Blueprints for healthy intellectual hothouses

February 20, 2004

The studio culture that lies at the heart of architectural education is under threat. Pat Leon outlines the struggle to inject more life into the atelier.

The studio, or atelier, is at the heart of architectural education in the UK. Traditionally, it is where people beaver away into the night, a place of creative energy, intense relationships, mutual critique, collaboration and fellowship. It is held as an almost sacred tenet that it helps to bring out the best in student performance, says George Henderson, senior adviser to the Centre for Education in the Built Environment (Cebe).

But studio culture is under siege. Rising student numbers are stretching resources and many students are part time and come into the studio only a day or so a week. Technology makes it possible to design and communicate at a distance, and few schools can provide computers for everyone. University estates officers gaze longingly at studio space.

"Everyone assumes that the studio culture is a good thing. But it is difficult to sustain when so many students have jobs, staff are under time pressure, there is a lack of funding and a lack of 24-hour access. Students need to see that studios are useful," Henderson says. Unfortunately, the Department for Education and Skills thinks architecture is an arts subject and not a technical one that requires more money. "If education is going to be more than drawing boards, it needs more investment," Henderson says.

The American Association of Architecture Students laid into studio culture in a 2002 report. It criticised it for engendering an unhealthy climate of isolation, intense workloads and late nights. Students suffered from "long hours in studio, poor sleeping habits, unhealthy eating patterns and high levels of stress", it said. One student died in a car crash because he fell asleep at the wheel after two nights' working on his final project. The report presented an 18-point programme for change.

In the UK, changes are being mooted. Leonie Milliner, director of education at the Royal Institute of British Architects, says that the health and wellbeing of the design studio are important because the studio is the main vehicle for delivering architectural education. "Lasting change in terms of widening participation and the retention of women and blacks calls for an attitude shift in architectural education - starting with the design studio," she says.

Andy Roberts of Cebe and Martin Pearce of Portsmouth School of Architecture have conducted research for the Higher Education Funding Council for England on how three universities - Cardiff, Portsmouth and Strathclyde - have adopted different studio structures to accommodate rising student numbers. Cardiff follows a traditional model of providing each academic year dedicated studio space, whereas Portsmouth provides ten ateliers that allow first to fifth-years to work together in small groups. Strathclyde operates a hybrid system in which different years have lots of dedicated studio space but conveners organise small-group teaching.

Tony Roberts, senior lecturer at Brighton School of Architecture and Design, says studios do more than hold resources, they also enshrine an ethos. In Brighton's decentralised system, tutors run small "offices" on modelling, research and presentation in which students work for a week.

"When people are physically in the same space, they feed off one another.

You get ad hoc collaboration," he says. "It's different from group work."

Oxford School of Architecture has redesigned floor space and invested in a state-of-the-art digital studio to help change the ethos from "live in" to "drop in".

In Australia, where many students live at home, studio culture is different. Hilaire Graham, senior lecturer at Plymouth School of Architecture, says that when academics from abroad ask why students are not in the studio, they are told that students come to the studio to collaborate, debate and discuss.

David Porter, head of the Mackintosh School of Architecture in the Glasgow School of Arts, believes that in Scotland "there is a greater commitment to hang onto studio space than south of the border, where time-and-motion men are looking in at 8.30 in the morning to see who's there".

Architecture is about teamwork and peer learning, he says. "The studio is a good place for people to get together, but students won't come unless it is interesting. You have to create a culture where they can do things and learn from one another, even if it's via computers. We have a student-run coffee shop at the heart of studios. We have events, exhibitions, workshops, lectures, films. You have to have life in the studio."

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