The pandemic has caused an unprecedented reckoning with digital culture. Architecture may never be the same again (and that’s okay)

abstract architectural image
Images from “The Architecture of Light” by Serge Najjar

Reflections on creating architectural culture online during the pandemic, based on interviews with members of the GSD community: Jeanne Gang, Antoine Picon, Jose Luis García del Castillo y López, Michelle Chang, Ana Miljački, Lisa Haber-Thomson, and Dan Sullivan.

As the cultural life of architecture shifts online, the predictable has mixed with the surprising. Take those ubiquitous teleconferencing grids. They appear at first to be a straightforward product of circumstances—distributed meetings facilitated by internet connections, webcams, and screens—but who would have imagined all of their implications? When posted to social media, such grids of equal-sized pictures of peers offer an appealing image of democratic social belonging. This can be flattering indeed when some of those peers are famous (Jeanne Gang! Rem Koolhaas!) But what are the privacy implications of posting photos of colleagues chatting from their bedrooms? What becomes of an informal discussion when everyone mutes themselves when they’re not speaking? For better or worse, new social protocols and forms are being invented. We are witnessing in real time how old conventions are transformed when they’re translated into a new medium, and many of the most exciting developments are not about architecture per se, but about the cultural life of architects.

If the COVID-19 pandemic is enabling a reckoning with digital culture that is more thorough than any that has come before, this is because it is the mundane aspects of architecture that have been most affected. Critical reflection on forms and methods is being eclipsed by an overwhelming reconfiguration of the practices of daily life in architecture. Our first impulse may be to capture the moment. Fleeting occurrences on screens, for example, can be captured in screenshots. The next step is to classify. What are we seeing? Are there distinct species of life online? Then we can begin collectively to theorize our situation. Are we seeing new forms and vehicles of architectural knowledge? How does virtual social life compare with the communities they replace? What may be the lasting impact of this pandemic on architecture?

To sort these questions out, I spoke with members of the GSD community. It was reassuring to see so many things continuing roughly as planned—or at least within the range of our ability to adjust. First I spoke to Jeanne Gang (MArch ’93), founding principal of Studio Gang, who is teaching an option studio with a site in Paris. Students are asked to adapt a set of buildings from the brutalist era in La Défense that have been slated to be torn down. Luckily, the studio was able to visit Paris before the lockdown, so only relatively small adjustments had to be made, like finding an alternative to the elaborate physical models that had been planned. “The idea was that each student would have to take apart and add to it, thus revealing the amount of deconstruction necessary to achieve their design,” Gang says. “We had to scratch that physical model and we will try to calculate of the amount of carbon spent on each of the student’s schemes instead.”

In the past, screen time encompassed a limited duration in the daily life of an architect, a figure who was imagined as an autonomous creative individual body and mind. Now the architect is plugged into the apparatus. The danger is that we become defined by our productivity and that productivity-time is equated with hours working with screens.

The propitious choice to have students work in pairs has meant that fewer changes were required to maintain a sense of collaboration as work shifted online. “Working in pairs has turned out to be a social lifeline for the students who would otherwise now be solitary and working on their projects alone.” Gang says that individual deskcrits and group pinups continue. She, like many architects, is familiar with running a firm that is geographically distributed. “Because our teams are located in four different cities, we already made use of virtual meetings extensively. In fact, we grew this way so that each office could be more local and we wouldn’t have to fly everyone around as much.” Despite missing the camaraderie of physical gatherings, Gang guesses virtual togetherness may become the norm: “Everyone has familiarity now across the board [with the necessary technology], so perhaps the benefits of saving the carbon and cost of travel will become more widely accepted.”

How can a sense of community be fostered, virtually or otherwise? I ask Antoine Picon, the G. Ware Travelstead Professor of the History of Architecture and Technology, to compare the current situation to areas in his historical expertise: utopian communities and the social forms spawned by the early internet. “What is utopian in the current move online is that we all perceive that we’re in a giant experiment,” he says. For Picon, it is important to remember Marshall McLuhan’s dictum: when a medium is changed, the message changes along with it. “The media of communication in architecture are not well adapted to life online,” Picon says. Think of something as simple as replacing paper with screens. Paper comes in large formats, and it invites quick, open-ended, tactile interaction. Teleconferencing, by contrast, “works well with PowerPoint, but everything else is a bit problematic.” We should be asking: “What does it mean to be able to convey only things that you can look at on screens?”

One of the biggest differences, for Picon, is disembodiment: “Once you deprive people of their bodies, it creates a very different conversation.” What could replace the dramatic performance of students and jury on the stage of a final review? Picon says that it is too early to know what we will retain from the current experience. The history of technological innovation in engineering offers a lesson: “The first phase in a new material is to do the same things as were done in the old material. The first steel bridges had voussoirs like stone bridges. In some ways this is what we’re doing now.”

Turning to early internet communities, Picon offers an observation to contextualize the midsemester move online at the GSD. Those who first sought social life on the internet found that “the more connections you have in the physical world, the more it works online. People knew each other in the physical world, or they could have known each other because they were part of the same cultural scenes.” Unlike today, early virtual communities united groups that were geographically distributed precisely because of their shared beliefs: the back-to-the-land movement resulted in a scattering of communes across America, for example. At the same time, they relied on the countercultural notion of “shared consciousness,” a sort of cultural imprinting that resulted from powerful common experiences. (Think here of how the experience of final reviews marks many architects’ lives.) Picon emphasizes that the peculiar ideology of the early internet was not born online—it was developed first in the physical world.

Structuralist theorists liked to imagine that culture is a sort of framework: a mostly static preexisting condition to which we can add pieces. Existing online courses often operate in this way, with students engaging with a fixed library of content. It seems to me now that culture is better understood as something that happens momentarily, like gathering to hear a story.

The ethos of digital culture branched into several contradictory varieties in the decades after its inception, from the open-source movement to cyberpunk to start-up speculation. Architecture schools plugged into these cultural currents. One notable pioneer was William J. Mitchell, who systematically translated various facets of architecture into the “logic” of computation when he taught at the GSD in the 1980s and 1990s. Experiments have continued without pause since then. Last year, for example, Jose Luis García del Castillo y López (MDes ’13, DDes ’19) posted all of his Introduction to Computational Design lectures online. The effects of this modest move were unexpected: “What happened immediately was that a large community grew from the online resource: people commenting on the videos, people broadcasting the playlist on social media, and lots and lots of people reaching out to me over social media and email thanking me for the contribution, and asking to ‘audit’ the class,” García del Castillo says. Around the world, students of the ad hoc virtual class took it upon themselves to do the homework and foster a digital discussion of course material.

GSD Radio episode covers
According to Michelle Chang, the aim of GSD Radio is to sustain studio culture by simulating the sounds normally heard in the trays. The shows broadcast ambient sounds of people working and conversations about architecture.

Small changes in media forms appear to have an amplified effect on the communities they support. This suggests focusing on fundamentals. An early pandemic experiment at the GSD was set up by Michelle Chang (MArch ’09): GSD Radio—an internet radio station. Chang explains, “I was reading Unhoused, Matthew Waggoner’s book on Adorno, and there was a line in it that said, ‘…radio, a technology that fashioned invisible publics by giving listeners an abstract sense of being part of something larger than themselves.’ That felt like something we could use right now, so I tried it out.” There are no radio waves involved, of course, but rather the internet broadcasting equivalent. And a big part of its success is surely due to the fact that GSD Radio exists in a computer-based format that places it right alongside the instruments of contemporary architectural production. You can listen while you work or relax with your screen. Shows have been run by Chang herself and many other instructors at the GSD.

Although providing visually attuned architects a non-visual medium to work in grants a sense of freedom, aesthetic pressure is not entirely absent. Chang opines that “Different aesthetic sensibilities are made clear when vision is no longer part of the equation…. Storytelling, ekphrasis, and the sequencing of a playlist are great ways to convey mood and the kinds of images from our imagination.” Because the station is broadcast live and not recorded, tuning in brings with it a feeling of being part of something happening, and it’s also surprisingly intimate. Culture, especially popular culture, is ephemeral. As Chang puts it: “What’s been nice is to hear everyone trying to figure out what they’re doing on-air. The fleeting quality of radio puts less pressure on doing a polished presentation, so personalities really come across.” Chang adds, “Nowadays, it’s just nice to get a break from looking at a screen,” This is even the case at tech-heavy schools, where computers sometimes appear to dominate.

I spoke next with Ana Miljački (PhD ’07), associate professor and director of the Master of Architecture program at MIT. For her, supporting the school’s sense of community has been a priority. Everyone has been “figuring out how to socialize” with the tools available, she says. Even as in-person events were canceled, happy hour continued online. (At the GSD, Chauhaus Beer and Dogs has likewise become Virtual BnD.) Miljački offers a theoretical take, informed by her own study of Czech architects, who “saw themselves in a continuum with their Western friends even when there were walls, both literal and discursive.” She explains, “Architects imagine themselves to be in a community of architects—that is a fundamental piece of how the discipline is reproduced.”

In 2018, Miljački set up the Critical Broadcasting Lab to experiment with “reinventing the social—or a set of interactions, or the collective—through working together on things that quite literally bring us together.” The Lab’s first experiment, which came together just before the pandemic, was an exhibition titled Play Room, which gathered people to play games produced by students. When everything shut down, the question became: “How do we continue talking about the collective when we cannot physically experience it in the same way?” One answer came when Ben Hoyle, Jeffrey Landman, and Eytan Levi (who had been Miljački’s students) set up WAWD? Radio (What Are We Doing? Radio). She says, “It’s what the Critical Broadcasting Lab always wanted to do, and now we’re all learning how to do it.” The station hosts a wide range of programming including Miljački’s show, “Conversations on Care,” which stages conversations with caretakers of architectural discourse. Miljački appreciates how radio “produces a kind of simultaneity without the Zoom exhaustion that we are all quickly arriving at.” She notes that radio “no longer seems as ‘hot’ as when McLuhan talked about it… there’s a lot of room for imagination in it” compared to other media forms.

Asked about likely lasting impacts of the pandemic, Miljački argues that “every crisis produces a form of closeness and makes us all think about what we cherish about the lives we live.” She recalls noting in a conversation with the architect Florian Idenburg a resonance with the generation of Japanese architects after the Fukushima disaster who began to work with “architecture with a lowercase ‘a.’” Miljački has noticed the same tendency in recent cohorts of students, and she expects it to be intensified with the experience of COVID-19: “I imagine this will result in students thinking about architecture in an expanded way.” She sees in students today a “political awareness… that comes up against the inertia of habits that are fully ingrained in the institutions in which we operate. I am hoping that this is something that this crisis pushes forward—that it catalyzes changes that were necessary anyway.” Radio as a medium will play its part: “We are not able to salivate over objects that we make, and so the medium pushes other topics onto the agenda.”

Decades ago, the literary theorist Roland Barthes described how the ‘myths’ that drive culture feed on the ambiguous connotations of words and images. Oblique references, resonances, slippery implications, and inside jokes bind people together more than straightforward textbook knowledge. The pandemic is serving as a powerful agent for the evolution and distribution of new myths.

Many of the most fascinating pandemic phenomena take architecture as currently practiced out of the equation. Architecture culture minus the architecture becomes… just culture itself. Decades ago, the literary theorist Roland Barthes described how the “myths” that drive culture feed on the ambiguous connotations of words and images. Oblique references, resonances, slippery implications, and inside jokes bind people together more than straightforward textbook knowledge. The pandemic is serving as a powerful agent for the evolution and distribution of new myths.

One such cultural petri dish is gsd.during.corona, an Instagram feed that carries the byline “a satellite GSD. Virtual Trays. send us what you’re doing. not official.” True to form, one post shows a re-creation of Gund Hall in someone’s apartment—a bookshelf is Frances Loeb Library, a desktop is the 2nd Tray, and so on. While other shared points of reference are more obscure, I have fond memories of running into Scott Cohen while walking around Cambridge, and it’s nice to see that experience captured in another post. The most eerie posts are the first few, when norms of social gathering were being eroded day by day. In one early teleconferencing grid, the webcam in the top corner is fixed on an impossibly large group—20 people!—sitting around a table. Another image shows a virtual review jury of five people, with a few more in the background. These gatherings eventually give way to now-commonplace sights: masks and hazmat suits and then home offices and people looking out from screens or walking furtively down the street, maintaining socially acceptable distance.

Even so, the massive cultural reference points of the GSD have continued on. Lisa Haber-Thomson (AB ’02, MArch ’09, PhD ’19) is still co-teaching Buildings, Texts, and Contexts with K. Michael Hays. When I spoke with her, it was unclear how and to what extent the ongoing course should be altered to reflect current circumstances. Seize the pedagogical opportunity or present time-tested disciplinary reference points? In the first week online, Haber-Thomson found herself lecturing on public plazas and feeling that there was “not enough time to make the lectures more relevant. We have to think about what other forms of publicness means online, but I had to leave it at that.” This is a familiar feeling for historians, and a reminder that this crisis too will pass.

Pressed on what lessons will be learned from the pandemic, Haber-Thomson is realistic: “Maybe we can theorize this in a year.” It is important to maintain perspective, she suggests. Though it can be appealing to see the move online as a digital pedagogical revolution, Haber-Thomson’s experience producing the GSD’s online-only edX course, “The Architectural Imagination,” was something else entirely. Picon, who starred in some of the course lectures, likened the experience to making a movie. Production value was high and content was finely tuned for online delivery. Assessments and discussion forums tied in seamlessly. In the current situation, there is no time to redesign courses so thoroughly, but it also may not be necessary. Haber-Thompson notes that professors had already established rapport with their students during the first part of the semester, creating a cohesion that is difficult to create ex nihilo.

Like others I interviewed, Haber-Thomson has noticed that minor shifts in media techniques have had major consequences. She has observed that students who would hesitate to raise their hands in class feel emboldened to type questions into a chat box. “Some students feel quite a bit more free to ask what would be considered ‘stupid questions’—really just asking for clarification or to rephrase something. This has been useful as a self-check on my pedagogical strategy and a reminder of what I shouldn’t expect students to know.”

One student commented that virtual class felt like being in the front row of a personal tutorial session, a sentiment Haber-Thomson says she was not expecting. (Though it makes sense: “It’s because my face is huge on their screen.”) The new format of tele-lectures also poses novel problems. Haber-Thomson notes that “some students are hesitant to type comments because it is on the written record. There is anxiety about the internet eye and the fact that everything is recorded all the time.” One small but important response was to post a statement asking students not to post images of the lectures online to avoid inadvertently transgressing privacy boundaries.

Even internet veterans are finding the new online-only situation tricky to navigate. Dan Sullivan (MArch ’11) says it might be a game changer at Google. He started working at R&D for the Built Environment at Google five years ago, when the company began its first ground-up projects. As Sullivan explains, one aspect of his work is to help “develop an opinion as a client as to what we want in a building. What is our social responsibility? What is our responsibility to sustainability? What is our responsibility to the human beings that are in our space?” Another big part of his job is to be innovative with Google’s built environment in the same way the company innovates in other spheres.

Sullivan notes that a keen awareness of the power of space is a component of the corporate ethos. “We have always thought that despite the fact that we specialize, among other things, in the creation of virtual tools for collaboration, we believe in coming to the office. We believe that the best collaboration happens in face-to-face conversation. The chance encounter contributes to the underlying business model for Google: that we are a productively innovative culture.” Referring to the lockdown, he continues: “The fact that we are all sitting at home is challenging every aspect of what we are as a company.” Google may have all the tools to work remotely, but the move has not been seamless. “The things that facilitate good collaboration happen naturally in person—things like how we come to trust each other, how we build authenticity, how we make connections with individuals.”

For Sullivan, subtle nuances in body language and being able to talk at the same time are crucial to having effective team meetings. His team started their distributed-office experiment having everyone muted when they were not talking, to guard against interruptions by stray children and pets. “But that leads to, on a practical level, people saying things like, ‘So I was thinking dah dah dah, you know what I mean?’ And that ‘you know what I mean?’ would be met with absolute silence.” The remedy they found was simple: to have everyone’s microphone on all the time, so anyone could chime in quickly and unselfconsciously. If these protocols of remote collaboration can be sorted out, perhaps Google will be open to having more remote work in the future.

It might not be time yet to take stock of the effects of the pandemic on architectural culture and to theorize our new situation, but some starting points can be offered. First, as Reinhold Martin has recently emphasized, “please let’s not pretend that the old ways were any less mediated than the proliferating screens” we are currently experiencing. Offices, schools, homes, and all other spaces are already sites of mediation. A physical classroom—with its rows of seats, lectern, and projector screen—is itself a media apparatus. The choice is not virtual community mediation versus the unmediated real world. Instead, we are faced with the task of thinking critically about what each media form offers, the techniques we have at our disposal to use them, and the ethical choices involved in the worlds we ultimately want to build.

A second theoretical point has to do with the fleeting nature of community. Structuralist theorists liked to imagine that culture is a sort of framework—a mostly static preexisting condition to which we can add pieces. Existing online courses often operate in this way, with students engaging with a fixed library of content. It seems to me now that culture is better understood as something that happens momentarily, like gathering to hear a story. The synchronous character of community may be the most important aspect to nurture as we try to maintain its vitality online.

Finally, it is worth stepping back and looking almost naively at how we spend our time. When conducting architectural matters during lockdown, I am typically sitting at home interacting with a screen. This replaces time I would have spent interacting in person, making things physically, and moving around a city that seems to constantly offer up something new. In the past, screen time encompassed a limited duration in the daily life of an architect, a figure who was imagined as an autonomous creative individual body and mind. Now the architect is plugged into the apparatus. The danger is that we become defined by our productivity and that productivity-time is equated with hours working with screens. We must keep space and time open for imagining other possibilities.