My professional life is a two-sided coin: most days, I practice as an architect and urban designer at NBBJ. Other days, I am adjunct faculty at the Boston Architectural College or a teaching fellow at Harvard College. This unique pairing of practice and pedagogy is symbiotic: because I practice, I am a better teacher; because I teach, I am a better practitioner.
The many benefits of having active practitioners as instructors are quite obvious: We have our fingers on the pulse of development. We know who is commissioning work and what types of projects they desire. We know what a realistic program might be for any given type of project. We know all the rules of thumb, from parking garage net-to-gross ratios, to typical lane widths and curb radii, to street light and street tree spacing. We know how to craft a project narrative that will convince a client of our ideas, and we know how to engage with the public in meaningful ways.
The benefits of having academics (even part-time ones) as practitioners are a bit more obscure but critically important nonetheless. In the studio model of education, a group of students (usually twelve) are assigned a program for a design project, then given a semester to produce individual designs to a schematic level of development. There will be a bit of assigned research and precedent analysis at the beginning, but a good part of the semester is devoted to a student simply working through the problem: trial, error, reflection, analysis, synthesis, representation, verbal communication, etc.
Experts in Ambiguity
The purpose of a studio is not that a student becomes an expert in a specific project type. Instead, success requires a student to hone her own creative problem-solving skills: researching a problem, navigating creative ambiguities, defining priorities and developing formal and spatial responses. Students build their creative muscles by being thrown into the unknown again and again, until they can navigate their way through any problem, spatial or otherwise. When we teach a studio, we jump into the unknown with each student — like taking our own design studio, times twelve. This type of immersion into the creative process doesn’t happen on a daily basis in practice.
This is why engaging with students — as an instructor, guest critic or mentor — is critically important to not just the design profession, but any profession. Our rapidly changing world is not a scene in black and white, but rather a rich spectrum of grays: ambiguities, unknowns, uncertainties. Our most valuable practitioners aren’t the so-called “experts” in any particular project type; they are the ones willing to embrace the gray, to reimagine problems and tackle them anew. Moreover, it is the crutch of expertise that blinds us from observing emergent trends in the way we live, work, play, study, interact, engage with and move through the world today.
And this pedagogy applies to education more broadly, too. Students use the studio not only to work on their individual projects, but also to meet, chat, speculate, even drink and dine. Indeed, peer review, professional networking, and the development of a flexible environment for teaching and learning are equally as important as the generation of design solutions. We should plan more such “studio spaces,” at the scale of classrooms, buildings, even entire campuses. After all, students learn as much from each other as from their instructors — and they might just teach their instructors a thing or two.
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