(What) is Research Appropriate to Architecture?

by Selena Savic | selena.savic@epfl.ch

Appeared online: May 11, 2014


It is often unclear whether by architectural research we mean research about architecture, research through architecture or research for architecture. These three categories, borrowed from Christopher Frayling’s discussion on research in design and art , are not mutually exclusive, but they do look for legitimacy in different fields. We are familiar with forms of historical and theoretical research about architecture. Improvement of architectural and design practice as the focus of design research has been addressed in a significant body of work by design practitioners and theorists. It is research through architecture that I will concentrate on, hoping to clarify some doubts about its methods and legitimacy.

What is research appropriate to architecture? For some, it might seem like an irrelevant question, but when we look at the discourse that has surrounded the debate on architectural and design methodologies, the importance of this question becomes more evident. Throughout discussions within the Contour editorial team, the relevance of our methods and approaches in architectural research was repeatedly questioned. Should we focus on our own research experience in the journal, and to what extent? Should we focus more on the methods or on results? Transcending the scope of debate on the subject matter of this journal, these questions touch upon a sensitive discussion on the domain of architectural research, its particularities, and its academic credibility.

My current research questions wireless communication signals space occupancy within an architectural framework. It focuses on an awareness of wireless infrastructure and the possibility for tangible interactions with wireless network signals. It promotes observation and understanding of insensible infrastructures, regarding waves as actants and attempts to bridge the physical-digital ideological divide by offering a physical experience of activity within the wireless communication layer. How do these signals actually propagate in physical space? How do they perform? What happens when we bring signals to the foreground?

The investigation of these questions is strongly linked to design practice. It incorporates an iterative process of prototyping architectural artifacts which act as interfaces for wireless network infrastructure. These architectural artifacts and the experience of using them serve as a source of data for my analysis. The approach taken here relies on qualitative interpretations of experiences, coupled with a quantitative analysis of network traffic.

The choice of methodology is arguably particular to each research question. Thus, the supposed “architectural methodology” and the lack of consensus on what this is can be seen as more of a challenge than a disadvantage. Nevertheless, choosing an unorthodox method of inquiry can lead to research which appears to be less rigorous and ungrounded within a given discipline. This leads us to a central question: How free are we to design research methodologies in architecture and how far can we push the legitimacy of these methods? Can we conduct research in architecture through the practice of architectural design? Where does the design artifact fit within the research process?

A brief examination of the current discourse regarding research and its purpose in design, art and architecture exposes two recurrent topics. One is the legitimacy of knowledge and the methods to acquire it; the other is the dilemma on research objectives: improvement of practice (normative approach) or generating knowledge (descriptive approach). Do we generate knowledge to improve practice or do we practice to improve knowledge?

According to Frayling, part of the problem lies in the perception of research as an activity. He distinguishes two kinds of research – one with a small ‘r’ which is aimed at producing an (artistic or design) artifact and motivated by this production. The other kind of research, one with a big ‘R,’ has a pre-defined research question, whose subject or object exists outside of the person conducting the research and leads to discussable and shareable knowledge. In opposition to the research with a small r, which is a part of (art)-making process, research with a big R lies in the realm of professional practice. This should not imply that making is incompatible with research, but it helps to identify two distinct objectives for research to be undertaken.

In an alternative view from Frayling, theorists of design methodology such as Herbert Simon, Nigel Cross or Peter Kroes believe that research in design is specifically aimed at improving design practice . In their normative approach to design, they recognize the inseparability of the design process from the design object as well as the duality of design artifact conceptualization – consideration for its inner parts and its structure; or for its environment and its function within it.

Jeremy Till sees the advancement of architecture as a practice inextricably linked to the acquirement of knowledge . He leaves the causal relationship between architectural knowledge and architectural practice open. As a result, research in architecture does not explicitly have to contribute to practice, it still contributes to the discipline’s knowledge base.

So what are the tools and methods available to researchers in architecture? What is legitimate knowledge in architectural studies, specific to the three categories (about, through and for architecture)? Is there space for intuition when searching for relevant data? How do we define an evaluation framework for legitimate architectural research and knowledge? How can we explore these issues without putting architecture into a “methodological straightjacket” ?

Borrowing from other disciplines is one option, however, the mere act of turning to other intellectual paradigms in search for authority and academic credibility does not necessarily contribute to a defined set of research methodologies for the discipline of architecture. Careful documentation of the decision-making processes behind the design and construction of a building does not automatically contribute to an advancement in architecture or acquiring of new knowledge. Before rushing in with a recipe for procedures in architectural research, I see Contour as a space where such procedures can be presented, discussed and/or co-written. More than just a journal, Contour is a collaborative platform that brings together a collection of different methods and approaches to research in architecture and design. It serves as an ‘outlet’ for our diverse intellectual efforts and assists in a collective exploration of the limits of methodological creativity.


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