Revealing Secrets

Architects need to give their tacit working design methodologies a voice by stepping back from the design, looking critically at what they do and analysing their tactics


sometimes think that we’re deliberately secretive about design. That we actually like, value, and need the cushion of masonic privacy that we’ve developed around the processes by which we design, criticise, teach and practise architecture. So that no one (including ourselves) really understands, or can explain what we do and how we do it. Maybe it’s been useful: our arcane, peculiar set of complex values, references, tactics and methodologies, developed to a very high level but almost never explained. For practitioners, it might act as a professional-defensive buffer zone against ruthless procurement systems. For teachers – as long as our professional peers and institutions back us up – the very obscurity of the whole complex, peculiar system insulates us from the box-ticking world of academic management.

Perhaps we’ve deliberately used our uncharted condition to do what we want: to develop a place where we can think differently, where we can make ‘thinking differently’ our job. But that’s precisely what now makes the whole area – and the tactics for alternative thinking we’ve developed within it – so interesting to a new audience for whom design is no longer an obscure, professionalised issue. Most other people (non-architects, non-academics) don’t think of the spatial imagination as alternative or obscure. How else, after all, could you find your way home? Or choose a place to live? Navigate an unfamiliar city? But now, in the age of Google Drive (and neuro-scientific research into how London cabbies think),1 what we, as creative design practitioners and teachers do – but so rarely explain – is gold rush country. Academically, we’re racing to chart our own territory.

Because, in the realm of architectural academic research, there’s a big, patchy hole around actual design: a dearth of research into what we do and how we do it, that is, rather the history or theory of what we’ve done. As architects, we work in an area which inherently links vastly different types of knowledge, with diverging methodologies and value structures: aesthetics, science, economics, history, sociology, psychology, philosophy – you name it. Left to ourselves, we’re quite good at making improvised links between them. Our working design methodologies are – as many academics are now clearly saying – well developed … but tacit. And yet most academic research has been done by borrowing tactics from one or another of these disciplines. In borrowing these academic structures we’ve inevitably framed things from their perspective, governed by their concerns and couched in their language, rather than our own.

The Critical Theory model has, in recent years, taken up the foreground of academic research in architecture schools. This may be because it does allow for exploration of design thinking and tactics; a fan of interdisciplinary research, it is flexible in what it takes on – but on its own terms. It is extraordinarily specialised in its language, its terms of reference and, inevitably, in the things it tends to investigate. So extremely experimental historical work and recent marginal art-architecture contemporary approaches to space or design have, in this particular type of scholarship, been centre stage. Wider study of ‘normal’ design practices (and let’s face it, they’re odd enough) has generally been left to the now dwindling, non-academic, professional press.

In our first two degrees (in the UK usually BA and Masters, RIBA Parts I and II) we teach design itself as the core subject, while other methodologies from, say, history, theory or building sciences, play an important, but subsidiary role. However, at PhD level, one or more of those subsidiary methodologies takes over (even if in some kind of hybridised form). Academically, this situation is all very odd.

In Murray Fraser’s anthology of some current work in this surprisingly unsurveyed territory, Design Research in Architecture: An Overview, he says: ‘Architectural design research, if undertaken properly, is open to the full panoply of means and techniques for designing and making that are available’.2 The contributing authors offer almost unanimous agreement on the great gap in knowledge – and a sample of diverse approaches within it.

Though Fraser (sensibly) refuses to identify any ‘types’ of approach, his selection includes two major strands: on one hand, the popular stream of Critical Spatial Practices which, overlapping with a variant of architectural history, emphasises writing, theory and art practices even in its own hybridised Research-by-Design methods; and on the other what Fraser calls (unofficially, and out-of-print) a ‘reverse colonialism’ sweeping across the globe from Australia – working designers who describe, analyse, improve and express what they already do. The innovation of this second branch of research is that it sets out to research architecture’s own, native design processes on their own terms. That means developing research terms and methods by building up knowledge of existing design processes that we are already using – rather than adding on some other discipline’s framework.

This second strand, developed by Leon van Schaik, gained momentum when he became Head of Architecture of RMIT in 1986. On his arrival in Melbourne he found a city with a group of excellent architects, well-respected by their peers, with a strong body of work but little sense as to how to articulate what was particular about it – and with almost no international recognition. This was itself a fascinating research problem. Van Schaik invited them to ‘surface the evidence about their already established mastery’: to find, articulate, test and improve the design propositions they were making by actually designing. The remarkable local architectural scene, in which van Schaik became active on many fronts, is thus partly an academic outcome of a brilliant ongoing academic design research endeavour.4

It’s interesting that in the UK, architectural education (as we know it) was also invented by working professionals as something outside the profession – so that in 1847, when London’s Architectural Association was set up, it was as a critical, supportive forum for visits, discussions, thinking, writing and design outside the pressures of architects’ own working lives and beyond the prevailing system of articled pupillage. In some ways the RMIT model is an evolution of the same thing. In the overstretched, commercially pressured world of architectural design, the chance to step away and look critically at what we do – just every now and then – is what we, as designers, seem to need.

The RMIT model is an astonishing success. Around 15 years ago, van Schaik developed the Masters course into a PhD by Practice: a programme which now has 150 students enrolled between academic hubs in Australia, South-East Asia and Europe – one of the biggest architecture PhD programmes anywhere. Staffed, necessarily, almost entirely by its own graduates, it is having trouble meeting demand. Enrolment figures include Adapt-r, a start-up programme to establish similar Design-by-Practice programmes in European partner institutions:5 Ghent Sint-Lucas, the University of Westminster in London (led by Kate Heron, who is a key figure in the Adapt-r programme), the Mackintosh in Glasgow, the Estonian Academy of Arts, the University of Ljubljana and Aarhus School of Architecture.6

Students on this programme have to be established designers, with a proven track record and a body of recognised work within which they uncover and develop a doctoral thesis. They must articulate their particular way of working and identify their referents – the people, buildings and environmental experiences they are drawing on – to establish their equivalent of a methodology and literature search. They have to extract and analyse their own tactics – the way they draw things, work with clients, interact, whatever they do to generate a design: to identify the working thesis, if you like, in their work.

And they have to articulate, communicate, describe, test and improve this thesis, in practice, as an ongoing design process, showing how the research is informing ongoing work. Doctoral candidates meet twice a year in weekend Practice Research Symposia (PRS) in Melbourne, Ho Chi Minh City, Barcelona (where RMIT has a small outpost), and Ghent Sint-Lucas. Supervisors advise them, and student/practitioners present their work at intervals to a panel of peers, for discussion and debate, all leading up to a final report, exhibition and talk: a tutorial and crit system for improving and articulating work in progress. And this iterative system is really important because it emerges out of those tactics that architecture has itself evolved in its own unspoken methodologies for design.

The regular PRS events are thus crits at an extremely high level – and, incidentally, form a survey of the leading edge of the profession. Well-regarded practitioners on the programme include John Brown (Calgary), Cian Deegan, Alice Casey and Steve Larkin (Dublin), Siv Helene Stangeland of Helen and Hard (Stavanger), Tom Holbrook of 5th Studio (Cambridge), CJ Lim, Deborah Saunt and Nick Boyarsky (London), and Ralf Lõoke from Salto in Tallinn. There are also other kinds of designers, teachers and curators, as well as practitioners who are off my personal radar: some, such as Alan Higgs, who do not make it into the regular critical limelight for reasons that make them all the more interesting.

This evolving research format clearly stakes out new academic ground – right in the middle of our native territory. It is, put simply, the development of the processes we have evolved for teaching design, and continued in and adapted for practice, taken to PhD level. Inevitably, some areas are more developed than others. Design processes and their description are so well expressed that they’re begging for a meta-research project to compare them. The assessment of the buildings themselves, and the reciprocal role this plays in ongoing design, appears more tacit; supervisors and students visit and discuss the buildings, of course, but it seems to happen in a comparatively private forum.7

The question of written description in this new model is actually a big one. As opposed to theory, written description and professional, non-academic writing has been thoroughly downgraded in academic terms. Architecture’s ambivalence about the role of writing (and of those who write) is not new. Adrian Forty has explained how Modernism largely eschewed descriptive writing about architecture;8 for Jane Rendell, the working critic type of writer ‘simply documents and comments upon the architectural design research of “her” master ’.9 Yet description is a fundamental part of how both the spatial imagination and our own design processes actually work. For its part, the RMIT model would see the working specialised critic as providing a vital feedback loop into the design system, a formative part of designers recognising (even if by disagreement) what they do and don’t do. Significantly, van Schaik’s own status with designers builds upon his extensive role as a critic – a mode of engagement that captures a significant body of field research for developing this model.

Naturally, I’m biased. To me, as an academic and working critic, who has always looked at experimental architecture and at how architects communicate (accidentally, the home ground of critical theory) from outside the critical theory framework,10 this new branch of research is both thrilling and fundamental: a fantastic working map of our own territory and one that anticipates a really useful attempt to describe, understand, communicate and develop our methods. I know all this might sound introverted – in the age of climate change, or BIM, or housing crises, or scripting, or crazy economic speculation – but these strange yet familiar methods are exactly how we operate between such various and fast-changing areas; how we improvise and invent in our own territory rather than being colonised by another. This is designed research, as well as researched design. And design, after all, is what we do know about.