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Studio North Projects: A Significant Introduction for Would-be Architects

Mar 07, 2017 04:25PM ● By Melanie Heisinger

STUDIO NORTH provides a significant introduction into the world of building for would-be architects. Our intensive program where young women and men conceptualize, design, and construct an entire structure in less than a week, is unique. Unlike other design-build graduate programs, such as those at the Yale School of Architecture and at Auburn University's Rural Studio in Alabama, Studio North is aimed at undergraduate students who are contemplating careers in architecture. 

This Vermont summer experience is for collegians who, in our digital-screen obsessed contemporary society, may have never held a hammer; none have poured a concrete foundation or framed a wooden building, some had never had the joy of a trip to a lumberyard. Of the two principals of Moskow Linn Architects–ourselves, one of us grew up with an intimate knowledge of tools (his dad was in construction), while the other's father was a professor of art, so that he grew up well versed in drawing and in concepts of design, while never having built a tree house floor, much less framed a house. 

Swamp Hut, a retreat and a family gathering space, was created in the office, and was the genesis of what became Studio North. That process of designing and then putting together the building strictly by ourselves made us realize that drawing is easy, but building is hard.

We understood that our Studio North students, like us, were not going to become carpenters or even builders. But we wanted to give these aspiring architects a taste of construction, from the visualization of an idea through to completion of the structure.

The goal of Studio North, then, was to be a bridge between thought and construction– the physical realization of creating something that is both utilitarian and a work of art.

From the outset, we fervently believed that process was an integral to our pedagogical philosophy. The essence of Studio North was a holistic approach to forming shelter and to what constitutes design. Clearly, we knew that our eager learners would not develop expertise in any of the areas involved in designing and putting up a building in such a limited time. But we would make sure that they had a taste of the different components that go into such an accomplishment.

When we initiated the first Studio North in 2011, students came to Vermont from as close as Dartmouth College and from as far away as North Dakota State University. This course was not going to be a leisurely summer vacation. We deliberately chose June for its long days of sunlight, and we worked twelve-hour days. Total immersion. We began by throwing around ideas. We began by sketching, putting pencils to paper to express concepts. But physical labor commenced after lunch that initial day, as we poured concrete for a foundation or created a wooden platform by day's end. We also employed a variety of project types formed from a standard kit of parts–stock lumber, translucent fiberglass panels, galvanized steel connections, and timbers we harvested on site.

The projects, beginning with the chicken chapel and ending with this year's viewing platform, were envisioned as something that could be completed within the six days– not so large or difficult that it would overwhelm inexperienced builders, but complicated and challenging enough so that there would be a real sense of achievement.

That sense of success was based on not only completing a movable, habitable, or utilitarian piece of equipment or a practical agricultural structure. The final product had to offer a recognizable, thoughtful, and creative work of architecture. Even so, we believe design occurs during the process of building. Drawing is a lot easier than building, so with each day, our students did less and less drawing, and a lot more building. Studio North's role is that of facilitator between thought and construction, the mind and hand.


By placing a balsam branch on the peak of the structure the students became part of a larger concerted effort called teamwork. Even students had little or no experience with even the basics of lumber and tools, they learned to turn milled trees into a building (or in the case of the sacred space/birch pavilion, of working with unpeeled logs). In shaping the superstructure framing of the wilderness huts or in shaping the wooden walls of this year's viewing structure, students graduated from simple hammering and nailing to more sophisticated techniques of shaping, bending, and joining.

While the shapes and final uses of all the schemes were different, each involved building foundations, platforms, frames, walls, and roofs, that is, basic structures that had to offer stability and protection from the elements. These may have been similar to garden pavilions, and often of a light-hearted nature (the consumable sugar shack), but it was no different from erecting a house, a garage, or a barn. Size was limited only the shortness of the course. These neophyte architects emerged as builders. And thanks to realistic definitions of the end result, these builders could see their ideas not only realized, but also put to work. Rhode Island Reds moved into the chicken chapel upon completion, and the rolling pig pen was tried out by Tamworths. The birch pavilion's aim was contemplative, but its handsome lines and classical proportions echo temples throughout history. Like a modern camera obscura, the curbed walls of viewing structure, channel the eye through the "lens" to a framed portion of the sky and the landscape.

Studio North can be seen then as a combination of carpentry boot camp and an enrichment course in the art of architecture. We believe that our special program offers blisters, wounded thumbnails, and sore backs, along with an appreciation for what it really takes to built a serious structure. Regardless of whether or not they continue to a formal architecture program, our Studio North alumni have gained both practical constructional knowledge and an understanding of their limits and their abilities. We see the projects as ways to interact with the natural environment and draw us closer to its mysteries, while providing practical solutions to country living.

Studio North
Keith Moskow, FAIA, and Robert Linn, AIA
Moskow Linn Architects Inc.
(617) 292-2000

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