Social, Emotional, and Spatial Learning: Reflecting on the Grand Experiment of Architectural Education

Korydon Smith, Professor and Chair – Department of Architecture.

by Korydon Smith

Published May 14, 2021

In March 2020, the transformation was abrupt and sweeping. It was also imperfect.

For most institutions of higher education – including the University at Buffalo and the Department of Architecture – faculty, staff, and students had one week to overhaul the norms, techniques, and tools of design education. It was particularly upending for a department largely defined by “hands-on” learning.

It was a forced, natural experiment. Everything from student orientation, to academic advising, to final reviews, to commencement changed. Moreover, the confluence of the coronavirus pandemic with deepened conversations about racism further provoked questions about architectural education.

Despite the complexity and strain of this era, students, faculty, and staff have learned a great deal. I have learned a great deal. Of course, we’ve all have mastered new tools and techniques; Zoom and Miro, for example, largely unknown a year ago (likely to be long forgotten when readers of future decades peruse this issue of Intersight), have occupied the center of design education, while the studio, for most students, has become secondary. Truly, at the start of 2020, it was unthinkable. More than a year into this grand experiment in architectural pedagogy, I find myself returning to several core principles in education:

    Learning is messy.

    Learning is social and informal.

    Learning is spatial and emotional.

An abridged verson of this reflection was featured in our journal of student work, Intersight 23. View the digital publication here.

The words “difficult” and “challenging” have become overused. I know that I’m guilty as well. But “complex” does not quite capture the humanity of childcare at home while teaching or the death of a parent while trying to graduate. “Herculean” is apt, but unnecessarily gendered; and “hellacious” is fitting, but holds both a religious and potentially negative connotation that does not fully portray the empathy or perseverance I’ve seen, such as our collective attunement to the financial, personal, and familial adversities that students experience.

There have always been uncertainties, reflections, and changes in the training of architects. Modern-era architects pondered how to integrate new structural and material technologies. The digital revolution prodded questions about the roles of digital and analog learning, design, and fabrication processes. And the economic collapse of 2008 posed an existential threat to architectural practice, in turn, relaunching speculation on the future of the profession and how to educate a more adaptable workforce. But the current epoch of rising social awareness (and tension) – coupled with the immense economic, social, and health stresses of the pandemic (and, again, existential reflections on humanity) – may have a transformative effect on architectural education as great as any prior era

What we do not yet know is how durable the knowledge and skills that students have gained will be in the long term. Or how long the new pedagogical strategies will remain. In the human mind, learning is a highly inefficient process. Formal education is our flawed, but best attempt to improve learning efficacy. As professors, we often mistakenly equate teaching with learning, assuming that knowledge and skills that are taught – about history, structures, design, etc. – are learned and with symmetry between the two. Clearly, there is no one way to teach; equally, learning is neither singular nor direct. Learning is messy.

While the spring term was closing out and planning for the uncertainty of the fall term was beginning, the murder of George Floyd elevated national and international mindfulness of systemic racism, not only in policing but also in healthcare, employment, housing, and beyond. Again, with the prior killings of Breonna Taylor and Daniel Prude in March, Atatiana Jefferson in 2019, Freddie Gray in 2015, Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014, and many, many more Black men and women for centuries prior, the issues were longstanding. The later deaths of Rayshard Brooks in June and Jacob Blake in August, followed by growing violence targeted at Asian Americans, propelled the urgency to act.

Faculty, staff, and students in the department took on the challenging and important work of revisioning architectural education in this light as well – engaging critical discussions on the ways in which architectural history, design education, the profession, and the built environment have exacerbated marginalization, exploitation, and disparities related to race, gender, disability, socioeconomic status, and other factors. At the same, there is awareness that educational systems do not consist only of curricular structures, individual courses, and assignments. The culture of architectural education is equally, maybe more so, about “desk crits” with professors, evenings alone in the computer lab, studio conversations with friends, making things in the shop, study groups in the library, and working an internship. As much as we focus on the formal structures of education (and this is important), we must recognize that students’ lived experiences of the system may diverge from the expressed values of that very system. A great deal of learning is social and informal.

Another change that society, in general, and students, specifically, have experienced is spatial. Not only have the pedagogies and technologies of architectural education changed but so have daily routines and the places in which those routines play out. I’m speaking beyond the shift from the studio workspace to the bedroom workspace. We don’t ride the bus (as much). We don’t hang out in the coffee shop (as long). We don’t gather together in a restaurant or at someone’s home. We don’t pass randomly in the corridors of Crosby, and experience improvisational conversations of joy, frustration, or grief. But true learning is spatial and emotional, sometimes unexpected. We remember things in context – in a place and with the feelings. Remote, digital education has a knack for flattening space, time, and emotion – and maybe the depth of learning.

Maybe we can see an optimistic side: the built environment matters. Schools, hospitals, parks, houses, and museums are not things we design as simply a backdrop or to merely accommodate activities of daily living; they have direct impacts on learning, health, socialization, identity development, and self-reflection.

While I am deeply saddened by the lives lost and negatively impacted by both the pandemic and racial injustices, I am grateful for the unique vision and counter point we’ve gotten the past year. Without it, we might be able to fully assess the norms of architectural education that we had. I’m grateful to colleagues who have shown such great wisdom, poise, fortitude, and care. I’m impressed, again and again, by the humble, gritty, hope-filled spirit of architecture students at UB. Design education will remain messy (literally and figuratively: in the home studio now and in Crosby Hall in the future). Likewise, we must remain mindful of both the formal structures and informal customs that reside in architectural education. And now, more than in prior epochs of contemplation, we might see what forms of social, emotional, and spatial learning we aspire to achieve.