In the Fall of 2018, all incoming, on-campus, freshmen at The Ohio State University received an Apple iPad from the school. Referred to as the Digital Flagship initiative, this program aimed to level the technological playing field for incoming students of all backgrounds. It was a kind of simplified response to William Gibson’s often-rehearsed claim that the future is already here, however, not evenly distributed. Students were now equipped with a portable screen (and camera), carrying case, and Bluetooth stylus, and faculty were introduced to a new world of teaching opportunities afforded by the common denominator of the Apple iPad.
Being able to predict exactly what technology students have access to is one less obstacle on the road to seamless virtual teaching. It lets instructors design common assignments and teach replicable working methods on specific devices. In the case of Ohio State, the university has set up workshops that introduce faculty to mobile app development so that they might design their own interfaces and tools in addition to using existing applications. How the architecture school might capitalize on these technologies remains to be seen. However, in the wake of a global pandemic, in which access to technology is just another conspicuous shortcoming of late capitalism, these initiatives offer not only the means for continuing education, but also for exploring other dimensions of design pedagogy. As recent reporting suggests, educators are facing tough questions on, for instance, virtual classroom protocols, digital-only representation, and web-based privacy.
That being said, I’ve given up trying to write critically about what-the-pandemic-means-for-architectural-education. The stakes are too high, and there are more talented scholars already working on it. It also feels deeply depressing. The running commentary on Places Journal’s narrative survey of “pandemic teaching” leans heavily on disenchantment and the ever-present romanticization of traditional architectural education—desk crits, group reviews, physical models—that keeps pursuing some notion of analog versus digital. Peppered throughout, however, are notes of optimism, and the occasional lighthearted anecdote.
In the face of uncertainty, screens are now the principal site for experiencing the, albeit dark, funniness of our situation.
What I’ve found incredibly comforting during this shift to virtual education (and pandemic) is not that students have access to Zoom or Carmen or Creative Cloud, but instead that they have access to humor. In the face of uncertainty, screens are now the principal site for experiencing the, albeit dark, funniness of our situation. Memes and TikToks referencing the absurdities of social distancing, tweets highlighting the ineptitude of political leaders, and Twitch streams of the game Animal Crossing have brought much joy into my empty apartment. I even laughed out loud (IRL) upon reading a joke suggesting that academics can’t wait to intellectualize and turn this quarantine into a project, a painfully ironic point for this article.
It is crucial to remind ourselves that the tools for production can also be tools for experiencing delight. On the one hand, the delight I’m describing is a kind of coping mechanism, a retreat into humor to avoid the seriousness of the situation. But on the other hand, I’d like to argue that it also opens up the potential for us to engage everyday amusement as a component of design. The point is not to intellectualize humor, but rather to expand the role satisfaction and amusement play in design. Now, perhaps more than ever, we should double down on Vitruvius’s last item in his triumvirate axiom of firmness, commodity, and delight.
Now, perhaps more than ever, we should double down on Vitruvius’s last item in his triumvirate axiom of firmness, commodity, and delight.
In architecture, this lighthearted amusement can be seen anywhere from inside jokes to widespread projects: Stanley Tigerman’s cartoons, Archigram’s psychedelic collages, or Ryan Scavnicky’s memes. But internet culture is also full of unexpected pleasures such as autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) podcasts that virtually tickle the back of your neck and hydraulic-press crushing videos that are as destructive as they are satisfying. On Instagram there even exists a trend of “sand cutting” channels, which, as a kind of visual ASMR, are hypnotic and addictive. One need only follow #satisfying to get a glimpse into this world.
Delight requires a different set of priorities. Beyond the disciplinary or functional satisfaction that comes with a successful architectural project, delight prioritizes fun. How then do we make virtual reviews fun? While face filters and funky backgrounds are judged unprofessional for serious Zoom meetings, a delightful task might be treading that line and finding or making just the right background for your final review. As schools explore new modes of conducting studios, why not suggest a Minecraft meeting or a Fortnite session? Or watch Dwayne Johnson’s Skyscraper as a class and laugh at its portrayal of architects. For a design project, build a room-scale Rube Goldberg machine, the ultimate quarantine exercise in delight.
At Ohio State, the workshops aimed to teach students and faculty “how to get the most out of your Digital Flagship iPad” are drenched in a public-relations style optimism focused mainly on being productive, a notion that artist Jenny Odell has deemed problematic if not outright destructive to our mental health. The argument, of course, is that with portable tablets comes the ability to work from home or anywhere. But “work” right now is a daunting task fraught with uncertainty. Pleasure is just as pertinent. Though some of us have a robust digital infrastructure in place, it is necessary to make a key distinction: we are not teaching virtually because we want to, but because we have to. If the show (architecture) must go on, let us at least have fun with it.