Monday, November 10, 2008

On What Evidence?

Thinking outside the box. Win-Win. Let’s blue-sky this for a while.

The business community has a great habit of inventing catchy titles for everyday ways of being. There was already language in place for each of those three opening examples (creativity, mutual benefit, and suspending constraints), but you can’t sell self-help books that way,

In recent years, a new term has entered the architectural lexicon: evidence-based design. This, for me, is one of those ultimate WTF moments. What other kind of architecture could we possibly practice in any responsible way? But my students tell me regularly that evidence is in short supply in the profession and in their coursework. Design decisions are made on the flimsiest of suppositions — as the architect Herb McLaughlin said thirty years ago, we work structurally and mechanically down to three decimal points, but design for social outcomes by hunch.

The fact that we had to invent the term means that evidence-based design must stand outside the norm (just as creativity isn’t a regular feature of commerce, and hasn’t become any more so now that we call it thinking outside the box). Evidence exists — there is a body of research we could draw upon. But we don’t seek it.

And even more evidence is latent in all of the post-occupancy evaluation that has never been done. I was at an architectural conference at which one of the keynote speakers was the leader of a nanotechnology company, making objects measured in microns. One of the things he told us was that this technology was making sensors (for temperature, particulates, water flow, and all kinds of stuff) dirt-cheap. His challenge to us was “If you could install ten million sensors in your building, what would you measure?” To which one of the audience members, bless her heart, replied, “We already do. They’re called people. And we never collect their data.”

Evidence-based design. I mean, that’s just embarrassing. One would hope, for instance, that there’s no news flashes about evidence-based medicine. Or evidence-based plumbing. The antonyms of “evidence-based” in almost every other field would be “unemployed” or “disbarred” or “imprisoned.”

In the Wee Hours

One of the best things about teaching is that you learn things. I was at a thesis review meeting a couple of weeks back, and wrangling a bit with one of the other reviewers. He, a professional architect, kept asking the student to focus on “architectural questions,” which for him had largely to do with the quality of direct and reflected light. I, on the other hand, hoped that the student could pursue the programmatic goals of his project, which has to do with experiential learning.

The learning moment for me came when we were discussing the precedent experience that had gotten this student interested in his thesis topic. He’d spent a summer working aboard a marine research ship, both sailing and working in the labs. And he had a photograph of one of the experiments, an elaborate (and utterly homemade) set of tanks and hoses that enabled the study of mollusk behavior. And it struck me that the lead scientist, deeply trained in marine invertebrate behavior, had also had to learn to be a lab technician, building enclosures and gates and regulating salt and fresh water flows and such.

So I grabbed a whiteboard marker and wrote a diagram on the board. I don't have decent drawing software to include it, so draw this for yourselves. I'll wait.

Draw a circle with arrows going around it clockwise.
Write the words "Condition/Circumstance" at 12 o'clock.
Write the words "Interpretation/Evaluation" at 3 o'clock.
Write the words "Supposition/Question" at 6 o'clock.
Write the words "Intervention/Action" at 9 o'clock.

We can suppose this to be a cycle of inquiry through which we rotate clockwise from the top. We encounter some circumstance; we decide what it means and whether we approve; we have a new question about it; we then do something in order to test that question; and that action results in a new circumstance, which we can then investigate again.

Nothing new here. But my insight, spurred by the work of the snail behaviorist, is that the work that drives you are the ones on the right side of the cycle, and the things you do to support that work comes on the left side of the cycle. To go back to our snail study, the condition, interpretation, and question are all about snails; the work of manipulating the tank and the water and the adjacency of predatory crabs are the techniques used to ask questions and change conditions.

And in this clock diagram, I discovered much of why I disagreed with my other panelist, and why I think that the profession has so little to offer to the real issues of the world. For me (and for the student), the work on the midnight-to-6:00 side of the cycle — the things that kept us awake at night — had to do with experiential learning. How could we best support the kind of life-changing experience that my student had on that research vessel that summer? In order to investigate the architectural solutions to that question, we had to make spatial and material tests on the 6:00 to noon side of the cycle. But for my professional-designer counterpart, the whole cycle was about spatial and material conditions.

Let me return to the overall title of this blog. Hannah Arendt posited that some ways of approaching the work we do have only to do with making things — what she called homo faber, or man the maker. But her belief is that we had a further and greater calling to our work: to be social actors, to be citizens, to participate in the life of action, the vita activa.

So there’s my question for today. What keeps you up in the wee hours of the morning? What drives you to take up your work? A person who uses the right-hand side to examine people’s welfare and the left side to make spatial contributions deserves the fullness of the title “architect.” A person who stays in the world of material resolutions around the clock is a technician.