The Research Paradox for Architects: What is design research?

The image on the home page next to this post is a picture of a typical architectural researchers desk. Sadly there are people in this world who dont think architecture has much to do with research. Even I sometimes have trouble convincing people that I am actually doing research. 

Yet, in recent practice, architects have argued that architectural design is a research activity in its own right.  The research activities of architects include a range of problem solving and design related research activities such as data collection, workshops, internet searching and design drawing. In addition architects also research historic precedents, climatic issues, construction methods, products and materials. Design as research, also points to the emergence of research amongst architects related to the scripting of programmes, 3D digital modelling and prototyping. But is design research simply speculative or generative designing?

I like many other architects agree with the proposition that designing can be research. But this is clearly a problematic proposition.

 The design as research culture

Numerous PhDs, design studios, books and even entire courses have been built around the notion of Design as Research. In fact no one really knows how to write it: design research, or is it Design Research, or is it “design as research” ? But the real point is that, many architects regard design processes such as creating sketches, making digital CAD models, building physical models and building prototypes as research. But is that what design research is?

Of course, some have had a go at defining what it is. Dr. Peter Downton at RMIT argued that design is a ‘way of enquiring a way of producing knowledge; this means it is a way of researching.’ In a study of architectural design PhDs Radu asserts: ‘Architectural design is to architecture what research is to science’ and the ‘process of architectural design is close to the process of knowledge creation in the sciences’

No research infrastructure

Across the globe system there is clearly a lack of research infrastructure for architects at a number of levels; research infrastructure doesn’t just mean having big grunty boyo computers. In my country of Australia, research skills are not clearly articulated in the architectural accreditation system. Architects don’t often do formal research methods courses and few graduate schools of architecture offer courses around design research. Notably, my own school does offer such a course. Worse still design research outputs, such as buildings are not counted in research evaluation and publication exercises.

The reality of practice.

In actual practice, I fear that the documentary, formal and methodological structures supporting the organic activities of design research are fragmentary and adhoc. Few practices have formal R&D procedures in place, and few practices have developed procedures for articulating and documenting its original design outcomes. Aside from, practices publishing their projects for peers and marketing. much of the knowledge generated by all of the research in architectural offices remains largely implicit within firms.

Few firms write research reports on the information they collect and yet many often claim that research information is transferred to other projects. These adhoc practices make it difficult to ascertain, and argue, which aspects of architectural research are a contribution to new knowledge.

 Research models in practice

As a result, many firms flounder around when it comes to research. A lot have tied their own research models focused around digital design and fabrication. Other firms have focused their research on Sustainability. But simply having and seeming to follow through on this research focus is not enough. A few firms go beyond a simple focus on a strategic research area. Many dream of, or attempt to adopt, research models related to a management consulting. Larger firms are better at this. But this is, more often than not, without the well-worn and templates and proprietary methods that real management consultants have.

Moreover, only a few architects have embraced research models related to patent innovation and product development. I am still struggling to teach graduate archi students what Intellectual Property is.

The research paradox for architects.

The paradox is that many architects often state that research is a part of their design philosophy yet there is often no further articulation of this. Often in practice the organic integration of routine research and design as research activities makes it difficult to identify what is routine design and what is design which creates new knowledge. Establishing the contribution to knowledge of any research endeavour is necessary if it is to be regarded by non-architects as research. I worry that to many architects in practice R&D is about simply placing product and materials information at the back of a project file.

This is not to say that architects do not develop new knowledge or insights as a result of design processes. But, many firms appear to lack the methodological infrastructure, systems or research training needed to support R&D activities. This makes it difficult to isolate and position the research knowledge and innovations arising out of design research. Without these methodological and meta-structures in place it is difficult for architects to argue how design as research makes a contribution to knowledge. It also makes it difficult to position and distinguish new design from previous design research.

Policy failures

The focus on design as research, and its rise in architectural schools, has too often tended to emphasise research related to material issues: drawing, modelling, fabricating and constructing. But further research in the architectural schools could identify to what degree design as research in practices is focused on non-material and context-dependent topics: urban space, gender identities, teamwork, and cross cultural issues. Not to mention history and culture.

Arguably, few other professionals would actively have this broad range of skills and expertise at their disposal. Yet, the role of architects is not often accounted for or encouraged in national innovation systems or construction innovation policies.

All the politicians love a so-called smart and sustainable city. We require initiatives need to examine in the potential role of architectural design as research in national innovation systems. These considerations could lead to policies that highlight the linkages between, design as research arising out of architecture and new technologies, construction, industrial design and manufacturing.  But at present the design thinking and research of architects is often subsumed and only seen as a minor element in national innovation, research and educational policies. As architects, we need to build and develop our industry in a way that substantiate, explore and promote the design research agenda to the max.

Just designing, and then making something, and then claiming that this is research will not be enough.

Architects and the branding of the new Ecocity: The need to dismantle the greenwash

We have just had the Ecocity 2017 world summit or conference in my city. Al Gore came to speak about his work and he received an honorary doctorate from my university. I didn’t attend the conference but the spin round it prompted me to think a bit about what an Ecocity might be. It made me think how architects and urbanists should respond or think about the Ecocity concept.

Since 1990 the ECOCITY World brand has claimed to address “the way humanity builds its home — its  cities, towns and villages.” Interestingly, the Ecocity brand is promoted as a series as if it was some kind of global franchise:

“The series focuses on key actions cities and citizens can take to rebuild our human habitat in balance with living systems, and, in the process, slow down and even reverse global heating, biodiversity collapse, loss of wilderness habitat, agricultural lands and open space, and social and environmental injustices.”

I worry that the Ecocity brand nexus of neoliberal policies, big property linked to the markets, and what I would call the “smart” and “sustainable” city industry is only leading us down the Business As Usual path to climate catastrophe. For some of your reading this, in mentioning the C word (catastrophe), I am going to sound uncool and alarmist. But maybe that is the reality and maybe since  Nicolas Stern’s The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review neoliberal and oh-so-nice, left of centre policy makers, have really been compromised.

 It’s always great to talk about cities as ecosystems or as places full of so-called smart sustainable infrastructure. There is a lot of that talk in my architecture school about this. But, is this enough? Do we really need cities; and in the Anthropocene, is it wise to conceive of cities as ecosystems. Doesn’t this conceptual act place our own species with a role at the center of the natural world. Are we really at the center?

A recent book by Derek Jensen the radical environmentalist also raises the above questions. He argues that sustainability is now a devalued term. He writes about what he calls the conservation-industrial complex:

“big green organizations, huge “environmental” foundations, neo-environmentalists, some academics–which has co-opted too much of the movement into “sustainability,” with that word being devalued to mean “keeping this culture going as long as possible.” Instead of fighting to protect our one and only home, they are trying to “sustain” the very culture that is killing the planet. And they are often quite explicit about their priorities.”

Jensen, argues for, and imagines, an end to “technologized, industrialized civilization and a return to agrarian communal life.” Of course to the well-heeled policy urbanists this is a seemingly extreme view. But nonetheless, it is a view, that at this point in time, I am drawn drawn to. It reminds me a bit of the urban efforts and gestures of the architects Leon and Rob Krier to return us to a pre-industrial urbanism. So what exactly would be wrong with such a return? 

Another author of interest to me in this debate is late Australian philosopher Val Plumwood. Plumwood questions what she denoted as hyperseperation. Hyperseparation gives rise to the dominant structures that drive binaries such as, nature-culture, matter-mind and savage-civilised. In the context of the Ecocities debate we run the risk of simply arrogating all mind to our own species and seeing everything else as mindless matter. Matter, as exemplified by the cities formed in our own image. These Ecotopias, Ecopositive cities and Ecocities are now crowding out our social media feeds, and these imagined cities are too often image-cities emptied of, and destructive of, real ecologies.

A real debate around cities needs to merge that examines how cities might be dismantled and decolonized and how we might see them less as machines of innovation and capital. At the conference the academic program looked like more of the same old pap: Densification, greening the cities or “Bringing Nature Back In”, resilience, healthy cities, new forms of co-operation and sustainable food production. Certainly there was some good stuff in the conference around the First Nations and those other real cities, the organic informal cities full of inequalities.

But, in the face of climate change and the loss of actual and real ecosystems, habitats and species, outside of our existing cities there is only so much of this pap I can take. A few papers held glimmer of hope about new research agendas and questioning of this prevailing, and increasingly branded paradigm. I guess the image that headlined the conference (ably devised by Simon Cookes) of chucking plants onto concrete buildings and rooftops kind of says it all for me.

As architects and urbanists we need to explore the dynamics and effectiveness of architecture in relation to the real and deeper ecologies than just greening up the cities in Photoshop. This also means having a debate around how we might dismantle the cities and explore new forms of settlement. We need to dismantle the greenwash.

Surviving the Design Studio: Don’t be a Lemming when choosing a design studio.

Yes, it is almost that time of year (at least in the Southern Hemisphere) when architecture students begin class and go about the business of choosing their final semester design studio.

This blog is a repeat of previous blog I did last year. In that blog I argued that the four worst reasons for choosing to be in a design studio are related to a cluster of common syndromes. But I have now added more syndromes to the original list. This is as a result of countless millenia watching architectural student lemmings jump off the cliff  and choose the wrong studios.

So here is the latest list of Lemming like syndromes:

1. Everyone passes this studio (Degree of badness 9  out of 10)

Choosing a studio or a design tutor because you think that everyone who takes that studio will pass. That’s great until you work out that it’s not exactly true and you fail the studio. Never take passing for granted.

2. My friends told me to do it (Degree of badness 10 out of 10)

Another bad reason and indicative of someone who can’t take responsibility for their own architectural education.

3. My friends are in it (Degree of badness 8 out of 10)

Time to cut the umbilical cord from the friends you met in the enrolment queue or at orientation. When you leave architecture school you will be working in teams, yes I am serious, actual teams with different people in them. A good idea to get used to it now.

4. It sounds too theoretical (Degree of badness 10 out of 10)

Sure that’s fine if you never want to think about architecture’s place in the world as a critical practice. that’s the path to CAD monkey and BIM monkey mania. If you want to be valued in a practice, when you graduate, then you need to have a handle on theoretical and conceptual ideas.

5. I already did that kind of project before (Degree of badness 7 out of 10)

Maybe. This is a legitimate excuse for not doing a studio. But it may also be a good reason to get really good at something by doing the same kinds of over and again. Going into greater depth might be good.

6. Running with the pack syndrome (Degree of badness 8 out of 10)

This is a variation on, “my friends told me to do it”. It’s great to get into a popular studio and “run with the pack s” at the beginning of the semester. But, it is not so great at the end of the semester when you realise how unsuited that studio was for you. It’s even worse when the studio outcomes semester end up being the most mediocre at the end of semester.

All because it is popular doesn’t mean the studio will be good.Popularity is the most misleading reason to choose a studio on. Don’t succumb to  peer group pressure or groupthink.

7. Charisma syndrome (Degree of badness 10 out of 10)

The seemingly charismatic tutor or architect may not be the tutor that you need to foster and build your design confidence. Charismatic architects, especially the alpha-male variety, do not necessarily make good studio leaders or teachers.

Of course they looked great at the studio presentation, they have been published a lot, won a few awards and have a great website. But, that charismatic architect or the person who gives a great presentation to students about the studio may in fact be one of those woefully inadequate studio teachers. Woeful studio teachers are the ones that are potentially narcissistic, lack the humility needed to teach, mismanage your criticism time, develop favorites in the class and give contrary and contradictory advice to students from week to week.

8. Interesting project syndrome (Degree of badness 7 out of 10)

This is when students choose because it seems like an interesting project. What do you mean by “interesting” and how do you know it is actually interesting? Will the design outputs of the studio make a contribution to design knowledge.

What architectural or studio project isn’t potentially interesting? Good architects are the people who  make mundane and ordinary programs and problems into something cogent and culturally powerful. So just choosing a studio because it sounds like an interesting project is a really unthinking way to choose.  I learnt the most from the worst and least interesting projects that I did at architecture school. The bourgeois house, the outer suburban primary school, the kindergarten the social housing on the large site. You don’t need an exotic landscape, location or intricate program to learn in a studio.

9. Sounds easy syndrome (Degree of badness 10 out of 10)

Unfortunately, it is easy for students to think they are learning something when they are having a great time in a design studio. In fact the converse is probably true. When the student is challenged by a tutor or a design problem that is probably when they are actually learning something. By doing studios that are personally challenging an aspiring architect is able to learn design resilience, not just in the face of critical indifference or negative criticism, but also learn how to pursue a design proposal from start finish with all the various steps and missteps that this normally involves.

After all, once outside of architecture school, the aspiring architect must rely on their own reserves in the face of trenchant indifference to architecture.

10. Bogged down in research (Degree of badness 7 out of 10)

Of course, it’s not so great when you get into that “interesting project” studio and find there is no established brief and you spend so many weeks researching the project that you don’t get enough time to design it at the end. This is a common syndrome. Make sure that the tutors have a handle on the research component of the studio. A clear time schedule usually helps.

A few guidelines to help 

Choosing a studio for  a postgraduate architecture student is a personal one. It’s a personal decision. In choosing a studio students should firstly ask themselves the following questions:

  1. What technical skills do I have and what skills do I still need? Which studio or studio leader help me develop those skills?
  2. What am I yet to do at architecture school? What projects or types or scales of problem should I get experience in?
  3. What do I need to learn about in relation to design processes? Do I have the confidence to experiment? Should I do a studio that allows me to do this? SHould I do something is right outside of my comfort zone?
  4. What do I need to learn or in what kind of studio do I need to be in to grow in confidence as an aspiring architect?


You cannot rely on Architecture school to learn what you need to learn. Learning and and becoming an architect is kind of like any race in many respects. Preparation is important, practicing on different types of tracks, constantly refining your own training regime and above all taking responsibility for your own education is vital.

The best architecture school’s, like the one I teach in, offer an impressive range of diverse studios and teaching approaches.  The best architects in the future will always be those architects who are self-taught. The ones who made the most of the diverse opportunities available to them at architecture school.

At the end of the day, the best and most employable graduates will be the ones who took the harder path at architecture school rather than the easier one.





The destruction of our 1960s and 1970s Architectural Heritage: The demise of Robin Boyd

Dr. Christine Phillips from RMIT and I recently presented a paper on Robin Boyd at SAHANZ 2017. SAHANZ is the 34th Annual Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand. This year it was around the theme of Quotation, Quotation:  What Does History Have in Store for Architecture Today? For the conference we chose to focus on the Australian Architect Robin Boyd; over a series of previous SAHANZ papers we have sought to demythologise Boyd’s work by a close examination of the Boyd archive at the State Library of Victoria.

What follows are excerpts from our paper alongside a call to arms, as we increasingly find our architectural heritage from the 1960s and 1970s slowly being destroyed.

At the conference, we were able to duck out and visit two notable Boyd buildings. The Zoology Building at the Australian National University competed in 1961 and Churchill House on Northbourne Avenue, completed after Boyd’s death in 1971. The Zoology building is finely constructed and Spartan modernist building within it is a characteristic Boyd courtyard.Taken together both of these works indicate how Boyd himself changed over the tumultuous 1960s.

IMG_3412 (1)

Zoology Building 

The research for this paper adopted a framework focused on a discursive analysis of Boyd’s journal articles and books of the 1960s to his death in 1971. We chronologically mapped and matched his writings to his public building projects during and across this time period.  The analysis revealed how Boyd’s works and writings from 1960-1967 depict a relatively consistent commitment to a universal modernism tempered through a regional lense. This is exemplified in the earlier Zoology building.  On the other hand, Boyd’s later writings and works from 1968 through to his death in 1971, diverge into a less coherent and fragmented body of work. This is arguably evident in the later Churchill House.

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Churchill House 

This trajectory illustrates the degree to which Boyd’s Modernist Universalism changed over the course of the 1960s, his last works arguably expressing a crisis and bewilderment in Boyd’s own thoughts about modernist architecture. This also echoes the degree to which Modernist Universalism changed over the course of the 1960s as it entered into Post-Modernist tendencies.

In a number of later projects Boyd appears to produce conceptual designs which highlight the iconicity of quoted fragments rather than trying to produce an integrated concept. Neptune’s Fishbowl is a good example. It is a project that appears to indicate an abandonment of the principles espoused by Boyd earlier in the decade. This was an iconic geodesic dome reminiscent of Buckminster Fuller, but via it’s use of integrated advertising signage it also appears to allude to the iconicity of Venturi, Scott Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas published after Boyd’s death in 1972.


Churchill House designed in 1968 and 1969 also appears to show Boyd’s experimental bent and abandonment of an integrated and universal modernism. Again, this plays on a dichotomy of forms but there appears to be no effort to integrate or reconcile these forms together.  Each façade has a different compositional treatment and the building is not a whole, like the earlier zoology building, but composed as series of fragments.


Churchill House Detail 

The sloping glass box which sat on top of the original Churchill has been destroyed. It is only a matter of time before either of these fine buildings face demolition. As with the Sirius building in the Sydney and Kevin Borland’s Harold Holt Pool, not to mention the imminent destruction of Robin Hood Gardens in London, these buildings face mindless destruction.

This destruction is ironic given this is a time when the curiosities of Brutalism and other architectural moments and experiments exemplifying the 1960s and 1970s are rushing through our social media feeds. What we need to understand about these buildings is that they represent an era, if not the very last era, when architecture and architects still mattered. This heritage is now slowly being destroyed.

For those of you interested the French architectural historian Jean-Louis Cohen’s keynote at the Conference was delivered on 6 July 2017, introduced by Gevork Hartoonian. Its a great lecture and can be found here. 

The Architect’s office: Gleaners and waste pickers in a scrapyard.

In many respects the architect’s office resembles a scrap yard and the organisational pattern that emerges from the activities and material artefacts in the office is the idea that an architect is a gleaner. Or in other words, a kind of waste picker of knowledge. I will explain more about what I mean below. I came to this conclusion after conducting an ethnographic study of two small architect’s offices, sharing the same office space, in Melbourne and the full write up of the study was presented at the ARCOM conference in 2016 and can be found here.

In the Agnes Varda film The Gleaners and I (2000) a gleaner is a person who hunts for food, knick-knacks, and thrown away or discarded items. Similarly, as I observed this office I began to think that an architect is a person who collects together, or gleans, data and information from various sources in order to create and generate design knowledge.

Often the knowledge we architects salvage, find, assemble, test, reassemble and put together, or glean, is not valued by the other people we work with in the design supply chain. Design knowledge is often viewed as being of no use. For builders, developers, sometimes consultants, tradespeople or other workers all wanting to make a buck along supply chains the knowledge architects value is seen as being as. Design knowledge related to history, urban theory, sociological perspectives, spatiality, aesthetics and nuanced construction processes are is seen as being wasteful.

With the rise of digital software and BIM work practices the architect’s office is increasingly, and should be seen as, a knowledge intensive digital workplace. Dare, I say a KIDW. Digital technologies are blurring the line between physical and virtual work practices both within and outside of the firm. Internally, physical and virtual workflows are now to a degree interconnected. Externally, architects are now digitally connected to various stakeholders including clients, builders, consultants and sub-contractors.

Given this context, and from my perspective, the study was a quick way to explore the myth of seamless integration, between our digital models and the physical world, that the technology proponents and software vendors seem to push down our throats as architects all the time: all the time and all the time.  I worry that it sometimes makes us architects feel a sense of self-loathing, because we are not “real” architects unless we have, and are, using and immersed in the latest and newest technologies.

As an ethnographic observer in the office, this initial thought of gleaning, was related to how the material artefacts in the office reminded me of the scrapyard and waste pickers I had met in Monterrey Mexico. We can think of the architect is a waste picker of construction and building knowledge for two reasons. Firstly, the material artefacts and tools in the office seeming organised across the space of the office in an extremely ad hoc fashion. Secondly, the office contained 12 substantial physical bins. This space was full of physical artefacts and in no way paperless or entirely digital.

The sources from which the architects glean information from are varied and diverse. An architect may glean information from the computer or from the Internet; the architect may also glean information from the digital models that are created in the computer. Hence much the information that is embedded and inscribed into the architect’s digital models in this office comes from a diverse and extensive range of sources including: personal knowledge as expressed through hand gestures and vocalization; information gathered and gleaned via communication devices, paper documents and all manner of physical materials including scale models, material samples, drawings, printed materials books and videotapes.

A predominant metaphor that appears to dominate the discursive practices and sale pitches of software vendors is that of the library. This in sharp contrast to the conceptual model observed here. That the broader milieu of knowledge used to design a building is a scrapyard and that architects using techniques of gleaning via performance narratives to create design knowledge. Architects fashion knowledge out of chaos.

However, BIM and digital software proponents presume that the projects or indeed the world is a library that can be categorised and that the design of project can be done by drawing or data mining this catalogue. This is a metaphor that certainly supports industrialised building and automated design processes. Many of the objects that are in BIM libraries are building components that have been manufactured by building component companies. The prevailing metaphors in used association with BIM and the Industry Foundation Classes all suggest a high degree of ordering and structure.

If the digital realm is one of structure and order then it is the architect who uses his skills of gleaning to bring order to this digital realm. If the architect’s office was to be understood as library then much of the material in the office would be catalogued and filed in particular formats. However, this is not often the case because too much of the materials and tools used to create design knowledge within the office are simply not catalogued. The library metaphor does not account for the way that material is bought together through narratives that may rely on the architects sketching, vocal communication or gestures. Data entry and information transfer via framing and the translation of things into common scales or media was a predominant activity in the office.

To reiterate, gleaning is an activity that includes materials (both physical and digital), gestures, rituals and suggest that architects create designs, and fashion design knowledge, out of a chaos data and information.

This process of gleaning in order to produce design knowledge also suggests that current models of knowledge management and models of IT management in architectural practices should be revised. These models need to account for the rituals performed in the office and the material culture contained within it. In other words, the super duper digital model of the architect’s office does not allow for the many rituals, narratives and inflections when architects design.

This suggests that more comprehensive and nuanced models of how architect’s offices generate design knowledge should be developed. No more dumb-ass technological utopias. Maybe then we can make better architecture with the technologies at hand and stop feeling ashamed about not being on the latest technology bandwagon.

I am just back from a short holiday and hoping to head to the SAHANZ conference over the next few days where I am presenting 2 co-authored papers. I would like to thank all of you who have supported and read the blog this past 18 months. So far, this year I have had as many visitors to this blog as I received for all of last year. I would encourage you to follow me here and at the other social media channels.