Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Terminal Studio Review

Paul Dustrud, AIA, makes a point about Dylan Garza's terminal studio project as Dylan (standing, left) looks on. (All photos by me).
The University of Oregon’s Department of Architecture requires its professional degree program candidates to complete a two-term advanced studio during their final year of studies. Two academic quarters in duration, the generous timeframe lets each student develop a comprehensive, complex, and creative architectural design, wide-ranging in its execution. The terminal studio project is the student’s best and last opportunity to demonstrate his or her mastery of fundamental design and presentation skills before moving on to face the exigencies and realities of professional life. 
Professor Michael Fifield, FAIA, has regularly asked me to be a reviewer for his studio classes. Whenever possible, I enthusiastically respond by saying “yes!” I not only enjoy the reviews but also attach great seriousness to the responsibility of providing constructive feedback for the students. Some of the best and most helpful critiques I received when I was in school came from practicing architects; I’m hopeful my words, now founded on more than three decades of professional experience, are equally useful to students whose work I review. 
In addition to Michael, other members of the Department of Architecture faculty who have invited me to participate in their studio reviews include Virginia Cartwright, Nancy Cheng, Don Corner, Mark Gillem, Jim Givens, Otto Poticha, Michael Pyatok, Rob Thallon, Glenda Utsey, and Jenny Young (I know I’m probably forgetting several others). I’m grateful to all of them for the chance to do so because every review is truly a pleasure. 
Michael’s Housing Innovations Project (HIP) provided his students with the flexibility to explore the design of housing with sites and programs of their own choosing. All of the students enrolled in his studio brought with them some prior knowledge with multifamily housing, either through Michael’s Housing Prototypes course or the equivalent offered by another instructor. The entire studio also traveled to San Francisco prior to the Winter Term to visit several firms noted for their work on multifamily housing projects, and also to tour notable built examples. 
I was impressed by the variety of the projects generated by Michael’s studio. This mixture included dense, affordable housing solutions in major urban centers (Chicago, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, among them) as well as townhouses, an extended stay hotel, and market rate apartments for senior living. Michael directed his students to work within existing zoning bylaws and applicable building codes for the locales in which their projects were situated. They also developed their respective functional programs on density expectations and analyses of the specific community needs and/or market demands. 
Lauren Rice listens as Juli Brode comments on Lauren's design for a "New Occidental Hotel" in Seattle. 
A unique aspect of the University of Oregon’s Department of Architecture is its long custom (established by W.R.B. Wilcox nearly a century ago) of eschewing a competitive learning environment and letter grades in favor of a supportive studio culture and individual evaluation through discussion and written assessments. The intent is to avoid the risk of arbitrarily fixing a standard of excellence; instead, the goal is to encourage each student to constantly question and learn, to acquire a broad understanding of culture and society, and, beyond this, to be an influence in forging those values, aspirations and character. This approach encourages open-mindedness, critical inquiry, collaboration, and risk taking, all necessary qualities for creative achievement. 
The school likewise employs “reviews” as opposed to “juries.” In practice, the distinction between the two isn’t that marked but the words themselves signify a meaningful difference. We regard “reviews” as evaluations. On the other hand, we think of “juries” as judgmental. Simply being characterized as a reviewer rather than as a member of a jury profoundly casts one in a different role. 
Taken together, Oregon’s emphasis on student development rather than competition, and the avoidance of hypercritical or condemnatory evaluations has fostered a setting most conducive to learning and exploration. 
ZGF Architects Design Partner Larry Bruton, FAIA, holds the floor as he engages Saya Shimada in a conversation regarding her "Rainier Beach Townhomes" project.   
In a brilliant piece for the website Section Cut entitled “The Final Review: Negaters Gonna Negate,” Mark Stanleya Lecturer and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee’s College of Architecture and Design—discussed the challenges facing reviewers. He also described the practice of reviews as a microcosm of everything about the process of architecture that make it such an enthralling pursuit: 
“In many ways architecture review culture mirrors the discipline itselfit sits somewhere between the unconstrained, wildly productive studio art review where students say nothing and the work speaks for itself, and the controlled, disciplinary thesis defense where the saying of things is as important as anything. It’s somewhere between being creative and discursive, between intuition and method, between beautiful and substantial. I revel in the potential of this weird moment. It is the most exciting, most valuable, most vibrant moment in design education, and many of the reasons that make it bad are precisely the reasons that make it good.” 
At their best, the students’ final reviews are fertile with epiphanies and leaps of understanding. The students naturally seek validation for their design concepts and execution, but they should first and foremost embrace the process of intellectual exchange and discourse with the reviewers. They should learn everything they can from the experience. I’m also quick to remind them to take my comments and those of my fellow reviewers with a grain of salt. After all, the students know their projects better than anyone else. 
My goal is to elicit from the student whether he or she framed the design problem clearly and then did their best to come up with a solution that is as thoughtful as it should be. This is particularly the case for terminal studio project reviews because the expectation is the students have acquired the aptitude and skills necessary to be effective designers and communicators. In the best Oregon tradition, I want each review to be exciting, valuable, and vibrant for the student, not because it is filled with drama and grandstanding, but instead because real learning is taking place. 
Final review presentation materials by Saya Shimada: drawings, physical models at varying scales, and a bound report documenting her program, project goals, design assumptions, and the concept.
Big thanks to Michael for inviting me to his studio’s final review. It was the de facto culmination of the architecture school experience for his students, certainly a proud and exciting moment for them. I heartily congratulate all of the studio members for achieving this significant milestone, and look forward to their future contributions toward the betterment of architecture and our world. My parting words to them now: Get some sleep, you've earned it! 


Sheldon said...

LOG! They're sensitive in choosing "review" instead of "jury" but use "terminal." I recall a couple of juries that had a terminal feeling. :)

Randy Nishimura, AIA, CSI, CCS said...

Sheldon: Hmmm . . . Let's see; what would we use as an alternative for "terminal?" The dictionary defines one meaning as "leading to death, especially slowly; incurable, untreatable, inoperable; More fatal, mortal, deadly; immedicable."

Yep. Sounds about right! :)