The Architect-Researcher: Exploring New Possibilities for the Production of Architecture

Although research may seem integral to design, architectural research is an independent profession. Its purpose is to present scientific evidence and to explore alternative options to pre-established norms. It is designed to provide a framework of knowledge to help designers achieve objectively better results. This article discusses the state of architecture research, the most prominent areas of inquiry and the architects and institutions that devote their work to these topics.

AIA in 2018 stated that the “research available for studying architecture and buildings is not disproportionate to its effect [on societies, economies]”. It proposed a broad research agenda and encouraged increased research literacy and investment in research. Argument was made that architecture’s ability to address major technological, environmental, and societal shifts “affects every level of society–from the individual and larger society” and therefore requires research that is as thorough as possible.

Architectural Research. Three Myths, One Model. Jeremy Till’s canonical paper, Architectural Research. Three Myths, One Model. argues that architecture is a form knowledge that can and should been developed through research, but more importantly, it helps define what constitutes architectural research. Till’s essay was published in 2007 and republished in 2017. A revised version was presented in 2017. Till argues that practice is an intrinsic form of research, stating that architecture knowledge is more than the built object, and that any knowledge that a building has is not communicated. He also criticizes architecture’s abdication of research methodologies. Till argues for architectural research that is specific to architecture and not the methodologies of other disciplines.

BUGA Fibre Pavilion. Image © ICD/ITKE University of Stuttgart

Prof. Wilfried Wang, who gave the keynote lecture at KU Leuven’s The Practice of Architectural Research Symposium described architectural research as “publicly transparent and scientifically analytical and independently verifyable”. This distinguishes it from everyday practice and empirical ideas. There are three types of architectural research: research that creates or expands knowledge. This is usually done in academia and research labs. There is also applied research that is designed for a specific purpose, such as transferring new knowledge into practice. Finally, there’s project-based research.

Fields of Inquiry

These are only a few of the critical areas that require attention. Research in architecture is also needed to explore new ideas, research on resilience, environmental impact and how architecture can improve equity.

As the knowledge base in these areas has grown significantly over the past two decades, neuroscience, human behavior, health, and well-being are all flourishing areas of architectural research. The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture explores the interplay between design and behavior, and has the mission to use neuro- and cognitive science research in order to improve the design of the built world. These lenses have opened up new areas of research, such as neuroarchitecture and environmental neuroscience. This has allowed scientists to gain a better understanding of how the built environment affects brain processes and behaviour.

Versus Installation by TITAN. Image © Julien Lanoo

Neri Oxman’s exploration of material ecology or Jenny Sabin’s research into how science and biology can be applied to architecture, encourage innovation in architecture through cross-breeding and transdisciplinarity. The Mediated Matter Group at MIT, now closed, conducted research on the intersection of computational design and digital fabrication. It also studied materials science and synthetic biology. New technologies are also a fertile ground for architectural research. The Self-Assembly Lab at MIT aims to develop self-assembly technologies and programmable materials, while Sustainable Design Lab develops tools for evaluating the environmental performance buildings. Professor Achim Menges, University of Stuttgart, is a researcher who focuses on the development of “design processes at morphogenetic design computations, biometic engineering, and computer-aided manufacturing”. This is essentially a work towards creating a new design paradigm.

BUGA Fibre Pavilion. Image © ICD/ITKE University of Stuttgart

Research in the Practice

Research doesn’t have to be done in academia. Some firms even make it a core part of their business. Perkins+Will is more than an architectural office. It publishes twice a year a peer-reviewed journal where researchers and designers explore topics that may have the potential for future design projects. The firm also hosts Research Labs where academics and experts from different fields collaborate to pursue a variety of lines of inquiry in building technology. These studies cover topics such as the effect of adaptive working behaviour on carbon footprint, noise pollution reduction in urban spaces and creating social equity indicators. White Arkitketer’s Research Lab is another avenue of research within the practice. Its agenda for 2020-2023 includes interdisciplinary collaborations on the topic of circular architecture. This will include investigating product flows, transformation, and re-use, as well as strategies for climate-positive projects.

University of Cincinnati Health Sciences Building by Perkins&Will. Image © James Steinkamp

Academic research is often a bit solitary. Although journals such as Frontiers of Architectural Research publish works in the field of architecture research and prestigious universities try to make their findings more widely known, they are rarely used by mainstream practice. Architectural research, often criticized for being inward-looking and self-referential, is slowly evolving its own methods to help the design process create a better built environment.