Figure 1: Kees Kaan – keynote lecture on Tuesday, March 29th, 2022; photo by Joran Kuijper
Recalling a conference he was part of some time ago regarding his positions and findings of research and design, he shows a straightforward overview from the perspective of somebody with an established own practice, connecting it, now and then, with his academic work. What are the challenges in making this connection? What are the questions to be asked?
Research and design
Starting from the general assumption that scientists and academics produce new knowledge based on their research, there is a prejudice concerning designers. It is assumed that no new knowledge is produced during the design process. The main reason is probably based on the preconception that design focuses mostly on imagining future needs and developing products for them, while research deals with understanding and studying the past and present.
A substantial difference between design and research is that – to be proven useful and valid - designs need to be acknowledged by stakeholders and future users in society. In contrast, research knowledge must be based on scientific methods and recognized by peers.
There is also a distinction to be made between research design and design research; the first can be understood as “the design of research” in a more epistemological fashion; the second is more focused on the research needed during the design process; it could be research about design, or for design.
Research cannot be kept exclusively to academia but must also play a fundamental role in practice. There is an urgency to cross the borders between academia and practice to establish clarity on the relationship between research and design and to find a synergy between them. Gathering knowledge through research work allows us to use the resulting experience to speculate about the future, and architectural design is unavoidably doing just that. Research is an implicit part of design; there is no such thing as doing design without any research or investigation. But what if we knew everything? What if we had immediate and instant access to all existing knowledge worldwide? What effects would this have on our ways of imagining and designing the future? Would it discourage us entirely from trying anything new, or would that access accelerate innovation and improve our work? Would we become perfect architects? Does more knowledge mean better architecture?
The complexity of an architectural project also fuels the need for research inside the design process. An ambitious project always requires a combination of existing technologies and innovation and has the characteristics of a prototype. Although they often use typological knowledge, buildings are seldom entirely new types but mostly a repetition or evolution of something already existing. On top of that, a huge variety of users and their unlimited expectations have to be met. While new technologies and knowledge provide architects with new tools for design, the clients, stakeholders, and society are raising the bar of expectations. They have access to those same tools and knowledge. Therefore, design has to meet higher demands constantly. Buildings are becoming fully integrated products and the next step will be a further automated interaction with its users. The number of stakeholders in the design process is increasing, which means that more expectations must be met and more information must be managed. Today, without the stakeholders’ input and support, no project will be feasible; their engagement is essential for decision-making and the release of funds. Typically, all research made as part of the design process is subordinated to the pragmatism of the results needed to propel the design, meaning that the research is not objective and is interrupted as soon as the design decision is reached. Due to this, every project leaves a trace of unfinished, half-done, or sloppy research. Still, there is potential for guidance and collaboration to upcycle this incomplete research and bring it to an academic level.
Today’s architectural projects are subdivided by all kinds of team workers from different disciplines. The architects’ team is responsible for processing information and explaining the design team’s decisions to the stakeholders. The design process is the most intense before going to the site rather than during construction. Many stakeholders must be committed to the project, and simultaneously, the design has to be engineered towards an integrated product. In that sense, the architect’s role gradually shifts from “master builder” to “master explainer”. The architect controls the development and direction the design takes by the way he manages the information and explains it (please understand information as drawings, reports, calculations, any medium that describes the project). Therefore, communication (not chatting, but thorough, clear curation and dissemination of information) is key. Incoming information, design team expertise, stakeholders’ experience, all this knowledge must be integrated into the project.
Besides the above, another notion is very important.
Today’s public and commercial projects are not only products of societal demand but are also investment vehicles for global funds seeking local users to pay for the global system of investments. Developers, contractors and users operate on a relatively local scale, while investors operate globally. Architects are often assuming that developers are calling the shots on what to build, but this is a misconception; in the end, investors are defining and deciding, the ones that push the requirements to the level architects and engineers need to design against; it’s their money on the line, so they require certain standards. Ultimately, a building is a local version of a global product that must meet requirements on both scales.
For a while, and by some, the architect’s role seemed marginalized and perceived as a more artistic contribution rather than having a grip on the process as the master builder. But architects can reposition in the key role of controlling and managing the information and acting as strategic thinkers. Investment-driven developments require research into different options at the initiative phase; we can call it “pre-design” or “master planning”. This phase is vital to lead to an agreement or understanding between the parties involved. Only when a safe understanding between capital and society is in place can a project really start. Architects play an essential role in this particular phase of communication and negotiation. They provide clear and legible designs that serve as vehicles to reach the abovementioned understanding rather than already being a model for the possible future. This is a crucial project phase requiring design support and is not clearly defined in most international standard contractual templates that organize relationships between clients and architects. The phase is about designing the brief for the design. It doesn’t exist yet.
There’s an enormous potential for new technology here, such as big data, or AI, to support this work.
Let’s take Neufert’s Architects’ data as an example; the manual explores the rationalization and standardization of the design methods during the 20th century, and it all fits in one physical book. Now, with new technologies, there’s a huge amount of information that cannot fit in one book anymore; we no longer look for standardization, we look for different requirements for different settings, and we need some sort of “intelligent Neufert’s manual”.
Figure 2: Kees Kaan – keynote lecture on Tuesday, March 29th, 2022; photo by Joran Kuijper
Today we need to cope with a lot of information while designing, and if we want it to be state of the art, pure humanistic design talent is no longer enough. Of course, experience is important, but we need to access new layers of information/knowledge simultaneously. We might come closer to the actual concept of “knowledge of everything” by connecting many brains. Connecting brains requires ultra-clear lines of communication and exchange of information. I have a hunch that new technologies, big data and AI are based on universal templates. Using those could prove beneficial to this improved communication and collaboration of brains. Design research collaboration between practitioners and academics could establish new models of collecting information and designing.
If humans have a future on this planet, we need to change how we deal with our built environment; we cannot rely on the interventions of individual geniuses anymore. We need a collective effort and all the knowledge in the world to achieve higher standards and better results.
We must change our way of working as architects, not our way of being architects.