The Myth of the Design Studio

The little literature there is on the sacred cow that is the architectural design studio learning experience invariably begins with an attempt to account for why there is a so little literature. The following is good example:

So why this absence of literature on the pedagogic underpinnings of design teaching and its relationship to practice? When asked this question, it is common for design tutors to suggest that theory is not needed because design teaching is, and should be, intuitive. When pressed, they tend to substantiate their position as intuitive ‘expert’ teachers for one or more of the following reasons:

> because they went through the experience of design studio as students, therefore they have an understanding of what is involved in teaching and how to go about it.

> team teaching promotes good teaching practice through observing and sharing good practice with other teachers.

> expert practitioners (architects) automatically make good teachers.

One also finds a general suspicion of theory and a certain defensiveness about the ‘elusive’ nature of the design process, a reaction which appears to be based on the suspicion that theory will necessarily lead to empirical reductivism and as a consequence an impoverishment of the rich and complex creative processes.”

Helena Webster “The Design Diary: Promoting Reflective Practice in the Design Studio”

Even better is this psychoanalytic diagnosis for the absence of discourse:

The absence of any serious discussion of the interaction that takes place in design studio education between students and faculty is surprising. This silence, itself, suggests a defensive response—the uncertainty and ambiguity that we all experienced as students in design studio, and the fear that went along with it are not something we want to remember or re-experience, let alone discuss. We may think that the vulnerability that all students experience in design studio is something that we have put behind ourselves as faculty. But, even successful practitioners and successful educators may recall what they actually experienced in design studio education (the risk, the uncertainty, the vulnerability) with some trepidation. In front of the students we instruct, we want to look confident and in control—we fear that they may see behind the mask and that they might recognize that every time we teach design studio our own identification with the students we teach may re-energize all those old emotions (the ones we ourselves experienced as students in studio) that we had thought we had left behind.

Jeffrey Ochsner “Behind the Mask: A Psychoanalytic Account of Interaction in the Design Studio” Journal of Architectural Education Vol.53 No.4 (May 2000)

For design discourse to mature, the heart of design, the studio, must be subject to rigorous critical exposure.


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