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The end of the studio?

18 Jul 2005

We are on the eve of a radical change in attitude to the buildings that house architectural education. In spring this year, Liverpool John Moores University ran a competition for an architect for its new £21million design academy. JMU’s new school will house 1,200 people studying a variety of subjects from fine arts, graphics and multimedia, fashion and textiles, architecture, interiors, product design and art history. Rick Mather Architects, who have a strong track record in academic buildings and completed the Lincoln Architecture School in 2003, won the JMU competition and are now in the process of developing a scheme. Meanwhile, Martin Downie, the director of the Liverpool School of Art and Design and the client for this project, is preparing an ERDF funding application.

About two years ago JMU organised a research and consultation initiative called “The Edge” to help it develop a brief for the new building. The forum allows academics and interested parties to research and discuss the ethos, facilities and programme of the new academy. “There has been a huge amount of debate in the school, particularly about the role of the studio,” says Martin Downie. “Of course, everything is driven by economic realities, but there is a recognition that at present studio space is for a large measure of the time dead space,” he adds. “This is partly due to new technology, but it is also partly down to new demographics.”

The new JMU will be about 10,000 sq m in total and 2,000 sq m will be devoted to public uses. Of the remaining 8,000 sq m for academic use half will be studio space, and each discipline will have a designated area of studio. However, students will no longer have a generic right to a space. Studio space will be available to match changes in the programme and disciplines will work together to decide who gets space and when, negotiating resources on a year-by-year basis. “Where you do have studio space it needs to be more dynamic, wireless and flexible,” says Downie.

Downie is also keen to reposition the college in relation to local creative businesses and the community. “The college is used by students for 24 weeks of a year, but the building is there for 52 weeks in a year. So the questions is, how do you make it accessible to other creatives? The college should have resources that are usable for business, gallery space that is bookable, meeting spaces.” Downie plans a scheme in which businesses will be allowed to buy club-style membership to use the resources of the college and he wants to work closely with galleries, like Open Eye and Tate, to get them to use the college’s new gallery space.

The transformation of JMU’s school of art and design into a design academy is the most concrete expression of a process that is taking place across schools of architecture and design in the UK. RIBA and ARB may be talking about changes to the structure and character of education, but it is the political might of the universities’ estate management teams that may be driving change. DEGW is leading some of the debates around the future of learning environments in the same way that it leads discussions about the workplace in the 90s. “The trend is to have studio days rather than studio space. Cost is a big issue and health and safety involving issues, relating to technical staff supervising resources,” explains Antonia Cairns, an interior designer at DEGW, in Glasgow. There is a new language developing to describe the studio of the future. The new studios are ‘open’ and ‘flexible’ but provide equipment and technology, then there are ‘programme attractors’ and the spaces are ‘colonised’ for the delivery of certain programmes. In this more fluid environment ‘social spaces’ and department branding become more significant.

DEGW is currently working with Ravensbourne College of Art and the University of Ulster, in Belfast, developing a new kind of studio space that provides space for students to work collaboratively without giving them each a drawing board. Briefing will begin shortly for the architectural studios. The principles have been agreed, basically that there will be a kit of parts for each discipline. The studios will have local home bases, where students can keep their materials, and are given space to display their work, using sliding panels. “As the briefing process has developed, different discipline have started to see the possibilities of working across their departments. The idea is that the end result is open and collective and resources are centrally owned,” says Cairns.

In Scotland, the Glasgow School of Art is about to embark on a major new building programme which will involve knocking down every building except the Mackintosh building and replacing an entire area of the city with purpose-built facilities. David Porter, the head of the architecture school, is committed to maintaining a space in the studio for every student; whether his aspiration is realised as the project progresses remains to be seen. “I am in favour of flexibility but not the flexibility being proposed in other schools,” he says. “I tend to think we should go on the offensive rather than saying don’t take our space away. Learning is about being in space not just accommodation,” he says.

Chris Platt, a course director at the University of Strathclyde and chair of the department’s building committee, is also keen to defend the studio. “A good school of architecture has at its core a studio culture, i.e. a place that students can identify with personally, where they can work individually or in groups, meet their tutors and most importantly, learn from each other,” says Platt. “It is this last activity which is the most important and we see a direct correlation between those who do well and those who hang around the studio with their friends.

“Interestingly, in a recent tour of our building, our principal, a chemist by profession, described his student experience of the chemistry labs in exactly the same way, i.e. the social and creative centre of gravity for the student. He, and we, see the quality of the studios as being linked to the retention figures we have,” adds Platt. However, Platt concedes that the university’s architecture building was designed for half the number of students that it now accommodates, so not every student gets an individual workspace. “The school is changing the way that the studio is being used, making it flexible enough to accommodate laptops, small and large group working and seminars and chill out spaces. This means a different kind of furniture arrangement, daylight provision, wireless provision and easy access to printers, library and model making,” he says.

At a Centre for Education in the Built Environment (CEBE) conference dedicated to this subject, held in Edinburgh last December, delegates agreed that the studio is a vital part of education. The question is: What is it about the studio that is worth retaining?
While recent graduates are appalled at the idea of diminutive studios, and some academics have pledge to try and hold the line against the facilities managers, many academics are keen to see the old studio set-up undermined. The reality is that pressures to get work to fund study and changing demographics mean that many students don’t have time to hang out in the studio all day, and they tend to treat the studio like a drop in centre rather than a home-from-home.

There appears to be a growing consensus among the political and emotionally correct sections of architectural academia that the demise of the studio, or at least a shake up of studio culture, could be a positive reform. The most extreme expression of this idea comes from Jeremy Till, at the University of Sheffield. Till gave a presentation to a conference in Edinburgh, in 2004, in which he kicked off his talk with quotes from Gunther Domenig, the Graz-based architect and teacher, who said: “The architect must have the tools of obstinacy and resistance. I have taught at university for 20 years and there are to my knowledge at least six students who have committed suicide because of the lack of these traits…In comparison only one single tutor committed suicide and that was too little.”

Till described the studio as a ‘tribal longhouse’ and showed montages in which some of the masters of 20th century modernism were putting on a puppet show in which the students were the puppets. He described the architecture school as a collection of ‘gymnasts in a prison yard’.
Antonia Cairns is also concerned about the values inculcated in aspiring architects through the studio. “There are problems with the myths that studio culture perpetuates. They focus attention on the idea of the solitary genius. We want a less introspective, more pluralistic approach in which the architects is less self-referential,” she adds. Cairns believes that stronger programmes of collaborative work across disciplines will improve education. “Through thinking about collaboration and cross-disciplinary activity, and by learning about the community setting, we move closer to the professional world in which the pace of change is fast and you can’t be introspective, you have to work with others.”

Martin Downie expresses similar sentiments in a less political and more practical fashion. In the face of growing economic pressure his arguments seems to make sense. Simon Beeson, at Edinburgh College of Art, is involved in an arts and architecture initiative as part of the diploma with Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop. The project gives them hands-on experience as a user and they develop the brief, it gives them a greater sensitivity to site and materials; it’s like a studio outside of a studio. Beeson’s work supports Martin Downie’s argument that students should look at the community as their studio, but does it create the space for students to learn from each other and develop basic design skills?

The protagonists on all side agree that the studio is important. What they do not agree about is exactly what are the factors that make the studio work. For those keen to defend the old studio arrangement, the capacity to personalise and manipulate space is implicitly linked to the ability of students to work informally with their peers.
The classic analysis of the qualities of the studio come from, the philosopher and educational theorist, Donald Schon. Schon’s definition of the studio is: “The architectural design studio is a virtual world that represents the real world of practice, but is relatively free of its pressures, distractions and risks…[The students] do these things under the guidance of a studio master, who functions less as a teacher than as a coach who demonstrates, advises, questions and criticizes…” (DA Schon, Journal of Architectural Education, 1988). Much of the structure of architectural education is founded on this principle.
David Porter, head of the Mackintosh School of Architecture at Glasgow School of Art, has been collecting material about the studio throughout his teaching career. He argues that there is an important difference between a studio and drawing office, in that a studio is about both making and drawing and reflection. He has collected images of the studios of important architects. Le Corbusier’s was full of objects and books and toward the end of his career he turned the end wall of his studio into a drawing board using chalk and colour. Gehry’s studio, on the other hand, is packed full of models. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe liked to draw on a vertical surface in a place where he had space to stand back and review his work.

“Good students tend to use the studio, people that don’t use the studio often get behind and they can suffer depression, as opposed to people that come into the school and learn from each other,” says Porter. So is the debate just about defensible space? “People are anxious about defensible spaces disappearing,” says Downie. And many colleges admit that the studio is most important for first year students who are finding their feet. “I think students should be developing a sense of what it means to get a job done rather than being concerned with their defensible space,” says Downie. In the new design academy there will be plenty of social space, but it won’t be part of the studio it will be dedicated social space at the core of the building.

The studio provides a hugely stimulating space which has the benefit of being simultaneously public and private. It allows for intense, focused activity but it also allows time for reflection. It provides the space to stand back and review progress on the vertical plane and the space to place your work alongside others so that you can evaluate the strength of your judgements. The formal and the informal crit, jury or review are as much a part of that package as roof lights and balsa wood. It can be a difficult environment to negotiate, but it is a much more useful environment in which to learn to design than the privacy of the bedroom.

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