To Fix Architecture, Fix the Design Crit
In architecture, the act of formally critiquing design is ubiquitous. The crit, as its called, is almost a rite of passage. And while the format of this practice is universal, its objective, goals and ultimate purpose are unfixed, beyond a broad and often vague imperative to make a given design better. This is a problem, because it leaves a foundation of the profession to take the form of whatever discussion happens to arise between a designer and a critic. If the expectation of empirical evidence for design decisions were introduced as the basis of a design crit, the cumulative effects of this change could improve the credibility of the entire discipline.
Whether in a working group, a studio classroom or a client meeting, a staple of architectural design occurs when a proposal is evaluated by someone who didn’t create it. As architecture’s native and relatively unique form of peer review, this practice is useful, but also remarkable in lacking a burden of proof for the claims of designers or critics. Despite being widespread, the rigor of the design crit rests on a disconnected patchwork of participants’ personal experience, beliefs and speculation.
This lack of an empirical basis is damaging. Both an expectation of evidence and an aptitude for applying it is de rigueur in disciplines like medicine, education and law, fields with an equally fundamental impact on the public as the provision of shelter. Practitioners in these fields are frequently tasked with drawing from, and contributing to, a formalized, common body of knowledge when making decisions.
It’s been pointed out repeatedly that both architectural practice and education lack a consistent, widespread system of research, analysis and reporting in their work, as well as the culture to even value such a thing. Certain parts of the profession, however, have been doing this independently for some time. Architects who specialize in healthcare, workplace, and educational facilities are no strangers to the term “evidence-based design,” and regularly face clients who derive their demands from a methodical, well-informed understanding of how patients, employees or students use their spaces.
Architects in these areas of practice are frequently expected to validate the basis of many of their design decisions as completely as possible, and have thus developed their own systematic methods to reach evidence-based conclusions and report their findings back into a shared bank of knowledge for other designers to draw on in the future. What’s notable about this development is that the profession has only embraced such a system when other disciplines have demanded it for the design of their spaces. Despite existing for decades, the practice of evidence-based design has never caught on across the entire profession.
This reactive stance may be a significant force at work in the fracturing of the profession into specialized sub-disciplines that’s also occurred over the past few decades, ceding many of an architect’s traditional responsibilities to consultants. In
light of this, it seems a proactive embrace of an evidence-based system of practice could substantially help architectural design retain independent value. What makes such a system difficult to implement is that it requires more than just a knowledge of designing spaces—it also requires deep knowledge, and training, in conducting structured, effective research and reporting.
Fortunately, this can be taught. Basic research methods are already a standard part of training for many other disciplines, so there are plenty of existing examples for architecture to follow. As noted by architect Barrie Evans when considering a comparable use of research in the medical field, “…evidence-based practice requires the learning of skills—of evidence finding, understanding, interpreting, evaluating and using. These skills may seem basic but they do need teaching, as they are in medicine.”
Architecture education runs into problems introducing new material, due to time constraints. Studio class schedules are already lengthy, but much of that time is spent on individual design crits while remaining students either observe or wait patiently at their desks. Watching someone else be critiqued is a worthy form of education, but considering this sort of activity can occupy the vast majority of a student’s class time with a relatively small amount of that time being spent on their own crit, it’s easy to see a point of diminishing returns in this format. It’s not hard to imagine existing studio class schedules recalibrated to include a significant, consistent amount of instruction in conducting research methods.
Where this new knowledge can be best refined is within the crit itself, which, even if the time currently devoted to it was cut in half, would still be a primary component of architectural education. With a solid base of instruction in research methods, the purpose of the design critique can be modified specifically to evaluate the use of empirical evidence in design decisions, as opposed to speculating on open-ended claims. Of course, not all design choices can be fully substantiated, but if the basis of the critique prioritized evidence-based decisions over conjectural ones, it could become a bridge between the critical thinking needed for well-structured research and the creative thinking necessary to turn that research into a design solution.
Though if it starts there, the need for this form of design crit extends beyond education. Graduates would bring the expectation of verifiable claims for design decisions with them into practice. That’s where the effectiveness of reforming this act begins to take hold, as the design critique is equally fundamental to professional practice as it is to education, even if it only occurs in five-minute bursts between two architects or in occasional client meetings. If the point of this act was modified to focus on the substantiated claims employed in making design decisions while the rest of it remains ostensibly intact, an evidence-based culture of design could quickly spread throughout the profession.
It’s precisely because the design crit is central to the practice of architecture that this change could reform the entire profession in a way that would make evidence-based design the norm. If this were the case, architectural design would necessarily become far more robust and relevant for the people it serves, putting the profession in a more valuable and trustworthy position than it is today.
Featured image for this essay kindly provided by Andrea Vasquez.