Support RASP: Six Myths about Architectural research and practice.

The June July issue of Architecture Australia dossier section on research in large practice is a must read for any Architect. Research-In-Practice is now a hot topic. About time I reckon.

AA Dossier on Research in Large Practice

The issue is ably edited by Naomi Stead and Sandra Kaji-Ogrady the Architecture Australia dossier raises some serious questions about architectural research in both large and small practices. Sandra Kaji-Ogrady and Naomi Stead point out pursuing the divide between architects in academic and industry will only be detrimental to our profession at large. Its great to see two esteemed academics reaching out to practice in this fashion and credit to Cameron Bruhn of AA for instigating the issue. Of course, I am biased because I have also written something in it.

As a part of the dossier I was invited to the roundtable discussions with the large practices, and these really blew my tiny mind away. Ten large practices were involved in the discussions and I, despite my reputation as a cynic, I was really impressed by the range of different research models that each of these practices has developed and then implemented into their businesses. It was great to see how research and knowledge are actually managed in these practices. Yes, that’s the correct word: managed. In other word’s, the systems and processes in place needed to both create and capture new knowledge. It was perhaps even more interesting to see how the research in these practices then informed firm strategy and competitive advantage.

Heres our RASP pitch

As a result of this experience, I am beginning to wonder if the best research in architecture is now currently be done in the larger practices both here and abroad. Traditionally research, in architecture, has seemingly been the domain of the architectural schools and smaller niche firms dabbling in computers; yet now I wonder if the big practices are being more effective at architectural research than some of our nation’s 18 architecture schools.

The smarter big practices have the grunt and the systems to do effective research. You might ask so what about the rest of the world’s architectural practices (the smaller ones) and what about the architecture schools? Well, that question is best answered by addressing the various myths that seem to be associated with Research-in-Practice.

Myth 1: Architectural design studios teach architects how to do research

Only to a limited extent.

Don’t you hate those studios where all the so-called research is front-loaded at the beginning of the studio? That’s not researching, and its probably not design either, and as a result, quite a few architects are fishing around and talking about the need for architectural research without really understanding what it is. While our architectural education gives us a great way of thinking it does not give us much regarding research methodologies, methods or the rigour to think through the methodological dilemmas proposed by design as research.

Myth 2: Research is only for architecture schools

Not true.

Research orientated to architecture is increasingly difficult to get funding for. I think that the current climate of pandering to research metrics and the labyrinthine ARC funding system across all disciplines in universities is killing architectural research in Architecture schools. These measurement and funding regimes might work well in the biosciences but not in architecture.

Why not?

The metrics favour specialists and not transdisciplinary generalists. Nowadays, it’s all about your citation counts and your h-index. One of my colleagues in a related field has a really great h-index but as far as I can tell the research knowledge produced is pretty mediocre. But hey, who am I to judge this. His work might be seen as being great in future years. On the other hand, I have another colleague who doesn’t receive much credence as their research is considered to be beyond the pale by the successful lovers of research metrics. Again, who am I to judge?

At the moment, the hot topics in the university research sector are arguably transport, health and education. The weird thing these topics are driven by various government funding priorities are the big ticket items, and they reflect various government spending priorities. I think the name of the game for some unis is about picking winners; most innovation economists and start-up types will quickly tell you where that approach leads: to losers and not winners; mediocrity and the squandering of public resources.

Heres our RASP pitch

A play in one act 

But picking winners has a trickle-down effect and to illustrate my point allow me the luxury of being cynical: The other week I was grabbing a quick coffee with a research Biz development person from another faculty and this is what happened.

PR: Architects are great and architectural research is really significant.

BD person: Oh look Professor Super-Research-Metrics-Producer is getting a coffee (joyful tone).

PR: Here is your chai latte.

BD person: See you later! (BD person exits).

They were gone from my space in two seconds. Apparently, my citation count, h-index and funding bucks weren’t up to scratch. I felt deep shame. So much for building a bottom-up research practice, dare I say research business, centred on architecture.

Universities like to pick big winners and get the big teams together. Fair enough. That’s where the money is. Maybe big research teams will be doomed to fail in our discipline.

The hot ticket items these days are AI, Data Analytics and Neuroscience, just mix and match those fields with the big ticket social issues like Population Health, Education, Housing and of course CITIES. The words sustainability, modular and that old favourite density are good words to throw in as well for a bit of detail.

Here are a few mix and match titles for research projects. Population Health Data and Sustainable Cities. Here’s another one, Artificial Intelligence and Modular Housing for Health.

Here it is again

Myth 3: Design is Research

Not always.

Design research is too often vanity research. Architects just need to do design research and it that’s fantastic. Hey, where architects and we are so good! We don’t even need to communicate how good we are! Whip out a few design competitions, do a bit of coding stuff with the fabrication machines, come up with a few new conceptual public space concepts. Everyone knows we are a shit-hot profession. Hey, we earn a bit more money than baristas (or do we?).

No, that is not correct, architects need to do more than just doing it. We need to constantly capture, verify and communicate our research knowledge.

But doing a competition or running a studio, or doing an exhibition at an Architecture School is not quite the same as doing effective research. Hey, many architects don’t even measure or quantify what they do in research. As a result, architects are continually giving away their design knowledge for less than what it’s worth.

Myth 4: Architects are valued for their research knowledge


This follows a bit from the above myth. Developers, property planners, contractors, middle brow council bureaucrats, love to get architects to help them brand their apartments, schools, police stations or those train stations on the bogan periphery. They will tell us that they value our design input. These assorted characters love to make us think we have designed something great (after they have value managed the life out the project). But maybe all we have really done is branded something. Without research, we will never know if this is true or not.

But hey, ask the developers, contractors, or the gatekeepers at the other funding channels for some architectural research money, and they will run a mile.

Myth 5: Practices don’t have enough money to spend on research

No excuse.

Apart from small practices this shouldn’t be an excuse. Research should be an ancillary expense item in practice. It should be budgeted for the same way that marketing or rent or cars are or software licences. Imagine what would happen if every architect did that in some measure.

At the moment many large practices are doing and involved in different types of research. But those large practices that do not build or implement organisational structures, processes or systems concerning research knowledge models will lose competitiveness.

If medium practices are to grow or to compete with large practice’s they need to build some internal research infrastructure. Adhocism or vague project by project notions about what constitutes a research process (for example; just talking to potential clients, or doing a competition) is not quite enough. For medium practices, the danger is that large firms with specialised researchers and field-specific experts who can efficiently use research knowledge–especially if it has been developed in-house–to move downstream to mop up work from medium-sized practices.

Just in case you missed it; Heres our RASP pitch

Myth 6: Research is not practical

When I get a whiff of this kind of sentiment, I think: stab me in the eye with a biro. Research has a direct relationship to policy and advocacy. Targeted and applied research can really help architects get the message out. Research can help position No wonder the Australian Institute of Architects is in such a mess. We are now reaping the benefit of years of research, policy and advocacy neglect.

As pointed out to me recently every other professional group is much better at industry research policy and advocacy. The developers, property types, the contractors, the housing industry, and the engineers are much better at it. Australian architects never seem to get together to have a seat at the research lobby tables.

One more time 

So Here’s the sales pitch.

So put in a few bucks into our RASP crowdfunding campaign. It’s research that will make an impact. Yes, Tom and I are on Vimeo. Superstars in the making. We should each have had a makeover before we filmed. It’s a team effort of course. You can watch it here.

If we can raise the funds, it will be shouting out that research in and around architects and architecture is of real consequence. If we don’t it’s just more struggling to keep ahead of the Barista wages.