working notes as a reaction to a paper

…This is how things are done

Isaac Mathew
10 min readApr 11, 2024
standard ono-on-one studio crit circa 1985, movie still

Ideally, I would have restricted these to comments, but as they would take actual reading and, therefore, expression of the thoughts that result from the activity, this extended note is essential first for discussion and second to repurpose the ideas elsewhere. The paper to address is a summation of an extensive body of work that I have briefly looked into; therefore, this is a position from a point of view. My observations are from the very messy Indian architectural educational system. My views are about what specific ideas mean for me here.

As a discipline, architecture needs to be better defined; therefore, its interpretation and how cultures revolve around its interpretation of successes and failures. Because of the open nature of the discipline, what is considered an achievement can display a diametrically opposite reaction in another context. The points I react to are subject to ideas I am working on and need a reaction from the point of view of concerns in the landscape in this part of the world.

If there is an introduction to local studio culture in the country, it is the 1989 movie, [In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones]. There is no master with an agenda, but a tutor and a worldview are what they try to impose. Architecture academics were never considered authoritative, and those teaching in colleges most of the time couldn’t afford to practice. There is no culture of research, so the only “teaching” exchanged between faculty and students is limited to checking if plans are functional. Architectural education here is a five-stage building drawing evaluation program.

I would argue that the problem of what is wrong with architectural academia (even the movie) is always presented from a student’s perspective. This may not be the way to address the issues with the studio. Strategies such as getting the timetable in order and determining the expectations for the final submission do play vital roles in learning. I have based this on my postgraduate work on institutional design and cultural policy. I believe that individual institutions and links to network cultures they create play significant roles in the success of education imparted and, therefore, the success of a local practice here.

Studies of architectural pedagogy that revolve around studio imagination are restrictive and limited to discussing what architectural education is. Networks, the kind of faculty they attract, and how those relationships develop the larger knowledge culture have yet to be part of any extended research (I have yet to investigate this in detail, such as the work of Albena Yaneva). Even how faculty organise studios and their level of qualification, interest, and mental health that the time impact the work and students generate as a result. What knowledge system facilitates learning and, therefore, crafts professionals for the field?

The other research gap is the faculty and students’ communication ability. A known condition in India is that many do not know English, and the only point they meet is direct drawing on the board. Only if the faculty has the necessary emotional intelligence will they understand that the students are struggling with the material they are supposed to process. Students also need to have the skills and the foresight to be able to reach out to colleagues or faculty to address any discrepancies in their learning. Architecture is also a second option for many who take it up. Many times, both students and educators, if they are not interested in the project at hand, can cause project fallout.

Social media has compounded the problem of defining a regional [knowledge society] that architecture is. This is a problem across interactions: words mean different things in different contexts and need clarification. For example, the master is a term associated with an architect in practice who has contributed a result of their work to extend architecture as a discipline. Words can also be read differently, hence the implications of their usage changes. Attitudes change when titles are bestowed, so instead of a master studio, it is a design studio, and instead of a master reviewer, it is an external studio critic; it is possible that student stress levels too can be reduced.

Architecture’s actual manifestation is subject to the cultures of usage. Comparing cultures of knowledge should be done with caution. American architectural education is certainly not equivalent to British education, and even though the origins of Indian architectural education were British, today, they are entirely different. This is especially true with the Bartlett fiasco, where it can only manifest within the culture there and addressed in the manner it was. Ideas such as mental health are all very still alien to our context here.

Most anxieties often are projected from one context to another. Even if there are no previous instances of a problem, if there is drama elsewhere, traces of the issue will manifest elsewhere if someone gains from the issue in question. It is like if a kid starts crying in a corner, and everyone starts feeling sad and starts crying till the crying reaches a point where no one knows why they started crying in the first place. Local institutional problems can sometimes be made-up issues and can be solved with minor policy changes and not be blown out of proportion.

How Gen Z learns and understands architecture differs from previous generations, as social media did not exist then. The authority of local knowledge culture is disrupted because of it. Social media has killed the master architect and, therefore, the expert. The [social media star architect] is an internet personality rather than the master who developed practices and, therefore, the position “… this is how things are done”.

In India, as there are no masters in the studio, there is no hidden curriculum. Practice-based projects, interdisciplinary studios, and exchange programs are possible only in very few institutions in the country. There is no actual “teaching of design” or design theory, and self-learning is the norm. The institutional system decides success and failure rather than individual studio masters. Architects create many problems themselves and blame everyone else. Regionally, architectural practice and education must be designed to facilitate success; this is the current lacuna.

Between 2012 and 2019, the council exponentially increase the number of architectural colleges from around 150 to 500. The point to note here is that the quality of architectural education is still the same as seen in the movie, but now, the scale of concerns has just exploded. The Instagram account [Leewardists] in their early update narratives for newer audiences. Architectural education is a mass commodity and is less of an elite profession than before. The social status of an architect today is significantly reduced, as is the value of their services. As for the previous generations, it is no longer sustainable as a profession.

Because architectural education is bad, learning from the master in practice is considered the norm. At least it was till the [Indian masters] were around. If you wanted to study architecture, you would, after college, intern with a practice whose ideas you wanted to take forward in the work you did. A curriculum here is not hidden but extended and built on with guidance from the master. Architecture is a handed-down profession. The knowledge base you learn architecture from is built on who helps you understand architecture as practice.

Doshi learns from Corbusier and Kahn, while Fuller influences Correa. After spending time in training, you are meant to step up shop and learn by doing. Lifelong learning is stated as a norm. Sins of academia are forgiven in practice. Access to knowledge sources of what architecture is limited to the pre-social media internet. The master practice is your access to the latest in architectural thought. Even until 2010, there was space to practice and learn; thus, lousy education was not considered a problem.

Competition and quest for power manifest when access to resources is restricted or limited. When we were in college, there was no show of “power” struggle where there was an attempt to prove anything, but that has changed significantly. Social media has made possible many micro-influencers here and, therefore, what it means to be an [academic]. Today, many architects try to distinguish themselves from the students they teach. A boundary between teacher and student is laid out that did not exist before. This is also the first generation of faculty who must participate in formal research to keep their jobs, so many [misaligned studio projects] have found their way in the guise of pedagogical innovation.

As seen from both posts, architectural education happens here without access to authority, but when it presents itself, it is a façade. When you have a faculty who themselves are not more knowledgeable than students, one-on-one sessions do not work at all. Even CTL is a conundrum because everyone is a peer, including faculty. In addition to the one-on-one session, an everyday practice, there are interim reviews and, finally, the jury. The problem statement for the future is how learning is imparted when new paradigms need an introduction, such as generative AI, advanced computational design or even space architecture.

There is way too much social support that is possible today, which was not available earlier. This is an untapped resource. The [master in practice] does not have a growth mindset; they aspire to reach a particular quality of work. The confusion lies when the master is forced into academia as a role alone. Growing in scale is different from growing in skill. The problem architecture as a domain must address is that there are too many skills to master than just correct drawing of spatial plans and their projections in the past. You start with CAD, then BIM, computational design, GIS, 3d modelling, imagining and presentation applications.

The architectural school is not a site of apprenticeship but a space for learning the art of architecture rather than its science. What that art is needs direction. As technology has disrupted architectural imagination from an authoritative position, how should architectural learning be reimagined? What different generations expect from authorities is also an avenue to address. Academic failure differs from professional failure. Academic failure imposed by academicians can result in professional failures, which is a different paradigm. Success in art disciplines is subjective and sometimes only results from spectacular talent. Access to resources and networks that direct success towards it is essential.

Grading and unnecessary recognition systems create unwarranted stress and anxiety in studios. If these are done away with and only learning is mandated, then newer models of what the studio may be considered. Faculty, too, should show learning progress along with students, which rarely happens, as in my experience here. If the education service infrastructure does not change, expecting students to change won’t manifest. If any successful learning process in practice is extended into the studio, Koolhaas’s [Project on the City] is an excellent case study. I have seen the model succeed while working with Rahul Mehrotra because I have seen him develop as a practice as he was forced to learn with students.

In every project, there is a question looking for an answer.

Dedicated directed practice extended from faculty to students works better from my experience and attempts to model practice. Instead of being hidden, it should be stated what the collective learning is for the studio organisers and everyone else participating. I borrow this idea from Peter Zumthor’s 1996 essay [Teaching architecture, learning architecture], where his definition of the practice of architecture is asking oneself questions and finding answers to them. This process, when continued, helps guide practice. He has an open proposition, but a directed take on the model is Glenn Murcutt’s on-site residential [International Master Class].

The studio is a knowledge product design exercise. Those teaching it always follow familiar models, especially if they need to develop a formal practice. Faculty must know that the design studio is a design problem to solve before addressing participants and how they react to constructed knowledge consumption and production environments. It can be optimised for success and made efficient iteratively. A pertinent aspect is that design studios still need to embrace all internet technology offers fully. Unlike in the past, a creative practice must manifest in virtual reality before it extends into reality. This is how the paradigm has shifted at large. How education must be designed to accommodate this is virgin land to consider.

The paper has focused its discussion within the limits of the design studio. My view to summarise states that institutions must be made accountable and decide what situations lead to the success or failure of architectural learning. Thus, this is an alternate mental model discussed. A 21st-century design studio requires programmatic updates, e.g., aligning it towards a [design sprint], where the complete studio delivers instead of just students alone. This is to address cases where there are no generational conflicts that can pit students against faculty. [Systems thinking] as a sub-discipline can aid in drawing out better guidelines for operating in our VUCA world rather than CTL. Knowing the studio's context is essential for its success and to keep failure away from it.



Isaac Mathew

i think #architecture #art #planning #design #engineering