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.”


kestrels said...

Hi Herb, while I agree with you mostly, I think of Stuart Brand's description of successful buildings, many of which were either designed by 'seat of the pants' to meet a given set of circumstances, or were traditional buildings, which certainly evolved from experience/evidence in the past, but in an informal manner, and which may not be congruent with current social and technological social needs. So my 2 cents worth: I wonder if some of the problems with modern architecture is that it is designed, not by hunch (experience has taught me the value of listening to my intuition in dealing with my fellow humans), but rather by formal theory. And formal theory (whether aesthetic, economic or sociological), because it eliminates the ideas which conflict with or complicate the neatness of the concept, is inadequate (at best) or inimical to facilitating the complexities of human life.
thanks for keeping your blog going - I appreciate the occasional poke to my complacent thought processes.
joanne Tullis

David said...

I think that the lack of evidence has a long lineage in the design academy and in the supposed highbrow firms that are the most stylistically motivated and worshiped. But increasingly I think that clients are savvy enough to know when they want to hire a firm to make a landmark that will be reasonably well-programmed and well-organized, and when they have a type of problem or building that needs a programming-expert firm.
Architects are not good at the codification of their assumptions, but people who have become specialists in a given program type or usage (courtrooms, schools, elderly housing, laboratories) will have become (accidentally or purposefully) quite knowledgeable about what the major predictions are for habitation and use. Their evidence is a lifetime of anecdotes seen through the eyes of a designer, so they are somewhat biased toward light/space/hierarchy rather than subtleties ("place windows here at social space and community happens") but I've been at many firms that see this role of shaping an institutional culture through spatial arrangments to be a stronger claim of a higher echelon than the construction documentation. But what do the other students think?

David M. Foxe