In this post, Suzanne Ewing, Professor of Architectural Criticism, reflects on the itinerant nature of fieldwork in architecture, where students travel back and forth from the studio to the field as part of their acculturation into the discipline…
[Architecture] students learn on fieldtrips to look for sites, to frame and limit sites, to project potential onto sites. Field suggests more fluid qualities, and unfixed conditions suggestive of contemporary networked conditions. In current parlance, as well as delimiting a disciplinary or subject area, ‘field’ describes a place to learn from, to research, to draw from. Fieldwork is both a noun and a verb, and this oscillation correlates with a potential oscillation of work, and worker, which may inflect questions about and understanding of project, construction, design, work in the field.
– Ewing (2011), in ‘Architecture and Field/Work’, p.4
Fieldtrips are often a memorable dimension of higher education. As a physical learning space, the design studio has been criticised for being isolating, and foregrounding the importance of the individual over participatory practices. The fieldtrip can act as a balance to this alleged weakness, and becomes a place for critical transformation of aspects of architectural knowledge and practice. As I mention in the quote above, the term ‘fieldwork’ conjures up images of doing as well as being an object or means of study; a trip to go on. So I prefer to use the term field/work, rather than fieldtrip.
Field/work is also, as I argue in Architecture and Field/Work, a form of work specific to and part of the acculturation into particular disciplinary conventions and techniques. Field/work can be seen as a form of itinerant education where students are learning to navigate professional distance alongside personal proximity. Learning to adjust plans, techniques, communications, to be reflective and responsive in situ are significant skills, now with the added dimension of digital connectivity and capacity. To some extent, therefore, the temporal and spatial edges of going to and from the field are increasingly complex. Visits and revisits can be virtual as well as physical. This opens up interesting potential for more, or different, field/work to take place back in the formal spaces of education.
Over a number of years, the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture has developed distinctive expertise in working with the ‘field’ of European and other cities as a protagonist for course work over the next 1-3 semesters. The first publication of Architectural Design studio pedagogy, which actively foregrounded relationships between Field + Work, featured postgraduate Architecture students’ work from a studio focusing on Cadiz, Spain (2006-2008). This evidenced some of the rich range of descriptive and documentary modes related to a physical situation, now increasingly common in an architecture students’ repertoire. Some of this work undertaken on the eight-day fieldtrip had a direct correlation with each student’s subsequent architectural design projects: Ross continued to focus his research and design investigations on the tightly bounded urban block with its very gappy neighbourhood interior space:
Rebecca’s pursuit of the existing well sites around the city expanded into an investigation of histories and politics of regional and urban water supply, developed into a counter-proposal for an alternative civic water collection and distribution of buildings:
As seen in the first photo, Emma’s fascination with the micro-architecture of the market seller’s table, nuanced positioning in relation to time and shade and his choreography of goods, reinforced her fascination with small scale artisan processes that might be supported in other sites around the isthmus.
Perhaps one of the most significant dimensions of setting up and incorporating fieldwork into teaching and learning is that of developing individual and collective awareness of the ethical responsibilities of the inspecting gaze, as student of a particular subject, as an emerging researcher, or as an embryonic professional practitioner. To look, to draw, to photograph, to take notes, to map the encounter with a site and a place is a privilege (increasingly of mobility), a responsibility, with potential agency. This is an important sociocultural consideration, which must not get lost in our teaching practices of field/work.
Ewing S, McGowan, J, Speed, C, Bernie, V.C., eds. (2011) Architecture and Field/Work, AHRA Critiques Series, London, Routledge.
Ewing S SaltCity: Cádiz Field + Work 2006-2008 (2008) City|speculations series, Architecture, The University of Edinburgh. ISBN 978-0-9559706-0-3
Ewing, S (2008) ‘Coming and going: itinerant education and educational capital’, in Roaf, S & Bairstow, A, eds., The Oxford Conference 2008: A re-evaluation of Education in Architecture, WIT Press, Cambridge, pp119-123. ISBN 978-1-84564-206-8