Aug '08 - Jun '10
I was having a coffee break this afternoon at Strada Café with a senior undergrad named Ben and a ghost from thesis-past known by the name Shivang. We got into an interesting dialogue that I thought I would extend out here. Ben and I are working on thesis projects that are part of a larger body of research here at Berkeley that is potentially contributing new ways of working and thinking as architects. More on that soon.
The fundamental question is, what does it mean to do design research? How do you quantify the benefits of this research? We talked a bit about how science research is measured cut-and-dry (I am going to prove X with this study), and how in art the work is often unquantifiable. Architecture is somewhere in-between, yielding both hard objects with demonstrable effects and soft processes which are entangled with that thing we call intuition.
To make this a little more concrete, I'll reveal a layer of the thesis that has been brewing since I wrote Thesistan. I'm not going to do a project in Afghanistan but instead will be developing a project on the Pacific island of Guam, where a 15 billion-dollar military buildup has been planned and awaits the full go-ahead. Guam is the closest United States territory to the Middle East, not to mention North Korea and China. Furthermore, it played a significant role in the wars of the 20th century, notably WWII and Vietnam. I don't imagine that role will diminish in this century. Guam is also home to the Chamorro people of Melanesian descent, some of whom argue that the United States has not complied with UN Charter Chapter XI which demands that non self-governing territories be assisted by the host nation to seek self-determination.
I've collected a good deal of information about the island, from both the military and the civilian sides. And this is what is exciting to me: I am in the unique position to combine both sets of data and produce a new body of knowledge about the island, operating precisely on the border between the military and civilian worlds. The buildup has started to generate crossings of this border in terms of military folks talking to civilians and vice versa, but is anyone really doing research about this overlap? I think the mode currently on the civilian side is to say "if the buildup happens, then X will happen on our side of the fence". The military side just wants to do what they do, do their mission, with the absolute minimum encroachment from the civilian side. Fair enough. But all they do is say "X is happening on the island, and how will that impact our mission". So here I am, saying the buildup is going to happen and a differential is generated by that, and therefore the project is about that differential. A negotiation must take place to mitigate the differential, and my architecture is couched in that negotiation. Still, what does that negotiation look like, what does it sound like, how do we simulate it, how do we judge if it is good--effectively, how do we judge the design research?
[a simple way to think of all of this is that the geometry above is the static design output and the rhino/grasshopper script below it is the process, the parameters of which are in flux]
Is it the design object that holds the knowledge, or does the process itself embody the knowledge? If you've ever sat on a design review, you'll recognize this classic dichotomy in architecture: do you evaluate the project based on the end results or by the method/process which led up to it? I don't think it's purely either/or, but I think it's productive to think of them and argue for one or the other.
In my opinion, the output of a design is an artifice, a freeze-frame of something in motion. Can you judge a film by the screenshot? Maybe. But even disregarding plot, a film is about transformation. A good film takes you from A to B without being fully aware of that displacement. Furthermore, the final frame in a film is rarely a tell-all. The action already met its denouement.
My final point is that truth in architecture is revealed in the making of it. The design object is a false thing. I'm not talking about the constructed building but rather the final representation--the rendering, construction document, or whatever is finally produced by the architect. It's an illusion that as students we are forced to present in the charade we call a jury, and as professionals it's a necessity to convince the client that we have given them what they asked for--to fulfill a contract and get paid, essentially. I argue that the lifecycle of a building, from its construction to its eventual ruin or destruction, is also the design research, and there is no such thing as a design object. I think that's the difficult thing to recognize, that our design research doesn't end even when the building is complete--for design research is also a performance by the inhabitants.