Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Anthropomorphic Meaning

Well, I've nearly survived a week of strep throat, which, for all of its miseries, has given me a chance to read a few things and get to know my cat again.

One of the things I've been (re)reading is The Architecture of Happiness, by Alain de Botton (2006, Pantheon). de Botton was trained both in literature and in philosophy, and writes about architecture not as an "expert" but as an enthusiast. One of the things I love best about this book is his insistence that we (laypeople) engage buildings primarily with our hearts rather than our heads. I've written quite a lot about the ways in which we construct our sense of place through attempting to define ourselves ("If this is where I am, then what kind of person am I here?"), but de Botton extends that to the specificity of material objects. Here's a favorite passage:
Cardinal opportunities for elegance or its opposite lie in the way that columns are designed to hold up ceilings. Even as laypeople, we are adept at guessing the thickness that would be required safely to support a structure and esteem those columns that appear most diffident about the weight they are supporting. Whereas some varieties have broad enough shoulders but look disgruntled at having been asked to carry even a single storey, others hoist up ceilings as high as those of cathedrals without apparent strain, balancing massive weights on their narrow necks as if they were holding aloft a canopy made of linen. We welcome an appearance of lightness, or even daintiness, in the face of downward pressure — columns which seem to offer us a metaphor of how we, too, should like to stand in relation to our burdens. (p.210)
I think that building elements can indeed help us to believe better of ourselves. An educational building can allow us to aspire to scholarship and mentoring (in Milwaukee, the 1890s Sabin Hall was far more successful at that than the 1960s Curtin Hall); a view of the bay and mountains was a daily reminder of my sense of loyalty to Northern California.

We all have places that speak to us like this. But we have to be particularly careful not to mistake the universality of having the experience for a generalizable truth about the contents of that experience. de Botton speaks as if the slender and lithe column is a global choice, and that all of us aspire to bear the world's burdens with grace. There is another large community for whom that isn't the aspiration at all, for whom a sense of sturdiness and expressed strength would be the metaphor for their own imagined best selves.

One of the most important things I take from this, though, is that I think we talk too easily and quickly about the "meaning" of buildings. Some of it, to be sure, comes from historical allusions, a building that looks like a temple or a castle or a cottage. A little bit of it (I think very little) comes from the intellectual work behind the building, the concept that drove the original schematics. But more meaning than we imagine comes from the materials and connections themselves.

One of the things I've taught myself fairly carefully over the past twenty years is the ways that different writers choose words and punctuation. I read my favorite writers in part because I like the way they think, and one of the ways that thinking is most deeply expressed is in the way that they manage our experience. Joan Didion once said, for instance, that she tries never to end a sentence with a dying sound. (Like that one did.) Instead, she closes sentences with a word or syllable that's sharp. (Like that one was.)

Not everyone likes Didion. But it's through the detailing of her work that so many of us have come to trust her deeply. Pick your own favorite writer, and you'll find the same level of detail and preferred structure. It'll be different in its forms, but it'll be there.

Friday, April 25, 2008


Psychologists have a term for pretty much everything. One of those terms is compartmentalization, which is the process of actively not trying to think about one thing when you're involved in another. Usually it denotes a kind of denial: we know that using lots of gas is bad for the environment, and in fact we actually care about that, but we try not to think about it when we buy a new Suburban "because we need the space." We know that eating that second cheeseburger would make our spouse, doctor, and accountant all cringe, and in fact we agree with all of them, but we try not to think about that when we order it and try to enjoy it. Compartmentalization can be seen as a very mild and very common form of cognitive disorder.

I think that Modernism has made us all a little bit disordered. Here's why.

As we've gotten more and more information, have an increasing number of products and services, have work lives that are more encompassing than ever, we've responded to that by specializing. We say, "that and that and that are somebody else's job. I'm responsible for this." (People think that the industrial work process was the moment of strong specialization, introducing the "division of labor." I think it's a natural human response to overwhelming complexity. But either way, it's now a self-sustaining spiral. Industrial efficiency has given us more stuff to cope with, so we specialize more, become more "productive," and provide even more to cope with.)

There's so much to know in academia that we have to compartmentalize intellectual work, so we have disciplines like psychology and anthropology and cultural geography and history that rarely communicate even when they're studying the same phenomenon. At Berkeley, the architecture department and the landscape architecture department were both on the second floor of Wurster Hall, but there might as well have been an armed checkpoint between them. It was pretty rare for anyone but a custodian to occupy both spaces.

There's so much to know in the professions that we have an army of subcontractors for jobs of any substance. Here's a comment by Mack Scogin, a principal with Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects in Atlanta, from a January 2008 Yale symposium on universities as architectural patrons:
“It’s absolutely incredible to me what it takes to do architecture in today’s world. If you will, I’m just going to read you a list of consultants that we are working with on a present project. This is one project. They have a consultant for health-services design, equipment planning, specifications writing, structural engineering, facade design, miscellaneous metal engineering, masonry engineering, landscape design, landscape documentation, geotechnical engineers, civil engineers, acoustical design, fire-and-life-safety design, smoke-exhaust engineering, security systems, hardware systems, information technology and communication, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, plumbing engineering, lighting design, elevator design, LEED design, sustainability, irrigation design, environmental design, food service, parking design, traffic consultant, structural peer review, commissioning agents, at least two cost consultants, construction management, code-and-agency-approval consultant, graphic consultant, and, of course, all the lawyers that it takes to negotiate all the contracts between all those people, us, and the client. That’s almost 40 separate disciplines involved in the making of one building. What that means is, these are all people that have an expertise that we as architects cannot bring to the table at the level that is required to make a state-of-the-art building in today’s world.” (Biemiller, Lawrence. “What if Robert A. M. Stern gave a party and nobody came?” Chronicle of Higher Education Buildings and Grounds section, January 28th, 2008.)
This lack of systemic thinking makes it almost impossible for us to make sensible decisions, because each player needs to maximize their variable, the only one they're accountable for.

The common, and somewhat trite, response to this complexity is to describe architects as orchestra conductors, bringing all of the players together in harmony. What I'd suggest instead is that the architect has to be the one person on the team who fully understands habitation: what it means to be part of a place, who all of the stakeholders are and what their unique goals would be. The architect is the experiential expert, like the executive chef who doesn't cook much any more but who tests and tastes every single thing before it goes out to the front of the house.

We'd have to think differently about design education if we thought that habitation was important. But there'd be at least one advantage. Taking this generalist, systemic, holistic role would also mean that the architect could be the only member of the building-provision team who isn't suffering from cognitive disorder... you'd be the only sane person on the job.

Two Cheers for Parochialism

Last night, I was listening to On Point on NPR. Their guests were talking about the troubles faced by the airline industry: older fleets, increasing fuel costs, congested air routes and airports, and so on. They suggested that air travel might well become significantly more expensive in the near future, and that the Federal government might have a role to play in holding down airfares because we've come to expect that flying should be "democratic," available to almost everyone regardless of social class.

And I thought to myself, it was only fifty years ago that commercial passenger flights were rare. The idea of a working-class family piling the kids on a plane to go for a week at EPCOT would have been unheard of; you'd have gotten in the camper and driven up to Silver Lake State Park instead.

I don't know that we, as a society, were unhappier.

One of the core beliefs of Modernism (and of Postmodernism as well -- it's one of the most stable things we have) is that progress is objective. We can define it and measure it and it's incontrovertible. The GDP is growing? Progress. Your new computer is faster and smaller than your last one? Progress. Your house is bigger than your parents' house? Progress.

Let's leave aside for a second that quality of life is messier and more contentious than standard of living. One of the side beliefs of objectivity is that if a thing is true in one case, it's likely to be true in another. Truth doesn't change from one context to another. So the standards we apply to progress in Iowa are the same as those we apply in India. Back in the Cold War era, we used to talk about third-world countries, meaning those places that the first world (the democratic West) and the second world (the Soviets and their allies) fought over. Nowadays, the more common terminology is "developed nations" and "developing nations." Again, the implication is that progress is defined similarly and desired equally in every location.

We also imagine that, if we know what progress means, we have a proven set of tools to get us there... again, without regard to context. So a high school in Cleveland looks just like a high school in Calgary, because we "know what works" and have an efficient scheme for providing it.

One of the other elements of progress, closely related, is that we have skills that we can take anywhere. A software engineer or architect or pharmacist would do the same work in the same way regardless of her location. This allows for smaller local businesses to be overcome by larger national and international businesses that can have greater economies of scale.

So we have uniform definitions of progress, an increasingly diminished set of tools for getting us there, provided by people who have no inherent relationship to any particular place. If you're a fan of this, you call it globalization. If you're not, you call it placelessness.

Even though I've personally benefitted from radical mobility, I'm not a fan. It has emotional costs and social costs that we don't often consider.

I know some people in rural areas who've never been more than a few counties away from their homes. I've heard that in New England, being "a local" is a status connoted only on those with four generations in the cemetery. We can decry their parochial views on things, but there's a way in which these people know their community, their landscapes, their ecosystems, and their places within it all that us jet-setters can never achieve. By objective measures, they don't necessarily have much. But if someone gets sick, ten people will magically appear, bringing food and stacking firewood and tending the horses.

My partner and I have developed a curriculum model called Local Learning. Our premise is that the setting of the school -- its ecological, social, economic and cultural context -- ought to be the ground upon which learning is based. You can have local history, local literature, local government, local biology and climatology, local cultural geography and migration patterns, and on and on. It makes the content knowledge into a tool that we can actually see and use to modify our conditions. It helps us make informed decisions about what it means to be a member of a community. (And, I'd argue, it actually benefits those who leave as well, because knowing how to know local systems is a transportable skill valuable everywhere.)

But it doesn't work in the context of state (and increasingly national) standards for what must be learned at each grade level. We worry about what happens with a curriculum that would vary from place to place. What happens when a family moves to a new school district? How would we know that an architect licensed in Nebraska is good enough to work in New Jersey? But these questions are also rooted in our modernism. We structure things with a bias in favor of those who move over those who stay. The student who is likely to leave a school district has more influence over the curriculum than the student who remains in the same place; NCARB has more control over the definition of your architectural practice than those people who know their community and its history; the American Planning Association has more control over your street layouts than your mayor.

So let the airlines collapse, let gasoline hit $8.75 a gallon, let No Child Left Behind and its uniform definition of learning become part of our embarassing history. Let's find out what happens if we stay put.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Practical Reason

I've only had this book for a week, and I've already read it twice. It's A New Agenda for Higher Education: Shaping a Life of the Mind for Practice (William M. Sullivan & Matthew S. Rosin, 2008, JosseyBass). The book is the outcome of an extensive seminar supported by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in which a dozen or so faculty in various professional programs (engineering, pre-med, law, nursing, education, etc.) talked about the ways in which they combined liberal education and professional education. Rather than seeing a tension between those two traditional opposites, the members of this seminar came to understand how neither is fully effective without completely embracing the other.

One of their more interesting claims is that our current agenda of critical thinking, while useful, is incomplete. Critical thinking is an analytical event: pulling an argument into its component parts, evaluating the character of each part, and rebuilding the parts you find solid into a new argument. They contrast this with "the new agenda," which they call practical reason. The underlying epistemological premise of practical reason is that it "...looks on knowledge, including representational knowledge, as founded on participation and engagement with the world" (p.103). A blend of objective analysis and narrative engagement, practical reason allows us to not only understand what we can do, but to explore what we ought to do.

The members of this seminar looked at one another's syllabi, and four general topics of content came to the surface regardless of their discipline.
  • Identity -- understanding yourself as a decision-maker, including your skills, knowledge, values, preferences, and blind spots.
  • Community -- understanding who has a stake in the outcome of your decisions, what their values are (and therefore what their preferred outcomes are likely to be).
  • Responsibility -- understanding the relationship and duties you bear to each of the members of this community.
  • Bodies of Knowledge -- understanding the particular theories, materials, and procedures of your chosen field.
As we look at a typical design education, we see lots of opportunities to engage in learning the body of knowledge -- through studio courses, materials and structures and systems courses, architectural history courses, and so on. In fact, that's about the only one of the four that's systematically addressed. We hope that you can develop some of the other three understandings on your own time, but we don't take it as our job. We have some component of "general education" in the curriculum, through which we hope that you'll magically become a "well-rounded person," but we never articulate the ends to which that "rounding" should be put.

One of the reasons I shape my intro design theory course the way I do is that it feels like an important opportunity to at least introduce the first three topics. Given that they won't be raised again in any of the further courses, I don't have any idea whether or not it's the right thing to do. But I'd feel irresponsible if I didn't try.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Public Privacy

A friend of mine was visiting over the weekend. He's a geographer who teaches at a small liberal arts college in the Great Lakes region. He was showing my partner and I the new Street View feature in Google Earth, which allows you to literally navigate down the road as though you were driving. I mentioned that there'd been some fallout from people who had been photographed by the Google camera in ways they didn't appreciate: climbing over a fence, picking their nose, or even just being photographed someplace where they oughtn't to have been at that moment (skipping a day of work, for instance). And my friend said that in our modern surveillance environment, he thought that we had no expectation of privacy whatsoever when in a public space. I thought, on the other hand, that it was entirely reasonable to be anonymous.

About thirty years ago, the environmental psychologist Irv Altman laid out four strategies we use to moderate privacy: isolation, or being away from others; enclosure, or putting a barrier between ourselves and others; reserve, or sending body-language signals that we don't wish to be bothered; and anonymity, or locating oneself in an environment where information about you won't be noticed because there's no larger narrative frame to put it into. Anymore, it seems, enclosure is the only mode of privacy we have available.

My friend has the belief that he does at least in part because he knows how much data is available, how it can be organized and analyzed, and (in most cases) who has access to it. Most of us have no idea how thoroughly our lives can be tracked. Your cell phone allows GPS location of paths; your credit card can tell us not only what you bought, but where and when; your lawn chair might have an RFID chip in it, installed to let WalMart have better control over employee theft but now available to know where that chair is forever and ever; every written item ever written by or about you is available by Googling at a moment's notice. I read not long ago that the average American is photographed or videotaped about 15 times per day, in stores, workplaces, and even street corners.

We had this conversation on Sunday. This morning (Monday) on NPR, there was a discussion of exactly this phenomenon in the context of London. A woman was talking about trying to get her three-year-old into a highly competitive preschool; when the family went back for their interview, they were presented with a detailed database of all of their locations and activities for the previous two weeks. Apparently, English law allows for broad access to records (including GPS records from telephones, the phone logs themselves, and access to public-space video) as long as the person or organization asking for the information can demonstrate some "public good." In this case, the school wanted to verify that the family in question lived within the school district and wasn't falsifying their residential address in order to get their kid into this school. In addition, information gathering by law enforcement is not constrained by severity of accused crime; as one Minister of Parliament said, "If you've dropped a sweet paper (candy wrapper) on the street, we can take a DNA sample."

There's a tribunal you can complain to if you think your privacy has been violated, but that tribunal has ruled in favor of the complainant exactly once in the seven years it's existed.
More chilling, though, is that there haven't been all that many complaints in the first place. We seem to not mind that all of our activities are potentially in the public record, that the concept of privacy (which Altman characterized as the ability to modulate information) has lost precedence to the fact of surveillance. In the USA PATRIOT Act world, a desire for privacy is itself seen as a presumption of some form of guilt; the accusation is that someone who wants privacy has something to hide.

In this light, is public space desirable any more? Does the joy of social engagement also carry within it the poison sting of the Panopticon? As a larger question, do the notions of place and time carry weight any longer? I exist (as a writer, at least) everywhere and all at once. With the right access privileges, I can see you (as you are now and as you've ever existed) regardless of where you might be.

Like much of Modernism, our surrender to surveillance is brought about because we have better answers to what we can do than to what we should do. We have nearly infinite amounts of data storage space (I just bought a 250Gb hard drive last week that fits in my shirt pocket); every cell phone has a camera and GPS tag; digital telephone systems allow one-time conversations to be called back to life any time Verizon chooses. We know how to do damn near anything; we haven't always considered why.

Monday, April 14, 2008


So I was talking with my partner last night. She'd just read the most recent Vita Activa post (A Contentious Vocabulary) and she was still trying to figure out what I meant by "design" and "craft." So we sat and talked for half an hour or so, and I'm taking another crack at it today. This is the iterative process that designers always talk about, but anybody worth their beans does it all the time, regardless of profession or hobby.

When we're creating something for use (I'm still sticking to my differentiation between art and craft for this discussion), it seems to me that we're actually doing three things. To use the academic terms, we could call them design, craft, and research. But I think those are analogous (maybe synonymous...stay tuned) to the words plan, do, and test.

Here's an example from the profession I understand best: conducting ethnographic research. I spent about a year designing/planning my biggest research project before going off to do fieldwork. That entailed the conceptual literature review, the methods literature review, the coordination with the host site, the calendaring of research tasks, the writing of the proposal, and so on. The work of "research design" (a very common term in academic circles) was intended to both frame the problem to be resolved -- our misunderstanding of teenagers' spatiality -- and to create an appropriate plan for resolving it.

Then I went off and actually did several hundred questionnaires and dozens of formal interviews and a few thousand hours of direct observation and all the writing and puzzling and sorting and transcribing that went along with it. This stuff, the everyday doing, was the actual craft: taking the plan and making something real out of it, hopefully with care and attentiveness.

The final step was the evaluation of the work, testing whether it did indeed adequately address the original problem. This was (at the largest scale) the peer-review process whereby a fair number of experts, both known and anonymous, reviewed the work to understand whether it a) was competently conceived, b) was competently conducted, c) led to a new understanding of teenagers' use and conceptions of the physical world, and d) represented a productive change in our thinking. To use my earlier definition of "research," the question my reviewers had was to learn what was true about the specific circumstances (in this case, the book and the intellectual field it lived within).

Plan. Do. Test.

When I play pool, I have a much more constrained problem -- a tame problem, Rittel & Weber would say. I have to plan how to move the cue ball to accomplish three things: make the object ball I want to make, have the cue ball end up in a location that will allow me to sink another object ball on the next shot, and have the likelihood of being able to productively move the cue ball to another good spot for the subsequent shot. I'm thinking two shots ahead, usually; someday, I'll be good at this, but for now, two is what I've got. So I have to plan the angle, speed, and spin I need to impart in order to get these problems solved.

Once the design is in place, I chalk up the cue, lean over, go through my pre-shot routine, and stroke the ball. That's the craft. Once everything stops rolling, I assess whether I solved the problem appropriately, which in this case is easy to discern: I did or did not pot the ball I wanted to pot, and the cue ball did or did not stop where I wanted it to stop.

Plan. Do. Test.

Now, it's easy to understand all of this at the biggest scale. I spent a year planning my big research project. I spent a year and a half doing it. And I've spent the last eight years evaluating it. But the fact is that I was doing all three of those things on the small scale every few minutes. I'd be hanging out at school between classes, and I'd see something happen that seemed to me to be a useful thing to explore ("useful" meaning that it applied somehow to the bigger problem, which I was redefining every day as I learned more about conditions in the field). So I'd figure out how to spend the next few minutes asking about that event I'd seen: manufacturing questions on the fly, testing their utility by thinking about the answers I was getting, and creating new questions in response to my evaluation. It was plan, do, test at the finest grain, over and over and over again.

When the iterative work is that rapid and reflexive (and that sequence lies behind every good conversation you've ever had), it seems as though it's all one thing. But I think for our purposes, it's important to remember that there are three unique acts going on, because they have different ends and therefore different terms of critique.

So what about architecture? And more to the point, what about my partner's questions from last night? Design is the process of framing the question, making the question complex and difficult (and thus worth answering), and developing a plan for resolving the question. For instance, good design doesn't answer the question "How should I make this school?" It answers the questions "How should we educate these kids? What does it mean to be educated? What does it mean to be an educator? And how can a building (or perhaps not a building) help answer these questions better than we do now?" And lots of other questions as well, having to do with budget and energy and legality and safety and so on.

Once we have the plan, we embark on the crafting of the response. We draw and model and add and subtract and turn and separate and combine and select materials and change those materials. Eventually, we have the object for which we are responsible: a construction set to give to the contractor. And then we turn to research: does my product (the CDs) appropriately resolve the questions we raised? Does the ultimate building foster education in the ways I planned for it to? What do the kids and teachers and administrators and test scores say? Are there new questions to turn to for the next design? Or do I need to rethink what I did this time in light of its lack of success?

That's design-craft-research at the big scale. What does it look like at the small, day-to-day scale?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Contentious Vocabulary

One of the most crucial aspects of interpretive scholarship is the definition of one’s terms. Words that are often taken for granted can be investigated for their hidden meanings, inflections that reveal deeper thoughts and associations. And I realize that I’ve been using lots of words in this blog so far that I probably need to examine (the word “unpack” is the trendy PoMo metaphor for this kind of work; although the term has its appeal, I’m going to avoid it just because of the community that most frequently uses it).

The following definitions are only starting points — I’m going to define them firmly, as though I’ve settled on them, but I’ll have a fair bit of research to do before I fully believe any of them. Also, because they’re definitions, they’re by necessity abbreviated. Entire libraries have been written about each of them, and deservedly so. Think of this as a working dictionary.

Architecture — The professional practice of designing places for habitation. In my lexicon, architecture is not a word to be applied to the buildings themselves, which are just buildings. Architecture is a body of practices and activities that lead to solving problems through making places.

Building — A constructed object whose primary purposes are human shelter and organizational support.

Design — The intellectual practice of imagining and planning a solution to a problem. This solution may be a physical object, but may equally be a process or a social arrangement. Architects do design, of course, but the term isn’t limited to architecture. Software design, research design, web design, curriculum design, and furniture design all deserve the term. Automotive design, fashion design and graphic design may truly be design, if they’re solving a problem like aerodynamics or information legibility; but they may not really be design at all if their intention is primarily decorative.

Environmental Design — An overarching term for the professions that collectively design places at multiple scales. At the least, environmental design includes urban and regional planning, landscape architecture, architecture, and interior design.

Art — The practice of extending the capabilities of materials and actions in order to create objects or performances that are ends in themselves. We encounter those outcomes with aesthetic or intellectual regard rather than through any presumption of utility.

Craft — The practice of making useful objects with great care and intention. Craft connotes attention to every detail through conscious decisions rather than habit and reflex. But the usefulness and performance of the ultimate object is still foremost in the craftsperson’s judgment. “Craft brewing,” for instance, stands in opposition to mass beer manufacturing by Anheuiser-Busch and the like, but the outcome in both cases is judged by the drinking of the beer. My pool cue is the result not merely of aesthetic decisions, but also of curing the wood for two years before turning it, of locating the center of gravity slightly forward of the grip, of selecting the taper and finish of the shaft, of a tip made of seven layers of laminated pig leather, all of which are done to allow for shots to be made accurately and consistently.

Habitation — The physical and emotional content of place experience. This is a more expansive term than “use,” for instance, which implies a focus on the physical and logistical functions; but it’s also more thoroughly experiential than mere viewing. Habitation implies the full employment of all of our senses, of our mobility, of our histories and preferences, and of our cognitive abilities.

Place — A physical environment that is invested with meaning by an inhabitant. The shorthand I’ve often used is Place = Space + Story. We have relationships with the places in our lives, relationships that are often as rich and complex as the relationships we have with people. One of my grad students did her dissertation on places that children found “friendly,” and learned that the full array of friendship characteristics (shared interests, mutual caring and support, equal exchange, and so on) were easily identified by kids when they talked about places in their neighborhoods.

Social Justice — The attempt to rectify inequality of opportunity, access to resources, or burdens borne. The outcome of social justice is not equality and uniformity; it is the removal of barriers and historical biases that are unfairly applied to members of a particular demographic group (defined by gender, ethnicity, sexuality, physical ability, and so on). It applies not to differences achieved and maintained through merit and effort, but rather to differences over which the individual has little control. For instance, the schools of the Oakland school district have substantially different resources depending on whether they’re in the wealthier and whiter hills or in the low-income and Black/Latino flatlands, but the children attending those schools have no ability to change their neighborhood, their families’ economic circumstances and prior education levels, or the languages that are spoken at home.

Environmental Stewardship — The attempt to make the wisest and most enduring use of the various natural resources that surround us. If we take as our starting point the idea of ecosystem — the interconnections of plant and animal life with their atmospheric, aquatic and geological surroundings — then environmental stewardship is the responsibility for monitoring and ensuring the long-term health and balanced operation of that system and all of its components.

Humane — A behavior or attitude of kindness, benevolence, and support.

Material Culture — The collective concepts and beliefs of a particular group of people as expressed through the objects that they create, use, and value.

Theory — Our best current understanding of how facts come together into systems. Theories are primarily explanatory; that is, they are the “deep structures” that explain the connections between innumerable individual phenomena. Things fall down all the time; the theory of gravity attempts to explain how and why that’s always true. Animals look different all over the place, depending on their environment and their role in the food chain; the theory of evolution attempts to explain how and why that’s always true. Once we’ve understood and refined a theory, we can test it by predicting the outcome of something that hasn’t yet happened (the philosopher Karl Popper has defined science as knowledge that is falsifiable; that is, we can prove a theory wrong or incomplete through providing evidence that the theory can’t adequately explain). By this definition, I have no idea what architectural theory is.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Epistemology of Design

Note: this is probably the most speculative and uncertain thing I've posted yet; I'm not sure I believe it myself, but it's where I am right now. These ideas are partly a response to the Journal of Architectural Education's decision to classify their manuscripts into two categories: the Scholarship of Design, and Design as Scholarship (I mentioned in my post last Sunday that I'd comment on this decision). I'd appreciate any and all thoughts you have on this one. And my thanks to my partner, Nora Rubinstein [Ph.D., Environmental Psychology], for spending some of a weekend thinking about it with me.
I’m part of an academic organization called the Council on Undergraduate Research, which works to support students and faculty members in undergraduate settings as they engage in collaborative research. CUR was founded about thirty years ago by a small group of chemists working at primarily-undergraduate colleges, who wanted to be able to compete with scholars at big research universities for publications and grant funding even though they didn't have massive labs and an army of graduate-student lab assistants. In the subsequent years, CUR branched out beyond chemistry to bring in geoscientists, physicists, experimental psychologists, and members from other fields of science.

About ten years ago, though, there was a move to launch a social sciences division, and that caused a fair bit of consternation among the CUR community. It wasn’t because social scientists were bad people, or even because our work wasn’t seen as worthwhile or productive. The problem was that the inclusion of interpretive scholarship challenged the organization’s identity as a research-oriented group, because it included intellectual activities that scientists couldn’t easily describe as “research.”

CUR’s social science division is now pretty healthy, and we’re well accepted within the larger organization. In fact, things have gone so well that we’re probably going to launch a Humanities and Fine Arts division pretty soon. But the mission of the organization has had to change somewhat in order to accommodate a broader array of academic members: the term “research” in CUR’s mission statement has now been broadened to “research, scholarship, and creative activity.”

I think that this precision of terms has some merit when we try to think about the nature of design and how it fits into the world of intellectual endeavor. Research and scholarship and creative activity and (I think) design are fundamentally different activities, in part because they have different ends but also in part because they rely on different understandings of what it means to know. (Hence the title of today’s post; epistemology is the branch of philosophy having to do with knowledge.) Here’s my first pass at thinking about what these words mean.

Research is the empirical investigation into what is true within a circumstance. Chemists do research when they describe what happens when A interacts with B, or when they learn the innate characteristics of some compound. Historians do research when they look through the personal letters of a prime minister to learn his private feelings during the war. The action is one of discovery, and the appropriate terms of criticism have to do with accuracy and methodological correctness.

Scholarship is the interpretive activity of what facts mean, what their context is, what social importance they have. Historians do scholarship when they interpret what a social movement meant in the context of its political and economic era; literature scholars do scholarship when they offer a new interpretation of a novel. The intellectual action is one of argument, and the terms of criticism have to do with internal consistency, familiarity with prior scholarship, and control over language.

Creative Activity is the bringing about of something that did not previously exist — a new play, film, string quartet, dance — through studying and experimenting with the medium of expression. That is, a dancer understands (and challenges) the capabilities of the body; a painter understands (and challenges) the characteristics of the paint, canvas, and brush. The intellectual action is one of exploration, and the terms of criticism have to do with craft, novelty and coherence.

I’ve spent much of the weekend working on this, and I increasingly think (though I’m not yet fully convinced) that classifying design as a knowledge act depends entirely on what we include as “design.” The statement of the problem is a knowledge act. It is an integrative exploration of the multiple domains to which the ultimate product must successfully respond — the economic, the legal, the social, the cultural, the aesthetic, the contextual, the physical — and the setting of the terms of success in each domain. The problem statement is the component of design work through which knowledge is created.

But what we usually think of as design, the response to that knowledge to craft a noun (an object or a process or a condition) that satisfies the problem’s components, doesn’t actually create knowledge of any sort. It relies on knowledge, and its outcome can be tested through knowledge-generating acts of research, scholarship, creative activity and problem-setting. But the act of moving from program statement to drawn plans does not create knowledge.

If we think of the academic world as having the fundamental purpose of generating knowledge, then design as we typically teach it — the response to a problem — is not correctly placed within the academic domain. What we should be teaching (and learning) instead is more thoughtful and humane ways of stating the problem, of understanding the multiple criteria for successful resolution, and of testing the outcome object against those criteria for later improvement. If design and design education were configured that completely, I'd be much happier, because I think we'd learn more and do more responsible work. We'd actually be accumulating created knowledge that could be tested and challenged and used to inform the work of new generations of design students.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Forty Years

According to Exodus, it took Moses forty years in the wilderness before he was able to lead the Hebrews into the Promised Land. I've always wondered about that... it's about 250 miles from Cairo to Tel Aviv, so 40 years would mean they had an average speed of about 90 feet a day. It seems like the progress would have been faster.

It was forty years ago today that Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in Memphis, Tennessee. And there are a lot of days where it seems like our progress hasn't been very fast, either. We still live in a world where race matters, and matters a lot. According to Nancy Denton, a sociologist at SUNY-Albany, 62% of African American families earning more than $50,000 per year still live in neighborhoods that are strongly segregated, as opposed to 44% of Asian Americans and 40% of Latino Americans (Denton, Nancy A. 2001. "The Role of Residential Segregation in Promoting and Maintaining Inequality in Wealth and Property." Indiana Law Review 34.). She writes:

Racial segregation and suburbanization are not simply matters of class. Whereas upper middle class and affluent Hispanic and Asian families routinely achieve moderate levels of segregation, even within central cities, affluent blacks rarely make it into the moderate range, even in suburbs, and only within the South and West.

Research also shows that living in segregated neighborhoods negatively affects student performance… In addition to its effects on educational performance and the school environment, segregation also negatively affects the chances of completing a college education because it limits home value.

Sociologist Robert Bullard, one of the originators of the Environmental Justice movement, showed in his research in Houston that affluent minorities were, in 1990, more than twice as likely to be denied mortgage loans when compared to Caucasians with similar assets and economic backgrounds (Bullard, Robert D. 1990. “Housing Barriers: Trends in the Nation’s Fourth-Largest City.” Journal of Black Studies 21:1). And he's been active for more than thirty years in assisting communities of color -- including affluent communities -- in their fights against county, state, and corporate plans to locate landfills and waste incinerators in those communities.

We've been wandering in this wilderness for a lot longer than forty years, and we've got some distance yet ahead of us. We have no right as professionals to know these things and not act upon them; there aren't enough Fallingwaters and Villa Savoyes in the world to make up for a single city's discriminatory environments. If architecture has anything to do with social justice, then we need to look at the world face-on, and not blink.