Anastassia Smirnova: «We try to stretch your mind»

10.07.2012, 16:25
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Strelka programming director Anastassia Smirnova talks about how the Institute’s education program is structured, what makes it innovative, and Strelka’s teaching philosophy.

– Please tell us about Strelka’s education program

Strelka’s education program is the only one of its kind in Russia, and perhaps in the entire world. Our course of study lasts 9 months and brings together several important components.

First of all, if you plan to work on improving modern cities, it goes without saying that you should be able to work with people with very different areas of expertise. You can’t just hole yourself in your discipline and only work on what you’re good at. You need to be able to work with a team of diverse specialists, and you need to be able to work with your co-workers to figure out what it is you want to accomplish with your research or project. On top of that, you need to be able to work in such a way that allows every member of the team to do his or her best work.

It turns out that you can teach this in a fairly short amount of time, and we use special techniques to do it. Making sure that every student, after 9 months, can work effectively as part of a team and complete a wide variety of multidisciplinary tasks is one of the central goals of our process.

Another part, and I suppose this is no less important, is the large number of discussions, lectures, workshops we host on the most pressing issues in architecture, media and design. These help students to broaden their horizons and deepen their understanding. We try to make it so that people’s knowledge and skills complement each other. For example, if you’re an architect and have never gathered data, we try to stretch your mind and teach you to do that.

We invite Russian experts, who help our students explore the challenges facing Russia, but we are also always trying to put things into their international context, which is why we bring lots of specialists from around the world.

The third component of our education program has to do with the fact that we not only teach, we also give students the opportunity to experiment. In other words, a «Strelka education» is an opportunity for students who’ve just dipped their toes into a profession to really push their boundaries in a larger project. We want students to bring their solutions to life, to push their projects in the directions they think are most interesting and important.

– Which special teaching techniques do you use?

We think it’s extremely important to experiment, and in the past two years, we’re been working on a variety of innovative techniques. We very carefully studied other schools, borrowing from Berlage, MIT, and others. But we don’t want to just borrow stuff that’s already out there, we want to pioneer completely new formats.

Close contact with professionals and experts — the absence of a distinction between teacher and student — is extremely important to us. In other words, even if the head of your studio is Reinier de Graaf, we believe every student should have the opportunity to ask him questions and work with him as deeply as any given project requires. It’s not a method, but it is a special approach to education that’s very important to us.

The discussion format we use is an extension of this. I’m talking about short, instructive lectures that quickly give way to close collaboration, when students get the opportunity to present their work and discuss their ideas on a deeper lever. This is the difference between Strelka and more hierarchical education systems that we’re used to in Russia.

We also think it’s very important to work with other universities and institutes. We want students to understand that there are different approaches to learning, and that we don’t force anybody to stick to just one. It’s important to show students the range of possibilities, to show them that at every step in the process, they have a choice, which is also a learning opportunity.

– How is the school year structured?

In the fall semester, students get to know the studios, instructors, areas of study, and the teams on which he or she will be working. Students take a series of workshops — we call it the «Research Simulator» — in which they about research and planning via case studies.

In the fall, students study together in large groups. The idea is to give them a chance to figure out what Strelka is all about, what it’s trying to do and how the program is structured.

At the same time, you get lectures and workshops on concrete professional skills, balanced out with information for sociologists, architects, and others. Some of the workshops are designed to develop group dynamics and teamwork — the ability to work with people with different backgrounds. In late December, students pick their studio.

In the spring semester, after students pick their studios and beginning to work on their projects, the general course — the so-called «Studio Generale» — continues. It’s the backbone of our educational program, and it helps students stay connected and gives them an intellectual space in which to exchange ideas.

The students finish working on their projects in June, at which point presentations begin. Every project is discussed in great detail. We invite professors and invited experts to analyze each and every one. The students can count on getting that feedback.

Of course, Strelka doesn’t end there. Often, student projects continue after the presentations are over. We help with publications and support graduates in a number of ways. Practically every project completed at Strelka has a certain vitality, meaning they don’t need special help. If a student has the desire and energy to continue, I think that he or she will find the opportunity.

Two years ago, when we created Strelka, we found ourselves the company of these exceptional people. But it was a very small group. By now, a so-called «Strelka network» has taken shape. We have more than 70 graduates, we have outstanding experts and professionals from around the world who have poured their heart and soul into our students’ projects. The list of people who have taken part in the education program this year is several pages long. A person who matriculates at Strelka today will become a part of this network, which extends throughout Russia and indeed the world.