The architectural studio has always been perceived and promoted as a special area where the time fades away, and the brains warm up, inspire and confront each other.
I remember my first day at EPFL, following a group of students throughout the SG building, led by the Coaching "You'll see," the coach argued aplomb as she led us through the floors, "your studio will be your second home. » Disbelief or ingenuity, I did not believe her then. Until, a few days later, I too discovered the (painful) experience of "Wednesthursday", a dreadful and chronic concept of a never-ending working day - at that time the workshop days were Thursday and Friday.
Yet, during all these years, if the apprentice architect holds on, despite an often (always) excessive workload, sometimes (often) approximate models, and a somewhat (much) shaky morale, it is undeniably thanks to this effervescence, at all hours of the day and night, this bubbling of ideas, sometimes innovative or far-fetched, and these exchanges that architecture students nourish and cherish.
In 2018, Yves Weinand, director of the Laboratory for Timber Constructions at EPFL, and teacher at the studio Weinand for first-year master's students, noted the relevance of these interactions and their necessity: "The architectural studio can be seen as a model for other scientific disciplines whose aim is to foster exchange and interaction within a given field or between fields."
I'm not telling you anything new about the current situation, yet it is not conducive to meetings and exchanges. Since March 2020, architecture students had better have their personal stock of bodywork, white glue and tracing paper, otherwise they will only be able to grab their mask, get on a bike and ride to Jumbo, pestering their bad habit of borrowing from their workshop colleagues.
But what worries the students more is the lack of perspective and hindsight on their work and the impossibility of nourishing their conceptual research through interaction. Lauriane, a master's student at the studio Weinand, deplores this lack of exchange, which affects on the quality of the work done, and the project in general: "We are not inspired and stimulated by other people's work". A feeling also pointed out by Carla and Alicia, both from Spain, who are doing a year-long exchange at the EPFL: "It is essential to share the weekly roundtable with everybady at the studio (...) The exchanges within the other studens have always greatly benefited my work. It's not a matter of copying what others do, but (...) of analysing different answers to a common initial problem".
New logistical problems are also emerging. In a studio, such as the studio Weinand, where learning parametric software is essential to the development of the project, it becomes more complicated for students to simultaneously follow a Zoom workshop and test software, on their laptop screen alone. Lauriane points that "getting a second working screen is not a luxury that everyone can afford". Many students suffer from a lack of space and quiet conducive to working in their flats - often their room, or in the family home. As I write these lines, I realise the richness of all the infrastructure available at the EPFL, and the loss, both academic and social and relational, that results from this confinement.
Finally forced into tele-study, students face the same difficulties than professionals, in addition to a financial dependence and an imperative to pass their exams.
A light in this very dark portrait: the development of new digital tools, such as the 3D scanner or parametric software, offers students a new perspective and playful working tools. At the studio Weinand, the Spring and Autumn 2020 semester projects focused on the reuse of abandoned historic buildings. At the beginning of the semester the students were able to visit the site and carry out a complete scan of the building. With the help of technologies used in the Ibois laboratory, they learned to work on this extremely precise 3D point cloud during the semester. In this pointcloud they could walk around, almost as if they were there... But they were unable to produce the 1:1 scale prototype initially on the programme.
On the other side of the fence, the task is also very complex for the workshop assistants. As I have seen over the past few years, the assistants are very (very) involved in the workshop and attach great importance to the project follow-up of each participant. The assistant is a reference person for the students. Usually a young professional or researcher, not so far away from studies but experienced, more accessible than the professor, the assistant manages both the general logistics, the organisation of the semester, and now the emotional logistics related to the health crisis. Where it used to just pencil a plan, to add a carrier to a not very credible structure or to suggest a conceptual coherence, today it is necessary to understand without paper, to explain without pencil, to guide without meeting. The tools of the student and the assistant change, and with them the relationship evolves. A new language has to be developed.
At the Ibois laboratory, research and teaching have been closely connected for several years. Doctoral students have had to adapt their experiments and research schedule, as well as their teaching to the tools at their disposal. The distance imposed no longer allows students to ask their questions live, so other communication channels have to be set up: a workshop dedicated to digital tools, remote critics, on-call hours to answer questions related to software, file sharing on an online "board", a Whatsapp group...
As for the critics, a specific feature cherished by architects, they are held via Zoom. This is a perilous exercise for students who have to skilfully arrange their slides, while for teachers, the general understanding of the project is disturbed by a lack of global overview.
Clearly, the last few months have been part of a radical change in the way of teaching. The adaptation and resilience caused by the pandemic is setting in motion certainties, habits but also language acquired so far. And the balance is uncertain.
The architecture studio plays a central role in this challenge, because it is where the student is humanised, known and recognised in his or her individuality, in contrast to auditorium classes. It is also in the studio that the student finds an inexhaustible source of stimulation to develop conceptual autonomy and a critical spirit. It is essential to maintain as regular contact as possible with the teaching team, and to reinforce exchanges between students.
The unanimous effort and stamina of each student is not in vain, and testifies to the same passion to continue learning, discovering, teaching, understanding and sharing. The energy and commitment of each and every one of them must be underlined and thanked. To all of you, students who are reading these lines, hang in there, talk amongst yourselves, do not be afraid to ask questions, to come forward or to ask for advice and support. Feed yourself with culture, books, projects, new tools, and above all: share.
We miss you.