In mid-March, with the public acknowledgement of the arrival of coronavirus in Texas, the state’s architecture schools came face to face with unprecedented pedagogical challenges. All had to grapple with the same health crisis, but its impact was felt differently across each institution. Even within each department, the required shift in instruction methodologies caused a wide array of issues and reactions from faculty and staff.
We reached out to several schools in the state to learn the impact of the pandemic on their spring and summer semesters. We also asked about their plans for fall instruction. By the time this issue of Texas Architect is released, the Fall 2020 semester will be underway. By then, there may be answers formulating to some of the questions currently on the minds of architectural educators, such as: “Will this pandemic have a lasting effect on the system of architectural education in Texas?” “Will it result in stronger ties between academia and the profession, or will it create a larger divide?” “Are there positive elements developing in regard to learning about architecture and creating space and meaning?” The following discussions provide a snapshot of where the thinking is in this moment for architectural education in Texas.
The University of Texas at Austin
Though there was no time to prepare for it, The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture’s transition to remote learning during the spring semester went smoothly overall. Cisco Gomes, AIA, associate dean for academic affairs at UTSOA, notes that there were some positive outcomes, specifically in terms of the final reviews: “We were able to bring in many more outside visitors, since they didn’t have to come to Austin, and that was received really well. The discussions that happened were strong. We probably had a little more exposure for our students’ work than we normally would outside the Austin community, which was great.” It worked so well, says Gomes, that UTSOA anticipates blending this approach with traditional visiting critics even once the virus and the need for social distancing pass.
It’s important to note, however, that some of the success experienced may be because much of the spring semester had already been held in person, allowing educators and students to develop a rapport and sense of community before the pandemic hit. This was certainly the experience of Coleman Coker, director of UTSOA’s Gulf Coast DesignLab.
Coker teaches community engagement-focused studios that often involve a design-build component. He notes: “When you get out of the studio through a design-build process, you and the students develop a real closeness in a hurry. I had gotten to know [the students] well. I think some of them were more open about the issues they were having privately. We had all coalesced as a studio; we knew each other. … One thing I couldn’t have thought about or imagined was that some students would be forced to go back home and live with their families. Some were having emotional meltdowns.” Still, the community they formed early on helped them stay connected and feel supported during the remainder of the semester.
Coker’s summer studio this year is fully remote and therefore not conducive to a typical design-build project. Instead, the students are building teaching tools to illustrate environmental processes, such as water pollution and biomagnification, for their Galveston-based partner, Artist Boat, a nonprofit that promotes awareness and preservation of coastal margins and the marine environment along the Texas Gulf Coast.
“I think in the end, it [the spring semester] was better emotionally for the students than what I’m going through in this summer studio,” says Coker. “Teaching a full summer semester course on Zoom is a lot different than the last half of the spring semester, where I’d gotten to know the students. I went into the summer semester thinking, ‘This isn’t going to be so bad.’ I hadn’t realized how important it was to get to know those students for half of the semester in the spring. Now I have 15 students, and I just see postage-stamp-size images of them on the screen. I don’t know who they are, and and they don’t have the chance to coalesce as a close-knit group. We don’t really get a chance to know each other, so valuable in a studio environment, though we try.”
This is one of the reasons why UTSOA administrators are working so hard to reopen in the fall with some degree of in-person teaching, despite the uncertainty that the coronavirus still poses. The university has defined social distancing as six feet of separation between individuals, with a maximum of 40 percent of the prior capacity of the teaching space. This means that large classes will shift to even larger spaces, and small classes will move into mid-size spaces. Small classrooms that do not meet the social distancing requirements will be available by reservation for one-on-one meetings between faculty and students.
Studio courses, previously held only in the afternoons, are being expanded to include morning meeting times. This will allow studios to operate in a shift system: Two studios share the same physical space, but at double the previously allotted size so that students can be staggered at an appropriate distance in a checkerboard style. For example, red-square students will meet in the mornings and black-square students in the afternoons. With this arrangement, each student will still have their own dedicated desk.
Gomes says: “We do think that, culturally, it is very important to try and preserve as best we can this idea that there is a community that lives in our studio courses, but also outside of our studio meeting time. We believe there is something lost when you move to all remote. That’s part of the reason we’re taking all the measures we are to allow for blended instruction.”
“The change is full of trade-offs,” Gomes concludes. “I think some of the faculty are really mourning the loss of the interaction, some of the handwork that happens and the way we work traditionally. There are others who are feeling incredibly empowered by the renewed interest in digital and online possibilities. There’s a big mix. … We hope we can maintain the core benefits of our academic community on the whole. I think we will.”
Texas Tech University
While Texas Tech University is still outlining the specifics of its plan, it too will take a hybrid approach to teaching this fall. Dora Epstein Jones, chair of architecture at TTU, is optimistic, stressing that studio education is not a “monolithic experience” — studios, courses, and projects respond differently to different modalities — and that some aspects of architecture can be taught online better than others. While some may cling to an idealized version of an atelier-style architectural education, the reality is that architectural education has never been a one-size-fits-all approach, and Epstein Jones emphasizes she is not anti-remote learning.
“While there is a lot of romance about the ineffable qualities of material and space that seem only physical, it seems that this difficult moment is also a time to embrace digital tools,” she says. “The 21st century profession — the profession we are training students to enter — is rife with digital tools.” And from a professional training perspective, remote learning is well-suited to promoting digital literacy. Another key to the success of remote learning is understanding what translates and what doesn’t. For example, one TTU construction professor mailed assembly kits to students’ homes so they could learn about vectors and loads in a physical way, rather than having the concepts remain abstract. Because some elements critical to the understanding of space cannot be taught from a slide, Epstein Jones believes the transition to fully remote learning must be considered temporary.
“We’re examining all the ways a hybrid approach can be done and done safely. The number one thing for me is the safety of our students and our faculty. My second priority is to somehow preserve the culture of the studio — because students learn as much from each other, from the informal culture of the studio, as they do from the crits, reviews, and pin-ups. There’s something truly special about that community that our students form within the space of the studio.” She also urges us to remember: “The difficulties of the pandemic are not the pandemic alone. We’re facing a tremendous social reckoning as well. I want to urge everybody in architectural education to practice empathy, lead with kindness. That’s key.”
University of Houston
The Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design at the University of Houston offers undergraduate and graduate programs for architecture, interior architecture, and industrial design. When the pandemic hit during spring break, the university took an extra week off and then moved to online-only instruction. It faced a number of challenges in the process, a major one being the accessibility of technology. Many of the college’s 850 students, reliant on technology available through the university, were left without the tools necessary to complete their work. Another issue was that some faculty members had difficulty making the transition to online instruction with their materials.
Gail Peter Borden, FAIA, director of graduate programs, felt there were many benefits to the shift into digital instruction. For example, he found the ability to pull up examples and precedents on the fly with ease and show them to students during discussions to be extremely effective. He also points out that the spring semester was interrupted after the first half of a typical semester, so momentum had already been established. As a result, it fared better than the summer semester, which was the first to take place fully online. This echoes some of the other instructors’ comments about how class camaraderie and comfort level as a group develop.
For the upcoming fall semester, the University of Houston is planning to implement a “HyFlex” concept for instruction: Classes will meet both face to face and digitally, and will have the ability to switch between the two forms as needed or desired. As plans began to take shape, all classes with an enrollment of 50 students or more were automatically pushed to online only. These larger courses may even be taught both synchronously and asynchronously to provide flexibility for students and faculty. Also, the entire university has expanded its weekly schedule from Monday through Saturday and extended each day from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. for instruction. The university took control over all the scheduling and the facilities for the purpose of planning out the fall semester.
Within the School of Architecture, a decision was made to prioritize younger students and studios, as well as first-year graduate students, for face-to-face instruction. The current plan is for these students to meet as much as possible in person in the fall. Students will be polled to determine their preferred instructional method, and then the school will attempt to adjust accordingly. Studio spaces will not have permanent desks but will implement the “hot-desk” strategy. This is mainly due to the constraints of available space to provide the necessary social distancing for face-to-face instruction. “Hot-desking” will allow all of the first-year, second-year, and first-year graduate studios to be held in the building. Third-, fourth-, and fifth-year studios will be held online only.
Borden expressed a growing concern that has begun to develop during this time about the lack of physical making, which is often a critical component of architectural education. He says, “The pandemic has pushed even more paper architecture to the forefront, and I worry about the impact this has on these students when they move into the real world and have to actually make real things.”
Texas A&M University
The College of Architecture at Texas A&M University comprises the Department of Architecture, along with Construction Science, Landscape Architecture & Urban Planning, and Visualization. The Department of Architecture, like its fellow schools, was forced to respond to the pandemic during spring break. At first, the university’s main goal for the transition to the digital classroom was to maintain the quality of the education as well as the momentum that had been building in the spring up to that point. Instruction was reactive and explorative of the limitations and possibilties of the forced online format. During the spring, the department had two programs in operation overseas, one in Spain and another in Italy. Even before spring break and the shift to online learning in the U.S., those students were told to return home. Like most of its academic compatriots, the A&M Department of Architecture managed the remaining spring semester as successfully as possible in an atmosphere of constant change.
By the summer session, both students and faculty had become acclimated to the digital-only environment and settled into this “new normal.” However, a dilemma that began to manifest during this adaptation was the loss of studio culture. Professor Michael O’Brien notes: “In my summer studio, the students lament they really miss the aspect of camaraderie within the physical studio environment.” Visiting Assistant Professor Davi De Lima Vaz Xavier makes the same point — his students “want a place to congregate in person and share ideas as in previous semesters.” It is becoming clear that the opportunities to exchange ideas are being lost amid the requirements of social distancing. The spring was more about the pandemic’s impact on pedagogy, but those issues worked themselves out fairly quickly. Now the focus begins to be mainly on methods of collaboration, which becomes more complicated in the separated space. As the faculty moves toward the fall semester, the question becomes, “How can an instructor facilitate this missing component of studio culture that once happened so organically throughout the course of any given semester?”
As with much of the world during the pandemic, fall plans for the A&M Department of Architecture are in flux. At this time, Texas A&M University has stated it will commit to a minimum of 50 percent face-to-face instruction for all students, and the Department of Architecture plans to follow suit. Of course, the issue of available space limits the number of classes that can be accommodated. The current plan is to give on-site preference to first- and second-year studios, attempting to provide in-person instruction for all of these. Upper-level studios will be more focused on online delivery, with some in-person availability. Also, to best accommodate face-to-face instruction and the need for additional classroom cleaning, class hours will extend later into the evening, up to 8:35 p.m. on some days.
A&M enters the fall with an array of factors at play. Gregory Luhan, AIA, formerly at the University of Kentucky, was announced as the new head of the Department of Architecture amidst the pandemic crisis and officially assumed the role in July. Furthermore, the upcoming academic year is scheduled as a NAAB accreditation year. Luhan notes that the department has also been able to expand its network thanks to the increased collaboration possibilities that online delivery provides: The number of networks and people that the department now has “access” to is not limited by distance or dollars. Reflecting on his transition to a new university during such a tumultuous time, Luhan states: “As a new department head, coming in at this time, the first question I asked was, ‘What did we learn?’ How can we leverage our collective knowledge in a manner that can now become accessible to all students for their benefit? This situation has brought about a strong need to reassess the knowledge sharing across all faculty and students, to collaborate and bring everyone’s expertise to the table.”
As the fall semester gets underway, it is clear that architectural education will continue to feel the impact of this pandemic in multiple, unexpected ways. On a positive note, the removal of distance and economics as a hindrance has led to the involvement of more “outsiders.” This may be the greatest benefit, helping all the schools of architecture to rise from the proverbial ashes of this pandemic educational upheaval. On the other hand, the loss of studio culture, which was already diminishing, may become even more exacerbated moving forward. It is possible, though, that this pandemic will draw attention to this issue and cause a resurgence of the studio culture as a critical component of architectural education in the more classical sense. What seems certain is that there will be more positive and negative outcomes resulting from the shifts in education caused by the pandemic, many of which may not reveal themselves for years to come.
Anastasia Calhoun is a writer based in San Antonio. Andrew Hawkins, AIA, is an architect based in College Station.