Reasons to be Cheerful with Architectural PhDs and Research
Institute for Future Human Habitat Studies, Tsinghua Shenzhen International Graduate School
Looking at the educational landscape right now, the first thing to say is that there is hope.
This is based on observations made on architectural and engineering education in the past few years. One of these observations is that engineering education in Europe has (finally) discovered project-based education, using it as a method of investigation and research in higher education, especially in masters' programs. This is a very promising step and we (the architects in the room) need to be careful not to point out that we have done this for over 200 years. Instead, as a community, we should encourage the engineering educators to keep proceeding, in order for them to benefit from this didactical idea and to be on our side, as it were. The value of project-based education is the core of the design studio and all disciplines can benefit from the synthesis inherit in its methodology. This trend is not limited to engineering. There are a few significant examples elsewhere that are worth mentioning.
At the University of Southern California (USC) in Pasadena, a program has been created which is affectionately known as a Bachelor of Disruption. This is a combination of music, arts, coding, and business studies. Funded by two music industry moguls, the program seeks to empower the next kind of cross-over minds that will use technology to change the entertainment industry. More recently, the Morningside centre was established at MIT. The Morningside Foundation has granted 100 million US dollars to set up a design-based STEM program at MIT's Architecture Faculty. This too is a cross-cutting place to encourage students of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) to embrace creative process to make the leap to new discoveries. Thirdly, it is worth noting that Tsinghua University has established a satellite campus in Shenzhen in the heart of China’s “silicon valley.” The Tsinghua Shenzhen International Graduate School is a university which has no faculties; only loosely structured institutes. The faculty are all part of the larger institution and are working to create bespoke Masters and PhD programs in which the curriculum is determined by the students themselves. The programmes are named engineering, architecture, and other classic masters' program names, but the content is cross-border, the methodology is project driven, and the classes are interdisciplinary in nature.
These are just a few examples to demonstrate that we are finally arriving at a point where the design-driven approach is taking roots worldwide, and that giving the power to the students looks to be the motor to stimulate, perpetuate and propagate this model of innovation.
With that as a backdrop, here is a list of 10 reasons to be cheerful and hopeful about architectural research, especially the PhD work addressed at this conference. These principles apply to much of the architectural education community and especially to the CA2RE+ network. We count down the reasons or rules to be cheerful, thus:
- Do not apologize for being a designer. Everything is designed, including research. On the other hand, do not hide behind the non-linear and inductive logic of design. Take at face value the valid criticism that something that cannot be reproduced is tenuous to label as 'research'. Design has both positive and negative aspects.
- Do not celebrate the creative process as something special; it’s not new and it’s not special. New things are created every day, so when you make something, whether it’s a collage, a film, or a building, it is not so special since there are thousands or millions of them made of being made. Research is not about that. When you’re presenting, the creative process that helped arrive at a conclusion is not as important as the describe what the conclusion means.
- Be rigorous, both with yourselves and with your work. It is, and was, a choice to do a PhD, so expect to be asked to be precise. Carrying out a PhD needs a commitment to contributing new pieces of knowledge, so be prepared to explain what those new pieces of knowledge are.
- Respect the difference between research, experimentation, and exploration. These are three different things, and each one has its place and value. Each one also raises different expectations. Don’t interchange them and be careful when you describe what you do. (See Number 8).
- To the explorers; collect, and bring back your maps, your journals, your diaries, the artifacts, and document them for others to receive and perhaps eventually let them derive some insights from your records.
- To the experimenters; record. Even if you’re not in a fixed scientific research program and you are just going to do an experiment then record it anyways. Record the conditions that you have done the experiment in, when you were doing it, and what happened afterward. This will allow someone else to make evaluations of your work, even if you decide not to.
- Embrace openness. We need to be open, especially to the hardliners who question our methods, and we have to be able to withstand that. Undertaking a PhD implies a kind of entrance into the scientific community, and completing a PhD is the doorway to getting your own funding. For that reason, it is a carefully guarded doorway. Once through it, you will not need a professor anymore, and this is a privilege, but the price of that is also being open to the hard questions.
- Enjoy simplicity. Don’t let cleverness get in the way of communication. You can present at a conference as though you are presenting to a layperson. You don’t have to be clever to present here and presenting is not about proving you are clever. Simple words often convey what you have to say.
- Don’t use “how questions”. How questions can’t be answered with any rigor because any answer to 'how' can’t be tested to see if it is the best answer. You are not going to learn anything from a “how" question. Be more focused on suggesting how to get an answer rather than just presenting the question. It’s understandable to ask “how” when you’re at the first stages of your PhD, but if you are presenting here, you should be telling us how you are arriving at the answer to a “Why?” or “Is it..?” question.
- Be tough. When you’re presenting to the audience, the first thing you should present is your biggest weakness. You are among friends here. We won’t try to shoot you down, but we might shoot down a premise: big difference. In fact, we are trying to help you. You can be confident that in a group like this you can say that you’re stuck and you can ask for some advice. If you are open and vulnerable you will receive the help that you need. People in the audience should also ask hard questions as being nice is not going to help the presenter and can sometimes result in essentially giving no feedback at all. As Karl Popper has written, only the attempt to negate a proposition will determine its validity, so we should try to negate things, not reinforce them. If the proposal can withstand that, it is a robust and valid proposition!
These ten reasons, rules, or pieces of advice are something we all intuitively know but need to remind ourselves of each day, each month and especially at each conference. It applies to the newest members of the research community as well as the most seasoned researchers among us. The opportunities in the coming years are certainly there for architectural research to play an important role in finding solutions to global challenges, but only if we as architects are prepared to accept the rigour and responsibility of research. But, with that, we have many things to offer and many reasons to be hopeful and cheerful.
Wrap-up debate on Design Driven Doctoral research1
Halina Veloso e Zarate
PhD candidate Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, TU Delft
In relation to Peter’s (Peter Russel, Tsinghua Shenzhen International Graduate School) point about the ‘how questions’, I would like to say how relevant it is to actually explain the creative process to others, especially within interdisciplinary PhDs. The question of ‘how’ a design is born could be necessary since it is not completely clear how we should contribute and cooperate with experts from other fields that are trying to be complementary and provide their resources. To be more concrete, my PhD research stands between urban studies, urban data sciences, and architecture, so, when I have to face the topic of the application of urban data in the design process, I cannot really do it from a data scientist’s point of view, but the data scientist is also not designer, so if they cannot access to some information through the ‘how questions’ of how we actually interpret the data they provide for us, they cannot improve and provide better data.
Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, TU Delft
Responding to Halina (Halina Veloso e Zarate, TU Delft), I would like to say: that’s exactly the problem. The need to ask these ‘how questions’ works only in one direction — the design process is also important and the people handling the data are not holy, and data isn’t either.
We need to search for a meeting point between different disciplines. To use one of your words, application, sometimes always applying things to your designs does not bring you anywhere, maybe it brings you closer to the solution, but here we try, in a way, to use design also to problematize things. We could ask ourselves, where are the things where data is shaking, misleading, or not hitting the point?
Faculty of Architecture, University of Belgrade
I have the impression that we are interested in engaging interdisciplinarity, but I would say that I have noticed more than once that actually reinventing and unlearning how we design things and how we approach design can actually be quite valuable, not only for our discipline but for other disciplines as well.
I would say that the creative process in architectural design is something really rich and specific, and I won’t consider it a closed system.
Faculty of Architecture, TU Berlin
Within the CA2RE network, we are not all designers, so this makes me question the research-by-design or design-driven research denominations. As architects, we have different capacities and we are using them to underline a new research approach, in opposition to scientists, who follow a more strictly scientific path, that don’t share nor approve our type of approach.
I think that our skills can be argumented with observation, representation, and transformation, I think they’re interconnected. When you’re observing you can start representing, when you’re representing you’re observing and you can transform it. They feel different but they are connected, and I think that these three phases are not all design-based. The basic concept of design is something that has a connection with the concept of drawing, although they’re not the same. We can draw without designing and we can design without drawing but sometimes drawing can be used as a creative process that can produce knowledge, still, I would not call it research-by-design but rather research by drawing.
Hafen City University Hamburg
I have noticed that in between panels, during informal conversations, the same recurrent topics always come up, in which we usually don’t totally agree with each other about the specific definition of design-driven research. Within the CA2RE+ network, we still have this discrepancy to solve, and this directly reconnects to my statement—openness leads to dilution—made during the workshop contributions. It is completely fine to accept that we all have different understandings in terms of approach, but we have to formulate it somehow, we have to put together a definition that is going to be visible and tangible in order to understand what we are doing and also to facilitate new proposals and development for future programs.
Reflecting on what Matthias said (Matthias Ballestrem, HCU Hamburg) I struggle a lot in finding what design-driven research specifically means in my particular case, and I question myself about what part of my research is actually ‘design-driven’.
I think it’s just a matter of trying to be clear about what you define as design-driven research. During the recommendation part of this CA2RE event, I tried to address this question by asking the participants to write what design-driven research meant to them, and as a result, you can appreciate different understandings of it. It could be useful, as a network that is focused on this type of research, to collectively frame what design-driven research means for the organization.
PhD candidate, Faculty of Architecture, University of Zagreb
Coming from an industrial design background and having practiced design for 10 years before starting a PhD research, I can really appreciate how it has been crucial for my research work to have already been practicing for years. One interesting aspect I could underline is that, as a practitioner, it’s been hard for me to understand why I did things the way I did. I wasn’t fully aware of what I was doing, and it has been really interesting during my research to develop some awareness concerning the steps I follow during the work I do as a practitioner. I also think that since presentations are a fundamental part of research, these kind of events like CA2RE conferences, could be more experimental about the way of presenting, which I noticed is usually standardized.
Politecnico di Milano
I think that in comparison to previous CA2RE conferences, this one, in particular, showed a more focused atmosphere and a stronger awareness from the PhD candidates, asking very specific questions about framed moments of their research. I think this is the first time in the history of the CA2RE conference, that we saw this awareness bringing the students to take the chance to propose questions instead of remarking on their certainties. Regarding the different positions about what design-driven research is, we are aware that we, as a network, have a plural soul, and because of that, there are unavoidable differences.
I think that there is also a problem with understanding the design culture that is behind each school. For example, if you talk about ‘research-by-drawing’ in Italy, we give for granted that drawing is design, because we have a culture that is based on this very concept, and therefore there’s no need to even discuss it. On the other hand, here in this context, we necessarily find ourselves discussing it. It is useful for the PhD candidates of our school, Politecnico di Milano, to encounter other approaches and to take away something from this experience. With our PhD candidates, we recognized within our school that some lines are growing in different dynamics and directions, maybe more experimental than the traditional way we do research, and I think that this is one of the points of this network, to take our culture to a new stage.
Faculty of Architecture, TU Berlin
Navigation is one of the key topics of the design-driven research debate—navigation between fields, between different research cultures, and also navigation in your own research.
Criticism is also such an important matter to address, in the sense of motivating participants to be really critical and to open up discussions. One of the interesting topics that have been touched on during this conference is openness, but also less controlled navigation, which is a part of scientific research in many disciplines. In my own panels, there was a lot of talk about the concept of linearity, namely how research could be both linear and not, in relation to the starting hypothesis. Therefore, we had a discussion about this idea, and I tried to motivate participants to develop experimental research in which the method itself is an experiment, whose results are not known yet, especially during the initial phase. On the content side, we could also implement this kind of criticism, which is an essential part of non-linear research, trying to use this approach also in the artistic and architectural field, to question it, implement it and defend it at the institutional level. Methodology is the core question of this kind of research, and very briefly I’d like to outline the input of design-driven practices. I think it could be really interesting to discuss more how artistic and architectural research generates really innovative matters to allow a better understanding of other topics that are often shared with other disciplines.
Faculty of Architecture, University of Ljubljana
Sometimes, the most difficult thing in design-driven research is to differentiate it from what is only our usual way of designing—what is just ‘normal’ data-gathering or academic research that could be done in other fields and what is the sweet spot of design-driven research that we are struggling to get to, that makes our work both scientific and unique to our field? It’s not only about being creative and trying out new things. On one hand, we have our own methodology of work and it is correct to say that sometimes the mere act of drawing can be considered research and can be extremely valuable. For instance, drawing allows you to really focus on what you are looking at and requires the development of new questions and new knowledge, the same goes with prototyping and experimentation. I always have this internal doubt, and I question myself: is this design method being used because it will help me solve an important question, or am I using it just because I am comfortable with it? And if so, is it bad?
I am still haunted by what my mentor once said to me when I was in a design studio during my master’s: “don’t fall in love with your design”. Now I agree with that sentence, and it is helpful to keep it in mind to avoid getting stuck in your own vision, also in research. I think it’s good to have some peer review and to be able to figure out what is actual research and what is only exploration, and of course, exploration could be a good precursor of research, but maybe we need to clarify this difference for ourselves.
This is why the context created in events like CA2RE is so valuable to me, because we can really appreciate different viewpoints and different schools of thought and we can therefore refine our methods to get closer to the design-driven research methodology that we are trying to develop.
I think this is really the way we can improve our field and give new tools to the people who are practicing and find something we can really give to the discipline. It is brilliant to have this network that helps us through the journey we are in.
Tsinghua Shenzhen International Graduate School
I am coming to a strong positive sense of potential in this meeting, and I’m determined to don’t let this be yet another conference without concrete conclusions. When I moved to Germany and started teaching Computed Architectural Design, me and other colleagues had a lot of problems when we submitted our proposals to the research council because they were reviewed by a group called Bauinformatik, made of civil engineers who were very algorithm-driven. So, if we would submit proposals about the use of computers to enhance design processes, they would always get shut down. Hence, we decided to establish a group called the Architektur Informatik and we met twice a year for several years. After a while we invited the German Research Council to sit with us and see what we were about. Within 5 years, we have been able to establish ‘Architektur Informatik’ as a keyword, and if that showed up in a research application, then that was the group of peers to review it.
I am currently writing a PhD program for Tsinghua, in Shenzhen, and the core question is: what would make a difference between a regular PhD in history or civil engineering and what you’re proposing? The rigor that I’m asking for is necessary, because if we can establish the rules to what defines what is design-driven research and what is a regular PhD then we can create a suitable peer group for the reviews. It will take some time but if we continue to be explicit and consistent with what the rules are to be in this domain, then we have the potential to establish that this is the peer review group for the kind of projects that we’ve been seeing in events like this. The wind is now blowing in our direction, especially from civil engineering or other groups where design teams recognize our valid contribution to advance knowledge.
My appeal is to take what’s been said in this and the previous CA2RE conferences and draw out of it a ‘manifesto’. It’s not going to be perfect nor permanent from the beginning, but if there’s at least a general agreement on the base rules for what is in the design-driven research domain and what is not, then there’s the potential to be recognized and make a difference.
Sergio Martin Blas
Faculty of Architecture, UPM Madrid
One can appreciate that there is never total consensus during our discussions, this is something to be glad about because disagreements are necessary to produce fruitful discussions. From my position, I was interested in analytical interventions, so I would like to follow those lines. The design-driven research is just a methodological approach, but maybe this approach could also have an impact on the definition of what research is—at least on the protocols that we sense as too rigid or oppressive. In this sense, I would like to also think about what is, in my opinion, worth saving from the definition of research, the core of it. It is necessary to stress the collective dimension of research, the condition of shared knowledge, the possibility of building from the knowledge made by others and making the knowledge we produce available for others to build on it, by making it explicit and easy to communicate.
Going back to the concept of openness, it has a very different sense than the one we often intended. If openness refers only to the personal subjective discourse of our group, this is taking us in the opposite direction, to closure, and being open only inside our work or inside our inner community but being in fact closed to the collective dimension of research.