Prepared by Mohammad al-Asad and Majd Musa, 2000
This essay deals with two interrelated subjects that William J. Mitchell (1), the Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), presented to Diwan al-Mimar. The first subject is the future of the design studio. More specifically, he dealt with experiments that have been carried out over the past six years at MIT in the teaching of architectural design, and which have aimed at rethinking the idea and the tradition of the design studio. The second subject is the ArchNet project, an Internet-based on-line resource for architecture, urbanism, and related issues that MIT is developing with the support of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
William J. Mitchell began this presentation with a photograph of a design studio at MIT dating back to the late nineteenth century (figure 1). (2) What is intriguing about this photograph is that it depicts an environment that does not differ drastically from the design studio of today. The photograph shows the studio as an environment for working. In it one finds tools for creating representations of works of architecture, and also for carrying out mental processes relating to the exploration, analysis, and critique of these works of architecture. The traditional tools for carrying out these tasks include drafting boards, parallel slides, triangles, paper, and pens and pencils. These tools were used in the nineteenth century and are still in use today.
The photograph indicates that the studio is also an environment that provides reference materials needed by the designer to support the design process. Such reference materials take many shapes and forms such as drawings pinned up on the wall, as well as shelves and filing cabinets containing books, magazines, and photographs. The more information one can place in the studio, the more effective it becomes as an environment for carrying out the design process.
Most importantly, the photograph shows the design studio as a social environment. In it, interaction structured around ideas related to architecture takes place. Such interaction includes various forms such as informal discussions among students, the more formal mechanism of the instructor critiquing an individual student's work, or what is known as the "desk crit", and the even more formal design jury.
Following that, Mitchell displayed a slide showing an MIT architectural design studio from about 1960 (figure 2). The slide indicates that the studio had not changed much over a period of around a century. The traditional tools for representation such as the drawing boards and the cardboard and wooden models are still in use. Also, the same traditional reference materials such as pinned up drawings, books, magazines, and photographs are a part of the studio space. Of course, the critique session indicates that the studio remains a setting in which the social function of interaction between students and instructors takes place.
Mitchell sees numerous positive features of the functions of the traditional studio, and argues that they should be retained and accentuated. However, he also argues that some of the traditional physical and pedagogical aspects of the studio need to be reconsidered. To begin with, the traditional representations that designers make using their hands, such as drawings, and cardboard and wooden models, have their limitations in terms of expressing a certain design and the ideas behind it. Traditional drafting instruments are not as flexible as one requires them to be in creating representations of an architectural idea. Also, the designer's ability to analyze a design represented through traditional methods remains limited. (3) Consequently, more innovative and advanced representation tools need to be integrated into the design process.