From denial to acceptance: a turning point for design studio in architecture education

James Benedict Brown

At the time of writing, in early May 2020, most architecture educators have passed through all five stages of the Kübler-Ross model of grief: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance (Kübler-Ross, 1969). We spent the first two months of the year in a politically-sanctioned period of denial. When it became apparent that the virus was not contained to a specific geographic region or demographic, our governments instigated restrictions and our universities closed. At that point, we entered the phase of anger. Some made it to bargaining and then depression. Those who made it out the other side are emerging with a lukewarm glow of acceptance: we are all distance educators now.

Researchers at Imperial College London have argued that we need two different but interdependent strategies to manage the effects of the virus: mitigation (slowing epidemic spread while protecting those most at risk) and suppression (reversing epidemic growth and maintaining that situation indefinitely) (Ferguson et al, 2020). If followed, the Imperial College model is sobering for teachers. We can expect at least three, perhaps four, periods of social distancing during the northern hemisphere’s 2020/21 academic year – and that’s assuming we return to campus at all.

As we approach the busiest days of the academic year in the northern hemisphere, we have to recognise a fundamental fact: “we’re not going back to normal” (Lichfield, 2020).

The shift to distance education presents a particular challenge for architecture education. Our discipline has been one of the most resistant to fundamental pedagogical change. With fairly dramatic change now imposed upon us, and as our focus shifts from just surviving this year to actively planning next year, there is an opportunity to critically engage with the widely held assumptions of how we teach design in architecture.

Our signature pedagogy

In the United Kingdom, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Architects Registration Board (ARB) administer the discipline’s professional accreditation. The RIBA Procedures for Validation and Validation Criteria have, since their revision in 2011, explicitly prescribed that the assessed work of undergraduate and taught postgraduate courses in architecture “should consist of at least 50% design studio projects” (RIBA, 2014, p. 5). Not design projects, but design studio projects. The gatekeepers of the profession in the UK specify not only a minimum quota of design education but also an inconsistently interpreted method of delivery.

A survey of the 63 validation reports of UK architecture schools published by RIBA between 2014 and 2019 finds 25 instances of references to “studio culture”, either in the commendations by the board that visited the school of the academic position statements written by the heads of schools.[1]

These academic position statements include phrases such as “central to our programmes is a strong and vibrant studio culture,” (RIBA, 2017a, p.4) and “in our studio culture we experiment playfully, analyse thoughtfully, apply rigorously and reflect critically… Studio culture provides the safe, inclusive environment in which students can take risks and increase in confidence.” (RIBA, 2020, p.4)

Another statement reads that “central to the ethos of the school is the vibrant studio culture, which is the foundation of the student experience and emphasises a culture of the craft of making integrated with digital design … Design studio is seen as a place for the exchange of ideas where students learn from each other as well as staff and visiting scholars and practitioners.” (RIBA, 2016, p.3)

The design studio is clearly a pervasive learning environment. It is also one that absorbs students far beyond their scheduled contact hours. One school writes how “the 24-hour access to these studios plus the open kitchens has engendered a strong connection between students on all programmes.” (RIBA, 2017b, p.4) Likewise, the commendations of another report congratulate a programme team for inculcating students to treat the studio not just as a place of study, but a place of continuous occupation, where (with my emphasis) “students in the school had unselfconsciously created a genuine live-in studio culture in their main building.” (RIBA, 2017c, p.6)

In these documents we can see how the design studio can be variously celebrated as “a place to study and work in a highly creative multi-disciplinary environment alongside dance, art, design and music studios” (RIBA, 2018, p.3) or criticised as a dangerous site of intermingling with non-architects. The action point of a report observes (with my emphasis) “that the social and cultural environment of architecture in the studios needed to be carefully nurtured, and that too much diffusion of the subject area across the campus might have unintended consequences.” (RIBA, 2017c, p.6)

The design studio is architecture’s signature pedagogy. Lee Shulman defined the concept of signature pedagogy as “types of teaching that organize the fundamental ways in which future practitioners are educated for their new professions.” The design studio in the architecture school is a perfect example of how, Shulman writes, signature pedagogies “even determine the architectural design of educational institutions, which in turn serves to perpetuate these approaches.” (Shulman, 2005, p.54)

Yet the design studio is a complex and multi-dimensional thing. It is the site of both innovation and uncritical replication. It is home to both critical pedagogies that liberate students and uncritical teaching methods which demand their submission to old fashioned ways.

The four dimensions of the design studio

One way to understand the design studio, it is necessary to comprehend what I call its four characteristic dimensions. These dimensions are related to but distinct from the four learning constructs of studio education that Donald Schön described in Educating the Reflective Practitioner (1987): a physical space or constructed environment for learning and teaching; a mode of teaching and learning; a program of activity; and a culture, created by students and studio teachers working together. Schön writes how the design studio is defined by any one-or-more of these constructs, but I would argue that the four cannot be considered in isolation.

Firstly, the design studio is a physical space in the now-shuttered campuses of higher education. How many other disciplines continue to defend the right of an undergraduate student to be provided with their own desk and a working environment on campus, twenty-four-seven for the duration of their studies? In many institutions, therefore, it is the site of a conflict between the traditions of the discipline and the economic pressures of the contemporary university.

Many recent reactions to the shutdown of higher education have come from those educators who regard the space of the architecture design studio as fundamental to the “slightly odd” teaching methods of architecture education. Published in the weeks immediately following the lockdown, one architecture educator writes that “our students rely on having physical and intellectual spaces on campus in which to work. They need access to a well-lit, well-resourced model-making workshop. They require computers they cannot afford themselves. They need each other — students need to be able to rely on their peers if their home environments don’t support our much-loved but slightly odd pedagogical methods.” (Lappin in Sadler et al, 2020)

Secondly, the design studio is a period of time in the teaching calendar. With continuous access to their own learning space, the timetable of an architecture student before the coronavirus pandemic will have also included one or maybe two days per week that were simply ascribed to “studio” – the indeterminate catchall for the time when a student is expected to be present and engaging in either self-directed or directed learning. Many schools of architecture have interpreted the RIBA validation condition of fifty per cent of the curriculum being delivered through design studio to mean that fifty per cent of a student’s schedule must be designated as “studio” time.

In recent weeks, architecture educators who have described their adaptation to “pandemic teaching” have mourned the loss of this collective time. Despite invoking Jeremy Bentham’s eighteenth-century prison one educator writes:

The design studio, however panoptical, offers more than a physical infrastructure that allocates equal desktop space. It offers common hours through which skills sets, expertise, energy, motivation and/or inspiration are in constant flux and are thereby permanently redistributed. A shared studio impedes sorting into the haves and have nots … The very physicality of studio space enables regulation of common standards against the logic of competition … just as the fixed parameter of 12 studio-hours per week can help level the ground between those rich in hours and those disadvantaged by day-jobs or dependents. (Roddier in Pries et al, 2020) [2]

Thirdly, the design studio can be understood as a large field of both teaching method and pedagogies. These are not the same thing. Within the indeterminate time ascribed to “studio” in the calendar, anything goes. The more creative and critical architecture educators deliver radical pedagogical activities, teaching that is informed by educational theory and political agenda. These include collaborative workshops, peer-to-peer learning, blends of asynchronous and synchronous teaching, flipped classroom exercises, experiential learning or live projects with real clients to name just a few. Yet in the darker corners survives the studio where students endure the same old corrupt banking model of education that the tutor learned about as a student. This approach relies on repetition, replication and duplication, and I would argue this distinguishes it as a teaching method rather than a pedagogical approach.

The fourth and final characteristic dimension of the design studio is its culture. When he proposed at is a learning construct, Schön was referring to the ideas, customs and behaviour that occurs in design studio. We should not forget the other meaning of culture: the cultivation of things like bacteria or cells in an artificial medium. Things grow, both good and bad.

The prejudices of architecture education

Architecture education has long been criticised for the ways in which the design studio is the site par excellence for the perpetuation of a hidden curriculum that prejudices certain individuals and groups, inculcating behaviours, attitudes and value systems (Dutton, 1987; Ward, 1990; Banham, 1996; Groat and Ahrentzen, 1996; Stevens, 1998; Webster, 2006 & 2008; Datta, 2007; Salama, 2010; Brown, 2012; Stratigakos, 2016). Jeremy Till writes that “the world of architectural education is obsessed with what it produces, and in this forgets to examine how it produces.” (Till, 2005, p.166)

More than 30 years ago, Karen Kingsley identified the tendencies of bias against women and exclusion of women’s contribution in the popular architectural history texts (Kingsley, 1988). Around the same time, Sherry Ahrentzen and Linda Groat published the findings of a nationwide survey of architecture educators in the USA. Ahrentzen and Groat identified three characteristics of the climate which was prejudiced against female teachers: the dominance of the star system and gendering of genius; the hidden curriculum of rituals that supported power and hierarchy; the isolationism engendered by the myopic attitude of the architectural act (Ahrentzen and Groat, 1992). Design studios have long been known to “exhibit a well-known academic syndrome, in which students believe that mystery – or the neglect of rational teaching methods – is an indication of the mastery of the instructor.” (Fowler and Wilson, 2004, p. 106)

For many architecture educators the path to revealing and subverting the mechanisms of reproduction of architecture education has been to adopt the philosophies and methods of critical pedagogy, including theorists of educational resistance. Architectural education routinely privileges that which Bourdieu and Passeron first christened cultural capital: the educational or intellectual assets which promote social mobility (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990 [1973]). Peter McLaren explains:

Students from the dominant culture inherit substantially different cultural capital than do economically disadvantaged students, and schools generally value and reward those who exhibit that dominant cultural capital (which is also usually exhibited by the teacher). Schools systematically devalue the cultural capital of students who occupy subordinate class positions. (McLaren, 2009, p. 81)


In the weeks and months after the closure of the physical spaces of higher education, architecture educators are expressing nostalgia for our signature pedagogy. One writes: “Our experiences with remote learning may prove to be a positive experiment, and we may gain new appreciation for digital tools which can support our regular pedagogies. But there is no place like studio” (Donovan in Baxi et al, 2020).

Comparing how a postgraduate seminar course and an undergraduate design studio had transitioned to online teaching, another writes that “the pivot to online teaching was pretty smooth for the seminar… dare I say, it’s actually working quite well. But for the design studio, the transition has been trickier; for students and faculty it can feel challenging and lonely. We all miss the collective camaraderie, the companionship of the shared space.” (Lyster in Sadler et al, 2020).

We should not presume that just by moving the space of architecture education online it will become more egalitarian. Harriet Harriss warns us that:

If [Massive Online Open Courses] have taught us anything, it’s that online learning environments are not democratic spaces by default. These platforms may allocate each user equal inches of screen space, but simultaneously surrender a window into our otherwise private domestic interiors, revealing often staggering economic differentials between students, while also rendering them vulnerable to racist and other discriminatory attacks (Harriss in Martin et al, 2020).

Frank Weine observed that “traditionally, design has been taught in a studio setting and history has been taught in a lecture room. If we accept that this approach has become ineffectual, how could one conceptualize a new model that is more efficacious? One could propose a reversal, so that history is taught in the studio and design in the lecture room.” (Weiner, 2005, 31). Until now, such opinions have been peripheral to the discourse around architecture education. The idea that we might do it differently have been purely speculative. But today, the world over, architecture educators are actively planning curricula without the design studio.

What the four characteristic dimensions of the design studio in architecture education described above have in common is that none of them are consistently defined. Our discipline has, at its heart, a multi-dimensional thing that is defined in space, time, pedagogy and culture. The physical space of the design studio is generally an open-plan room or sequence of rooms, into which independent study, formal teaching, informal teaching, socialising, eating, drinking, bullying, and even harassment or abuse occurs. The temporal dimension of the studio is likewise a curtain behind which lurks a panoply of teaching and learning: sometimes it’s ground-breaking and creative, often it is derivative and even destructive. The pedagogical dimension of the design studio is equally wide and diverse. The cultural dimension of the design studio is something that is often celebrated but rarely defined, and when it is, it is usually in terms that are as exclusive (of women, minorities, mature students, people of different abilities) as they are inclusive.

The question for the coming autumn is resolutely not how can we recreate the architecture studio online. It is how we can liberate our discipline from the assumption that an ill-defined space, time, pedagogy and culture is the only way to teach design. It is an opportunity to re-construct architecture education in a more critical, inclusive and democratic way.


Thanks to James Corazzo, Sarah Kettley, Peter Lloyd, Amanda Monfrooe and Ruth Morrow for their suggestions and guidance.


[1] Accessed via on 5 May 2020.

[2] I note here my strong objection to the presumption that scheduling 12 studio-hours per week is all it takes to correct the academic prejudices faced by students ”disadvantaged by day-jobs or dependents.”


Published by James Benedict Brown

Associate Professor of Architecture at Umeå University, Sweden.

7 thoughts on “From denial to acceptance: a turning point for design studio in architecture education

  1. Well-researched, thought-provoking, and timely piece. What remains, and this not a criticism of the article, is the question where we go from here. Design programs, schools, and organizations have the responsibility for developing resilient design studio paradigms where the vast digital opportunities are called in while, at the same time, preserving the engaging qualities of the real, face-to-face architecture studio environment. We need not, we should not subject our selves to another cycle of “denial, anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance.”


    1. I’d agree Salim – James raises some really relevant points but we do also need to turn to what we can do with this. probably not going to answer that in a reply (!) but I wonder if there are some directions we could usefully start to talk along?

      – What has become visible that was previously implicit/hidden/not realised? Can we use this in any constructive way?
      – With 1000’s of design educators having to improvise, extemporise, wing it, and busk it, what out-of-the-innovation envelope practice can we capture?
      – Without space as the primary consideration, what other spatialities of studio might exist? Might we look differently at de-col or pluriversal curricula?
      – Another design trick: by making this even harder and applying even greater conditions, what else might we do with the current context? (e.g. low-no bandwidth; low-no contact tuition; etc.)

      Finally I’d add another critical thought: we do have to keep looking around us and ask ‘who are we leaving behind now?’ Some student might now be even less likely to engage in an already relatively exclusive education. But how are we deforming accessibility, participation, inclusivity?

      (this would also be a good future Meetup / discussion if you fancy it… :D)


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