Learning Spaces in Pandemic Times

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Teaching in architecture would per se highly need physical presence of students and teaching staff. Students need to draw, to build models, to have equipment, to visit sites. All benefit also very much from each other’s’ presence and project developments. In the case of Learning Spaces in Pandemic Times, a summer workshop that should have happened in presence was transformed into a digital summer workshop. However, the regular rhythm of meetings, even if digital, was supporting a close and lively exchange amongst students and staff.

Overall concept of the course before the pandemic

Before the pandemic, the Chair of Architectural Behaviorology, within the framework of the research Future learning Spaces, was aiming at organizing 1 to 2 workshops per year. The aim of these workshops is to physically transform and intervene on existing teaching or learning spaces at ETH. They often include, after a period of individual research and design proposal, at least 1 week, on site, with teaching staff and students together, working on the collectively chosen transformation of a space. Another crucial aspect of the Chair’s teaching is the -possibly collective- hand drawing, which principally demand the presence of the group in a given space, to work on a drawing.

How the pandemic changed this course

The arrival of the pandemic and the lock-down forced us to improvise a new teaching format for a summer workshop. We wanted to observe the present conditions, the circumstances of the pandemic, and to integrate the students in this process. For the teaching team, but also for the young students in their studies, the lock-down could be felt in various ways,  also sometimes as a shock. Our Learning Spaces in Pandemic Times summer workshop allows everyone to reflect, digest, and understand the experience through the drawing of the particular individual situation, and the integration of it into a larger urban and landscape context. The working methods employed allow the development of the architect’s skills like axonometric drawing and public drawing, the understanding of the urban territory, its structure and its development through time. The pandemic has also allowed us to observe reversals in the use of private and public spaces, which can be particularly nourishing for an architect and his understanding of the uses of spaces.

In the summer of 2020, the works that emerged from this remote drawing workshop, through students’ personal experiences and research, reflect not only how the pandemic has affected their working and learning environments, but also the influence that the pandemic may have had on life in existing territorial and built structures.

From villages in rural areas embedded in a strong natural landscape to the urban centres of the 19th and 20th century, from the gardens of suburban developments to the light urbanity of small centralities, the numerous personal stories told through hand drawings take us on a journey through the typologies of the built environment, the uses and appropriations of private and public spaces, both inside and outside, and enlighten us on the possible uses of our urban territories and their critical characteristics.

The creativity and sensitivity of the students offer valuable and multifaceted insights into life’s capacity for renewal in difficult times. Thus, architectural and anthropological research are brought together with the practice of drawing as a research tool.

Architectural Ethnography

The drawings display 3 topical clusters: (1) representing situations of commuting, a sort of stay and move, or live and escape, (2) expression of observations from the inside, they reflect life in a flat and the perceptions and interrelationships from the indoor spaces towards the outside, (3) depicting situations where the rural plays a major role in everyday life. This particular role of the rural is translated by the relationship to the landscape, the gardens or by the particular geographical or urban embedment of the built context.
(4) «Architectural Ethnography in Times of Covid-19“ Die Spitäler der Universität (2020) und des Predigerklosters (1204).
(5) «Architectural Ethnography in Times of Covid-19“ Das Quartier Silhfeld mit dem alten und neuen Friedhof (1877-2020)

Learning from the pandemicFrom the point of view of results, this form of teaching was very satisfactory. On the one hand, the drawings are for the most part of very good quality, some of them very excellent. On the other hand, the students were able to develop their techniques and working methods, while benefiting from an opportunity to reflect on the particular situation they had just experienced or were still experiencing. For this, the Chair could at any time, if necessary, resort to this form of teaching. However, because shared work and the pooling of experience is so fundamental to the teaching desired at the Chair, we hope to make more use of physical, or at least hybrid, workshops.

Noted here that the results of the summer workshop were exhibited twice physically. During autumn 2020, the large original drawings were visible in the gta exhibitions exhibition space, as part of the «Confinement» exhibition organized by the gta institute, together with the 2 Public Drawings. In addition, replicas of these designs populated some student workspace partition panels in the main ETH building during the fall semester. Also, some selected students could present their work during the lecture Series “Architectural Ethnography in Times of Covid-19” held in autumn 2020 at D-ARCH. The two Public Drawings have also been displayed in an issue of the architecture magazine Domus.

Our thoughts and ideas for the time after the pandemic

Presence teaching can have a very much larger impact on students. During the study time, it is not only a matter of students acquiring material taught by a teaching staff, but also of course of exchanging knowledge with fellow students, of exchanging in a more informal way with the teaching staff, of benefiting from the whole academic community. For this, the physical presence on campus is particularly fundamental. The dynamics of learning, inspiration, exchange, are all aspects that can be reinforced by the quality of physical learning spaces.

For this, we hope that the time after the pandemic can generate the possibility of an academic community open to exchange, within departments but also in a trans-departmental way, and that this community looks for ways to benefit from each other’s presence. Nevertheless, the experience of the pandemic has shown that a university has the ability to transform itself rapidly, to offer the necessary alternatives to promote high quality teaching, whatever the circumstances.

What discussion points are you particularly interested in when exchanging with other lecturers?

Being part of the Future Learning Initiative – Physical Spaces – project, we are constantly discussing and researching on the relevance of informal learning and informal learning spaces on campuses. We argue that informal learning (potentially happening anywhere and anytime) is as important as formal learning (happening in classrooms, auditoriums). And so, the physical presence on campus is crucial for supporting the exchange of knowledge in a more informal way. This is true for architecture teaching, but for all disciplines as well. Indeed, we argue that STEM disciplines can benefit of the development of informal learning spaces as much as other disciplines. At the Chair of Architectural Behaviorology and with other colleagues, we further like to discuss the basis for architecture teaching, the relevance of hand drawing as a tool for research, understanding and design. We like to discuss how to teach, and how the impact of teaching methods, together with the transformation, adaptation and appropriation of spaces can impact on students positively. Of course, thinking about the physical learning spaces goes hand in hand with looking at what the digital world, especially in times of pandemic, has to offer and can participate to the creation of better learning spaces.