Remote Architecture Education, March 2020
From everything that we know right now, the coming weeks will not be easy ones as COVID19 cuts the bottom out from under us. Everyone is adjusting, and in multiple ways, as each of their roles reorient to the reality at hand. Lots of plans changing, discussions about plans changing, and then all of it changing again before you can even get used to the new new.
At University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning I am teaching a graduate thesis studio with thirteen students at the moment. First the College went online-suggested, then online-only. The thesis professors huddled to make sense of what that means for final reviews. One discovery: if you take screenshots with your sound on, everyone knows. If you mute your sound so no one will hear, you ruin the screenshot. This is not useful information, but is an example of the tendrils of confusion that creep into seemingly every interaction right now. Even a snapshot fails.
A similar ritual was repeated for the all-faculty meeting. McLain Clutter, head of the Architecture program, reminded all that these are not normal times. It’s a simple thing to say, but an important one. These are not normal times, so we should not expect normality. But we’re here and alone, together, which in the grand scheme of things is much better than it could be. Could Sherry Turkle have imagined the odd upsides of all this connectivity?
In each of these conversations I return to what is different about this moment in small ways. For one, suddenly we have all these new windows into the domestic lives of our colleagues and coworkers. What’s the book she has behind her left ear? What might be the name of that color on the wall behind him? These two people have similar windows—do they live in the same building?
I find myself grabbing on to these quotidian interests as speed bumps against the uncertainty. As a phrase, VUCA — Volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous—feels more leaden now. It has taken on a weight for those of us who have only known the term as borrowed, lucky enough to not have encountered it in its original context: the battlefield.
After that meeting I ran a day of digital crits using Google Meet. While the call quality is fine, there seems to be no way to show a grid of faces, so you only see 3 or 4 faces at once and that makes the interaction too limited. It’s business-like for a group of people who are learning together, not conducting business. For today’s discussions we switched to Bluejeans, which the University provides, and now we can all see each other smiling.
We also set up a google doc to make it easier to share info back and forth. Students add links to their digital files for the day and we click through, discuss, and draw. Writing to one of the students over the weekend I wanted to capture the spirit that we must bring to this. Until further notice the motto of the studio is: Flexibility, Sanity, Health, and Humor. That’s probably not the right order, but it will do for now.
Some of the discussion is about what to do now that the final reviews will be digital. No models, no pin up walls, no discussion in the round… No answers at this time, to be perfectly honest! But these are tractable challenges and we’re working on it together as a faculty, as a College, and as a discipline. More directly, I suggested to my students that when unusual events prevent normal activity, we get creative. To borrow a term from the movie, Be Kind Rewind, can an architecture review be ‘Sweded?’
For most of the world, the COVID19 pandemic is painful disruption. And it will be the same within architecture schools. On the other hand, the way we’ve taught architecture, and particularly studio, has not really changed much in 100 years or so and it could use a shakeup. So, as much as all of the images on this page are coping mechanisms, I’m also finding them useful as experiments for another way. To maintain my own sanity I am taking notes and trying as best as possible to pay attention to the way assumptions are being relaxed right now, creating the necessary room to form new rituals. Many will be makeshift, some will be ok, and a few may be genuinely better than how we used to do things. Or so I hope.
Meanwhile, we’re doing something similar in the office at Dash Marshall. Though we’re a team split between Brooklyn and Detroit, we rarely do morning ‘stand ups.’ We probably should do this on an ongoing basis, and maybe we will. For the moment, we’re making lots of ad hoc screenshots to communicate the basics to each other. Look at all of these artless arrows!
The call this morning reminded me of how Dash started. At that time we were working between Helsinki and New York City, and in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. By 2009 the acute moment had passed but its impression was still felt, especially in the architecture, engineering, and construction sector. We did what we could then, as we are now.