UPDATES ON AUTONOMOUS LEARNING
Thinking back to my studies reminds me of states of confusion and uncertainty. The former is marked by the questionable aim of finding out what would ‘please’ my professor, while the latter stems from the unpredictability of the future that awaited me after my studies.
I studied at one of the world’s elite universities in the 2020s, at a time when its architecture department found itself in a fundamental, climate-related crisis. During my seven years of studies, the department had gone from employing a moderate climate policy to establishing goals aimed at reducing negative impacts on the environment. In 2018, ninety-three percent of all business travels were done flying. The architectural department had contributed a great deal to this as most of the staff flew in on a weekly basis in order to teach, not to forget the many compulsory field trips to often distant destinations.
Another ongoing transformation was the digitalisation, re-evaluating the role of architects as well as the very meaning of this discipline. Such change did not only lead to curricular adjustments but affected the social fabric of the department as well. If the past has taught us anything, it is that with increasing automation things do not get easier but actually increase in complexity. Keller Easterling has shown that by 2002, the term ‘architecture’ had long removed its simple set of pants and slipped into a more elaborate outfit. She describes architecture as an intricate ‘relationship between things,’  be it computer-based, part of concrete matter or of systemic origin.
Whereas new digital tools, such as computer-aided design software, became responsible for a crisis in the world of architecture of the 1990s, it was phenomena like AI, algorithms and social media that caused quite a stir in the 2020s. Architecture professors, torn between the analog and the digital, formed three groups of interest: The first consisted of those who fully embraced the possibilities of the digital, leaving the second group to traditionalists and a few remaining old (male) masters. They continued the work of their historic predecessors, celebrating form and the built environment. Those who remained were torn in-between these two groups, mediating between them.
As it turned out, many possibilities related to digitalisation on the one hand and automation on the other, showcased great potential while challenging the curriculum of architectural education. As a student I was part of this transitional process. The aforementioned groups of professors and their beliefs were somewhat mirrored by the student body: you either stuck with the traditionalists, became part of the technophiles or you ended up in the in-between experimental blur. Such conditions explain my feelings of confusion or uncertainty in regard to my future as an architect.
Leaving behind the times of my studies, I would like to look at the type of education architecture students engage with today. Students have become familiar with an educational environment that lets them be in charge of the content of their studies. As autonomous learners, students can engage in their interests without curricular obligations, which makes it possible to delve into issues of current importance.
This type of learning develops a sort of “tentacular thinking” that allows for creation of diverse knowledges, connecting architecture to other fields.
Autonomous learning has been explored by many, ‘the autonomous learner model’ being a popular example. The model describes a mode of learning that enables students to become “problem finders, creative problem solvers, and producers of knowledge.” As such, they would be able to “successfully navigate 21st-century issues and ensure that macro problems will be tackled and synthesised to solution through macro-opportunities.”
In architecture, such learning has been translated from theory into physical spaces. An early example is Chris Abel’s ‘mobile learning stations’ from 1969, which were customising space in order to increase the potential for learning. They were part of architecture education that was striving to be independent of its physical environment and could therefore be operated remotely. At a time when computers mostly existed in the form of vast data rooms, the act of learning was dependent on analog media. Nowadays portable devices, the Internet of Things and elaborate communication software grant students an access to mobility and autonomy, with a more elaborate and open-source catalogue at hand.
What does this mean for the student’s physical presence at university? Thinking of the 2020 crisis and distance learning, I believe in physical attendance as a crucial factor in interaction with others. Screen communication filters out important human experiences. I would argue that similarly to what Easterling already described in 2002, architecture education has extended the perception of space, with complexity of the many (learning) possibilities, analog and digital, contributing to the success of autonomous learning.
The cult of the master class and celebration of star architects are long gone. The students now inhabit the centre of education, “shifting the focus from teaching to learning.” Where does this leave the professors and their assistants? They retain a fundamental role in education as they help the students not to fall into the trap of ‘narcissistic monadism’ while encouraging them to collaborate with others, creating synergies between different interests. It is not primarily about ‘knowing’ but about the ability of interdisciplinary thinking. As specialisation has become less attractive since the economic crisis in 2020, architects have taken up the role of mediators between others.
Earlier generation of architects often preferred to exercise an “anaesthetic architecture,” pretending to live in a smooth, well-functioning world. The new generation of architects is confident to be confronted with the ugly truth of real issues. Only as such can they learn how “to be truly present” and what it means to be an emancipated thinker, connected to his or her socio cultural environment.
UPDATES ON AUTONOMOUS LEARNING was published first in print issue 120, "The New Serenity"