Avoiding architectural extinction: The hazards and joys of interdisciplinary architectural practice and research.

Last week I blogged about branding and I got some comments back saying that it was all about the actual design of the building and “branding” was a superficial concept. Of course, design should be  paramount. In this week’s longer blog  I write about the need for authentic interdisciplinarity in architectural education, research and practice. 

In architecture there has always been a lot of talk about interdisciplinarity. Architecture, both as a field of research knowledge and as it is practiced has always crossed borders. Architectural education at its best gives, to those of us who subscribe to the cult of architecture, both generalist skills and the ability to understand, in detail specific areas of knowledge. Well trained architects are knowledgeable in construction techniques, urban planning, the  sciences (particularly the environmental sciences) and for some mediating cultural difference is essential; not to mention the world of organisational behaviour and science. On a design project architects are expected to make decisions about space planning, function, structure, environmental services, statutory regulations, contracts, construction methods (costs and details), organisational behaviour and heritage issues. In addition, knowledge of aesthetics is important: tectonics, style, methods of visual abstraction and how things look in the finished form (colour, paint, materials). And of course, and uniquely, spatiality. By this latter term I mean how things will appear, and made present, in three dimensions in space.

History of the city

High in my pecking order of things architects need to know about and research is  history. Why? In some way’s history can glue all the diverse archipelago of knowledge that constitutes architecture together; also architecture has its own traditions and histories. Buildings, cities, cultures, people all have history. These histories are all intertwined with architecture. The gradual erasure, of history and theory, in architecture schools is probably one of the most barbaric things to happen to the discipline. Nowadays, who needs history when you have the immediate gratifying moment of architecture in the internet world of dezeen, archdaily or snapchat.

Architects are expected to have knowledge across many domains as well as enough detailed knowledge within different domains to make decisions. The architect must make decisions that are both strategic and detailed and operational.  Some  architects can easily move across the spectrum and between these different scales of decision. But some architects get stuck at the extremes of these two poles. In other words some architects think more towards the “big picture” end of the spectrum and strategic and other architects can only think around the detail end of the spectrum. The best architects are those that can do both, or at least recognise both ends of the spectrum. This is what we might call interdisciplinary thinking.

Of course this kind of interdisciplinary thinking, or the idea of it at least, has its hazards. In higher education I would be rich if I had a few dollars for every time I heard the words interdisciplinary. It is an idea, with its associated mantras, that seems to have been been around forever. When I started architecture school the Yakka overalled, bearded (original hipsters?) greenie architects were always talking about. Well, talking about it between tokes on their spliffs. It was their way to take down a provincial profession centred on the gentleman architect.

Systems theory

I think to some extent the idea of interdisciplinarity it is related to the dream of systems theory. The idea that by understanding the world as a series of systems we can then begin to link together different systems and l of knowledge. The multi-talented Gregory Bateson was a key proponent of this and it has been said of him that “Bateson’s epistemology proposes a ‘communicational world’ based on cybernetics, systems theory, and ecology.” Wow ! Let me write that again: WOW ! In the 1920s, Bertalannfy, the founder of General Systems Theory, was to contrast the mechanistic approach to biological disciplines and he consequently ‘advocated an organismic conception in biology which emphasizes consideration for the organism as a whole or system, and sees the main objective of biological sciences in the discovery of the principles of organization at its various levels.’  (Bertalanffy, General System Theory, 12.). In 1968, he wrote that ‘If someone were to analyse current notions and fashionable catchwords they would find “systems” high on the list. The concept has pervaded all fields of science and penetrated into popular thinking, jargon and mass media’(General System Theory, 3.). It kind of sounds familiar and such sentiments appear to point to the influence of General Systems Theory in architectural discourse. In effect, and arguably without systems thinking, and related concepts we may not have all of the discourse and polemics attached to parametric design.

Higher education and research 

The above dreams of unified and general systems seem to spur on the idea that universities are one place where systems and cross disciplinary thinking can be fostered and encouraged. But, the problem is real collaboration comes together when common platforms of thought are bought together, and in a sense even into conflict, from disparate fields of knowledge (not to mention inclusiveness). For  architectural educators working with educators from other disciplines this generally means: agreeing on a common design processes, understanding different disciplinary conceptions of design, agreeing on hierarchies of knowledge and circumscribing what should be included in any particular curricula or syllabus.

In the architectural education setting this means agreeing on joint learning aims and outcomes. This is not to sound critical of any one university or program. We all want to teach the modes of interdisciplinary thinking as this is important for future graduates. It is not simply about teaching a bit of architecture and then teaching a bit of engineering, or product design or whatever it is side by side each. It’s not simply a matter of offering broad humanities subjects alongside architecture, or just renaming things. Too often this kind of thing ends up being about teaching by committee. where the committee devises the syllabus and the syllabus is a grab bag of topics. I suppose one of the reasons I hate planners is that they are always talking about interdisciplinary perspectives and yet when push comes to shove few of them seem that interested in the aesthetics, spatial considerations and design processes. I would love to run a studio with planners but they never seem to be that interested. As I have written elsewhere few planners seem interested in learning about design thinking.

In this context implementation of truly interdisciplinary teaching and research programs is the key to real success and positioning in the competitive word of the future knowledge economy. Not just packaging up, shuffling subjects, or research topics, around, renaming and then branding these different units.  But effective leadership and implementation is so important if interdisciplinary architectural and research education is of real concern. And this is why the studio is so important in architectural education and research because it is the central, perhaps the only place, for this kind of thinking to take place.

My sad experience in the discipline of architecture is that interdisciplinary research is too often overlooked in favour of research that is narrow and highly specific and technical. Maybe, it’s always been like this I guess. Of course I don’t want to sound like a pompous whiner. But, if you are a generalist, as most architects trained before the millenia are, or a humanities graduate with some ideas of crossing a few different areas, or conducting research on the perimeter, or at the limits of your discipline, you will probably have trouble getting funding. Perhaps this is why architectural research is so underfunded.

Doing it 

Thankfully, in the real world interdisciplinary thinking is embedded in architectural practice itself. In getting projects built architects, engineers, consultants, user groups of different cultures all come together. One of the really key parties in the project mix are the sub contractors. Often, despite their unfashionable high-viz vested ways and penchant for non inclusive language, they are the ones where the information is. My friend, the esteemed professor, of construction management once said that in the future he thought that all the design decisions would be made in the supply chain.  Of course one thing he meant is that it is in the supply chain where real interdisciplinary practice often takes place. That is where  architects conveying the concerns of the clients across a number of dimensions, problem solving with other specialist disciplines, seeking information from both contractors and subcontractors in order to make complex and difficult decisions.

The prospect of extinction. 

architects need to acknowledge the interdisciplinary aspects of architecture in design studio education, research and practice. Otherwise, our profession will become increasingly typecast as a profession of “technical specialists” who draw the design. Otherwise, our work will become increasingly commodified and that’s a recipe for diminishing returns and extinction.



It is what is called swot vac here in our graduate school of architetcure. We are now well and truly in the crazy season and quite a few of my students have gone to ground; hopefully to remerge, like butterflies form a chrysalis, with beautifully imaged projects next week at the studio juries.