003 – fusion – The Studio

April, 2104

The ‘place’ of the studio in contemporary higher education

In education, the studio is the space where students develop practices and processes in a range of creative disciplines. Here they learn tacitly in a way that is often never clearly articulated; working in a collegial spirit outside of scheduled class time and often all night; a luxury of space and time no longer available to many students in today’s university. The studio has long been a site of contestation; a tangible space that has been a rallying point for radical pedagogical experiments that not only challenged, but also subverted and in some cases obliterated, institutional dogmas. In 1969, for example, the Paul Rudolph-designed Yale School of Art and Architecture was seriously damaged by fire: the burning of the studio, allegedly by students, symbolised the unrest within the bastions of disciplinary authority at the time 1.

Yale Art + Architecture BuildingPaul Rudolph Hall Yale School of Art and Architecture 2


Today the studio remains a central place in art, design and architecture pedagogy and there is growing interest across disciplines in the studio approach emerging out of these creative disciplines. The studio is no longer the space that provokes or inspires the radical practices that defined the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. However, a slower burn is occurring in the space occupied by the students and staff of architecture and design schools. In recent years, many of us have experienced ongoing challenges to justify the cost of studio space to university senior management. We have endured the rationalisation of university teaching space and the decommissioning of studios under the justification of ‘savings’ per square meter to the school or faculty. The loss of studio space has forced us to think creatively about how we deliver programs in rooms with new rules that govern the way students occupy the studio – how we could do more with less; far less radical but no less important for defining pedagogy and practice in the twenty first century. On-going dialogue about how less can be more has compelled us to think creatively about this problem. There is an irony in our current situation where there is growing interest from other fields in design thinking and studio pedagogy at the same time as shrinking time and space for studio-based education.

This special edition on ‘the studio’ was born out of the design sub-theme, ‘Reinventing the Future’, at the XIX International Conference of the Society for Human Ecology held in the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University (ANU), Canberra in July 2013. This conference presented an opportunity to engage in cross disciplinary discussions and critically engage in dialogue about the aim of the Society for Human Ecology to ‘look ahead to the consequences of human action on our social, natural, and built environments’ 3 . Lunchtime conversations led to a common view that this is the sort of conceptual space that design research has explored within our studios and something we have been doing for years. From this shared view, a curiosity and enthusiasm developed among some presenters from both inside and outside the design disciplines to articulate their experiences in developing new approaches to education and learning in the studio. This special issue is a product of the invited authors’ enthusiasm to explore what the studio embodies in the educational experience. These contributors from the USA, Denmark, UK and Australia reflect a range of explorations on the studio and its place in the pedagogical landscape.

So, what is ‘the studio’? The studio has different meanings between, across and within disciplines. The articles explore a range of perspectives. The 2009 Studio Teaching Project conducted by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council identified six current studio approaches in Australia: Project, Praxis, Workshop, Travel, Cross-Disciplinary and Blended Learning Models 4.  Regardless of these different approaches- reflecting the diversity of creative practices—the studio is predominantly used for education that is project-centred and student-focused. Therefore, the studio inducts students into the tacit knowledge of creative practice- thinking by doing. For example, the ‘studio as travel’ approach is attractive to interdisciplinary learning as it locates the student in the complexity of real world situations. Alternatively, the studio can be a potential or conceptual space where a discipline’s practices and processes are learned and this has applications outside the creative disciplines. Studio pedagogy is also about engagement in the opportunity to change practice towards a more sustainable approach to design or to navigate the difficulties of the design process. It is a personal setting that fosters empathy between educator and student through the development of ethical practitioners. All these themes are explored in this issue of Fusion.

In Simple Models Create Steep Learning Curves in Academic Design Studio, Peter Lundsgaard Hansen, Torben Dam, Virginie Le Goffic and Ellen Braae describe an approach developed in their Landscape Architecture studio called ‘simple models’ to orient the thinking process of students in a supportive way. They explore the application of this approach through a 2nd year Masters studio at the University of Copenhagen. The innovation of this studio approach lies in using models in the early phase of the design process, and by repeating them throughout. It is an approach that simultaneously critiques the role of models in formulating ideas and also interrogates the procedural practices and the theories that address the complexity of ill-defined problems in design. As the authors explain, this foregrounds the interplay between the thinking and doing processes. The physical model (consisting of materials collected by the students including paper, foam, wood, ceramics and other materials) serves as an orienting point to articulate a method of learning that oscillates between systematic design process thinking on the one hand, and engaging in dialogues about wicked-problem thinking 5  on the other. The proposition of a ‘third way’ posits that neither process adequately addresses the landscape architectural challenges of a complex design intervention, particularly in an educational context. Supported by a select survey of literature from design education, sociology, pedagogy and landscape architecture the authors emphasise the benefits of their approach in the studio. For example, an important pedagogical aspect of their process is to include ceremonial events, exhibitions and presentations throughout the nine-week studio to create opportunities to connect the physical expressions with a spoken language. This method supports the elaboration of the design proposal, allowing the students to focus on an idea and explore its potential, rather than to test various kinds of solutions hoping that a great idea will emerge.

In Studio for Sustainability in Higher Education, Thomas Sloan and Federico Davila bring an interdisciplinary perspective to the studio, one outside design or other creative practice traditions of studio. In this article the authors describe their experiences as student-educators, that is, as Honours or Masters students teaching undergraduates in the Fenner School of Environment and Society at ANU. They highlight how a studio approach to learning helps students’ ability to critically engage with the complexity and challenges of sustainability. Although Sloan and Davila have an alternate grasp of what is the studio, considering it as a kind of approach that can be applied to a tutorial setting, they are able to point out the potential of an interdisciplinary studio approach to grappling with complex contemporary issues such as sustainability. Their article highlights the nature of a wider cross-disciplinary discussion, articulating the studio and how it might differ from the tutorial or workshop, and what it may have to contribute to other disciplines and to transdisciplinarity.

In The Studio as Advocacy, Entrepreneurship and the Development of a Social Consciousness: A Design Project on Aboriginal Lands, Stephen Burroughs and Scott Heyes develop an account of their studio project with a view to understanding the specific goals of design education and the broader graduate attributes mandated by the University. The dyadic relationship between studio and working in the field is explored with reference to a postgraduate landscape architecture design studio programme at the University of Canberra. Their paper explores how the field studio engenders more profound understandings of the role and responsibilities of designers in actively and directly engaging with communities. They argue that the studio, the field, the university and the community are mutually connected, each supporting the integrity of the others. The field studio involves teaching and learning in an unfamiliar environment with students being exposed to the exemplars of the discipline and being prepared for working in complex communities and in cross-cultural contexts. There is no assumption made by Burroughs and Heyes concerning the concept of the studio. Instead, they examine the typologies of studio developed by an extensive study conducted during 2007–2009 with the support of the Australian Learning and Teaching Council, entitled the “Studio Teaching Project” (STP). The ‘studio-field dyad’ is their own term based on this research; it establishes the conceptual argument about why and how the field studio provides more opportunities for engaging students as ‘citizen professionals’ consistent with the broader graduate attributes expected from university education, as well as serving the more specific goals of a studio education.

In Design for Sustainability and the Design Studio, Stephen Clunes articulates an action-research project that aims to enable sustainable change in the industrial design profession through studio education. The case study engaged with the Sustainable Design: Sustainable Futures subject in an undergraduate Bachelor of Design/Industrial Design program in Australia. Through this research the project developed innovations that increased students’ understanding of sustainability and enhanced their engagement through deep learning. Clunes found that this project enabled students to improve their design for sustainability and that this approach could be applied more generally to engage students across disciplines. He further proposes that action-research as a way of developing educators’ capacity for sustainability in a studio setting.

In Emerging Designers in the Studio Cave: A Story of Becoming, Lindsay Tan uses a narrative approach to explore a more personal experience of studio involving the transformation process of students and the emotional progression and relationship between student and educator. Tan adopts metaphors of the studio as cave, den and cage to illustrate a process of becoming a design practitioner based on experiences through her interior design studios in Auburn, Alabama. Symbolism is central to Tan’s approach to studio which she uses to develop a culturally rich understanding of the studio experience. Using the ‘cave’ as the metaphor for the original interior, she evokes stories of human origins and of the first people crossing into the unknown, to explore the students’ learning experience as they enter the domain of the design studio for the first time. She uses the ‘den’ metaphor to explore the transition students make as they develop their design practice beyond intellectual relativism. Finally, she explores the transformation of the cave into ‘cage’ in order to explore the necessity for students to emerge as design practitioners and to continue their learning in a broader context beyond the educational setting.

This special issue, initiated at the International Conference of the Society for Human Ecology, offered an opportunity to articulate the possibilities, contributions and innovations of the studio. The notion of the studio emerged as the potential means to develop clarity about our capacity to grapple with the complexity and complexity of the ecological crisis and need for change. The challenge to compile a suite of papers that reflected the diversity of approaches from Australia, the USA, UK and Denmark presented the chance to share ideas about how scholars engage in the space and the pedagogy of studio teaching and learning, and what opportunities exist to tackle the complexity of contemporary issues.

As emerging researchers we are enthused by the critical enquiry occurring in this field of research. Through this relatively small sample of the current work in design education, we have been energised by the different approaches and theoretical positions presented in this issue. Throughout the editorial process we have been keen to learn how the different programs developed their own practice. But perhaps the most enlightening (and challenging) part of editing this issue has been to discover how, by incorporating the different approaches, the similarities of studio practice—regardless of discipline or culture—have been affirmed.

Dr Andrew MacKenzie, University of Canberra
Dr Viveka Turnbull Hocking, Australian National University

About the editors

Dr Andrew MacKenzie is an Assistant Professor of Design at the University of Canberra and visiting research fellow at the Australian National University.  His research focusses on urban landscape planning and policy, socio-cultural responses to landscape change and landscape architecture advocacy.
Dr Viveka Turnbull Hocking is a design researcher and fellow at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at The Australian National University.  She also teaches design in the Faculty of Art and Design at the University of Canberra. Her work looks at design-led approaches to research with a focus on design for sustainability and social invitation. She explores design thinking, processes and approaches including co-design and co-creation as well as promoting the significant value of creative practice in the wider research community.

Table of contents




  1. Colomina, B., et al. (2012). “Radical Pedagogies in Architectural Education.” The Architectural Review.
  2. http://news.esto.com/tag/paul-rudolph/
  3. See http://societyforhumanecology.org
  4. See http://www.studioteaching.org/?page=currentmodels
  5. Rittel, H. and M. Webber (1973).  “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” Policy Sciences 4: 155-169
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Copyright © Fusion Journal