the studio every week. However, professors of other classes complained bitterly that we spent so much time in studio that we had little time, interest, or energy left over for the mysteries of air conditioning systems or Greek architecture. No amount of coffee could keep some students awake through structural engineering after pulling an all-nighter in the studio. While I am not sure that the inordinate emphasis placed on studio was necessarily in proportion to its real importance, I do know that the studio, more than anything else, shaped my own and many others’ design school experiences. The studio, in which we were given unlimited access to a space where we worked constantly alongside one another, had a far greater impact on the students and culture of the academic program than one might expect. In an effort to explain this impact, I will describe the physical characteristics of these spaces, and then reflect on the significance studio had on the design culture that evolved over the two-year period.

It was easy to spot the architecture building on campus—it looked something akin to a massive warehouse and the lights were often on all through the night. The studios were enormous rooms with stark white walls, red concrete floors, and 20-foot ceilings made up of concrete cells visible through the maze of exposed water pipes, HVAC shafts, and electrical conduits suspended overhead. Inside each studio there were about sixteen drafting tables and cabinets (one per student), and an assortment of shared worktables and tack boards. Studios up and down the hallways were set aside for students in landscape architecture, industrial design, and interior design, as well as architecture.

Once assigned to a studio, it became home-away-from-home for the semester. To these Spartan rooms, students brought their own “living” equipment, including microwaves, refrigerators, sleeping bags—anything to survive the projects that were soon to follow. Boxes of architectural tools and art supplies were hauled in, and desks were quickly customized to suit individual working habits and needs. The sterile studio spaces were remade and the design culture which emerged was shaped by, while it simultaneously shaped, the studio. From that point on, it becomes difficult to separate culture and the actual environment in which we worked, as the two were constantly acting upon each other and being formed by the students living and working in these spaces.

As the semester began, tack boards quickly filled with images of prize-winning designs xeroxed from journals, sketches on trace paper, and lists of architectural standards copied from reference books that none of us could afford to purchase, but all of us had to use. My undergraduate experience was in the “pre-computer” age of design, so everything was on paper. And piles of paper proliferated everywhere, bearing images representing every imaginable stage of design. We would often tack up the most successful of these sketches so as to readily reference them while working. But this practice also had the effect that we were continually surrounded not only by our own work and ideas, but by that of classmates. We constantly saw what was being drawn or studied by ourselves, and by fifteen others working on the same design problem. There was no such thing as private work in the studio.

Not only was the individual’s work process transparent to everyone else in the studio, but so too was the evaluation of finished projects. Final critiques (design juries) were typically held in “the pit,” a room so named both because it was encircled above by a balcony from which visitors would often watch, and because there was a certain sense of being thrown to the lions when one went before the jury. Critiques were attended by classmates, the studio professor, a number of invited jurors, and any other member of the school community who wished to attend. Each student would pin up drawings, display models, and give a short verbal presentation of their solution, after which jury members commented on the project. While other students were technically permitted to offer comments, they rarely did; there seemed to be a kind of unspoken rule that the time should be given to invited jurors. Anyway, we were often either too nervous anticipating our turn, or too physically and emotionally exhausted after weathering our own presentation to focus on the discussion at hand. Juries were always time-consuming, often ego-diminishing, and could stretch far beyond the three or four hours allotted for class.

The shortcomings of the jury system were, to some degree, ameliorated by the studio. Though students did not usually say much during the critiques, they were very familiar with their fellow-students’ work, had often talked about strengths and weaknesses ahead of time, and would frequently discuss among themselves in the following days their responses to juror comments. Furthermore, the extremely open setting of the studio prepared students for the public exhibition and open critique of their work.

The students and designs most respected by fellow classmates were not always those best received by the jury. Whereas invited jury guests seemed often to evaluate solutions primarily against the requirements set forth in the original design-problem statement, students could admire classmates’ work based on a wider range of criteria, including technically flawless technique or radically original interpretation of the assignment. Because students had witnessed and “lived with” the design processes of their classmates, they could recognize successful portions of those processes, even if they did not always result in the strongest final designs. At times, the jury comments were confusing and the criteria motivating jurors’ objections were not clear to the students. In these cases especially, there emerged a support system among the students that recognized and celebrated accomplishments valued among peers.

Despite the camaraderie engendered by the shared ordeal of juries, there was one “sin” tolerated by neither jury members nor fellow classmates. An uninspired design might be forgiven, especially if produced by a respected student in a temporary “slump.” A missed deadline could be understood by classmates, even if it received railing from the professor. But, the overt copying of another’s ideas, whether those ideas originated with a recognized “master” or fellow student, was absolutely unacceptable in the eyes of professors and students alike. Among our instructors, such imitation might have been considered the equivalent of plagiarism, and so constitute academic dishonesty. Among us students, such copying was a tacit admission that one could not generate his or her own ideas—and that, the inability to creatively address a problem, was considered the ultimate admission of failure.

Working together in the studio had both advantages and disadvantages. Classmates were close at hand to answer a question, lend a hand with a particularly difficult section of a model, or loan a piece of equipment in lieu of your own (which was temporary lost beneath the growing mountain of chipboard, matte board, paper, wood, plastic and metal that inevitably accumulated the last weeks of any project). The disadvantages included the din of construction, clouds of sawdust, and the noxious odor of who-knows-what-kind of adhesive or paint hanging in the air. The basement shop closed long before students could stop working and so the studio often had to simultaneously accommodate both fine technical drawing and messy construction. And then there was my friend one desk over playing Ennio Morricone’s main theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly just one too many times. In such an environment, one learned to pick her battles and, hopefully, developed enlarged capacities for tolerance, even as she recognized that she was providing her classmates with opportunities to learn similar patience. Needless to say, my taste in music expanded dramatically as there was increasingly the choice between learning to like the music, or leading a revolt to overthrow the loudest stereo in the place.

The noise and pollution were rather benign inconveniences in comparison to a more troubling disadvantage of the design studio. There could sometimes develop a sense of mean-spirited competition in the high-stakes atmosphere of “creative” design. As mentioned earlier, admission to the program was based on a competitive process, and this sense of rivalry sometimes escalated to a destructive level, occasionally requiring the studio professor to intervene. It was at times as if the competitiveness of the profession (a profession that lives and dies on competitions for international projects) had crept into the studio—as if 16 little firms were all competing for the same commission, seeking the approbation of professors instead of potential clients.

Being in the same room with the same people for so much time made it nearly impossible to not recognize the relative strengths and weaknesses possessed by our colleagues. Such familiarity and openness placed each of us in a relatively vulnerable situation—one in which we could either learn from one another’s strengths, or manipulate each other’s weaknesses. In reality, there was often within the culture a strange balance between admiration and jealousy, support and exploitation. There were, in truth, times that I found myself retreating from the intensity of the studio. However, as I reflect on my years as an architectural design student, I recognize that the studio, more than anything else, shaped my educational experience and continues to influence the way I think about and practice design. I am sometimes surprised to find, as I now work on a design in the quiet and privacy of my own space, that I miss the commotion, energy, and company that defined the studio experience in which I first learned what it meant to engage the design process.

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Last Updated: February 18, 2005