Studio: Architecture’s Offering to Academe

April 13, 2021

This essay is an edited version of a keynote lecture presented by Denise Scott Brown at the “Para-theses: Current Trajectories in Architectural Research” symposium at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation and Planning. The symposium took place on February 4, 2006 and was organized by Jonathan Lott, Brian Price, and Dominic Leong.


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Control Game Studio, Rice University, 1969. Courtesy of Denise Scott Brown.

Professional and Academic Education

We who educate for the professions sit cheek by jowl with academics in universities, yet our ways differ from theirs and we may have something special to offer them, both in teaching and in how we think of research and design. So, because I believe that having the studio model available in the university is valuable in many respects, I’ve subtitled my talk Architecture’s Offering to Academe. I’ve also defined my topic more broadly than the subject of this conference. This reflects an aim of both my teaching and practice to set the context by surveying a wider terrain, then helping people to focus within it.

Architect and planners, whether they design buildings, or recommend policy, are involved in doing. Therefore architectural and planning education requires training for doing. Academic education, on the other hand, trains for teaching and research. University professors tend to teach as they were taught, as if their students were following them into teaching. Few, of course, will and universities today face the problem that action-oriented students see academic teaching methods as irrelevant.

Because professional education involves learning for doing, its methods emphasize learning by doing. Some form of “studio” is found in all professional education. Medical schools have clinics, engineering has labs, law has case studies, business has workshops. In all these there are issues of pure and applied research. I don’t see value in architects’ doing pure research into human physiology or into the systems controls of spaceships, but they can perhaps help on teams researching the functional and visual relationships required within a spaceship cabin—how you reach what you need to use and see what you need to work on within this environment. And maybe designers can help make its occupants feel less constrained. But for the specialized physiological or engineering needs of highly technical design we must expect to work with experts.

However, in architecture, we don’t have, as in medicine, broad ranges of professions between the primary caregiver and the pure scientist—whole sets of professionals who spend their lives on a part of the problem, and help to move knowledge between pure research and the doctor or nurse. What span from pure to applied research should pertain to architecture and at what points within that span should various forms of research be undertaken? How should we plan studios at different points along that span?

And should training for architectural research be academic or professional? Traditionally, the PhD was dedicated to training for the teaching of architectural history and, to some extent, engineering and structures. The professional research degree—the doctorate in architecture—was usually specific to a building-type. You specialized in hospitals, for example.

Research in Studio—Some Examples

My own architectural education started in 1949 in South Africa at Witwatersrand University, an undergraduate professional school.1 Here research was considered one of the professional skills an architect must learn. We did a group research project in our first year. Fourth year was spent either in an architect’s office or (before WWII) in Italy or Greece studying antiquities, which was research of a sort. In your fifth year you wrote a research thesis—there were no design theses at that stage. The research theses were practice-oriented and, I felt, quite limited.

The Architectural Association (AA) in London, when I transferred there in 1952, did not offer organized research programs. But there was a great deal of group work focused on urbanism, and increasingly on the urbanistic ideas of the New Brutalists. Organized trips and architectural sightseeing in and around London were forms of personal research we students did.

The Graduate School of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania—when I got there in 1958—derived its methods from Harvard, out of Gropius, therefore out of the Bauhaus. Like Harvard, Penn supported a broadly based planning department where faculty, mainly from the social sciences, conducted well-funded urban research in an Institute for Urban Studies that contained little provision for architectural research. Nevertheless, I was surprised at the wealth of help and advice available to us students through the research programs at Penn and from teaching assistants who were doctoral students in planning.

But at Penn, Harvard’s methods were mediated by the faculty’s experience in other places—Kahn’s from Philadelphia, Venturi’s from the historically oriented Princeton, and mine from Wits and the AA. And, via the planning faculty, there was a strong social sciences influence from the great planning program at the University of Chicago. In the 1950s and 1960s considerable dissension existed between proponents of the various methods.

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Circulation, New City Punjab, University of Pennsylvania, 1958. Courtesy of Denise Scott Brown.

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Circulation, New City Punjab, University of Pennsylvania, 1958. Courtesy of Denise Scott Brown.

Studio in Architectural Education, the Atelier Tradition

In the traditional architectural studio, “learning by doing” means learning by designing. Most students are headed toward practice and need to gain experience in designing via a carefully structured sequence of studios that helps them acquire increasingly complex design skills. Remember your childhood experience of learning to ride a bicycle. You got on, you didn’t know what to do, but you didn’t read a book—you just did it. You fell off, you got up, you fell off again, got back on, and finally you were riding. You can do it in an afternoon, but you’ll know it for the rest of your life. Well that’s not a bad model for studio. It should not be frowned upon. It’s not antiscientific. It’s the best kind of science for that particular process. But at Penn we had the problem of augmenting the knowledge base of that system, and that was one of my tasks as a studio teacher: How do you add knowledge to the learning-by-doing process?

In most architecture schools studio involves individual projects, and relations between students are often competitive. There is a social side to studios but it has to do with parties, rather than group work. When I studied and taught, the structure of studio was frequently authoritarian and its juries were highly authoritarian. I saw destructive jury members purvey the attitude, “I am high; I have it. You are low; you don’t have it. Maybe you never will,” and I would add under my breath, “Particularly with you around.” This kind of “training” breeds authoritarian personalities, and it’s a big problem in architectural education and later in practice.

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Activity Intensity Patterns, 40th Street Philadelphia, Studio FFF2, University of Pennsylvania, 1964. Courtesy of Denise Scott Brown.

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Building Condition, 40th Street Philadelphia, Studio FFF2, University of Pennsylvania, 1964. Courtesy of Denise Scott Brown.

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40th Street Philadelphia, Studio FFF2, University of Pennsylvania, 1964. Courtesy of Denise Scott Brown.

Studio in Urban Planning Education

Planning studios demand group work and a shared project that is conducted as a collaborative search where research and design intertwine. Penn’s planning studio juries avoided authoritarian posturing. Like the pilpul of an Eastern Europe Yeshiva, they were a discussion, sometimes a fight, an animated throwing of ideas among students and faculty, which tended to spread beyond studio and erupt all over the department.

The 1960s were great years in planning at Penn. Money from Washington for urban renewal brought social scientists into the department, where they created havoc among the physically oriented planners trained in architecture. Sitting in the middle of the debate, I learned much of what I know about pedagogy in architecture and planning.

Penn Planners’ Theories of Studio

I came onto the faculty at Penn in 1960, just as the planning department initiated a curriculum discussion, to which all members contributed.2 These philosophical debates concerned evolving conditions in planning and the relation between traditional physical planning and the emerging demands of social and systems planning. As the predominance of physical planning was more and more contested, so the role of studio in the department came under heavy debate, until eventually it was abandoned. Nevertheless, through the planners’ questioning, I learned more about the nature of studio teaching than I did in architecture faculty meetings.

In theory, studio in planning school was where you tried to apply what you learned in the lecture courses—in urban transportation, land use planning, urban economics, sociology, law, and political science. As one urban design student put it, “Studying transportation is like taking a nasty medicine. It tastes bad but when you take it you get better.” He meant you get to be a better designer. One of my aims in studio was to help the students understand the bad medicine and use it well, but in their own way as designers, not as social scientists or engineers.

The planners posed the planning studio, where you apply what you learn in lectures, against the guru studio, where a great architect leads you to a vision. The planners, and I with them, were quite skeptical of such visions and saw the studio critics as too focused on their own ideas and delinquent in their interdisciplinary duty.3 But, at its best, the visionary studio can help build ideals, probity, and commitment. And its magic can sear you (for good or ill) for life.

Another model is the player-coach studio. Here the faculty member, usually young, is as much identified with the problem as you are, and perhaps uses it as a means of doing research in the thing she or he loves best. The studio project—perhaps an urban settlement in a developing area, perhaps research in Lagos or Las Vegas—is chosen for its high interest to both students and critics. Such studios help, too, to develop ideals and commitment and, through their group work, they build camaraderie; you’re all in it together, and that makes for potent learning.

Given their interdisciplinary subject matter, group work, and oscillation between research and design, planning studios require considerable preplanning. In this phase, many pedagogical and philosophical issues must be considered. For example, what is research and what is design? What should be the balance between the two? What is analysis and what is synthesis, and when, in a studio sequence, do you do one or the other? What is a hypothesis? Is it a design? How and when should the studio process alternate between large-team, small-team, and individual work? How can subgroup findings be generally shared? How do you deal with both creativity and rigor? How do you mix the measurable and unmeasurable? Issues specific to the project must be considered, and decisions made on which aspects of reality to take on in studio, since you can’t manage them all. In the feisty 1960s, these were often to do with the relation between social concern and physical planning.

I used to question the planners’ definition of economic planning as “analysis” and physical planning as “design.” Why can’t you have economic design and physical analysis? I tried to convince my social scientist colleagues that everything we architects do is not intuitive, or done for aesthetic reasons only, but that architecture requires a mixture of functional rigor and artistic creativity.4

My student advisor at Penn, David A. Crane, was the ultimate player coach.5 The studio structure he used came from Harvard. I learned it from him and it provided the structural framework for all the studios I (and later, Bob and I) taught, but we applied it to architectural and urban design material.

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Learning from Levittown, Yale University, 1970. Courtesy of Denise Scott Brown.

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Learning from Levittown, Yale University, 1970. Courtesy of Denise Scott Brown.

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Learning from Levittown, Yale University, 1970. Courtesy of Denise Scott Brown.

My Aims for Studio

My personal aims for studio largely mirror those of the planners, however mine have a strong architectural component.

  • Learning by doing. This concept involves the traditional architectural idea of studio as practicing designing, and the planning studio objective of reinforcing the content of lectures. But, as important, it has to do with the professionalizing of academic knowledge to make it useable by designers. Our Las Vegas and Levittown studios, for example, tried not only to give architects a broader, more interdisciplinary intellectual base but, as well, to help them learn to convert knowledge from other fields, from iconography to regional science, to forms they could use in their work. When we taught the Learning from Levittown studio, I invited an economist to visit. She asked the students, “Who took economics 101?” They all raised their hands, but, as the studio continued, it was apparent that none of them understood economics as it is applied to housing or to anything that they did in architecture. And because they had no way to connect it to their professional concerns they could not even remember what they had learned about it as undergraduates. Studio can help architects make the connection, and learn to apply knowledge gained in undergraduate study or thereafter to their professional work.
  • Adding knowledge and evolving the discipline. A scholarly discipline is defined by the body of concepts and knowledge that supports it, and one role of research is to contribute to this constantly changing penumbra of learning. In professional schools this role can also be filled by doctoral dissertations, the research of scholars, the empirical studies of practitioners and, in architecture, by research-oriented studios. The Las Vegas studio added, inter alia, a concept, The Duck, to architecture: that was a (small) example of discipline building.
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Learning from Las Vegas, Yale University, 1968. Courtesy of Denise Scott Brown.

  • Getting students to read. Perhaps by enticement—finding something they need to read in order to design their project. If necessary, by trickery—saying, “Your opinion is really important to me, so read the books and tell me what you think.”
  • Evolving learning techniques for different learners. Architects tend to be visual learners, and, like art students, many are probably dyslexic. But their talent for visual learning is a learning difference, not a disability, and it’s one especially appropriate for architecture. Yet such learners can feel overwhelmed by book learning, and may believe reading will cramp their ability to design. By tying the reading requirement closely to the design aim, studio can help visual learners discover how to apply their talents to intellectual material—to derive the physical and visual implications of verbal information, and to use these creatively in design.
  • Learning to do life-long learning. Studio parallels and can prepare students for the learning processes of professional practice, where projects must be researched as they are designed. If studio broadens these processes to include areas that would be ignored in practice, it can lead to improved project-related study and a lifetime of intellectual broadening.
  • Building camaraderie. When students work long, intense hours together under deadline on projects that intrigue them, an infectious spirit and a supportive solidarity build up. These help them establish personal professional identities.
  • Building commitment. In developing camaraderie, ideals, professional ethics, and philosophical approach, the studio can help students form their basic commitment to their life’s work.
  • A “home” project. When I entered Penn, I didn’t get to know Philadelphia for six months. I didn’t have time. It’s a kindness to introduce students to the city where they are living by giving them a project based in that city.
  • Studio should be fun. It should be like playing. Children work hard at their play. So should the studio. And if emotions—even anger, on occasion—aren’t triggered, none of us will learn.
  • Share the power. The teacher learns the most, partly because power is a great teacher. It’s also intoxicating, therefore dangerous. You should share it, not take it all yourself. Try to get the students to have some of the power, make them be the teacher in some respect. Let them be judges of what they should show the rest of the class. Let them be part of a jury. Then, when they are the teachers, watch how authoritarian they can become.
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Fair Mount in the Cultural Landscape, University of Pennsylvania, 1983. Courtesy of Denise Scott Brown.

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Fair Mount in the Cultural Landscape, University of Pennsylvania, 1983. Courtesy of Denise Scott Brown.

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Fair Mount in the Cultural Landscape, University of Pennsylvania, 1983. Courtesy of Denise Scott Brown.

Planning the Studio

Some planning must take place in the weeks before studio starts, but the process should continue throughout the semester.

  • Decide on a pedagogical aim and teaching goals. What should they (we) learn this semester? Select the subject matter for the studio. Should it be a root problem or a branch problem—deal with broad issues or take many factors as given and get into detail? In the span of the one semester you can’t do both.6
  • Consider the intertwining between research and design. In research, analysis usually precedes and is a heuristic for synthesis. But the process can be reversed to have synthesis (the design, the hypothesis) generate and set the direction for analysis. This can help researchers target appropriate subject matter, focus their research, and avoid analytic wheel-spinning. Britton Harris, at Penn, described how the whale opens its mouth and goes—and anything that comes into it is food. An early design phase can counter the “whale” method of analysis.

What should be the ratio of time spent within the studio between research and design? How should they be related? A common criticism of physical planning studios was that the students had done a ritual dance called “analysis,” then had closed that book and gone on to their preferred activity, designing—that the one had nothing to do with the other. To deal with this concern, planning faculty tried hard to devise systems for linking analysis and synthesis, research and design.

Dave Crane started his studios with an initial brief period of research. This the students performed ardently because it was in preparation for a sketch design, to occur right after. He allowed four days for the design. This constituted the first synthesis of the analytic material produced by research. He believed that getting students’ minds into a designing mode early helped them understand the project requirements, improved their grasp of the analysis, and showed them the applicability of analytic findings to the design process. But because the first designs suggested further directions for analysis, they were also part of the research process—scientists would have called them hypotheses. They helped Dave, as well, to structure the rest of the studio planning process.

But Dean Holmes Perkins questioned this technique, “Never take architecture students too far away from design. You’ll bore them. Their first love is design. Get them into it as quickly as possible.” So when we returned from Las Vegas, with Holmes’s admonition in mind, I immediately gave the students a sketch design. But they called it, “That busy work Denise is making us do.” Whoever heard an architecture student call design, not research, busy work? In a way, this was the achievement of the studio.

Robert Venturi, my colleague at Penn, and I had much in common. He was the only architecture faculty member who sympathized with my struggles to link social planning and architecture. His approach to design was both conceptual and analytical and he saw designing as, in large part, (self)criticism. Students saw his studios as not for beginners—“he doesn’t tell us what to do.” Venturi’s theories course was a designer’s professionalization of historical knowledge. He treated historical subject matter analytically, comparatively and nonchronologically, showing students how one creative practitioner incorporated his historical research into design. Penn’s two theories courses (Bob’s and mine) were seen by G. Holmes Perkins as a means of building knowledge into studio. Bob’s became a model for the development of theories courses in architectural schools in the 1980s and 1990s. These courses, not studio, have been major vehicles for research and discipline building in architecture since the 1980s, but their focus has tended to be academic rather than professional.

  • Studio form, structure, and rhythms. I planned the rhythms of my studios first: the points during the 16-week semester when students would share information with each other, before going on to the next phase. Then I structured the days of high activity during and just after charrettes. This set up a series of presentations, crits, and juries and, around that, individual, small-group and large-group work sequences. These, in turn, structured the iterations of research and design. I then limned out the topics, some for early analytic phases and others to follow the initial design phase. The scope of a topic decided its team size. Students meeting on the first day of studio were given an introductory handout with a schedule, a first reading list, and a list of Phase I work topics. A general bibliography followed soon thereafter. Phase I lasted ten days. I did not plan more than ten days ahead. That allowed me to get to know the students, and my second work topics were written with specific individuals in mind. Then we proceeded, via successive analyses and syntheses, to the final presentation and jury.
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Studio Form, Structure, and Rhythm. Courtesy of Denise Scott Brown.

Studio Process Diagram

Here is Phase I, preparation. Here’s one of my tricks: you give a list of reading to be done before starting the first work topic, and you say, “I want you to make a choice of a topic and this reading will help you choose.” They read avidly to do that. Here are prep, research, research. There are the charrettes and the presentations, where the students become the teachers. You say, “Please tell the class what you feel they need to know from your topic to do their work.”

Then a design phase; a crit, another design phase, presentation, and final jury. And over here are the five topics, to be undertaken in small groups. Some designs they do as individuals. Then they go on to more research, maybe in different groups, on related but different topics. Then another design phase, and from these schemes for the project I must extract two or three different points of departure as the basis for the final designs. Then we go into two or three groups, to prepare the project drawings and reports and the final jury.

The End of Studio

During the height of Penn’s social vs. physical debate, the social planners criticized the “physical bias” of the profession. Why, they asked, were the major problems of cities defined as physical, when education and jobs were patently more important? They criticized studio, too, for its physical bias and decried it as an empire builder and monopolizer of students’ time, and they castigated studio faculty for teaching their own design philosophies and not the shared intellectual material of urban planning.

Paul Davidoff, the great-hearted activist for social justice, ran a studio that was entirely non-physical. It was called GAP, and its objective was to establish the goals of the Philadelphia Police Department. But eventually, even this was found unacceptable, and studio was replaced by “workshops.” These had no creative problem-oriented tasks, no research, and no design. From my viewpoint, the students did sums, and I felt that the warm heart of the program was lost in the process.

I would have gone in another direction and suggested that courses in professional schools be more like studio and have juries, where the issues of the course were debated by an interdisciplinary group of planning and architecture faculty members. But by this time, the 1960s were over; under Nixonism and Reaganism funding was removed from planning in cities and universities. The fire went out of planning schools, and with it the social scientists. They followed the money and in many schools they left their base in architecture for fairer fields, only to find themselves languishing in the much fiercer competition of the university at large. Architects ensconced themselves in the planners’ place, forming urban design studios that taught large-scale architecture, and resisting attempts by planners to return.

I believe that, far from being dropped, the concept of learning by doing should be extended within architecture and planning to embrace studio forms beyond those of the traditional architecture department. And as well, studio should be considered within the university at-large for the alternative it poses to the academic model of teaching. Studio-like teaching, learning by doing, may be suitable to other learning styles than those of visual learners in architecture and art programs. For example, undergraduates in academic programs who don’t intend to teach, or student activists who find the learning by doing approach more suited to their career plans.

“Wouldn’t it be fun to —!”

And I have continued to plan studios in my mind. I would like to document the Philadelphia urban rowhouse, its evolution and themes, and to consider its prospects for a future urban life. I would also like to study the city’s industrial land use system inherited from the nineteenth century, and its potential for reuse now when heavy industry no longer exists yet the connections between rail, housing, and workplaces still form a city-wide network. I would like to study the retail use pattern of Venice, map it, and consider its relation to canals, residential areas, and public and religious buildings. In Shanghai I would like to search for urban prototypes that could have applicability in other parts of the world, the city’s lilong housing and scholars’ gardens are just a couple.

Given the growing interest in the philosophy and processes of research in architecture, I share my ideas and what I’ve learned with you to leave a record of my knowledge in forms that I hope will be useful and transmittable, and that will add to the discipline of architecture. I believe that having the studio model available in the university is valuable in many respects. This reflects an aim of both my teaching and practice to set the context by surveying a wider terrain, then helping people focus within it. I share my experience by writing, not the history, but the “minutes of the meetings” I attended.

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Mielparque Nikko Kirifuri Resort, Nikko, Japan, 1997. Courtesy of Denise Scott Brown.

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Control Game Studio, Rice University, 1969. Courtesy of Denise Scott Brown.

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Control Game Studio, Rice University, 1969. Courtesy of Denise Scott Brown.

1 In “Between Three Stools” I have described issues I confronted in my education and intellectual development. In Urban Concepts: Denise Scott Brown, (London: Academy Editions; 1990, an Architectural Design Profile, Architectural Design 60:1-2:90); pp. 8-20. Also in “Some Ideas and their History,” Chapter 5 in Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Architecture as Signs and Systems: for a Mannerist Time. (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004), 105-119.
2 The composition of the faculty was interesting because of the arrival of social planners such as Paul Davidoff and Herb Gans—a new left to augment the New Deal left, social scientists, and physical planners already teaching there. They were my friends and my antagonists, and the loving fight between us introduced a lively atmosphere at Penn, loved by the students, until the came to an end due to the funding reductions brought on by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
3 Robert Venturi, “The Vision Thing: Why It Sucks.” In: Iconography and Electronics Upon a Generic Architecture. (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996), 273-274.
4 Denise Scott Brown, “On Formal Analysis as Design Research, With Some Notes on Studio Pedagogy,” Search/Research, JAE, Journal of Architectural Education, Vol. xxxii, No. 4, May 1979, pp. 8-11, doi 10.2307/1424375, available online through
5 Denise Scott Brown, “Urban Design at Fifty, and a Look Ahead,” Harvard Design Magazine, Spring/ Summer 2006, 33-44. This article describes his work.
6 Advice from Britton Harris and Paul Davidoff from Penn’s Department of City and Regional Planning.