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Confused and Impoverished? Thoughts on Improving the Sorry State of Architectural Research

Richard Buday’s recent Common Edge essay The Confused and Impoverished State of Architectural Research raises some critical issues that both the academy and the profession need to address. In response, I’d like to propose some concrete steps that academics and practitioners can take to improve the state of architectural research.


For the purposes of discussion, let’s first divide “architectural research” into three separate categories: faculty, student, and practitioner. I won’t address research by industry because it’s often performed by non-architects and usually has a predetermined goal in mind, such as improving and/or promoting a specific product or assembly.


Research by Faculty


Understanding research in the academy requires an understanding of faculty reward systems. At many universities and a growing number of colleges, faculty rewards are largely based on scholarship, not teaching. Often, scholarship is equated with traditional research, or what Donald Schön calls “technical rationality.” This kind of research often uses the scientific method and works best in clean, laboratory conditions.


Does technical rationality make sense for architectural research? The short answer is, not always. Jeremy Till dismissed as “myth” the idea that “architecture is so different as a discipline and form of knowledge, that normal research definitions or processes cannot be applied to it.” However, Till also argued that “[A]rchitecture can, and should, be a research discipline in its own right.”


How can one explain the apparent contradiction? The well-worn Vitruvian triad of commodity, firmness, and delight provides an answer.


Let’s start with firmness, the member of the triad best suited for examination by technical rationality. Historically, firmness has referred to a building’s ability to resist gravity and weather, but one could argue that a contemporary definition of firmness would also include a building’s ability to perform its functions in an environmentally sustainable manner.


Questions of firmness are readily addressed using the tenets of technical rationality. Our knowledge of statics and the strength of materials means that buildings rarely fall down, with the exceptions usually occurring as the result of malfeasance or extraordinary external forces. Likewise, with our knowledge of “building science,” we can typically keep a building dry, if we choose to. With energy modeling, we can, with increasing accuracy, predict the energy performance of our designs. In these cases, the knowledge discovered through technical rationality provides a way to predict with confidence the physical performance of our buildings.


Commodity refers to a building’s usefulness, its purpose. Some aspects of commodity can be examined through the lens of technical rationality. A market analysis, for example, could help determine if a new office building or retail space is viable in a given location. Demographic trends could also be examined to determine the need for a new elementary school.


However, certain aspects of commodity are poorly addressed by technical rationality.  When a couple decides they want to build a new home, is the decision made by counting square footages of bedrooms and linear feet of closet, or is the process more subjective? I would argue that many questions of commodity are subject to irrationality in its many forms—whim, caprice, even folly—and that is occasionally a good thing because it enriches life.


Pause for a second and think about another item which has commodity—food. We need food for the energy and nutrients it provides, just as we need architecture for the shelter it provides. If we examined the need for food on a purely rational basis, however, a food like bacon would not make much sense—it’s full of saturated fat and lacks nutrients. But who doesn’t want a vanity meal like a delicious BLT occasionally?


That leads us to delight, the member of the triad least suited to analysis by technical rationality. Despite the intriguing advances in cognitive neuroscience and environmental psychology, discussed in Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives and other sources, delight defies the cold rationality of scientific analysis. Delight is messy, idiosyncratic, and ever-changing,


Imagine if delight were subjugated to data. Take, for example, the experience of Douglas Bowman, a designer for Google, who wrote the following after his resignation from the tech giant: “Yes it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that.” Who needs Fifty Shades of Grey when one can have Google’s 41 shades of blue?  And who, indeed, would be masochistic enough to want to design in that environment?


In the end, hyper technical rationality rapidly takes us to an almost Dystopian outcome: “design” by computers. Unlike parametric design, which is an aid to the designer, design by computers takes the human out of the equation (pun intended).


In the end, hyper technical rationality rapidly takes us to an almost Dystopian outcome: “design” by computers. Unlike parametric design, which is an aid to the designer, design by computers takes the human out of the equation (pun intended). The cold world of digital rationality reduces everything to a problem to be solved. Even big data advocates, such as Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, voice concerns about the potential overreliance on data, asking “What role is left for intuition, faith, uncertainty, acting in contradiction of the evidence, and learning by experience?”


If architecture is going to be a “research discipline in its own right,” as Till called for, changes to the academy are needed. Echoing Ernest L. Boyer’s 1990 call for an expanded concept of university scholarship, a new “scholarship of design” would free architecture faculty—and other design faculty—to frame their scholarship in a discipline-appropriate manner.


Would the creation of a scholarship of design solve all issues related to research in the academy? No. Too much architectural “scholarship” is infested with archi-babble, circular reasoning, and personal narrative (beware the argument that begins “I feel that…”). However, recognizing the scholarship of design would help clear some of the institutional barriers to architectural research taking its rightful place in the university community, which would be no small achievement.


Research by Students


The long-term solution to improving architectural research is improving the next generation of architectural researchers. Thus, we should ask, is substantial, rigorous research being taught in architecture programs?


To answer that question, I examined architecture curricula to determine whether research methods classes were required. I did not count elective classes, nor did I count “thesis prep” or similar classes, as they often focus on a specific design problem rather than a full range of research methods. I also discounted the possibility that research methods are adequately taught in a design studio or a theory class—perhaps in some cases they are, but I suspect such instances are rare and fleeting.


I looked at a random sampling of architecture programs at 14 universities, or approximately 10% of the National Architectural Accrediting Board accredited programs. If a university had both a B.Arch and M.Arch program, I looked at both programs. In my random sample, five of the universities offered B.Arch degrees, while all 14 offered M.Arch degrees.


The results are pretty grim. None of the five B.Arch programs required a research methods class, while only six of the 14 (43%) of the M.Arch programs required a research methods class. Assuming my sampling of programs is representative, the vast majority of professional architecture (i.e. B.Arch and M.Arch) graduates are not trained in research methods.


Part of the solution, then, is obvious: all programs, B.Arch and M.Arch alike, should have a substantial, rigorous research methods class. Although the class content could vary, one potential approach is anchoring the course with Linda Groat and David Wang’s excellent textbook, Architectural Research Methods (2nd Edition).


Less obvious, perhaps, is the fact that the information taught in the research methods class must be revisited in other classes, perhaps theory classes, but especially studio classes. As Jeffrey Cook noted in his 1978 article “Thinking about Energy Education,” support classes have little value if the content is not reinforced in studio.”


Research by Practitioners


While architectural design can be a way to produce new knowledge—what Christopher Frayling calls researching “through” a project—the prosaic research that practitioners must do to understand any given project is the more critical issue.


As Buday argued, most architectural problems are not wicked problems. In most cases, extraordinary amounts of new knowledge are not required to solve the problem—building an elementary school is not flying to the moon. In most cases, practitioners simply have to avoid professional amnesia—that is, they have to avoid forgetting what the profession already knows.


Of course, it’s not that simple. Even the smallest project seems to have countless variables. Design fees are minimal, time pressures are high, and competition lurks in every corner. In such an environment, true research can feel like an unnecessary luxury. Additionally, architects must deal with emerging technologies, new building types, and new materials. While many aspects of architectural practice are well understood, others are not. What is a practitioner to do?


One option is to actively engage in research as part of a firm’s business model, in the mode of KieranTimberlake, who have staff members dedicated to research activities. Writing in a 2007 article titled “Research in Design: Planning Doing Monitoring Learning,” Stephen Kieran called for architects to engage in a research loop of designing, building, monitoring, and learning from their projects. Such a scheme allows architects to not only research for a project but also research through a project.


Such an approach recognizes the multifaceted challenges of the Vitruvian triad.  Kieran wrote, “To move the art of architecture forward…we need to supplement intuition with science.”


Buday is correct to argue that the state of architectural research is dispiriting. However, academics and practitioners alike can take action. In the academy, advocating for the recognition of the scholarship of design could help design teachers, including architecture faculty, free their research from the narrow confines of technical rationality. Students should also be required to take a research methods class, with the lessons of the class reinforced in design studio. In the profession, practitioners can look to firms, such as KieranTimberlake, for proven methods of incorporating research into practice. The state of architectural research may be dazed and confused, and even impoverished, but it’s also redeemable.


Featured image via Software Architecture Zen.


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