By Alexandra Theoni Mantzoros
The ArchiteXX Brown Bag Lecture, “Design Studio Culture: Futures of Architectural Education,” held at Syracuse University on November 13, 2014, was focused on achieving a healthy work/life balance, particularly in regards to architecture studio culture. Julie Larsen, a partner at Aptum Architecture and Yutaka Sho, partner at the GA Collaborative, both Assistant Professors at the Syracuse School of Architecture, spoke to us about strategies to foster a more successful and resilient culture in our school. The diverse group of students present at the talk, including (and especially) freshmen, were eager to share their personal experience with the all-too familiar phenomenon of unhealthy, often toxic studio environments that are unfortunate hallmarks of architecture education. Taking pride in going consecutive nights without sleep, feeling guilty for stepping foot outside of studio are part and parcel of it. But it was not solely the issue of health that students at the talk were concerned with; many feared their overall education suffered due to the prevalent attitude of “if it’s not studio, it’s not important.”
The obvious academic impact of disregarding other classes in favor of studio aside, it is nearly impossible for the program to be interdisciplinary when students feel they cannot devote their time to any other field of study. However, those students who had been involved with classes outside of the School of Architecture, or even professional architecture electives, all felt that these extraneous classes not only offered some reprieve from the studio-centric lifestyle, but aided their architectural studies and design, providing new outlooks and theories, as well as promoting critical thinking. One student observed that in first-year studio, what the professor says is often accepted as truth. This, he noted, only seems natural for students who are struggling with the transition between high school and college suddenly asked to “design space” without previous knowledge of such an abstract concept. However, this not only creates the sense of an impenetrable hierarchy in the department, which was another topic of discussion, but can also make formulating personal opinions and theories regarding architecture very difficult. This, in combination with the early indoctrination of sacrificing other work in favor of studio, does little to prepare a student when they are asked in a few short years to formulate a thesis. The student has no real idea what their stance in the world of architectural studies is.
The idea of agency was brought up by the faculty present at the talk. Why don’t students take matters into their own hands to address the administration about this deeply rooted issue of unhealthy studio culture? Many students answered that the sense of hierarchy kept them from bringing their concerns to a higher power, as well as uncertainty that their voices would be heard or considered. It became clear that the best way to encourage student intervention in the school system is to continue to have more discussions similar to this one, convening students of all levels along with faculty to better understand the needs at hand and how to address them. Moreover, it would be important to establish networks both within and outside of the School of Architecture, systems of support throughout college and post-graduate life. Besides aiding in the often-difficult journey through an architecture program, having organized university-wide student groups provides an impetus for addressing and resolving issues seen within the school, which may seem like a harrowing task for any single individual.
Another important issue in the discussion of student agency is choice. Several students noted that outside of balloting for Visiting Critic studios, studios at Syracuse have always been assigned to students at random. While many acknowledged that it is ultimately the student’s responsibility to forge their own path for success within a broad curriculum, students in this discussion expressed a desire to have more control in tailoring their education to fit their beliefs or supplement skills they wish to learn. Naturally, curriculum changes are under the jurisdiction of the school administration. However, it is not unreasonable to include students in the forum of discussion when actions taken affect them directly. The ability to to affect change within the administration necessitates a strong organization of students, confident that their voices can and should be considered by the school.
The discussion lead by Larsen and Sho was certainly productive, both allowing students to voice their opinions to their peers and faculty while also serving as a call to action. It is clear that students want to begin to change the meaning of “studio culture” for the better, but the next step is to make it come to fruition. Change at both the individual level might mean electing to take interdisciplinary courses, and at a community level means garnering support and encouraging fellow students in working towards a healthy architectural experience and a better sense of agency within the school. Though the group present was somewhat small, the discussion opened up the possibility
of more students finding a place where their voice is heard, and thus investing themselves in the effort of bettering their education.
Alexandra Theoni Mantzoros is a 5th year student in the Syracuse University School of Architecture, developing her thesis project, and working towards a year of post-grad fellowship with the Restorative Justice Movement in Syracuse.