For "Architecture Research Futures" Conference
Edinburgh, 15-16 December 2005
051121 3371 words
Research in the Profession and Discipline of Architecture
MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Research in architecture should be broadly conceived, serving not only
the profession but also the discipline of architecture. That will be the thrust of my
argument, but I would like first to construct some context through current issues
Our conference is a national conference, and I am asked to assist in an
international perspective. Nonetheless, I start from aspects of two documents
written in preparation for this conference.
The ScotMARK document "Architecture Research and the Profession in
Scotland" is in itself a commendable piece of research, and has considerable
nuance. But I think it is fair to say that the document recurrently and principally
dwells on the need for "practice-oriented research" of a "problem-solving"
character. To the extent that the report touches on architectural education, it
notes the practitioners' call for "all around" graduates who can enter an office and
"hit the ground running." 1
Turning to the announcement for this conference, "Architecture Research
Futures," it is noted that: "Architecture as an academic discipline in the UK is …
relatively recent, especially as the main form of professional training." 2 That is,
architectural education has been pushed toward university standards and to a
consequent emphasis on research production. No doubt the UK has a distinctive
position in this transformation, but it also accords with the Bologna Declaration,
and later documents, that have driven the same kind of changes throughout the
European Union. The university is held as the model of higher education, even
for those schools of architecture that are not fully reconstructed on the university
model. The principal evidence for success in reaching this new standard is a
solid research base for faculty and even for students.
The distance between architectural practice and academia, perceived so
notably in the ScotMARK document, is exacerbated by these pressures on
architectural education to achieve a research base. I just spoke of "distance," but
between the lines one reads also, I think, of "antagonism" between practice and
academia. Perhaps this phenomenon is exaggerated in Scotland with the high
percentage of very small practices, but it is not unique to Scotland. My
experience of this situation in Boston is relatively benign. As a long-time member
of the Boston Society of Architects and simultaneously as an academic, I found
little professional antagonism toward our five schools, nor insistence on "practiceoriented
research." However, this benign state is owing to the fact that the bonds
between the profession and academia through research are probably as slight in
Boston as was revealed to be the case in the Scottish study.
One way to diminish the gulf between practitioners and academia, as
strongly suggested in the ScotMARK report, is the encouragement and
dissemination of professional research. I fully agree and would like to spend a
few minutes advocating the cause through the example of Eladio Dieste.
Though one of our Edinburgh colleagues, Remo Pedreschi, has written a
book on Dieste and was also a close colleague on my own book on Dieste, many
of you may be unfamiliar with this Uruguayan structural engineer who died in
2000. Dieste may be an exceptional case due to the great remove of his country
and, more importantly, for his excellence; nonetheless, I think his example is
[Brief presentation of the work of Dieste:
Architect and master of light]
Engineer who was de facto also an excellent architect.
A designer who also built most of his works.
I argue that Eladio Dieste was as much an architect as an engineer. There
can be no question but that he conducted professional research in the office and
in the field.
Invention of types of vaults that had not been seen before.
Innovations in design and construction that allowed him to push these
vaults to ever greater spans with ever greater efficiency in materials and
Architectural innovations in form and, I would say especially, in the variety
of qualities of light that was possible precisely due to his structural innovations.
Dieste was a highly esteemed professor at the University of Montevideo,
remembered fondly by Uruguayan architects and engineers today.
Dieste published his work, including how to calculate and how to build his
works. Engineer, architect, teacher, with published documentation of his
achievements. Research through practice.
Dieste sets an outstanding example. It would be too much to expect this
kind of performance across disciplines as even an occasional phenomenon. Yet
we might see in Dieste's example an encouragement toward collaboration in
design: architect and engineer or architect and other disciplines. And
collaboration not only in design, but also on the construction site: architect and
What Dieste could contain within one person in a long-sustained research
program may seem admirable, but also daunting. We can refer to the first
sentence in the announcement of this conference:
Architecture is essentially a cross-disciplinary activity,
and as such what is architecture research is not as clearcut
as what is research in many other disciplines. 3
What was a wholistic discipline for Dieste, must be broken into parts in our
collaboration across disciplines. The result is that often the research programs
that are easiest to define and to fund are not about architecture per se, but rather
about the potential findings of another discipline that may have effect in
In the United States (and in the Scottish report, it appears), research
funding in the broad scope of environmental design is most readily obtained in
building technology — and especially in energy issues. These are extremely
important issues that deserve the concern they receive. My commentary on
Dieste shows my positive attitude about engineering-based research. But there
can also be disappointments when engineering takes the lead: the neglect of
architecture itself (more on this later) and what is sometimes a too narrow
construction in engineering-focused work.
Engineers may often give a clear definition to a problem and to the
methods of inquiry to be employed. The clarity of such proposals facilitates, as it
should, research funding. But in environmental matters, it is my experience that
the engineering definition of a problem is often too constricted. Recently,
enthusiasm for the use of computational fluid dynamics has been extended to the
scale of buildings. I have seen idealizations of HVAC systems based on rooms
so constrained as to inhibit architectural design (or to be irrelevant to the spaces
architects design). [Illustration] I have seen wind studies conducted to affect the
shape of buildings, but where the underlying premises carry no conviction:
assumed wind conditions are too limited and idealized; or surrounding
development is moving so rapidly as to render assumptions about the contextual
conditions quite unpredictable. [Illustration] Or another concrete example: In
hockey and skating arenas, it was found that the carbon monoxide fumes from
Zamboni machines were retained at the playing level, creating both unpleasant
and unhealthy conditions for the skaters. Using computational fluid dynamics,
mechanical engineers could propose expensive HVAC systems that would
partially dissipate the fumes. One might rather ask, "Why not change from fossilfuel
Zamboni machines to ones using electric power?"
While that suggestion would remove the research project from our
colleagues in HVAC research and place it with other mechanical and electrical
engineers, I think the story brings us to what I consider an important aspect of
the discipline of architecture. What was a poor example of "problem-solving," or
of solving the wrong problem, could be turned into a different research program
by interrogating and reconfiguring the assumed problem.
As noted, the ScotMARK study found many of its architect practitioners
insisting on "problem-solving" research. Many years ago I wrote a paper in which
I argued that the field of architecture has as one of its strengths to begin by
putting problem statements in questions. I called this "problem-worrying" as
against "problem-solving." [Illustrations] The inventive British architect Cedric
Price was an exemplary "problem-worrier." He was prepared to find that the
solution was not through building at all. But he could also introduce new criteria,
or new resources, or other problems that had not previously been related to the
first problem – and thus completely reinvent the problem and how it should be
approached. I think most schools of architecture inculcate this skepticism about
problems as received. They value re-invention. This is a valuable capacity that
architects can bring to collaborative research. It is an encouragement to schools,
and as much as possible to practitioners as well, to retain their critical faculties
and to entertain new problems and new solutions.
In my remaining time I would like to turn to a more general discussion of
research in the Discipline and Profession of Architecture.
Please allow me to begin by what may appear to be a considerable
I want to reflect briefly on the current confrontation of science and religion
in the contest of Darwinian evolution vs. creationism and intelligent design.
In recent years in the United States we have seen the rise of
fundamentalist Christianity that, in political terms, forms the Christian Right.
Working from the ground up, they have reached the levers of power that are
deployed throughout our government and notably in the White House itself. The
Right is close to controlling the Supreme Court, and seeks to assure that
ascendancy through a current nomination to the Supreme Court.
Currently battles extend from local school boards to the Supreme Court
nomination process in which the Right seeks to pursue its own ends and to
undermine societal conviction in science by advancing creationism as opposed to
evolution. The current euphemism for creationism is the politically more effective
term "intelligent design."
Relative to education, the usual strategy of the Right in this matter is to
insist that evolution is only a theory. All they ask is that their theory, intelligent
design, be taught in parallel. Their strategy introduces theology into the science
classroom and involves a very dangerous inversion.
In their own minds and for many in the public at large, the political Right
believes it can undermine any conviction in science by labeling science, in this
case evolution, as merely theoretical. They thus tempt their opponents on the
political scene to defend science with absolutist claims. Meanwhile, the political
right, which does hold to creationism from fundamentalist, absolutist conviction,
plays the political card of placing their "theory" alongside that of scientific theory.
This wide-spread, grass-roots phenomenon no doubt owes little to, but
does follow upon, the strategies of post-modernist thought. Post-modernism
accuses science of being falsely and destructively absolutist. Science should
rather be understood by historicizing it as part of Enlightenment thought, which in
turn is understood as theoretical constructions of self-serving societies
dominated by rationalist white males.
So science is under siege both as being absolutist and as being merely
one among many competing theories.
From my first ever lecture, at the Architectural Association in 1963, I have
been interested in the implications of the thought of Karl Popper and, later, the
criticism and nuanced reconstructions of that thought offered by Imre Lakatos.
The consequences of the political attack on science and on liberal thought
["liberal" as in "liberal arts," and as in American, not European, political thought]
is too great and proximate to be ignored. We must fight for a more adequate
understanding of science and secular rationalism. We cannot allow the political
right to push science (and especially the politically charged popular
understanding of science) to an absolutism that the Postmodernists falsely
attribute to science.
We might begin a resistance to such pressure by turning again to the
central claim of Popperian epistemology. All claims to knowledge must be
understood to be fallible. Under that condition, how do we understand the
operations of science, and why should we grant it standing?
This is not the place, nor do I have the time to develop an answer to that
question at length, but I will at least introduce a few issues within the context of
our concern with architectural research.
With my life-long attentions to Popper, I have been criticized as being
scientistic in my understanding of architecture and architectural research. But I
think it is precisely the non-absolutist understanding of science in the Popperian
tradition that allows one to speak simultaneously of science and of architecture
without making larger claims than are appropriate.
Recurrent in architectural discourse is a division between science and art
or between science and architecture that must be open to question. I suggest
that drawing such firm boundaries is counterproductive and not even descriptive
of the enterprise of science. In these rhetorical strategies of division, science is
characteristically equated with positivism and reductivism — an equation that,
despite its inadequacy, admittedly can be supported with some historical
Yet if we begin from the notion that human knowledge — including
scientific knowledge — is fallible, then one immediately removes science from
some austere or misconceived realm that aspires to and succeeds in achieving a
kind of knowledge that is radically different from that of other fields of inquiry.
Even Popper's Logic of Scientific Discovery 4 is not the positivist or reductionist
account it is sometimes rhetorically asserted to be. Furthermore, in pointing to
logical, epistemological and historiographic problems with his construction,
Popper's students and critics offered still more flexible interpretations of what
scientific practice is. Such criticism could reach the radical differentiation from
Popper represented by Paul Feyerabend. 5
I would emphasize, however, the more limited criticism embodied in the
work of Imre Lakatos. 6
Relative to Popper's attention to theories and the defeat
of theories, Lakatos shifted the unit of epistemological analysis from theory to
research programs and their comparative analysis and judgment. At the very
core of the research program, as understood by Lakatos, are metaphysical
principles about which we have no certitude, but which we allow the scientist (or
any other enquirer) to assume by convention as a necessary ground for any
research enterprise. Such constructed research programs are examined for
logical consistency and empirical corroboration, and it is also important that there
be competing research programs. Among these competing programs, we make
judgments neither reductively nor by some absolute test but rather by enquiring
into the comparative strength and fruitfulness of the programs. Even if the
relevant scientific (or other) community comes to the point of making a decision
to prefer one program over another, this is no final defeat. The seemingly less
fruitful program has the opportunity to continue and may yet prove to be superior.
As a final reflection on the evolution/creationism issue, following Lakatos,
we accept that both are theories and both will exist within our society. The test is
between them as research programs. Which one accords better with facts; which
one opens unanticipated propositions and discoveries? Our conviction for one or
another program, and certainly our admission of any theory to the science class
room, is determined by the willingness of its adherents to entertain challenges
and allow inquiry to test the research programs that are implicit in the theory.
Architectural research programs. I turn now to two points on architectural
research related to the epistemological point from which I have begun. The first
is the notion of distinguishing profession and discipline. The practice of
architecture and the profession of architecture understood in its current
conventional sense form one extraordinarily important part of what we in a larger
sense term "architecture". Architectural practice is an important part of our
"professional" schools of architecture since we are legally accredited to aid in the
development of individuals who will take their place in a licensed profession.
Yet, for all the importance of this professionalism, it is far from being the
full extent of what we understand as architecture. The discipline of architecture
reaches outside the profession to the population at large, incorporating amateurs
(in the best sense of the word), historians, preservationists, ecologists,
environmentalists, and others. The discipline incorporates knowledge that was
developed in other times or cultures and which seemingly may be of little interest
within the professional activities of the moment. Such knowledge is nonetheless
present to us and remains a potential resource. The discipline also offers the
opportunity to speculate and push beyond what is likely to be available within the
constraints of current practice.
Research should extend across the entire range of the discipline of
architecture, including both those things that are not currently important to
practice and those that are not yet available to practice. At the same time,
research should be concerned with those things that current practice does
require. And often, as it should be, inquiry is simultaneously directed to
particularities of practice and to the more generalized development of the
discipline. There is a potential for the simultaneity of practice and discipline.
[Illustration] To illustrate this I have often drawn on Le Corbusier's Maison
Domino and his "Five Points." Le Corbusier entered on that research program
with a concern to address the post-World War I housing shortage through
rationalized and industrialized construction methods. The structural system and
the construction methods he explored were not in themselves new or radical.
Engineers and builders had plowed this ground. But Corbusier's "Five Points"
draw from his simple building construct implications for architecture that had not
been known before. [Illustration] Working in combination, the Five Points
opened a new architecture that achieved impressive stature in Le Corbusier's
villas of the late 1920s.
Today we do not hold the Five Points in the central and even necessary
place that Corbusier claimed for them. Nonetheless, the Five Points and the
types of buildings they propose were innovative and are now something that
every architect must know. To build in that way — or not — became a conscious
choice within the Discipline of Architecture.
Finally, some comment on the history of architecture in relation to
architectural research. It is important to look to history in order to learn about the
extent of the discipline of architecture. Admittedly it is possible to conduct
historical inquiry that incorporates information about architecture without touching
on what is integral to that discipline. That is, what may be included under the
general umbrella of the history of architecture does not necessarily engage
architecture or architectural research. Yet even such historical inquiry may serve
to define or criticize the perceived boundaries of the discipline.
More importantly, there is a range of widely accepted historical inquiry
about architecture that also constitutes architectural research. I make this
general comment as a preamble to recognizing that, under a Lakatos model, one
is encouraged to push beyond conventional history to what he termed "rational
The concept of space as central to the understanding of architecture
developed in Germany in the late nineteenth century, especially in the thought of
the historian August Schmarsow. Imagine that we reconstructed Schmarsow's
research program on architectural space. 7
I think it is impossible to demarcate
precisely the contribution that Schmarsow made at a historical moment from that
which we can, partially through hindsight, understand through his thought. We
may be projecting and learning something that is rationally present in his thought
but which he had not cognized — or might even have rejected. The rational
reconstruction of such research programs, while pushing beyond a history of the
events, is even more important as architectural research and has a greater
potential for the discipline of architecture.
I will end by summarizing very briefly, really as a list, the thoughts I have
presented on architectural research. There are a number of kinds of architectural
research that all have their place and deserve to enter into critical discourse:
•Research conducted through architectural and building practice
•Research on building and environmental issues conducted by
neighboring disciplines, including those in engineering and science
•Research in architectural institutions that may be more abstract than in
practice but is directed to issues currently confronting the profession
•A broad realm of research within the discipline of architecture that may, or
may not yet — or may never — impact practice.
•Research in the intersection of profession and discipline: I have used Le
Corbusier's Five Points to illustrate the perhaps rare but important research that
emerges from, and engages, both profession and discipline – and has a lasting
effect upon the discipline.
•And finally, a type of inquiry, rational reconstruction, that draws on both
historical and architectural resources — starting from historical data but open to
new questions that may affect the discipline and/or the profession of architecture.
1 Scottish Matrix for Architectural Research and Knowledge (ScotMARK), Architecture Research
and the Profession in Scotland (July 2005 edition), 8.
2 ScotMARK et al., "Architecture Research Futures," 1
4 Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery [in German, 1934] (rev. ed., London:
Hutchinson, 1959 [and later rev. eds.]); Conjectures and Refutations (New York: Harper & Row,
5 Paul K. Feyerabend, Against Method (London: New Left Books, 1975).
6 Imre Lakatos, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes. Philosophical Papers
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978).
7 August Schmarsow, Das Wesen der architektonischen Schöpfung (Leipzig, 1893).