Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Guest Commentary

I’m going to use this post to offer a direct extended quote from someone else. This is the first half of a column by Kim Tanzer, professor of Architecture at U.Florida and current President of the American Collegiate Schools of Architecture, from the October 2007 issue of the ACSA News. (The second half is how the ACSA’s publications and conferences intend to respond to the conditions she lays out in the first half; I’ll write about some of that later.) The title of the piece is “What is the Nature of Architectural Knowledge?”
Over the years, I have had many conversations with university colleagues who teach in he sciences which follow this general outline: I ask about a colleague’s research and he or she begins by saying; “We know [insert a description about agreed upon knowledge within the discipline] and I am looking at [insert a question directed toward a filling a gap in a known field of knowledge or a hypothesized extension or redirection of this agreed upon knowledge]”

The frequency of this pattern of conversation has led me to wonder, what do most architects agree that we know? And, what further research needs to be done to fill in, extend, or redirect our collective understanding of architectural knowledge?

As I have started asking this question of academic architects, I have come to believe that we apparently do not conceptualize shared ground of common knowledge but rather shared, or even conflicting, zones of actions. While I love the fluidity of design propositions, our lack of agreed-upon common knowledge concerns me for several reasons.

First, if we do not base our designs on a largely shared and verified knowledge base, we find ourselves asking the public to have faith in our assertions that designs will indeed perform as we contend. In fact if we ourselves do not believe our designs are largely based on verifiable knowledge, we can only be operating on faith. And if such projects fail, they lead to a generalized decrease in the value of professional architectural service.

Second, if we do not teach our students the outlines of our knowledge base, one must wonder what we are teaching them beyond design thinking. While architectural educators teach design thinking very well, academics in other fields argue that they do too. (Since we tend not to test assertions we can’t even prove our own point!) Architectural curricula are regarded as among the most demanding in many universities. Is such rigor necessary if a curriculum does not transmit a comprehensive knowledge base through all of its courses?

Third, having participated actively in scholarly exchanges for two decades, I regret that persuasively advanced arguments, gathered evidence, or unlocked architectural problems seem not to accumulate as a knowledge base. That is, we do not build adequately on the work of our colleagues. Rather, studies (in written, drawn, or built form) fall by the wayside, as new fascinations emerge. Too often, we find ourselves repeating, not extending, propositions made a generation earlier.

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