"Any intervention the West has, whether it’s the Peace Corps or tanks rolling into Baghdad, is going to fail unless we understand how the people think there." — Dan HoyleI read a lovely little article this evening, called “Architectural Assumptions and Environmental Discrimination: the Case for More Inclusive Design in Schools of Architecture” (a chapter in David Nicol & Simon Pilling, eds, Changing Architectural Education: Toward a New Professionalism; 2000; London and New York: Spon Press). In this chapter, Ruth Morrow — a professor of architecture at the University of Ulster — recounts the findings of research on the curriculum of a school of architecture at another UK college. The barriers to being able to practice truly “inclusive” or socially responsible design are built throughout the design curriculum as currently understood. Some of the circumstances she identifies are:
- The similarity in race, gender and social class of most architecture faculty, which means they’ve rarely been excluded from or hindered by physical environments, and thus rarely build inclusivity and pluralism into their course goals;
- The reduction of time spent on analysis because of the speed of class projects and the privileging of design time;
- The relative lack of inclusion of the vast amount of research-supported understandings we have of user’s experiences of places, and of the variety of users unlike us who are likely to encounter those places;
- The typical richness of sites chosen for studio projects, which she claims allows students to never have to work with “large, expansive sites with little character and surrounded by low-grade suburban blandness. But in reality it is sites of this kind that are, for instance, typical of those used for social housing, for day centres for people with multiple disabilities and for residential units for people with dementia” (p.45)
- The building types chosen are likewise those that “more frequently reflect the needs of dominant groups in society than those of minority groups” (p.46)
- The evaluative bias (in education and in professional awards) toward innovative form and the rare consideration of user assessments and POEs in our judgments of worth;
- The focus on visual elements of design, which denies the full array of sensory experiences;
- The demand for a “parti” or a “concept” or an “idea” behind the design (which Morrow says is “usually irrelevant to the user,” for which I would change the word “irrelevant” to “bewildering”) rather than an understanding of the experiences of a space; and
- The rarity of mock-ups and other full-scale tests of the experience of design elements.
Hoyle, in our opening quote, is talking about geopolitical interventions. But design interventions follow the same logic. They're doomed to fail unless we understand how the people think there.