UC Berkeley (Nick)



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    Thoughts on design research

    Nick Sowers
    Jan 23, '10 12:09 AM EST

    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.


    • A little over 10 years ago i interviewed Riken Yamamoto on a trip to Japan for my own m.arch thesis. He had written about changing familial organisations in Japan and in the modern world and the need for a new kind of architecture that reflected the growth of the individual as a replacement for family unit. He developed that observation into a theory and then built some buildings based on that theory.

      In preparation for the meeting i visited a few of his buildings to see if the theory proved correct and/if the residents of his housing project were happy with his new developments on housing type. I was shocked to learn that the housing was mostly empty because no one could live in them. they were not quite right for inhabitation. The few units that had people in them complained of the hardships the design imposed. It was disconcerting.

      The next day I went to speak with him and all of my questions had lost their meaning. I knew the answers. He had made a mistake. The theory was wrong, or the design was wrong (or perhaps had been value-engineered), but either way something was out of place. Then, oddly, Mr. Yamamoto (who I should explain I still admire) gave me an essay he wrote for an exhibition describing the problem that architects make theories and then build something based on them, and THEN declare the building proves the theory. According to him that was wrong.

      I was too awed by him to ask if he thought he succumbed to the same trap - of course the answer plainly was that he had. It was a moment of irony in architecture that proved transformative for me.

      Yamamoto's idea about proving architectural ideas through construction is powerfully astute.

      Form that point of view process of design has no inherent value. It is not possible to ask an inhabitant to endure the hardships of a home because the process of its design, construction, or management was it?

      Or maybe that is exactly what you are saying?

      Jan 23, 10 2:55 am  · 

      for one thing you have too many variables going on in your thesis
      simply dude simplify
      architecture doesn't have to be some heady trip to impress the prof

      maybe you could compare the research gathered in guam with other significant pacific islands i.e. midway etc. or relationship to gitmo?

      i mean you jumped from statistics of an island in the pacific to rhino scripting
      how is it connected
      maybe I am just a simpleton but just a thought

      Jan 24, 10 12:14 am  · 

      Aquilla: re: too many variables, it's funny, my advisor told me that at the beginning everyone wants to know more than what you tell them, and by the end they say "don't tell me so much"... there is actually a simple argument that I am going to put forth, but let me lay it out in a post by itself next time. the rhino, btw, is only in there to illustrate the difference between process and object. I'm not trying to relate that just yet to the particulars of Guam. That's a good idea about looking to other Pacific islands. Saipan is an interesting one. Bikini atoll, the nuclear testing as well.

      jump: that's a great example of what I mean, but even still what if the project is empty because of a stigma against the neighborhood... i.e. how do we know what we know? I am reminded of Le Corbusier: Life is right, and the architect is wrong.

      I think we need a new mode of practice, one which says the architect's job does not end when the client moves in. We become a kind of building-steward. Think of the implications for sustainable design, parametric design, or anything where variables are in flux and knowledge can only be built over a great length of time via a series of incremental steps.

      Imagine waking up: "hmm, I wonder what my building looks like today?"

      Jan 24, 10 12:31 am  · 

      that is a good point nick, and one i have wondered about over the years. i need to go check it out again and see if it works now. it might. like you say, there can be no surety about what the problem is. which is why i love that essay yamamoto wrote. i think his work of the last 20 years has been focused on the challenge of getting past the normal (and normative) practice of making buildings.

      there was a movement in the 1970's too which tried to make buildings by creating a framework and then letting inhabitants take over and see what emerges. Will have to check which project it was, but one such very famously was left so open that no one wanted to live there. seeking reassurance they spurned the development. it was an enormous failure. interesting how psychology works. seems like we must struggle either way...

      Jan 24, 10 1:57 am  · 

      The chicken lays the egg in architecture....A pretty, smooth, beautifully shaped egg that, when cracked, oozes all over the place and makes a mess...and eventually stinks.

      As far as a paradigm of practice goes - you don't have to look too far from buildings to find the design-build-maintain workflow...Landscape architecture firms commonly design, build, and maintain their work - building into the design the inevitable reconfiguration, decay, and abandonment...the unfortunate thing about buildings right now is that all of those possibilities are wrapped up in lawsuits and losses for the architect. Ideas rarely excuse bankruptcy...but maybe that's a problem unto itself...the built world is grossly overvalued ($$$ money)...too much to lose...whole 'nother topic...

      Design research makes you a better chicken.

      If I follow your reasoning Nick, simplifying the process may reduce the potential of your research...If architectural research can be compared to scientific research (can it? should it?), you are diving head first into an unknown...and that makes you a better chicken - if not a cock (rooster).


      Jan 24, 10 12:32 pm  · 
      for design research is also a performance by the inhabitants.

      we've ceded this research over to environmental psychologists - and there are currently very few architectural academics who take lifecycle research seriously any more (they exist - but we never hear about their work because it isn't sexy).
      Jan 24, 10 1:53 pm  · 

      jump, yeah all of those megastructure projects, metabolist stuff etc, looked so enticing as drawings but not so much as built things. that doesn't disqualify it from being good design research though... just the process of designing these frameworks and megastructures needs to be updated to 2010.

      danger, dude... I was finished with chickens in 2007!

      great points though, and yes liability will pretty much kill everything I'm talking about. But we can dream...

      toasteroven, I think what has been sexy in the 00's are these interactive walls by dECOi and the stuff that The Living are doing, where you skip the environmental psychologist and build into the building fabric some kind of human interactivity mechanism. But we have a long way to go there, and that mechanism will eventually break down and fail. There's a lot of technological research and progress to be made, but that's resting the future of architecture on technological progress, a dubious strategy if we consider the history of the Modern movement.

      Jan 24, 10 2:21 pm  · 

      nick, one of the best bits of advice my thesis advisor gave me during my thesis research was to go beyond being a 'peanut counter', meaning, there is endless quantifiable data out there that can be used to support a thesis argument, but you have to take the leap in interpreting that data in creative and sometimes political ways. i think this includes finding relationships and patterns where other people have not dared look. i think this is what distinguishes an architectural thesis from scientific research in that there is much more liberty and conjecture involved.

      Jan 24, 10 3:01 pm  · 
      Kenneth Ford


      I'm sure you might already be looking at some of Jonathon Hill's work/research, but if not, then potentially worthwhile to your final points of the initial post with regard to the inhabitant or user.

      Else, there's some real tricky territory in the 'reality' vs. the 'research' of what you could be up to here thesis wise. If you consider the paradigm shift you're mentioning in the context of the current paradigm of practice associated with capitialist/western economics and current cultural values, sprinkle in the AIA, the insanity of the construction industry, lawsuits, and then serve it up with a side of military vs civilian relationships and you have a real smorgasbord of problem sets. Simplifying is one thing, but really bracketing out the problem sets of what you have the ability to operate on during the timeframe of an architectural thesis is crucial.

      Agree with dot's post and would add that not only interpreting the data/relationships in creative or political ways but also being able to evaluate the interpretation against some set of criteria (including from the bracketed problem sets) is essential to really getting the thesis to ride the line between pure 'what if' research and realistic applicability.

      I think the real trick on thesis is not necessarily the answers, but the potency of the questions you raise and the leads you unearth to answer those questions. Oh, and some answers do help. (but you know this already!) Another way to put it is maybe to address the problem sets on what you can answer vs. where you can provide leads to get answers.

      Curious to see how your work unfolds.

      Jan 24, 10 7:33 pm  · 

      dot, that pretty much hits the nail on the head.

      Ken, nice to hear from you--that's one pretty nasty buffet restaurant you are describing there. Not likely to draw any customers, making your point very well about focusing the domain of the thesis. Thank you for this valuable input.

      Who would be the client in this military/civilian partnership has been a bit puzzling, but fun to imagine. Is that also a way to bracket the problem set, as you say? I think it ought to be a corrupt Japanese concrete construction firm like Kajima! (After all, Japan will be paying about $6 billion for moving the marines off of Okinawa).

      Jan 24, 10 10:45 pm  · 

      We'll see if they actually do move the base.. (not betting on it)

      How about Morphosis' 2468 House?

      Jan 24, 10 11:58 pm  · 

      metabolism certainly had issues nick. i was actually thinking about the kevin lynch inspired work by jean-paul girardo, talked about in the link by nan ellin (in book called post-modern urbanism).

      landscape architecture is a great example of planning for change and maintenance.

      Jan 25, 10 2:25 am  · 

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