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As the pandemic deepens, architecture will need to make peace with contingencies

Architecture Depends

As the pandemic deepens, architecture will need to make peace with contingencies

The following text was drafted in response to the second prompt in AN’s “Post-Pandemic Potentials” series. A subsequent response by Mario Carpo will follow later this week. Read more about the series here.

It could have been worse. On the day Yale announced that the entire university was going remote—chased from campus by the pandemic—we at the School at Architecture (YSoA) had just started spring recess. We had 13 calendar days to fling the curriculum into the digital breach. Faculty quickly learned the ins and outs of Zoom, Canvas, and Miro, and students the intricacies of Remote Desktop so they could reach their studio computers via the internet from their apartments down the street or across the globe.

At first, there was a sense of novelty, propelled by a dose of adrenaline, as we taught across the digital divide. Lecture courses ran largely uninterrupted; seminars adjusted to the exchange of tables for Zoom Gallery View. Non-studio instructors reported positive outcomes in many cases, ranging from increased student engagement and more in-depth discussions to higher-quality work. Conclusions about studio teaching (and culture), however, were mixed: Pedagogy was more organized and disciplined but also transactional; students seemed less pressured during final review presentations but nary a model was constructed; arranging disparate and distant visiting critics was easier, much less expensive, and less carbon-intensive, but everyone suffered from eight hours of sitting behind screens. More than anything, all bemoaned the loss of personal interaction and the virtual dismantling of studio culture. In the words of one instructor, students, in particular, missed having “constant exposure to the work, feedback, ideas, and mistakes of others…especially in the introductory studio, where a culture of working alongside one’s peers hasn’t yet had time to bloom.”

It was less than a month after classes resumed that student letters demanding better technology, tuition rebates, extended semesters, replacements for summer jobs that would never materialize, and access to shuttered facilities landed in our inboxes.

A few months or perhaps years of viral infestation, however, will not turn the enormous ship that is studio-based teaching—with protocols established in the 17th century—quickly, if at all. As a professional colleague once remarked about the influence of technology on practice, “architects are terrific at inflicting change on everyone except themselves.” And while in many ways design teaching this past semester was a shadow of its in-person alternative, our students were operating in modes that precisely mirrored those of the entire world-wide architecture profession, forced out of the office at the same time we were ejected from campus. It’s thus difficult to delegitimize the entire experience as a pale reflection of reality or one that had little to no bearing on the professional futures of students, who are surely not facing their last economic crisis, or even pandemic.

The arts schools (Architecture, Art, Drama, Music) at Yale banded together for planning and mutual support as the pandemic unfolded. James Bundy, who leads our renowned School of Drama, articulated his strategy early in the crisis: “We’re going to be the best online School of Drama while all drama schools are online, and return strong.” This is hardly glib, indeed, it is the only option, since the alternative would be to allow, in YSoA’s case, a century of teaching tradition and a reputation for excellence to simply molder. But there is no roadmap, and scant time for planning, much less a global reconsideration of the fundamentals of our pedagogy. We can only offer so much assurance to our students who are desperate to understand what faces them next term.

Our spring experience demonstrated that while the ship was sailing under stormy seas, it managed to stay afloat and reach its destination. Projects and papers were submitted, people completed courses of study, diplomas were distributed. The same faculty members who were teaching in-person in February finished their teaching assignments, albeit exhausted, and while the medium of delivery may have been compromised and far from ideal, the quality of most student work met—and often exceeded—our standards. At the risk of ignoring the dictum that “the plural of anecdotes is not ‘facts’,” I can confidently say that my advanced professional practice students delivered the best work in the six years I have taught the course.

The trial run of the spring term yielded some important lessons. Remote learning (and working) is possible and sometimes even optimal. It turns out that faculty can easily be assembled from around the world to participate in juries, give lectures, and visit seminars. As for students, presenting online forced them to be well-organized and disciplined in documenting and explaining their work. This generation is remarkably nimble, easily adapting to digital collaboration while teaching their tutors a thing or two about how to do so. Going forward, it’s critical that both students and faculty take these and other lessons to heart, accept the conditions of the pandemic, and work together to create the best experience while we await a return to normal.

Of course, everyone needs the necessary infrastructure—bandwidth, resolution, peace and quiet, and technical support—to learn and teach. While Yale’s administration provides as much such help as we can from afar, for some there are no suitable solutions. We will offer our students who wish to study 12 time zones away in Asia the opportunity to do so; however, attending class in the middle of the night presents its own challenges. In these cases, schools should proffer the option of leaves of absence until conditions improve.

Ultimately, we acknowledge that elements of the in-person studio experience simply cannot be replaced. That’s why we have spent the entire summer preparing a detailed plan for reopening our studios in the fall for teaching and working. Pandemic conditions permitting, we will do so, but the days of multi-day charrettes (or even large in-person reviews) are over until normal life returns. This means restricted access to fabrication shops (following social distancing guidelines), no one-on-one desk crits, and rotating occupancy schedules where the building is likely to close around midnight to be cleaned and refreshed for the next day, putting increased demand on our already dedicated but overstretched custodians. Time, like many resources in architecture, will be a constrained resource, and learning to manage it more carefully (while perhaps getting more sleep in the process) could be one positive outcome to arise from the new contingencies.

Contingency, as suggested by the British architect and educator Jeremy Till, is inexorably bound to architecture, which he describes as “a dependent discipline [that] does everything to resist that dependency.” In a time of extreme contingency as the profession looks for a mooring during simultaneous economic, epidemiological, and social crises, that has never been truer. Educators and practitioners had best embrace these constraints, which can be seen as either a diminishing of the value of education—or a teachable moment. I hope we will choose the latter.

Investing in an architectural education is an enormous commitment, the arithmetic of which doesn’t make complete sense given the high cost of tuition and low starting salaries. The economic crises of 1990 and 2009 left gaping demographic holes in the profession as graduates without jobs plied their design skills in other fields. There will be a cohort of current and future students who, in the face of the current challenges, will elect to never enter architecture at all, making that deficit deeper this time around. The survivors, however, will take away essential lessons about the contingent nature of our trade, and I predict they will mature into the best generation of architects ever. As educators, we must commit to do the best job possible under difficult—and sometimes impossible—constraints. They are owed no less.

Phil Bernstein, FAIA, is an associate dean and Professor Adjunct at the Yale School of Architecture and a former vice president at Autodesk. He spent most of his practice career at Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects. His book Architecture Design Data: Practice Competency in the Era of Computation, was published by Birkhauser in 2018.