Architecture’s Contour and the Urge to Research

by Sytse de Maat |

Appeared online: May 20, 2014


Perhaps the contour is most impenetrable where architecture borders the humanities, which is where my research takes place. Architecture as practice is about buildings, whereas psychology and sociology mainly deal with the behavior of people vis-à-vis other people. Architecture is taught in institutes of technology, humanities are taught at universities. All this may be the reason why the human side of building is so underexposed in education. Buildings are the product of a long process of initiating, planning, design, financing, engineering, and construction, in which the end-user has no role other than undergoing the result. Since the introduction of mass housing in the early twentieth century, many among whom Jane Jacobs , John Habraken , John Turner , and Christopher Alexander , have flagged this discrepancy between the construction process and the end-user. However, despite the many attempts to make architecture humane again, the trend is still towards a disconnection from the people who are actually in the building every day.

At the same time, one billion people nowadays live in so called informal settlements, which is often considered equivalent to ‘sub-standard’ housing or an euphemism for slums, favelas, barrios, and bidonvilles. Many call this an outrage and try to change the situation by embarking on development schemes. The outcome of such projects however, is often unsatisfactory and disappointing if not a worsening altogether. The persistent hampering of ‘development’ has brought authors like Steward Brand and Robert Neuwirth to questioning the negative connotation of informal settlement.
These two issues may seem far apart but revolve around the same pivot: the relationship between people and buildings. In the first case disconnection seems inevitable, while in the second it seems impossible to connect people to a different type of building. Apparently, the connection is hard to maintain in changing conditions. In order to find the cause of this parallel between development and discomfort, I postulate that people’s behavior and well being in buildings can only be understood by thorough understanding of their relationship, and by seeing this relationship as a symbiosis. Research on this relationship focuses on three living entities: people, buildings, and their symbiosis. I therefore try to identify in buildings the properties that afford connection, the connections people make with buildings, and third, the roles and meanings of connection. Finally, the object of study is the context and how it changes during the so called development. The central research question therefore is: How does the symbiosis of people and buildings evolve in transitions from vernacular to modern conditions?
Intuition and serendipity play an important role in choosing my research methods. It all starts with genuine passion for the topic and the continuous hunt for more insights. Having a clear research question is key in this approach. From courses I take the methods that fit best with what I’m already doing, with the intention of giving the work scientific integrity. It would be no surprise to me if a method is best described after the findings. Like Albert Einstein once said: “If we knew what we are doing, it wouldn’t be research.”
When we talk research in the architecture practice, I think it is currently dominated by action research, whereas we need to work more on grounded theory. With this I mean that it is our habit as creative professionals to work on creations we like to call solutions. We research feasibility and ‘makeability’ in order to materialize our ideas. Too often however, the justification of our creations is drawn from its effects and less from an evident problem, let alone causes. This is probably one of the reasons why architecture is not seen as a science and has little scientific tradition. The shift of focus I think we need, is towards problem statement and identifying causes of the problems we want to solve with our creations.
I imagine a section of Contour on the phenomenon of numerous western university field trips going to the favelas and barrios in South-America or the slums of Mumbai. Almost without exception, their program is to generate ideas for improvements and present them to locals at the end of the one week they spend there. The ideas are welcomed politely but discarded as soon as the group has left, since they don’t deal with the real issues. Many of the addressed problems do not even exist. The cause of this misfit? Lack of research. The Contour section I envision would show the exceptional projects that are successful, embedded in a discussion about what role research played in their success. An analysis of the dos and don’ts will undoubtedly make us more aware of the role of the architect and the contribution scientific research can make to the profession.
As I have already hinted at, research on informal settlement may reveal that its negative connotation is non-deserved and that its ‘problem’ is a fallacy. Moreover, it may turn out that informal settlement is a logical complement to high-style architecture. This would question the contour of architecture and thus be another interesting subject in our debate.


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