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(What) is Research Appropriate to Architecture?

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Abstract

For some it might seem like an irrelevant question. But when we look at the discourse that has surrounded the debate on architectural and design methodologies, the reason to ask this question is more evident. Transcending the scope of debate on the matter of this journal, the question touches upon a sensitive discussion on the domain of architectural research, its particularities, and its academic credibility.

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Savić, S. (2014). (What) is Research Appropriate to Architecture?. Contour Journal, 1(1). Retrieved from http://contourjournal.org/index.php/contour/article/view/65
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May 11, 2014
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May 11, 2014
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Article

For some it might seem like an irrelevant question. However, when we look at the discourse that has surrounded the debate on architectural and design methodologies, the reason to ask this question is more evident. Transcending the scope of debate on the matter of this journal, the question touches upon a sensitive discussion on the domain of architectural research, its particularities, and its academic credibility.

It is often unclear whether by architectural research we mean research about architecture, research through architecture or research for architecture. These three categories, borrowed from Christopher Frayling’s discussion on research in design and art, are not mutually exclusive, but they do look for legitimacy in different fields. While we are familiar with forms of historical and theoretical research about architecture; and the improvement of architectural and design practice through research has been addressed in a significant body of work by design practitioners and theorists; it is the research through architecture that I will concentrate on, hoping to clarify some doubts about its methods and legitimacy.

My current research questions wireless communication signals space occupancy within an architectural framework. It focuses on awareness of wireless infrastructure and the possibility for tangible interaction with wireless network signals. It promotes observation and understanding of insensible infrastructures, regarding waves as actants. This work attempts to bridge the physical-digital ideological divide by offering physical experience of activity within the wireless communication layer. How do these signals actually propagate in physical space? How do they perform? What happens when we bring signals to the foreground?

The investigation of these questions is strongly linked to a design practice. It incorporates an iterative process of prototyping architectural artifacts which act as interfaces for wireless network infrastructure. These architectural artifacts and the experience of using them serve as source of data for my analysis. The approach taken here relies on qualitative interpretations of experiences, coupled with a quantitative analysis of network traffic.

The problem and choice of methodology is arguably particular to each research. Thus, the supposed “architectural methodology” and the lack thereof can be seen as more of a challenge than a disadvantage. Nevertheless, choosing an unorthodox method can lead to research looking unserious and ungrounded within a discipline. How free is one in designing their research in architecture and how far can we push the legitimacy of our methods? Can we do research in architecture through practice of architectural design? Where does the design artifact fit in the research process in this case?

A brief examination of discourse on the notion of research and its purpose in design, art and architecture exposes two recurrent topics. One is the legitimacy of knowledge and methods to acquire it; the other is the dilemma on the research objective: improvement of practice (normative approach) or generating knowledge (descriptive approach)? Do we generate knowledge to improve practice or do we practice to improve knowledge?

According to Frayling, part of the problem lies in the perception of research as an activity. He distinguishes two kinds of research - one with a small ‘r’ which is aimed at producing an (artistic or design) artifact and motivated by this production. The other kind of research, one with a big ‘R’ has a pre-defined research question, whose subject or object exists outside of the person doing the research, leading to discussable, shareable knowledge. As opposed to the research with a small r, which is a part of (art)-making process, research with big R is a profession, a professional practice. This should not imply that making is incompatible with research but it helps identify two distinct objectives for research to be undertaken.

Different from Frayling, theorists of design methodology such as Herbert Simon, Nigel Cross or Peter Kroes believe that research in design is specifically aimed at improving the design practice. In their normative approach to design, they recognize the inseparability of design process from the design object as well as the duality of design artifact conceptualisation - consideration for its inner parts and its structure; or for its environment and its function within it.

Jeremy Till sees the advancement of architecture as a practice inextricably linked to acquirement of knowledge. He does leave the causal relationship between architectural knowledge and architectural practice open. Thus, research in architecture does not explicitly have to contribute to practice, while contributing to the discipline’s knowledge base.

So what are tools and methods available to researchers in architecture? What is legitimate knowledge in architectural studies, specific to the three categories (about, through and for architecture)? Is there space for intuition when searching for relevant data? How do we define an evaluation framework for legitimate architectural research and knowledge? How can we explore these issues without putting architecture into a “methodological straightjacket”?

Borrowing from other disciplines is one option. However, the mere act of turning to other intellectual paradigms in search for authority and academic credibility does not necessarily feed back into architecture as a discipline. Careful documentation of the decision making processes behind building a building does not automatically contribute to an advancement in architecture or acquiring of new knowledge. Before rushing in with a recipe for procedures in architectural research, I see Contour as a space where such procedures can be presented, discussed or co-written. More than just a journal, Contour is a collaborative platform that should bring together all our different methods and approaches to research. It should serve as an 'outlet' for our diverse intellectual efforts and assist in a collective exploration of the limits of methodological creativity.

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