Going Virtual

Student Ritam Niyogi discusses his project with University of Manitoba professor Lisa Landrum. “My conversations with Ritam had previously been oriented around his physical model­—so it was natural for him to bring it over to show me as he narrated a walk-through and described final changes,” writes Landrum.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused over 100,000 infections in Canada alone. It has also disrupted the country’s education system. According to a recent study by RBC, some two million university and college students—let alone scores of school-aged children—have had their classes moved online.

While this is a “new normal” for most post-secondary institutions, at the RAIC Centre for Architecture at Athabasca University, we have been running a completely online program in architectural education for the last 10 years. Through its Bachelor of Science in Architecture and Graduate Diploma in Architecture, the Alberta-based (but entirely online) institution offers a full spectrum of virtual courses and studios. The courses, ranging from history to structures, are offered asynchronously, allowing students to work independently and at their own pace. The studios are synchronous, with students meeting via videoconference each week with their instructor and with fellow students.

What we have learned over the past decade is particularly pertinent to the current situation, in which many architecture classrooms will remain shuttered through the fall. While unfortunate, the widespread closures of physical architecture schools also affords an opportunity to re-examine, through a larger lens, how we are educating the next generation of architects.

Not surprisingly, Athabasca’s online design studios have attracted considerable controversy, as many contend that studio simply can’t be taught online. The studios began with an RAIC-prompted pilot project in 2015, led by Edmonton architect Cynthia Dovell. The pilot was such a success that, with Dovell’s help, Athabasca rolled out a full suite of 10 studios that still run to this day. The studios were first delivered with Adobe Connect (backed with dedicated phone lines) and now use Zoom. Due to student demand—and because logistics are relatively easy—studios currently run three times a year: in summer, fall and winter.

This experience with virtual studios has proven invaluable in the present crisis. The faculty of the Centre for Architecture has been in demand across the country (and even in the United States) to help with final, online reviews at other universities.

The faculty’s advice has also been sought as coursework moves online. A key lesson, however, is that a course or a studio can’t be simply moved online by cutting and pasting the content from one medium to another. Asynchronous courses need to be carefully prepared and supported, since students will be working on their own—often late at night, when there is no support available.

This also holds true for virtual studios. In particular, instructors need to appreciate the possibilities of the new tools. For example, Zoom now includes a wide variety of drawing tools that allow critics to mark up drawings. After a presentation, the critic can also take control of a student’s presentation and speak to individual slides directly. All this demands a certain amount of agility from the critics. Instead of merely referring a student to an interesting precedent, for example, I now maintain a PowerPoint deck of key examples that I augment on the fly. I can share my screen and immediately show the student a pertinent building, and then indicate with drawing tools why it is relevant. We also record reviews so that students and faculty can access them later.

Architect Vedanta Balbahadur led a one-month intensive studio for McGill students, where crits regularly involved digitally sketching over student images during design conversations. “The sketches serve as touchstones to which [the students] can refer; they are, in a sense, a version of digital tracing paper,” writes Balbahadur. Included is work by students Mariana Botero, Winnky Chen, Sara Cipolla, Lia Di Giulio, Gabrielle Goldman, Zineb Hameda Benchekroun,Thomas King, Jonah Rappaport, Frédéric Verrier-Paquet and Michelle Wang.

It has often been pointed out that you cannot replicate the culture and community of an architectural studio in an online environment. There is some truth to this. In any online learning environment, it is difficult to keep students engaged, and online attrition rates are high.

We are, however, finding ways to address this issue. One of Athabasca’s faculty members, Dr. Henry Tsang, developed a 24/7 virtual lounge in Zoom, where students can drop in and videoconference with others in their studio. Recently, three of our students used the lounge to collaborate on the Evolvo Skyscraper competition. One was in Edmonton, one in Toronto and the third in Montreal. They never met in person, and while they didn’t win, they did produce a very credible entry.

Earlier this year, Cynthia Dovell delivered the Centre for Architecture’s first dual-credit-offering design studio in two Edmonton high schools. Dual-credit is one of the most exciting (and underused) opportunities in Canadian education: in provinces which have the program, students get credit towards both their high school diploma and a university degree, and the cost is covered by the province. When the pandemic closed the high schools, Dovell moved the studio from a face-to-face course to an online offering. While attrition rates in most of the school board’s other online courses were high, studio attendance and participation in Dovell’s courses continued with little change. To state the obvious, no matter what the technology or delivery method, the expertise of the instructor remains critical to the success of the learners.

A design bootcamp for Edmonton high school students, run by the RAIC Centre for Architecture at Athabasca University, included a forum with architecture graduates Tara McCashin (AVID Architecture), Greg Whistance-Smith (AVID Architecture), and students Malik Doerksen-Grenville (Northern Institute of Technology), Mike Clarke (University of Southern California), Shane Hauser (Dalhousie University), Salam Yousef (Athabasca University), and Joy Olagoke (University of Calgary).

Pandemic aside, the traditional studio culture has some notable problems. Twenty years ago, Thomas Fisher noted that: “Many of the features of today’s design studio—the unquestioned authority of the critic, the long hours, the focus on schematic solutions, the rare discussion of users or clients—were begotten by that 150 year-old system [the École des Beaux Arts].” Is this still the best way to teach design?

The first iPhone was introduced in 2007, so we will soon be teaching a generation of learners who have never known a world without them. On a daily basis, our students are immersed in video games with graphics and interactions that far outstrip anything we can offer. Through Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, our students are members of global communities. Before the pandemic, you could walk into any university-area coffee shop with good Wi-Fi and see dozens of students working on school assignments. Yet few of these advances have been incorporated into our teaching of architecture.

This highlights systemic problems that extend beyond architectural education. One problem is that the Canadian educational market is too small to develop materials tailored specifically to our country. We then compound that problem by encouraging each province and territory to maintain its own unique curriculum. Within each province, every college and university has its own structures course and its own history of architecture course. There is no co-operation, and nothing is ever shared—an attitude contrary to the value proposition of digital learning.

Even at Athabasca University, we are still at what Marshall McLuhan called the “horseless carriage” stage of online learning, where we try to make this new world conform with the old world that we are more comfortable with. To a great extent, our courses are still locked into the framework of images and texts, with an occasional video.

For her course at Ryerson, architect Linda Zhang asked her Ryerson students to Zoom in using their model images as a virtual backdrop.
The students also did 3D scans of their pandemic workspaces. “We mainly wanted to visualize the inequity of WFH for my students,” writes Zhang. “Not everyone had access to a desk, or even knowing where they would live next month for that matter.” Image by Laura Trinchini

The possibilities, however, are enormous—and disruptive.

In 2016, the Centre for Architecture began working with three other schools—the Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico, the Cardiff School of Art & Design, and the University of the Witwatersrand—to deliver a Sustainable Building Science Workshop. In the session, students collaborated online to create healthy, energy-efficient buildings. This activity was expanded in 2019, becoming a Sustainable Building Science Student Festival with over 100 participants from Canada, Mexico, Wales, Botswana and Nigeria. Led by Dr. Kristen Kornienko of the Centre for Architecture, learners took part in activities including surveys, lectures and the use of energy modelling software provided by faculty member Trevor Butler and Richard Kroeker of Dalhousie University.

Most recently, these organizations have launched a Global Virtual Lecture Series. The first lecture, by Parisian architect Odile Decq, was attended by over 400 participants from 34 countries. Subsequent lectures have been offered on mass timber construction and on the liminal ritual spaces of Kuruman, South Africa.

The hope is to use this Global Studio as a vehicle to help instructors and students from around the world create content and curriculum that no single person could produce on their own. On her YouTube channel “Surviving Architecture,” UK architecture student Rasha Shrourou shares a new weekly video, on topics such as laying out portfolios or generating architectural renderings. She’s created dozens of videos, but there’s no reason why, equipped with the same tools, architecture students from around the world couldn’t share hundreds more. The obvious advantage to the online world is that once created, a piece of content can be reproduced and shared repeatedly at little or no cost. What would be possible, one wonders, if Canadian schools worked together to create a single stellar online structures course or building code course?

But then again, perhaps what we really need to do is to listen more closely to students. Laure Nolte, a Master of Architecture student at Dalhousie University, is one of the co-founders of the Supernatural Design Collective. As their website explains, “We are advocating for architecture and design communities to move beyond damage limitation (sustainability) and toward a regenerative perspective,” More than that, however, Nolte asks, “Why isn’t the curriculum shifting? What are we trying to preserve? We’re still talking about Le Corbusier as the base without contextualizing modernism within a very Eurocentric canon of architecture.” She suggests that “faculty need to learn from the students as much as the students need to learn from the faculty.”

Other student-led groups are also advocating for deep changes to the standard curriculum. At the University of Calgary, Master of Architecture student Joy Olagoke is among a group that has launched Advocates for Equitable Design Education. Olagoke writes, “We’re trying to foster a more inclusive atmosphere that teaches different perspectives, and challenges problematic social norms.” As their website points out, “When we take the time to be critical of global changes, it is clear that design education and professions have failed to take action against injustices which we knowingly or unknowingly perpetuate.”

In Building and Dwelling, urbanist Richard Sennet remarks that “I tried to orient my planning work to that moment when it was time for me to get out of the way.” For those of us who are used to being in charge, getting out of the way will be painful, disturbing—and necessary. I believe our students have the drive, will and intelligence to be leaders, rather than solely followers, as we transform architectural education.

Project by McGill students Michelle Wang and Winnky Chen, with online markups by Vedanta Balbahadur
Project by McGill students Mariana Botero and Thomas King, with online markups by Vedanta Balbahadur
Project by McGill students Lia Di Giulio and Sara Cipolla, with online markups by Vedanta Balbahadur
Project by McGill students Jonah Rappaport and Zineb Hameda Benchekroun, with online markups by Vedanta Balbahadur
Project by McGill students Gabrielle Goldman and Frédéric Verrier-Paquet, with online markups by Vedanta Balbahadur

This hints at the real power of Athabasca University—and it has nothing to do with technology. Instead, it’s an institution that takes pride in its openness. Anyone who has completed a high school diploma can register in its Bachelor of Science of Architecture, and can start an academic course any month of the year. In the 2018 to 2019 school year, the Centre for Architecture served 488 students. These included students enrolled in the Bachelor and Graduate Diploma programs, but also RAIC Syllabus students who take academic courses through Athabasca, Broadly Experienced Foreign Architects who take its professional practice courses, and students from bricks-and-mortar schools who needed to make up a course. There were also students from business, nursing, science and other fields, who were simply interested in architecture. The Athabasca model is scaleable: if there are 30 new students in a month, then the university hires another academic expert to work with them, without needing to find a new classroom or studio space.

488 students makes the Centre for Architecture’s offerings one of the largest undergraduate programs in the country, but it is distinct from other programs in an important way: almost none of its students are full-time. They include those living in remote communities such as the far North; those whose partners are in the armed forces and must move frequently; those with familial commitments that do not allow them to relocate; and those who must work full- or part-time. There is no architecture school in Canada that can serve these students. As such, Athabasca is not in competition with any physical school, because it serves a market of students who simply cannot attend an architecture program on a full-time basis.

This is critical if we are to build a profession that is diverse and inclusive, because these are voices that need to be heard. While the cost of tuition is high, eight months of room and board per year in a city like Toronto or Vancouver is vastly more expensive. Allowing students to stay (and work) in their home communities can make architectural education far more affordable. In this sense, the most important benefit of an online program is to make architectural education accessible to a wide variety of diverse groups throughout Canada, and by doing so, to unlock the design talent that is inherent in communities across the country.

And this is essential to the future of the profession. A few years ago, Ted Landsmark—President Emeritus of Boston Architectural College, Director of the Dukakis Center on Urban & Regional Policy at Northeastern University, and a pioneer in the use of virtual studios—shared the following thoughts about virtual studios and why they are so important:

Assuming equal competence with the technology (which tends to be gender and colour-blind), the online studio tends to create a more supportive, transparent, and equitable learning environment that helps undercut the current hierarchy of domineering (primarily male) personalities that has characterized design education for so long. Women are not dismissed for their “weak” presentations, while people of colour are less likely to be stereotyped as “outsiders.” Pregnant mothers and individuals with limited linguistic skills can have their work assessed primarily on the basis of how well the design works, rather than on the basis of what the designers may look or sound like. The work tends to be assessed on the basis of its actual design quality, or lack thereof.

[…] Individual faculty [have] become resistant to change, in a profession that must have both traditional and innovative approaches to meeting client and aesthetic needs. This new form of learning thus opens the profession to new design solutions in ways that can help reduce the decades‐long decline in the percentage of work actually being done by architects within the broader context of the built environment. So, new learning models can help improve the economic futures of all involved with the profession.

I am, myself, an “old white male,” and Landsmark’s note challenges many of the tenets of architecture I still hold dear. But, as painful as it may be, there is no doubt that it is time for change. The current pandemic, combined with the judicious use of contemporary technologies, provides all of us with an opportunity to dramatically transform architectural education—and the profession—for the better. Now, more than ever, schools of architecture need to work together to make the most of this situation.

Douglas MacLeod, FRAIC, is chair of the RAIC Centre for Architecture at Athabasca University, and interim dean of Athabasca University’s Faculty of Science and Technology.