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Critical Studies in Public Space

This introductory-level, five-week studio art course is intended to provide students a crash-course in the pragmatics and politics of architectural design, using the Carleton campus as a case study. To propose a solution to a persistent design problem on Carleton’s campus, students will work collaboratively in one of four dedicated research groups:

  • Campus History
  • Drawing and Model-building
  • Research and Interviews
  • Documentation

Through research into the competing and conflicting interests advanced by various campus constituencies, students will develop a physical plan for how to accommodate diverse design requirements.

Note: Content adapted from the curricular project.

This course does not have any prerequisites, but it is intended primarily for juniors and seniors. Advanced sophomore students will also be considered. At Carleton, all studio art courses are subject to an application process, every effort is given to achieve a diverse mix of students with different strengths. For example, some students with strong research skills may serve on the working group dedicated to Carleton’s history; strong studio art majors may find the model-making and drawing group to be a better fit.

The group of roughly 15 students will work in concert with an invited architect or designer who will oversee the project along with the professor.


Content/Concepts Goals 

The goal of this course is to encourage students to think critically about the design of their physical environment and how it might be improved. Students will consider the competing interests whose needs and desires are brought to bear on the design of any building or environment.

Multidisciplinary Analysis 

It is important that students come away from the course learning that design today employs the expertise of sociologists, economists, ecologists, engineers, politicians, and architects alike. Students will thus learn how to:

  • Work as a team
  • Work across teams
  • Communicate across disciplinary boundaries and discourses
  • Synthesize the perspectives of multiple disciplines to produce the final project

Students will also learn some of the basics about museum gallery display. The results of the short course will be displayed publicly (ideally in the College’s art museum), and for this reason students will need to think carefully about what makes a “successful” exhibition.

Activities should play on students’ existing strengths and require them to work outside their comfort zones. Requiring all students to aid in the final model-making allows everyone to work with their hands. They will understand how the resulting structure functioned at the level of the engineering joint.

Dissemination Strategies

The final manual, produced by N55, the professor and the students, includes:

  • Overview of the project
  • Abstract of the underlying philosophy
  • History of the site under consideration
  • Research investigating user preferences
  • Series of proposals for the ultimate design

It was intended to clearly demonstrate the different components of a comprehensive design scheme that could be easily replicated and applied to a different area of campus design.

The design of the manual is left intentionally somewhat basic. This course used InDesign to produce the document, which was then exported as a PDF file to distribute multiple copies across campus.

Instructors should have relative fluency in design software. Thankfully, Carleton College has resources available to faculty to enroll in computer training programs.

In terms of the technical drawings that were used in the course, these were made available to us via the invited artists. N55 make all their creative materials available online, which can be downloaded and used in a version of this course.

Likewise, the built models, as well as a prototype for the ROOMCYCLE, were made available to us by N55 themselves. They provided the design files for the model components as well as the materials to build the ROOMCYCLE. Most all materials are easily available at any home improvement store (e.g. Menard’s). In future versions of the course, it is our intent to use these open-source manuals in a similar fashion.

Given the wide variety of designs available via N55’s website, and given that they are all universally available for common use, future versions of this course could cede some autonomy to the students to determine which of N55’s available designs is best suited for the design problem they are working on that term.

Resources & Materials

ARTS 185: Critical Studies in Public Space with N55 Syllabus

Developed collaboratively with N55 and Ross Elfline

The theory of “the commons” guides the entire course, as it provides a framework for thinking through how to negotiate multiple functions for a given site or building. Beyond its use value to architects and designers, this literature would also be useful to sociologists, political scientists, as well as others in the humanities.

An Architektur, “On the Commons: A Public Interview with Massimo De Angelis and Stavros Stavrides,” in E-flux 17 (June 2010).

Aureli, P.V.,“The Theology of Tabula Rasa: Walter Benjamin and Architecture in the Age of Precarity,” in Log 27  (Winter/Spring 2013): 111-127.

Aureli, P.V., The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2011).

Bailey, S., “Beyond Ownership – Governing the wealth of urban commons.” Public Lecture presented at the Commoning the City Conference, Royal Institute of Art, Stockholm, April 11, 2013.

Crary, J., 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (New York: Verso, 2013).

Deutsche, Rosalyn. Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics. (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996).

Fuller, R. B., Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, Jamie Snyder, ed. (Baden, Switzerland: Lars Müller Publishers, 2008).

Helfrich, S. “Common Goods Don’t Simply Exist – They Are Created,” in The Wealth of the Commons – a World beyond Market & State, eds. D. Bollier and S. Helfrich (Amherst and Florence, MA: Levellers Press, 2012)

Negri, A. & Roche, F., “A Dialogue: Negri and Roche,” in Log 25 (Summer 2012): 104–17.

Pearce, P., Structure in Nature is a Strategy for Design (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1978).

Virno, P., A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004).

Outcomes and Significance


Students are assessed similarly to the methods used for any Studio Art course, attending less to perfection or technical skill than to the arc of improvement over the course of the term. We want to see evidence that students were challenged to acquire new design and research skills. Due to the team-based nature of this work, each student will have to be assessed individually and on their own specific scale. Special emphasis is given to the student’s ability to work collaboratively in a team environment, and their grade will reflect their aptitude for generous collaboration.

Teaching Notes

The coordinator of the course will need to act as a mediator between several constituencies: students, invited architects, gallery director and staff, affiliated faculty in the department, PEPS (Presentation, Events, and Production Support), academic technologists, librarians, etc. The best advice is to act early to set up reasonable expectations for everyone involved.

Perhaps most importantly, though, it is crucial to check in with students to ensure that they are grasping the “big picture”, and not getting lost in the minutiae of their individual projects. The most successful days in the class were when we broke out of the scheduled work routine to discuss and debate the merits of the underlying philosophy of open-ended designing. We found late in the process that many students were put off by the idea of the public sphere as a “commons.”

While we found difference of opinion to be fruitful and energizing, we might have had a more successful enterprise if we made this philosophical questioning of public space and its uses a more integral part of the course.

Some possible solutions:

  • Incorporate a highly-focused discussion of selected readings into the first half hour of each class meeting (ideally with discussion questions emailed ahead of time).
  • Require students to post discussion questions to the course management site (Moodle) over the course of the term as well as respond to X number of questions posted by peers.
  • Schedule the course on a Monday/Wednesday/Friday to ensure more frequent meetings and sustained connection to the material. Fridays could be reserved as discussion days.

Very clear expectations should be established ahead of time with the invited designers. Members of N55 provided the lion’s share of the content, brought initial ideas to be fleshed out by students, and were well-versed in running short, workshop-style courses.

In the future we would like to be more deliberate and purposeful in coordinating this course with ENTS 288 (Environmental Studies 288: Abrupt Climate Change), taught by Trish Ferrett. This past year, students from ARTH 185 developed a plan for a given building, complete with working drawings, site plans, models, and materials specifications. Students in ENTS 288 then analyzed these documents to determine the ecological impact this building might have on the surrounding landscape and beyond.

By linking the two courses in a two-term sequence of classes (and with more lead time and conscious planning) we would have been able to coordinate a more robust and sustained experience for a greater number of students.

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