Underground Home for Birds

Week two of Teaching Remote but not Distant

How do 14 people scream all at once, via separate internet connections, in separate rooms, together across four cities and two continents? By drawing. We began the week with a shared whiteboard and a five minute countdown:

Graffiti, then cats, then fantastical creatures and machines, and finally a sensitive chaos—just like the experience we’re living through. Here in our bubbles of isolated connectivity, moments of collective digital action feel poignant. I’ve never felt moved by a cursor before, but spotting this as our class session booted up recently is something I will remember:

When this new setup began, the document I sent out to my students declared “Flexibility, Sanity, Health, and Humor” as the motto and that still holds. To do my best to honor this sentiment, I skip reading the news on the mornings that I teach and instead focus, as best as I can, on reducing the unknowns ahead of us as a class. This week that meant giving ourselves a small break and delaying a pin-up that was scheduled near term. It’s hard to admit, but I have some hesitations about orchestrating a pin-up with external guests via a video chat, and so I also appreciate the extra time to plan for this event with care. We’re going to do it, and we will figure out how to make it manageable, and maybe even better in some interesting ways.

Desk crits have provided one way for us to get comfortable with the possibilities here, and this week’s change from BlueJeans to Zoom has afforded a small but important upgrade in the ability to annotate the screen with multiple parties drawing at the same time. The students put together PDFs and uploaded them and we talked through the design questions. Some shared their screens and spun around Rhino models in 3D in realtime, which worked too but had some hiccups when compression degraded visual quality with a lot of moving pixels. Perhaps the biggest discovery of the week was logging in via my computer to have a video link and separately via my iPad to annotate more fluidly. Zoom’s annotate tool is still clunky, but it’s good enough.

Collaborative experiments are rich right now, and that’s a good thing. Anthony Townsend of Star City Group and Alex Soojung-Kim Pang hosted a Futures Friday with a group of people from a handful of countries, united by a collective interest in futures practices. They conducted a stickies and whiteboard kind of workshop using Miro, which was really fun and worked well for the task. Watching 11 cursors flutter around the screen, writing and moving little boxes was touching in its own small way: the collaborative spirit in plain view. The digital format is also nice because it saves all the time of transcribing the post-it notes afterwards, but I wonder how well it would work with a cohort who are not workshop jockeys like this group was.

Miro screenshot, mid flutter

Usually architecture final reviews involve a big wall of drawings, some kind of pristine model perched just right on a table, and a digital presentation. We’re not going to have the first two pieces, so instead I’ve asked all of my students to plan on making a short video of their project. This will help them be succinct and focused, and it will provide us a backup if the connection is crappy and slides come through garbled. In a bandwidth crunch, each party on the video conference can watch the student videos on their local machines. The video will be supplemented by other materials in a PDF and Taubman College is going to host everything on a singular website, which will give folks the ability to bop around and see their peers’ work.

To test out the process of converting a slideshow into a thesis presentation video I fired up Keynote and put something together. Remember: Flexibility, Sanity, Health, and Humor.

The first faux thesis project that came to mind upon opening Keynote
If you listen carefully you can hear my cat SPARKS, who sounds like a bird, with perfect timing at the start of this video

If we’re in this for a couple weeks, which it seems to be the case, then it’s time for rituals that bridge across the uncertainty. Making new rituals is an excuse for symmetry, the guilty pleasure of architects, so when we set up a video potluck I broke out the candles. Though it looks more like a human sacrifice than a potluck dinner, last week we indeed hosted a group meal complete with theme ingredient (🍄) and chit chat. And you know what? It was really pleasant.

Symmetry of form and actions, connectivity of bandwidth and intentions. These are good for dinner parties, and for an architecture studio working together remotely but without being distant from one another. When humanity has the collective bandwidth to think about how we strengthen institutions against future shocks, I hope these moments of introspection are not lost. There will be a lot of work to do.

Dinner node awaiting company to arrive

Buildings & cities & all the things between. More at bryanboyer.com

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