Opening the “Black-Box” of Distant Design Studio

“In our studio culture, we experiment playfully, analyze thoughtfully, apply rigorously, and reflect critically… Studio culture provides the safe, inclusive environment in which students can take risks and increase in confidence.” [1]

Design studios at Virginia Tech Burchurd Hall, November 2019 – source: author

Teaching conventional architecture is an interactive process that entails collaborative learning and teaching, teamwork, making physical and virtual models, visiting and analyzing architectural masterpieces and built environment. Due to this multidimensional nature of architecture education and architectural studio experience, despite the rapid growth of virtual education in various fields, conducting architecture studios in a completely virtual environment has received less attention. For this reason, the sudden change in the conventional design of studio teaching and learning to digital media and distant learning with the sudden urgency of the Covid-19 pandemic led the instructors and students to encounter many challenges while learning and teaching through online platforms. 

Thus, it is not hard to imagine why Benedict Brown opens his article by comparing the architecture educators’ experience at this time with a “grief” state. He states: “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.” [2]

Further, he goes through four characteristic dimensions of design studios: First, providing a physical twenty-four-seven working environment.  He quotes from an architecture educator 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.” [3]

VT Cowgill Hall design studio, February 2020

Second, he points out the design studio is a time in the teaching calendar where student is expected to be present and engage in either self-directed or directed learning. By shifting to online courses, studio time is just when the instructor wants to either open a discussion or review students’ projects. It is hard then to track the hours each student spends on their project. Even if they allocate the same time in their homes, comparing working, walking, watching, and discussing experience in the physical studio, the learning experience would be completely different. “The design studio, however panoptical, offers more than a physical infrastructure that allocates equal desktop space. It offers common hours through which skill 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.[4] “

The third dimension to Brown is that design studio is a broad field of both teaching methods and pedagogies, which are not the same thing as he explains. He argues that while pedagogical activities include collaborative workshops, peer-to-peer learning, blends of asynchronous and synchronous teaching, and flipped classroom exercises, the students endure the same old education model that the tutor learned about as a student. This approach relies on repetition, replication, and duplication, which is more of a teaching method than a pedagogical approach. The design studio’s final characteristic dimension is its culture, which is proposed as a learning construct and refers to the ideas, customs, and behavior that occur in the design studio.

VT Burchurd Hall with Covid-19 safety protocols, August 2020

In my view, the revolutionizing role of the internet and online learning is comparable to when the printing machine was invented and facilitated the accessibility and spread of knowledge. Thomas Friedman once said: “Big breakthrough happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary.”[5] In our case, the question is what is the architecture reaction to online education? Can space design be taught through purely virtual mediums? How can one learn to play with mass and void configurations, sense the effect of spatial proportions, the effect of light, and experience the impact of the visuo-locomotion without physical presence?  How can we create a studio’s culture through virtual experience? These are valid complications, yet, the format of online education also allows us to break away from the one-size-fits-all education model and allow students to follow a much more personalized curriculum.

Moreover, distant learning offers many opportunities, such as giving us unprecedented insight into understanding human learning by collecting data through e-learning, which was not accessible before. So, there is an opportunity to turn the study of human learning into a data-driven model, which is a revolutionizing transformation. Having said that, should architecture continue its traditional education, despite the many benefits that e-learning offers? Or should a kind of a hybrid model be used? And if we consider a hybrid model, how can we use a combination of these methods?

I believe that architects cannot avoid pedagogical engagement with the issue of online education. Many websites have already started offering this service, and technology also has taken steps to solve specific problems in this domain. Covid pandemic revealed that it is time for architecture to sync and keep up with this trend. I think the complications against online architectural pedagogy can be referred to as two issues. First, studio-based learning has developed a “resilient” attitude to online learning. Second, there are two categories of problems facing online architecture education that need to be addressed: pedagogical and technical. Among the techniques that are suggested to solve some architectural educational issues are augmented reality and virtual reality methods that have received much attention. These methods claim to enhance students’ spatial understanding of the architectural design and lead to a more enriched education than the traditional way.

VT Cowgill Hall design studio, November 2020

As an architect, I think there is still a significant gap between the experience and perception of the real environment and AR and VR. Even in Immersive VR, I find its use beneficial in addition to physical presence. These techniques have great potential for experiencing diverse spaces and making spatial modifications. They narrow their gap to real experience every day, including attempts to add haptic or olfactory experience to virtual reality. Another critical issue that technology experts still need to consider is how to transfer teamwork, interaction, and studio culture in the virtual environment, which is crucial for teaching this field.


[1] RIBA. Report of the RIBA Full Visiting Board to the Arts University Bournemouth, /media/26F903ACCC2F4558BBCDD6BBC5051756.pdf?la=en (2020).

[2] Brown JB. From denial to acceptance: a turning point for design studio in architecture education. 9.

[3] Sadler S, Morton P, Williams RJ, et al. Field Notes on Pandemic Teaching: 2. Places J. Epub ahead of print 15 April 2020. DOI: 10.22269/200415.

[4] Pries J, Herscher A, Campbell H, et al. Field Notes on Pandemic Teaching: 3. Places J. Epub ahead of print 16 April 2020. DOI: 10.22269/200416.

[5] What Coronavirus Can Teach Architecture Schools About Virtual Learning. ArchDaily, (2020, accessed 30 October 2020).


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