Education of Artists

Hybrid Teaching: Design Studios in Virtual Space


Presented to the

National Conference on Liberal Arts and the Education of Artists

SVA, New York  20 October 2000

Sally L. Levine

The Boston Architectural Center

320 Newbury Street

Boston, MA 02115

(617) 585-0219


Warren K. Wake

The Boston Architectural Center

320 Newbury Street

Boston, MA 02115

(617) 585-0231

Copyright Ó 2000, Sally L. Levine, Warren K. Wake





Education of Artists

Hybrid Teaching: Design Studios in Virtual Space


Hybrid teaching combines the best aspects of traditional education with the promising possibilities provided by new media to create a robust educational experience. It is predicted that this method of teaching will become the standard for college education in the future, and this likelihood suggests the need to develop the physical and virtual sites of this new type of education. This paper presents both the application of hybrid teaching in the design studio and the relationship of the physical and virtual settings of hybrid education.

Saskia Sassen (1998) reminds us that "there is no fully virtualized enterprise nor fully (digitized) industry," that even "sectors that are highly digitized require strategic sites." The hybrid studio, combining conventional, classroom-based instruction with Internet-based virtual studios, recognizes this duality and exploits the relationship between the digitized (virtual) sector and the strategic (physical) site. This paper focuses on the benefits of hybrid teaching, the relationship of the two environments and ways to exploit the unique characteristics of each in design studio education.

We began incorporating hybrid teaching techniques in advanced-level interior design/architecture studios in 1998 at the Boston Architectural Center (BAC), our home institution. This school is particularly well suited to the use of hybrid teaching methods. The practice curriculum component of the architecture and interior design programs requires that the students work in architecture and interior design offices during the day, with academic courses taken at the BAC campus in the evenings. Courses typically meet just once per week, limiting the contact between faculty and student to the assigned meeting times. Students have typically had minimal contact with their instructors during the rest of the week.

By contrast, our hybrid studios meet twice or more per week, once at the BAC’s main building on Newbury Street in Boston, at other times during the week via the Internet. The physical studio is a computer lab where the class members gather to share information, work on their designs, and present projects for periodic review. The Internet studio site includes an avatar-scaled review space for synchronous meetings - new this year - and a website for asynchronous communication. This latter site includes links to each student and faculty member’s email and website, a bulletin board, the course description and syllabus. The syllabus, distributed only on the website, provides online links to readings, eliminating the need for excessive copying or for placing readings on reserve in the school library. In addition the class website features links to relevant webpages and to other related information. By adding the online learning requirement to an advanced level design studio, the instructors "virtually" double the amount of student/teacher contact.

During the first two years the studio was offered, web-based review was asynchronous only, implemented with websites, bulletin boards, and email. Even so, the students indicated that they benefited from the feedback they received mid-week. Students reported that the additional communications helped keep them more focused on their projects than they had been in other studios. They also expressed the wish that these mid-week meetings could be more like traditional studio pin-ups, allowing students to benefit from the feedback given to others. This year we have expanded our virtual studio in the hope of realizing our goal of creating a synchronous online site where students are able to participate in a real-time dialogue and benefit from real-time feedback from the entire class.


Benefits of Hybrid Teaching

Hybrid teaching has great potential, especially for art and design education. In traditional studio settings, instructor and guest critic feedback is understandably limited due to time and scheduling limitations and availability of student work. Scheduling problems are eased for both the visiting reviewers and for the students when students post their works to their websites throughout the semester, making the drawings visible to colleagues around the world. Guest critics can then attend the virtual studio meeting and review student work at their leisure, from the comfort of their office or home. Students can begin to incorporate valuable feedback throughout the design process instead of hearing "formal" feedback only at the mid-point and end of the term.

From the outset, the Hybrid studios were developed to address the need for deeper two-way feedback characteristic of art and design courses. It is crucial to the design studio experience for the student to not only receive information from the instructor, but also to present work for peer and instructor review. This is a departure from the model common to most contemporary distance learning designs, where content is presumed to travel primarily from the instructor to the student. This need, particularly in the first two years our studio was offered, was addressed by having students develop websites embodying their design presentations, with electronic bulletin boards provided for exchanging peer and instructor comments. In the first year, students had no experience in creating webpages, so substantial time was necessarily devoted to this task. This was less a problem in the subsequent two years, with only twenty minutes devoted to the topic this year. This is due in part to improvements in BAC information technologies infrastructure, providing pre-created network-accessible web-posting accounts for each student. Students can create simple websites using Microsoft Word, saving their files directly to their web folders. Ideally, web literacy, including the ability to post webpages, will be considered a prerequisite to a course of this type.

In the particular design studio that we teach, an additional benefit of the hybrid system is its embodiment of the subject of the design studio. Both rely on a concept of "Siamese Sites" or complementary spaces. Siamese sites grow from a single program, addressed in the design of two spaces which complement each other in meeting the demands of that program. Our studio is conducted in a Siamese site, and the students are given a program that requires that they design a complementary space solution. As with a traditional studio, students design both spaces, but do not build them. Just as the design of the physical space is a representation of the idea and not bricks and mortar, the design of the virtual space is presented through drawings and images, rather than by constructing interactive environments. We introduce students to many web-based software programs the way we introduce students to construction details and materials, but our major focus is the design exploration.

The experience the architecture and interior design students have in taking class in the dual studio site gives them a personal reference from which they can develop their own ideas about the two sides of the computer monitor. In the process they begin to inhabit a virtual world as they explore space using the computer tools of virtual design. These experiences undoubtedly will begin to shape the aesthetics and ideas about design in the upcoming years.


1998 Institutional Design Studio

In 1998, the first year that we offered the studio, we developed a program that called for the design of a student lounge, café and display space for the BAC. The physical portion was sited on the School’s first floor, and the virtual component was developed on, and accessible via, the Internet. At that time, the existing ground floor housed a public gallery and the School’s administrative offices. In the program statement students were instructed that the School planned to renovate this floor; the gallery would remain, but it would be made fully accessible, and the administration area would move to another location, with hopes of making the entry to the school more fully public. The new program included a student lounge, a public café and a semi-private crit space. The program for the virtual complement of this space included a web-based space where student work would be shown, a bulletin board where messages would be posted, and a lounge where the community would gather to exchange ideas. The project statement stipulated that the virtual space was not simply to mirror the actual space, but that it was to become a metaphoric parallel to the physical location. The virtual student lounge/café/display space was specified as an interactive three-dimensional avatar-inhabited space.

The students built digital models of both the ground floor and of its virtual complement. The environment the students explore is close to that suggested by Daniela Bartol (1997): "The creative process which is traditionally based on two-dimensional representations or sketches can now be transformed to take advantage of an immersive design environment, visualizing ideas and preliminary sketches in a three-dimensional space, such as that provided by a VR implementation." In this initial studio project, the class began to recognize the impact of viewing designs from within the space. Formal principles of composition, such as symmetry and central organization, which are usually studied and understood in two-dimensional representations, have a different value when implemented in a three-dimensional avatar-scaled environment. Proportions among various architectural elements can be verified by inhabiting the space they define. Avatar environments enable the possibility of inhabiting the virtual building, and seeing it inhabited while designing it.

Although students were instructed to work on both designs simultaneously — an extension of the traditional plan/section/elevation investigation — most began with the more familiar physical site. With the use of a digital camera, images of the existing first floor design and conditions were taken and uploaded to the course website for the students’ shared use. As class members began to give shape to their physical first floors, their digital spaces also began to come into focus. The design of the digital space was not a replica of the ground floor space nor a substitution for its physical elements; the digital space presented experiences parallel to those in the physical space, making navigation through both equally comprehensive and fulfilling. For example, in one student proposal, the BAC’s six concrete floors became the foundation for a virtual seventh, with an elevator becoming a symbolic transporter to a virtual world.

Fig 1: The physical component of Michael Tobin, Megan Ouellette and Jack Poulin's project, as displayed on their website.

Fig 2: The plan for Jonathon Warner's virtual student lounge as it appears on his website.

1999 Commercial Design Studio

Last year’s design project asked students to design Siamese sites for a retail enterprise. This coincided with the retail sector’s acknowledgment of the importance of e-commerce and its recognition that this virtual activity affects their building strategy as well. The Simon Property Group of Indianapolis is among the most aggressive real-estate companies currently incorporating Internet commerce into its long-term strategy. Simon, the nation’s biggest mall operator, has formed a subsidiary,, to develop new Internet ventures for retailers and plans to begin wiring its 176 malls next year for high-speed Internet access, allowing stores to add multimedia kiosks, web videocasts and other marketing tools., which is based in Chicago, is founded on the premise that soon "people will be online all the time," president Melanie Alshab said. "We believe it’ll be a very effective way for people to shop," she said of the merger of cyber and retail spaces.

Acknowledging developments such as this, the 1999 studio project specified the design of a commercial space, with a physical site component located in a local strip mall. Because this typical rectangular floor plate is home to many types of commercial enterprises, students were asked to develop a program for a retail activity of their choice. Projects included the design of a hair salon, a sporting goods store and a gift shop specializing in ancient artifacts.

Unexpected discoveries were made during the semester. In the early phases of design, some students thought of their Internet spaces as "virtual closets," assigning whatever functions did not neatly fit within their physical sites. As their understanding developed, however, students began to see the potential of their cyber designs becoming the flagship stores of their individual companies. Unconstrained by the physical or structural limitations of physical buildings, students developed their ideal concepts in the virtual space. The physical space then became a satellite variation on the idealized theme, responding to physical site limitations, such as existing wall locations, structure and mechanical systems. Students quickly realized that a decision in one realm had a direct impact on its complement.

On a more theoretical level, the class embraced the parallel track investigation as a Platonic/Aristotelian debate. Cyberspace provides a location for design without compromise. Like the Great Pyramids of Giza, these spaces are built unconstrained by concerns for physical labor, expense of materials or size of construction. Conceptual works, like those of Ledoux and Boullée, can be realized in virtual space, and the visitors to those realizations may explore at their own pace, led by their own interests. Such pure architectural form and conceptualization is rare these days, and the opportunity to explore such forms as half of the complementary space points to an important opportunity arising through complementary virtual architecture. In the context of complementary design, this dialogue between the ideal and the real is necessitated by the combined goals of the two spaces. Both sides of the monitor screen are impacted by the explorations of similar but unique spatial notions. As instructors, we have been impressed by the depth of the investigations, and by the improved quality of the physical projects. This new development in the practice of architecture and design has the potential to greatly improve the quality of life in both architectural domains.

Fig 3: Susan Harrington's website documenting early studies includes sketches and photographs of models.

Fig 4: The virtual retail space of Matthew O'Brien's project, reminiscent of an Egyptian tomb.

2000 Commercial Design Studio

In this year's studio, we are expanding the use of Virtual architecture techniques, wherein student designs can be modeled in a web-accessible avatar-inhabited virtual environment, based on activeworlds technology ( This environment also serves as a distance studio classroom, where a class may meet as avatars, to discuss the student projects. This semester’s project addresses the design of professional service/corporate enterprises having public, semi-public and private components. Students developed their own programs again as part of the design experience. Projects include a consulate, a travel agency and a temporary employment agency specializing in placing staff in offices in the design fields. The physical site is located on the third floor of Boston’s Copley Mall at Copley Square. The glass storefront faces a three-story atrium space, making the facade visible from the two main shopping levels. The transparent facade encloses the office’s public lobby, which hosts various display monitors, presenting information relevant to the activities of the enterprise.

Each semester we encourage students to explore ways to bring the virtual into the physical and the physical into the virtual. The student designing the travel agency has recognized the efficiency of current online travel agencies, and he has decided to program a similar (although avatar-based) business on the Internet for everyday travel plans. In his physical space, he will include a virtual cave, a full-sized 5-sided "holodeck"-like space, where prospective clients can get a taste of exotic travel destinations before choosing a vacation spot. These program/design decisions illustrate the spirit of complementary design. Each part of the Siamese site is exploited for its particular strength. The program has been divided to take advantage of the characteristics of each realm. The Internet and the electronic-ticketing has already changed the travel industry from a one-on-one service to a seamless online transaction. The student plans to build on these developments while retaining the sense of service, place, and human contact that have traditionally been important in this industry.

Fig 5: The 2000 class website includes photographs and plans of the physical building site.

Fig 6: The virtual BAC campus on, where students meet as avatars, and construct models of their designs.



Each year our studio provides new lessons about Hybrid teaching and its effectiveness as an approach for design instruction. During the past three years we learned the importance of distance methods to improving the quantity and quality of contact with students. We have found that virtual architecture provides an effective presentation medium for architecture and interior design projects and that virtual architecture facilitates virtual class meetings.

The discussion and feedback normally forgotten in the course of a traditional studio is inherently captured and becomes a valuable resource to students throughout the semester, recorded on the class bulletin board. Our web-based studios have opened the possibility of remote project review, facilitating participation by international guest critics and bringing additional excitement to the class proceedings. The largest obstacle to date has been the limited computing and web skills of students. Clearly, increased web proficiency is essential to the success of hybrid studios to ensure that students are not bogged down with the mechanics of creating presentation webpages. We are encouraged, however, by the increased skills each semester's students bring, giving us confidence that future studios can concentrate, as they should, on the design issues of physical and virtual architecture.





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