Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Celebrating Studios Days Spring 2015

Posted 15 May 2015 / 0

Being on the school Calendar Committee is not the most glamorous academic service assignment. Our task — create the academic calendar for coming school years — seems so simple that it might beg the question “what’s the need for a committee?”. Well, once you find a ‘calendar system’ that works for a given institution, the need for the committee does pretty much dissolve away. But what if the calendar that is being followed just is not working for the school?

That was the situation faced by our Calendar Committee several years ago. At Pratt, semester-end critiques of various kinds — they go by names like “survey” and “view” and “final reviews” — are the culminating events of our students’ studio courses. As such they are arguably the most important event of the semester, as the creative work of students is assembled and assessed in various ways. Strangely, Pratt had for the last 125 years of being a studio-based education not reserved time exclusively dedicated for these semester’s-end events, many of which go on for hours. As a result, these final critiques were haphazardly scheduled during the final three weeks of the semester, frequently poaching time (and even classrooms) from the non-studio courses. Under this old calendar, students faced a tough question: should I skip my non-studio courses during the last few weeks of the semester so I can complete my studio work and attend my critiques, or should I go to my regularly-scheduled non-studio courses? This question is actually pretty easy to answer — always honor you studio is the mantra here — but left students and their non-studio professors in awkward position of ‘pretending’ that the rest Pratt’s educational experience was not being neglected.

The Calendar Committee came up with a simple but controversial solution to this problem: add four Studio Days to the academic calendar. Faculty and students alike are not particularly enthusiastic about extending the semester, but in this case prolonging the semester was needed. The alternative was to continue to place students into a no-win situation by asking them to choose between their studio work and their non-studio courses. The way that Studio Days function — when they are properly utilized — is somewhat ingenious. In between academic weeks fourteen (the final week of regular classes) and fifteen (final exams and other final assignments), four Studio Days take place and are the exclusive realm of the studio courses and the majors. Students have a weekend before these days to put the finishing touches on their work, and they can exclusively focus on their creative work up until the day that their final critique is scheduled. Once Studio Days are over, students have a second weekend to recover from their creative efforts and begin to study for final exams and other final assessments in their academic courses.

Allowing students to compartmentalize their final effort in the creative and academic realms is not the only benefit of Studio Days. These four days also open up amazing opportunities for students and faculty to interact with the work of students outside of their studio, their major, or even their school. In the past, students were lucky if they could make it to their own critiques much less the critiques of their peers, because critique sessions were overlaid on their already-hectic weekly academic schedule. Similarly, professors would be forced to miss any display of final work that interfered with their teaching schedule or other responsibilities. As a person who used to do a lot of graphic design (such as it was!), I have always liked visiting the Communications Design surveys, but frequently I would miss them due to conflicts with my teaching schedule. Studio Days have afforded me the opportunity to visit a variety of studio events, as I have no other academic commitments during these four days.

The Fall 2014 semester was the first to incorporate Studio Days, but was a horrible semester for me, so I did not take advantage of Studio Days. Some of my colleagues have really resented the inclusion of Studio Days because they lengthen the semester, but technically-speaking they do not add workload because if you don’t teach studio you have four days off and if you don’t teach academic classes your semester ends with Studio Days. I can see why part-timers, who do a lot of the same work for much lower pay, might be frustrated by Studio Days (because they are basically four unpaid days that delay the end of the semester) and not want to use them to visit studio critiques (because this work is unpaid). But as a full-timer paid to be here for nine months, I consider it part of my job to better understand the creative endeavors of my students, and I am excited to attend any of their semester-end events at which I am welcome.

So it was that I wandered over to Higgins Hall, the separate island inhabited by the undergraduate and graduate Architecture programs at Pratt. I have had some interaction with programs in Architecture in the past, mostly with the Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment, but I had never attended any of the final reviews in Architecture. This has been my second semester teaching Ecology for Architects, and it was high time that I use the final reviews process to better understand my students’ studio lives.

The majority of my Ecology for Architects students are second year students, and I managed to beg a few of them to invite me to their second-year studio reviews. Each studio has a different design prompt that all students are working on, and I happened to visit three studios that all had the same basic prompt: to build a lab, teaching, and live/work space on the existing campus of the Wave Hill public garden and cultural center. This was a pretty ambitious assignment, as Wave Hill has beautiful grounds that already feature a number of structures, including a lot of 19th-century architecture. Given the existing architecture and the fact that the location is basically designed to create vistas, imposing a new building leaves lots of room for ruining the place. Ecologically the space is also interesting, as it is highly landscaped and ‘human-modified’, but it also is attempting to bring visitors closer to nature. I have never been to Wave Hill, but a combination of images students displayed and a good look at Google Maps gave me a sense of the place.

As sophomores, these students are just beginning to work on big projects of this sort. As such, there were a lot of kinks to be worked out in their work, and I learned a lot from the critiques given. In some cases I anticipated the critique that students received, but in a lot of other cases I was just trying to hang onto the architectural concepts being bandied about. I love being dropped into a new culture, trying to figure out how different words are being used, but this novel exposure can be daunting. I am starting to understand the difference between a section, a plan, and an elevation, but I still am not entirely sure how to define an ‘architectural move’.

For the most part I just watched the critiques, although as soon as it was clear that I was a fellow Pratt professor the architecture professors on hand treated my potential perspective with more respect than it deserved. For the most part there was not a lot that I had to contribute, as the work was mostly about how to create a building that met particular use requirements in the context of this location. One of my Ecology for Architects students from this semester, Russell Low, had created a building that extended out into the surrounding forest canopy, and when there was a question about how to deal with the understory layer of his building I was able to insert some ideas about phenology. I made a couple of other minor comments over the course of the two days I spent at these critiques, but overall I was more lurker than participant. It would be interesting to visit a final review in a studio where the prompt was at least partially related to creating a sustainable design, as I would likely have more to add to this critique.

The entire process and culture of architectural reviews was fascinating and new to me. Although the ‘touch’ of different studio professors and invited jurors varied quite a bit, the critiques were often quite personal, addressing the students’ work habits, insecurities, and shortcomings. At times I felt a bit embarrassed for particular students, but the work on display did suggest that those particular students needed to make a major shift in their approach. Visiting these critiques made me question my own approach to teaching, which is pretty impersonal. My general attitude is that it is not appropriate for me to comment on the work habits of students; instead, I give them lots of feedback on their work itself and expect them to figure out how to improve their work habits as needed. Sitting in on critiques — and seeing the world my students are most used to — made me question whether I should be a bit more personal with them. At times my students seem to be frustrated by my robotic nature (even though I feel I am a pretty warm person in the classroom). Perhaps engaging them at the level of work habits would make them feel more like I care.

The other really interesting thing I took home from my visit to Architecture final reviews was that communicating a building design is no simple task. Although students pulled from a huge toolbox of communication tools (plan, section, elevation, axonometric, and rendered images plus a variety of different models at different scales), they often struggle to communicate the idea behind their building. The buildings these students had created were mostly designed using Rhino, so their designs were pretty detailed. But in many cases it was not at all clear what the building was supposed to be in the end, even to the trained architects in the room. Thinking about it a bit, I realized how difficult it is to provide your audience with a clear vision of what your building would actually feel like in the landscape or feel like as one walked through it. Some students struggled with producing images that effectively captured their ideas, and some even seemed to have faltered at getting the idea in their head into the design software that produces all these images. Increasingly — across all my students from all disciplines — I see that we need to better teach what I would call “empathetic presentation”, the ability to anticipate what your intended audience needs in order to understand your idea.

In addition to two days of architecture reviews, I also managed to make it to three other final displays of work that I enjoy: Junior Communications Design survey, the Pratt Design Show, and the senior show for Fine Arts Sculpture majors. CommD survey is an amazing smorgasbord of work, as every student in a particular class has space (usually about 4′ x 8′) in which to display their best work of the semester. CommD is actually a really diverse program, with students focusing to varying degrees on typography, layout, packaging design, illustration, advertisements, and time-based video and interactive work. I am particularly interested in illustration and advertisement because these fields are most focused on the communications aspect of design. While there is a lot of communicating about things that I find really inane (mostly consumer products that I deem unnecessary), there is also a fair amount of tackling of important ideas. (Basically my hope is that every CommD student rebels and uses their skillset to communicate important social ideas rather than ‘buy this’ ideas, but that’s just me dreaming). There are also projects — similar to the architecture studio-wide prompts — that stem from a common goal; this year, a lot of students were charged with making a “Birds of Brooklyn” campaign, and it was fun to see all the diverse approaches to this challenge.

This year there was a big controversy on campus when Pratt decided to move its Pratt Design Show, which features the selected work of our most accomplished graduating students in the design departments, from a rented space in the heart of Manhattan to our campus’ gymnasium. Yeah, I know that it sounds bad. Financially, times have been a bit tougher on campus, and there has been an effort to cut back on expenses deemed unnecessary. Senior design students were none too pleased about the change, launching a rare grassroots campaign on campus to reverse this change. The Pratt Design Show is a major showcase for industry professionals, and students were understandably concerned that moving the show from Manhattan to Brooklyn would reduce their potential exposure and therefore their job prospects. Concerns that the show would feel like it was taking place in a gym proved to be unfounded: the final space was beautiful, showcasing student work in way that was at least as good at the previous Pratt Shows. But I cannot say whether or not the traffic from industry professionals was lowered. It was a whole lot easier for me to visit the work, as it was just above my office (yes, I do hear basketballs bouncing over my head if I stay too late at work). I enjoyed the show, in particular the work from graduate and undergraduate Industrial Design students. There was a lot of industrial design work focused on solving a variety of important problems, including safety equipment and design aimed at users in the developing world; these designs were among my favorites. I also enjoyed the CommD work on display, including work from former student Bailey Crawford.

I also enjoyed the senior Sculpture show, although I admit that I needed a bit more guide to it. A few students had really clear artist’s statements that gave me a lead on their work. A former student of mine, Sophie Morris, had a set of works that confronted the nature of collected and retained items that I was able to connect to. But a lot of the works were without explanation — despite there being the clear opportunity to contextualize the work in the show program — and that left me pretty disappointed. Fine arts has an amazing potential, but I feel that a lot of that potential gets caught up in the personal exploration involved. I am fine with seeing work that is personal and about expressing the identity of the artist, but only if that identity can connect with other people. Looking at an isolated personal work ‘in a box’ is not something I value.

Overall, I had a ‘successful Studio Days‘, but I do not think that the Studio Days concept has come anywhere close to reaching its potential. A large part of this has to do with disseminating information about what is going on during Studio Days. There is the Pratt Shows page, but this is really just devoted to showcasing the work of graduating students, and I am interested in seeing not just the final product of our programs but also the process by which this product is made. I basically had to beg my students to tell me when and where their final reviews would take place, and in many cases they did not know until the last minute. Each program continues to think of itself as an island, expressing in deeds if not words the attitude that so long as we let our faculty and students know what is going on, we have run a successful year-end critique. This attitude is lamentable. If the major programs made it more clear when and where different year-end displays of work were happening, I think that there would be a lot more cross-campus-traffic at these events. It also would not hurt to invite, welcome, and encourage the participation of students and faculty from outside of each program in which year-end work is displayed. I really like the model of Architecture, in which anyone is welcome to show up at any of the critiques, see what is presented and what is said, and even chime in as appropriate. I think that this kind of ‘open door policy’ does a lot more to build cross-campus understanding, and has the potential to broaden the exposure of our students to different perspectives. A year in, Studio Days has a ways to go.

A Major Post, Architecture, Art & Design, Assessment Methods, Mentoring, Pratt Institute, Teaching

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