Denise Scott Brown on learning by doing


Denise Scott Brown talks to Citizen about her Las Vegas and Levittown design studios which she ran as a teacher, about learning by doing and how to synthesise design teaching with other disciplines

Practice what you teach

Teaching educates tutors as well as students. Clarifying and communicating their design approach, as well as responding to that of students and the ensuing exchanges, hones the teaching skills of tutors. It also provokes them to constantly reassess and update their thinking and design strategy in response to changing contemporary conditions. The LSA emphasis on being relevant is reinforced by its custom of drawing tutors from its Practice Network — architects engaged with the changing problems of the real world and so of tested practical experience.

The ongoing series of interviews with tutors reveals what they have learnt from teaching and how this is influencing their evolving approach to pedagogy and practice. In this issue, all interviewees are mainly tutors at the LSA, but future issues will draw from a larger pool.

How do you teach? Pondering this, particularly in relation to architecture, makes me realize I learnt to run a studio not from architects, but from planners. That line of thought came from curriculum debates in planning school. All the young Turks there said we must get rid of ‘studio’ because, instead of bringing together subject matter and showing how to synthesize it, studio leaders just spouted off one guru or another, spouting their philosophies.

All professional education involves learning for doing, and its methods emphasize learning by doing. Medical schools have clinics, engineering has labs, law has case studies, business has workshops. In all these there are issues of pure and applied research.

I don’t see value in architects doing pure research into human physiology or into the systems controls of spaceships, for example. But they can perhaps help on teams researching the functional and visual relationships required within a spaceship cabin—how you reach what you need to use and see what you need to work on within this environment. And maybe designers can help make its occupants feel less constrained. But for the specialized physiological or engineering needs of highly technical design we must expect to work with experts.

However, in architecture, we don’t have, as in medicine, broad ranges of professions between the primary caregiver and the pure scientist—whole sets of professionals who spend their lives on a part of a problem. And for these people to be successful, they must be able to work with others successfully.


Most architectural education involves individual projects, and relations between students are often competitive. There is a social side to ‘studio’ but it has to do with parties, rather than group work. When I studied and taught, the structure of studio was frequently authoritarian, and its juries were highly authoritarian. I saw destructive jury members purvey the attitude, ‘I am on high; I have it. You are low; you don’t have it. Maybe you never will’. And I would add under my breath, ‘Particularly with you around’. This kind of training breeds authoritarian personalities — a big problem in architectural education and later in practice.

Given their interdisciplinary subject matter, group work, and oscillation between research and design, planning studios require considerable preplanning. In this phase, many pedagogical and philosophical issues must be considered. For example, what is research and what is design? What should be the balance between the two? What is analysis and what is synthesis, and when, in a studio sequence, do you do one or the other? What is a hypothesis? Is it a design? How and when should the studio process alternate between large-team, small-team, and individual work? How can subgroup findings be generally shared? How do you deal with both creativity and rigor? How do you mix the measurable and unmeasurable? Issues specific to the project must be considered, and decisions made on which aspects of reality to take on in studio, since you can’t manage them all.

Studio work

When I was preparing my students for studio, I would give them a quick 10 days of reading. I’d say, ‘on the basis of this reading, you’re going to choose a topic from those here. If you don’t do the reading, you won’t be able to choose well about how you’ll be spending the next three months. That was enough, It was a bit of a trick. It’s like the difference between looking at a museum and looking at a gallery that sells. You study more carefully where you think you might buy.

In the traditional architectural studio, ‘learning by doing’ means learning by designing. Most students are headed toward practice and need to gain experience in design via a carefully structured sequence of studios to acquire increasingly complex design skills. Remember learning to ride a bicycle. You got on, you didn’t know what to do, you hadn’t read a book—you just did it. You fell off, got up, fell off again, got back on, and finally you were riding. You can do it in an afternoon, but you’ll know it for the rest of your life. Well, that’s not a bad model for studio. It should not be frowned upon; it’s not antiscientific. It’s the best kind of science for that particular process. But at the University of Pennsylvania, we had the problem of augmenting the knowledge base of that system, and that was one of my tasks as a studio teacher: How do you add knowledge to the learning-by-doing process?

Citizen Mag — Denise Scott Brown on learning by doing

Learning by doing

This concept involves the traditional architectural idea of studio as practicing designing, and the planning studio objective of reinforcing the content of lectures. But, as important, it has to do with the professionalizing of academic knowledge to make it useable by designers. Bob Venturi and I ran studios on Las Vegas and Levittown (New York), and these tried not only to give architects a broader, more interdisciplinary intellectual base but, as well, to help them learn to convert knowledge from other fields, from iconography to regional science, to forms they could use in their work.

When we taught the ‘Learning from Levittown’ studio, I invited an economist to visit. She asked the students who had taken economics 101 class. They all raised their hands, but, as the studio continued, it was apparent that none of them understood economics as it is applied to housing or to anything that they did in architecture. And because they had no way to connect it to their professional concerns, they could not remember what they had learned about it as undergraduates. Studio can help architects make that connection, and help students learn to apply knowledge gained in undergraduate study or thereafter to their professional work.

But today we collect ads

Beyond economics, I encouraged students to see the different ‘values’ regarding housing. This may be from Jane Austen story — she’s eulogizes on Georgian housing, but, this notion was also about how a TV advert sells pickles to a housewife What is the housing in the background for that ad? And how would you analyse that housing background? We were quite inventive with the different places students could go to look at; a lot of it was photography as well. We made matrices of these things, housing according to lifestyle, etc., looking at magazines as they would show you what kind of homes they expected people to aspire living in. And there were adverts in these magazines too — 1920s ads were delicious, but it was the architecture in the background that was most interesting.

Adding knowledge and evolving the discipline

A scholarly discipline is defined by the body of concepts and knowledge that supports it, and one role of research is to contribute to this constantly changing penumbra of learning. In professional schools this role can also be filled by doctoral dissertations, the research of scholars, the empirical studies of practitioners and, in architecture, by research-oriented studios. The Las Vegas studio added, inter alia, a concept, ‘The Duck’, to architecture: that was a (small) example of discipline building.

Evolving learning techniques for different learners

Architects tend to be visual learners, and, like art students, many are probably dyslexic. But their talent for visual learning is a learning difference, not a disability, and is especially appropriate for architecture. Yet such learners can feel overwhelmed by book learning and may believe reading will cramp their ability to design. By tying the reading requirement closely to the design aim, studio can help visual learners discover how to apply their talents to intellectual material—to derive the physical and visual implications of verbal information, and to use these creatively in design.

Learning to do life-long learning

Studio parallels and can prepare students for the learning processes of professional practice, where projects must be researched as they are designed. If studio broadens these processes to include areas that would be ignored in practice, it can lead to improved project-related study and a lifetime of intellectual broadening.

Building camaraderie

When students work long, intense hours together to deadlines and on projects that intrigue them, an infectious spirit and a supportive solidarity build up. These help them establish personal professional identities.

Building commitment

In developing camaraderie, ideals, professional ethics, and a philosophical approach, the studio helps students form their basic commitment to their life’s work.

A ‘home’ project

When I entered Penn, I didn’t get to know Philadelphia for six months. I didn’t have time. It’s a kindness to introduce students to the city where they are living by giving them a project based in that city.

Studio should be fun

It should be like playing. Children work hard at their play. So should the studio. And if emotions—even anger, on occasion—aren’t triggered, none of us will learn.

Share the power

The teacher learns the most, partly because having power is a great teacher. It’s also intoxicating, therefore dangerous. You should share it, not take it all yourself. Try to get the students to have some of the power, make them be the teacher in some respect. Let them be judges of what they should show the rest of the class. Let them be part of a jury. Then, when they are the teachers, watch how authoritarian they can become.


This essay comprised from a Citizen interview with Denise ScottBrown and an edited lecture from the ‘Para-theses: Current Trajectories in Architectural Research’ symposium at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation and Planning from February 4, 2006, organized by Jonathan Lott, Brian Price, and Dominic Leong.

Author bio

Denise Scott Brown was born in 1931, in ’Nkana, Zambia. He work as an architect, planner, photographer writer and educator has been the source of inspiration for practitioners for more than half-a-century.

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