The Commons Studio: Designing the Commons Architecture 

by hulya ertas, julie charlot & burak pak

The Architecture Design Studio as a Commons


Particularly after the 2008 crisis, the recent decade has witnessed the emergence of new urban commons initiatives across the world. Architects started to take part in the relevant struggles and participatory actions for creating commons. In European cities such as Brussels, a new generation of architects started to get involved -and in some cases led the co-creation of urban commons organizations. These citizen initiatives are the harbingers of the emergence of a new type of architect, the “commons architect”, in contraposition to the starchitect.

Today, in the architecture schools which follow the traditional curriculum, the students are expected to create individual projects through form-finding and feedback by the “studio masters”. Architectural design is mostly limited to the production of a spatial end-product. The social life and afterlife of the designed spaces are not included in the discussions during the design process. This approach fails to recognize the potentialities of the new role of the architect and renders the profession of architecture incapable of addressing the contemporary shifts in the society. In contrast with these, in the recent years, we also witness the emergence of educational initiatives through which students work in live projects” with local communities, charities and regional authorities, bringing in a new model of learning. 
In this paper, as three persons in different positions within the academia -a master student, a PhD student and a professor- we will reflect on our recent experiment in which we reconfigured our design studio with the principles of a commons. We would like to extend this further and rethink architectural design studio as a commons: an experimental initiative, a living lab realized with an intentional community, protocols in becoming, and shared resources. The main research questions are: Rethinking the stakeholders in and around an architectural design studio as an intentional community and the architectural knowledge as a common pool resource, which protocols can be implemented to transform the studio into commons? What are the conditions that make possible the creation and sustainability of the commons studio? How can we redesign learning as a peer-to-peer exchange and co-creation with a holistic perspective spanning the design of the curriculum to the socio-spatial production of the commons? How can the commoning practice of learning meet and amplify the needs and desires of the new generation of commons architects?

Critique on the traditional architectural design studio 

Architectural design studio is the heart of architectural design learning (Schön, 1988). The traditional pedagogical model of the design studio today in majority of the architecture schools is based on the Bauhaus model which introduced novel pedagogies combining crafts and arts with rationality, functionality and mass production. This model is a reformed version of the master-apprenticeship based training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris (Kuhn, 2001: 349). 

Developed within capitalism and proved efficient to produce professionals serving within the existing economic structure, the traditional design studio has been based on a vertical hierarchical academic structure: master-apprentice relationship. From its conception in Beaux-Arts until today, the design studio has been a medium for students to learn-by-doing how to address spatial challenges through design under the supervision of a master architect-teacher, imitating a sort of design practice.  

According to Schön (1988:4) the design studio is a “reflective practicum in designing” whereby students learn not merely by accumulating knowledge but through an ongoing process of “trial-and-error” (Wang, 2010: 175). The learners take part in a  conversation-like process between the students and the master educator who is managing the studio.

The traditional studio-based learning model has been criticized due to its overemphasis on the teacher (Webster, 2006). This hampers a real social-constructionist education in which both the student and the teacher are on equal foot during the design project/process (Newton and Pak, 2015). The top-down review moments of critique (also known as crits) create a skewed power hierarchy in which students have to justify their work and thoughts to the master-teacher (and experts) (Webster, 2006 & 2007).  In this context, the traditional design studio in its current form contributes to the replication of the approach of the master architect-teacher. This master theoretically has all the necessary knowledge and the understanding of making design decisions through spatial creativity and artistic/aesthetic craftsmanship: a sort of “artist-genius” (Till, 2009: 60).  

The “user” in the traditional studio context is non-present: the issues of participation or the desires of future users and their potential roles are not sufficiently addressed (Koch et al., 2002).  This problem is magnified by the fact the focus of the traditional studio is primarily on the final product rather than on the process (Newton and Pak, 2015). The students are not expected to consider the protocols of use, the post-occupancy life-cycle of their designs. The central interest on the final product and its aesthetics overshadows the social role of architecture. This discussion shows that mere transfer of theoretical and practical knowledge through Schön’s conversational action in the studio makes it insufficient as a learning medium. It is necessary to rethink the architectural design studio as a socially embedded design action which takes part in a real-world context. Already there are some alternative tracks which expands studio learning beyond the traditional model. Live projects where students are doing real-life and real-time projects that are going to be realized, participatory design studios with the inclusion of inhabitants in the project location, design build studios or summer schools where small interventions are designed and built by the students are some examples of these alternative tracks. 

Architecture studio of the commons

A commons studio challenges the increasing societal role of the architect. The commons architect collaborates with the people who will be actually using and needing a new structure for their specific needs. A Commons architect works on the same foot as all participants of the project. It is a collaborative effort, instead of a top down intervention.

The shared resources in a commons studio are quiet diverse: knowledge, skill sets, networks, interactions that all the commoners are open to make use of. The commoners are a wide range of actors and networks (in a Latourian perspective): the students and tutors as initiators, and during the process this expands to various people such as inhabitants, local authorities, NGOs where the architectural project is taking place and all the connections and interdependencies in-between. It is also possible to envision a citizen-initiated commons studio model with a more bottom-up process, which then extends to students, tutors, more inhabitants and NGOs. For a richer and sustainable sharing of the resources among the commoners, a set of self-created and self-defined protocols need to be implemented. Allowing for a horizontal collaboration process these protocols are continuously re-made through collective feedback sessions in order to ensure the initial goals of the commons are met. 


In order to prepare students, the Commons studio sets in place a collaborative work and a horizontal hierarchy. The studio becomes a place of experimentation in a Commons frame during the learning period. The process, with all the various actors on a project, becomes the most significant part of the studio. This is when and where learning appear. The final product is no longer the ultimate goal. The studio does not focus on the fictitious analysis which later on becomes the input for form-finding. The essential part is the collaboration of people and the accompanying skills and the ability to understand, answer issues and to propose a realistic solution.

The gradual release and shift of responsibility from the teacher-as-model to a shared accountability of teacher and learner, reinforces the autonomous practice and application by the learner (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983). Learning becomes the process of acquiring knowledge or skill through study, experience or teaching (Fisher & Frey, 2014). By increasing, gradually, the responsibility of the student for their own learning they become, competent, independent learners, able to tackle a new situation (Graves and Fitzgerald, 2003). In this scenario there occurs a gradual release of responsibility from the “teachers” to the learners.
Obviously learning can occur through study, however, the process of understanding behind the studio can hardly be taught with books, it needs to be experienced. It requires the involvement and interaction through peer to peer exchange. This becomes the key part of the learning process.
Co-creativity interconnects with building technology, design of space and sociology/anthropology. Sharing ideas, challenging concepts and open-mindedness are essential elements in developing the focus of the studio and engaging the learning process and the conceptualization of a living space. This is exactly why a studio embedded in reality via a collaboration with real live actors is the best frame work for studying architecture.

Commons architect in contraposition to “starchitect” 

The existing social, political and economical order constructs a new subjectivity (Dardot & Laval 2013, p. 8) and generates norms defining our very own daily lives and habits, along with our profession and how we practice it. With high mass media coverage and attention of international investments starchitects have acted as “celebrity CEOs of multi-national architectural corporations”. Boiling down the architectural practice into running a private company, starchitects have replaced some facets of the practice such as contextual reading, critical stance and social impact with branding, managerial utility and impotence

After the 2008 crisis, financial resources being poured to building projects as indications of the state or corporate power became limited. This has not led to cuts in only public spending for social, cultural projects but also in private spending, especially in cities where austerity measures were implemented strictly and private speculative investment was not expected to generate high profit in short-term. So with fewer jobs in the construction industry and more awareness of the social implications of the existing system -through global protest movements like Occupy Wall Street, 15-M, Arab Spring etc- the young architects found themselves in a challenging environment, which apparently was very different from the days of starchitects which had dominated the professional scene since 1990s.