Studio-based History Lessons: Interdisciplinary Collaboration to Discover Midcentury Values

Presented by: Kimberley Furlong

Students often struggle to comprehend that the built environment, and for that matter the designed object, comes to have its form and meaning through human intention and the cultural values of the time it is constructed.  If students look carefully at the built evidence that surrounds them, if their investigation requires them to tease the parts, the details, the materials of the artifact, they begin to truly grasp the spirit and the awesome human motivations that brought that place, building, interior, or doorknob into being as they experience it. In three separate studios, with admittedly high and diverse goals, architecture, interior design and preservation students collaborated to discover and make the design goals of post WWII society tangible and meaningful in their own work. 

Two of the three studios were inclusive and sought to parallel contemporary design practice by integrating the complementary objectives and skills of architects, interior designers and preservationists.  Acknowledging that buildings rarely come into being through the efforts of an isolated individual, students explored how their collaborative work might transcend conventional disciplinary divides, provide a broad and meaningful reading of societal values at mid-century, and ultimately result in a strong, historically sensitive, design and building intervention.   

Undergraduate and graduate students worked in teams of three; each bringing their individual skills and perspective to the problem at hand.  Students began with a sequence of precedent and Modern design case studies that evolved into a preservation and adaptive re-use project proposal.  Each was designed to enable critical historical analysis and ‘philosophical dialogue’ using a newly formed vocabulary to express and formulate the students’ deepening comprehension of the historical movement.  Three Mid-Century buildings by O’Neil Ford, Edward Durell Stone, and Harwell Hamilton Harris, respectively, were operated-on and employed as sort of proofs to test the manifestation of Mid-Century socio-cultural changes in their design.  Before proposing the building’s future, students made critical assessments of their current and past contexts, structures, and inhabitation with particular attention paid to the circumstances that inspired them, and ultimately attempted to determine their historical value.

This course of study led each student to a personally formulated and reasoned understanding of Mid-Century design aspirations, strengths and limitations.  A design and construction vocabulary was developed to express and formulate their deepening knowledge of the movement.  While these studios were limited to the investigation of Modern design, the format and process they followed may prove effective for teaching the significance, relevance and future value of history from many periods.


  • Caan, S.  (2011). Rethinking design and interiors: Human beings in the built environment, 1st edition.  Laurence King Publishing.
  • Evans, R. (1997). Figures, doors and passages. In Translations from drawing to building and other essays, London: Architectural Association Publications.
  • Fixler, D. (2008). Appropriate means to an appropriate end: Industry, modernism, and preservation, Association for Preservation Technology (APT) Bulletin, 39 (4), 31-36.
  • Prudon, T. (April 2008). Preservation of Modern Architecture, 1st edition. Wiley.
  • Vidler, A. (2012). Outside in/inside out: A short history of (modern) interiority. In K. K. Kleinman, J. Merwood-Salisbury, & L. Weinthal (Eds.), After taste: Expanded practice in interior design, New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

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