Learning and teaching in new world.
Like many other schools, the Amsterdam Academy of Architecture had to switch its teaching and learning to online environments. In the beginning we – and with us many others – thought that online teaching is the same as offline teaching with a piece of technology in between. We were wrong.
Theatre play is different than a TV show: Narratives change, the role of the entertainer is different, attention spans, attitudes and the whole experience of space are different. When it comes to our professions, all by a sudden we can only experience a place by means of media and maps and real three-dimensionality had to make room for the confines of a two-dimensional screen.
What have we learned so far?
Online teaching and learning are lacking the informal. All the small and seemingly unimportant aspects of communication turn out to be hugely important in being able to assess the wellbeing of someone, how a comment or critique is received or if someone understands at all what is meant by this sentence or that reference.
Online teaching and learning are tiring. Being crammed behind a computer for hours, trying to follow a lecture or a studio critique are a challenging undertaking – both for body and brain. The ever-similar perspective and the repetitive nature of the same format provide little incentive not to switch off mentally and the fact that the body is not moving does not improve the situation – especially when the course follows a working day one spent in the same space in the same setup.
Online teaching and learning are demanding. We are all beginners in this new learning environment. Some have a bit of experience, but most don’t – for good reasons. After all architecture, urbanism and landscape architecture are disciplines that are exploring spatial concepts for specific places. Both, space and place are not easily replicable in a virtual world and that seems to be the reason why for a long time, we did not develop much interest in online learning – certainly compared to other disciplines like business administration or humanities. Now we were forced to find out that many things we didn’t deem desirable offer new opportunities that can be explored and that need to be developed – a demanding process.
What to do with that insight?
Of course, one could see this as a temporary episode that is interesting to experience but as soon as thing are back to normal, we just simply forget about them. But that would be a missed opportunity. There are many things that are worth rethinking and developing further since they offer an extension of the methods of teaching and learning and of the three professions we teach. One could contemplate a toolbox that can help us reconnecting with the avantgarde that we claimed to represent 100 years ago but since have fallen behind – certainly when it comes to the use of cutting-edge technology. But it can be more. Covid 19 can become a trigger to also provide better answers to the problems we have been facing since quite some time: Climate change is not disappearing; global collaboration is more important than ever, and inclusiveness stays a problem. While these new tools need time for development and testing, nevertheless I take the liberty to come up with a list that is neither exhaustive nor conclusive but rather an invitation to join us, thinking further.
Online and offline.
Why does a studio teacher and the students always have to be in the same space? There are advantages: one can have an interactive conversation around a design proposal. But there are also moments in any studio, where it is about strengthening one’s own thoughts, summarize and present them. Here it can be even an advantage to be in an online setting since it forces everyone to focus on what is presented. Imagine a studio where you can do both – interact and focus – and switch back and forth between the two…
Really international all the time.
Now add to this thought a dose of international input. The Academy of Architecture always has been struggling in attracting teachers from elsewhere in the world. Professionals simply cannot commit to be in Amsterdam for 16 weeks consecutively on Wednesday evenings. Adding an online component to a studio can help solving this problem. A combination of one teacher online and another one in the studio space could bring a new atmosphere – especially when that online teacher is a capacity in a particular subject. It would also allow to define roles: an online teacher for the strategic questions, an offline teacher for the tactical and spatial ones.
Lectures as multi-layer experience.
Learning is not only doing and designing, it is also building knowledge. This often takes place in the form of lectures – with varying success and with fluctuating attention of the audience. Of course, that depends on the speaker and the topic but is also is a result of a change in how we consume and process information. Watching TV today is different than it used to be in the 1970s – lectures barely differ except for the usual slides hiccup having been replaced by the usual PowerPoint failure. Lectures online however can offer a much more multi layered experience. Next to seeing and listening and keeping questions to the very end, chat channels can be used to answer questions or discuss what has been said. Links to other resources can be explored and guests or co presenters can be involved easily. Well done, this can create a much more immersive learning environment that stimulates more senses and lead to better results – and it can be a way to adjust the offline lecturing practice as well.
The virtual tour of the world.
In recent weeks, our ability to see the world with our own eyes has been reduced to a smaller or bigger local context. Seeing places and being exposed to them is an activity students and teachers alike are missing. And while nothing replaces the personal experience, we came to learn that we can learn a lot of a location using the wide of the internet. Instead of mental photographers of the panorama, we have become Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes – detectives trying to find evidence of the genius loci. This delivers a different understanding of the context we design for. It delivers another layer of understanding and another method of approaching a problem that is a valuable complement to going and seeing.
New ways of showing projects.
Architecture, Landscape architecture and urbanism have developed established specific ways of showing things: Plans, sections, elevations, perspectives of various kinds. While the latter might work on a computer screen, the former three have their limitations on a 1080 x 720-pixel video screen. Presenting online is not presenting offline online. It means coming up with different ways of showing things: moving images, zoom ins and zoom outs, a linear narrative rather than a circular and a more focused way of presenting to avoid the audience gets bored. To do this well, we need to adjust our representations, we need to work on our storytelling, and we need to learn new technologies. The benefit: our professions learn to communicate in new ways that can help us escape our own ivory towers and make what we do more understandable to new and wider audiences.
Designing virtual space next to the physical.
We design space and for space we usually refer to the physical – the space defined by nature, floors, walls and ceilings and infrastructure. Online teaching and learning forced us to accept that there is the other space – the virtual space in which we ‘meet’, ‘chat’ or ‘present’. Time and time again we struggle with the limitations of that space. This has to do with technical constraints but it also is due to the fact that this space has not been conceptualized by spatial designers but by software people and therefore has never moved beyond bits and bytes and – in the best case – flat design or skeuomorph copies of the physical world. What if our professions thought and designed beyond the boundaries of physical and virtual to both better places to meet, chat and present?
Urban Operation System.
Cities are changing physically but the biggest changes in our cities are actually invisible. In recent years, with the success of mobile communication in our pockets, we have seen a profound change in how we use our cities. Google maps guides us, uber moves us and Deliveroo feeds us. Next to them traditional urban infrastructures greatly extended their service in the virtual world. Mobility chains today are not fiction anymore, they are real. Our power meters tell us how to save energy and parking fines are not issued any more by humans roaming the streets with their notepads. To avoid this, we turn to apps to pay our parking fees virtually. All together these changes amount to no more and no less than an urban operation system – a system that will become even more important in the aftermath of the current crisis. As spatial disciplines we have been left on the sidelines when this system emerged but our superior knowledge of space and its implications now again can become a key ingredient to the development of the next release version of this system since to evolve further, it needs to become spatial again – it needs changes to the physical makeup of the city. Online teaching and learning in architecture, urbanism and landscape architecture provide the perfect testing ground for these virtual/physical interfaces since they do exactly that – operate on the edge of both.
We keep experiencing it since years – involving the public – stakeholders in processes of building, extending city and establishing or protecting landscape is becoming more and more important. No project anymore without public consultations. Usually they are held as meetings which often follow the same dynamic: those who shout the loudest are heard while those who might have sensible proposals don’t even attend because they detest those shouting. Nowadays, community gatherings cannot take place. They have been replaced by all kinds of other forms of interaction. What used to be a rather static exercise has become a field of exploration and innovation. New groups can claim their share in the process since shouting louder does not do the job anymore and technology gives new possibilities of access. As architects, landscape architects and urbanists, we should and we can reclaim these participation processes and make them a much more serious subject in our work again.
The role of coding.
The structure in the online world it is code. If we want to combine the virtual and the real in new ways, we need to learn to work with this material as we do with wood, steel or concrete. Coding should get a place in our curriculum. With architects typically being the opposite of the coding nerd, there is even a chance that we could develop our own languages of code in the virtual world. Urb++, archiscript or greencode could be the tools of the future – designed by spatial thinkers.
When we had our last study board meeting before moving to the virtual world, we all agreed to see this challenging time as an opportunity to learn lessons for the future. We want to use it as a calibration point, a moment of rethinking and reassessing all the habits, the usances and the usual paths. They are challenging our world, our professions, and the way we learn and teach. These times are times of writing manifestos. They are times to invent, to adjust, and to try out – the very foundations of any avantgarde…
by Markus Appenzeller
This article has been published in the annual newspaper of the Amsterdam Academy of Architecture.