The Architect-Researcher: Exploring New Possibilities for the Production of Architecture
While research seems intrinsic to the design process, architectural research is a professional path in itself, whose purpose is to highlight scientific evidence and explore alternatives outside of pre-established norms or empirical considerations. Its purpose is to create a framework of knowledge that can inform the design to reach objectively better outcomes. The following discusses the role and state of research in architecture, some prominent areas of inquiry, and the architects or institutions that dedicate their work to these subjects.
In 2018, AIA stated that “the research available for study of architecture and buildings is disproportionate to its impact [on societies and economies]” and proposed an extensive research agenda while promoting increased investment in research and research literacy. The argument was that the way architecture addresses major technological, environmental and societal shifts “affects all levels of scale—from the individual to larger society” and thus requires research efforts at par with the implications.
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Jeremy Till’s canonical paper commissioned by RIBA, Architectural Research: Three Myths and One Model, argues that “architecture is a form of knowledge that can and should be developed through research”, but most importantly, helps define what exactly constitutes research in architecture. In his essay, initially published in 2007, with a revised version presented in 2017, Till contradicts the idea that practice is intrinsically a form of research by saying that architecture knowledge exceeds the built object and that whatever knowledge a building contains, it is not explicitly communicated. He also critiques architecture’s avoidance of research methodologies and makes a case for architectural research conducted through a paradigm specific to architecture rather than the methodologies of other fields it intersects in the process.
In his keynote lecture at KU Leuven’s The Practice of Architectural Research Symposium, prof. Wilfried Wang describes architectural research as “publicly transparent, scientifically analytical and independently verifiable”, thus distinguishing it from empirical ideas and assumptions stemming from daily practice. Architectural research falls under three categories: research that creates and expands knowledge, usually conducted within academia and research laboratories, applied research, designed for a specific application, transferring new pieces of knowledge into practice and project-based research.
Fields of Inquiry
Understanding how a building improves performance, influences health, or how the built environment impacts people’s behaviour and cognitive functions, the potential of new technologies for architecture and construction, and material innovation are just some critical areas of study. In addition, new ideas in urbanism, studies on resilience, design interventions that reduce environmental impact, and understanding how could architecture improve equity are equally essential research needs within the field of architecture.
Neuroscience, human behaviour, health and wellbeing are currently flourishing areas of inquiry in architectural research, as the body of knowledge in these fields has expanded significantly during the last two decades. In this sense, the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) explores the intersection between design and behaviour, with a mission of using neuro and cognitive science research to improve the design of the built environment. The study of architecture through these lenses has also given rise to new areas of study such as environmental neuroscience and neuroarchitecture, shaping a scientific understanding of the built environment’s impact on brain processes and behaviour.
Neri Oxman and her exploration of material ecology, or Jenny Sabin and her research into the application of science and biology into architecture pursue architecture innovation through transdisciplinarity and cross breedings of different areas of expertise. MIT’s now discontinued Mediated Matter Group conducted research at the intersection of computational design, digital fabrication, materials science, and synthetic biology. At the same time, new technologies, whether those used in the design of buildings such as digital fabrication or technologies used in building operations are fertile ground for architectural research. Also at MIT, the Self-Assembly Lab looks to develop self-assembly and programmable material technologies, while the Sustainable Design Lab develops tools to evaluate the environmental performance of buildings. At the University of Stuttgart, Professor Achim Menges’ research focuses on developing “design processes at the intersection of morphogenetic design computation, biomimetic engineering and computer-aided manufacturing”, essentially working towards developing a new design and construction paradigm.
Research within the Practice
At the same time, research doesn’t reside solely in academia, as some firms bring it at the forefront of their practice. Perkins+Will goes beyond the typical preoccupations of an architecture office and publishes a peer-reviewed journal twice a year for which researchers and designers investigate topics that, although might have the potential to inform future design projects, are developed outside the ordinary practice. In addition, the firm hosts several Research Labs, where, together with academics and experts in different fields, it pursues various lines of inquiry in building technology, human experience, material performance, mobility or resilience. The topics of these studies range from the impact of adaptive working behaviour on the carbon footprint, factors that reduce noise pollution in urban spaces or creating a framework of social equity indicators. Another take on research within the practice is White Arkitketer’s Research Lab, whose agenda for 2020-2023 is to explore through interdisciplinary collaborations the subject of circular architecture, investigating product flows, transformation and re-use or strategies for climate positive projects.
Academic research has the shortcoming of being somewhat hermetic. While journals like Frontiers of Architectural Research disseminate works in the field of architectural research, and prestigious universities attempt to popularize their findings, they rarely penetrate through mainstream practice. Often criticized for being self-referential and inward-looking, architectural research is slowly developing its own methodologies, serving the design process in shaping a better built environment.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Architecture Without Buildings. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our ArchDaily topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.