Fraser, Murray (ed.): Design Research in Architecture. 312 pages, 220 x 240 mm, Includes 24 colour and 124 b&w illustrations, ISBN: 978-1-4094-6217-0, £31.50
(Ashgate Publishing Limited, Farnham 2013)
 
Compte rendu par Concepción Diez-Pastor, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM).
(concha.diezpastor@gmail.com)

 
Nombre de mots : 2550 mots
Publié en ligne le 2015-06-30
Citation: Histara les comptes rendus (ISSN 2100-0700).
Lien: http://histara.sorbonne.fr/cr.php?cr=2113
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          Murray Fraser’s new book, Design Research in Architecture. An Overview, starts a major new series to be published by Ashgate and co-edited with academics in the field, including Jonathan Hill, Jane Rendell and Teddy Cruz, all of whom have contributed to the present volume. The introduction by Fraser goes back to the moment of the birth of the discipline to clear the path of any possible connections with the Design Research Society (DRS), on the basis that ‘for most architects [the DRS] offers too narrow a focus to be of much relevance to them’. Instead, the book aims to give a general review of design research with a turn-of-the-century focus and multiple perspectives. Fraser clearly states in his introduction that the central question addressed is ‘the types of insight and knowledge that architects create’. For that purpose, he seeks this book’s view to be ratified by the EAAE/AEEA and its founding members and promoters, Hilde Hynen and Johan Verbeke, who established the charter of design research with Fraser’s contribution. In the editors’ own terms, ‘anyone who still continues to doubt the existence or relevance of design research is a Flat Earther’.

 

         In his volume Fraser gathers ten essays by scholars from the UK, the USA, Australia, Sweden and The Netherlands, plus the introduction and a closing essay by himself, aiming to give ‘the widest scope possible’ on the research methods presented therein. The setting under study, Fraser explains, includes the countries mentioned and Norway. What he calls ‘the geographical spread of contributions’ seems to have been ‘planned to include a far more global mix’. However the weighty discussions that occurred before the selection of the texts produced the suggestion of limiting the initial setting.

 

         In 1962, with the conference on Design Methods held at Imperial College London and the subsequent foundation of the cross-disciplinary Design Research Society (DRS), design research was said to be born, placing the UK as the centre for ‘the study of and research into the process of design in all its many fields’ – as was the stated aim of the DRS. In fact, the origins of design research were traced back to the period following WWII. John Christopher Jones, one of the founding members, had paved the way with a ground-breaking article published by the 1950s, ‘A Systematic Design Method’ which, he considered, ought to integrate intuition and rationality. His work led to the foundation of the Design Research Laboratory at Manchester University, in the 1960s, and he was appointed professor of Design at the Open University a few years later. L. Bruce Archer, the other design research pioneer, had received several awards by the time he co-founded the DRS, receiving the first professorship in Design Research at the Royal College. By the mid-seventies, Archer’s Design Research Department became a postgraduate teaching department funded by the Science Research Council, whose scholars progressed to doctoral studies. Their efforts were responsible for design research coming of age by the eighties. From that period on, design research has been a much-discussed field of study, having produced abundant literature. Its originally cross-disciplinary nature, mainly focused towards architecture and engineering, gave the greatest impulse to its growth. Design, originally disegno, is best defined by the leading Italian architectural theorist, critic and historian Renato de Fusco as ‘a unified process [which includes] the project, its production, its sale and its consumption’. In fact, in his Storia del design De Fusco also focuses on design as a process analysing each and every stage it involves. This focus is the same involving the architectural proiectus, the Latin term used for the purpose in many languages, since the moment that it refers to is the whole process rather than simply any of its stages. The same concept inspired Jones' and Archer’s idea of design on which the DRS was founded.

 

         However, in this book, the author refrains from subscribing the aforementioned grounding, seeking instead a different perspective. A total of eleven chapters have been selected to develop the new focus. Jonathan Hill’s chapter traces 500 years of design research starting in the Italian Renaissance; architectural history is combined in it with the birth of the gothic novels and modernism with the picturesque, so as to offer a historical picture with which to connect contemporary design research, with the help of beautiful images.

 

         In his chapter Philip Steadman rejects any connection of his focus with the ‘design methods movement’ that originated the DRS, as he proposes a type of scientific research in architecture through which to gather better knowledge of the spatial configurations of buildings.

 

         Richard Blythe and Leon van Schaik make a statement of intent, by enquiring why design research should not matter, so as to explain the development and experience gathered by a 25-year-old doctorate programme. The ultimate aim is to propose a reflective model for creative practice-based research aimed at shedding new light and knowledge on design practice. For this purpose, the authors give a subjective view seen through the eyes of the designer with a psychological turn, followed by a social reflection drawn from some of Vygotsky’s theories.

 

         Katja Grillner’s chapter depicts the connection of design research with critical thought and practice, in search of a system of sustainable planning and design of the environment which she anticipates may constitute a process of action research. The system draws from Faryling’s so-called options of research ’for’ and ‘through’ art, all of which have informed her feminist architecture office FATALE.

 

         Shane Murray’s contribution explores how to produce theory-informed practice, after a new attempt to define design research in the idea that there exist believers and non-believers. Having originated from a need to legitimize research in the realm of traditional research fields, it seems only natural that these ‘new’ methods forced architecture to legitimize itself and its methods.

 

         In her chapter Jane Rendell studies gender issues of design research and the feminine role for design research production starting from the very definition of architecture, and describing what clearly resembles action research in architecture, as Grillner also suggested. The novel idea here is that to be valued, the knowledge thus produced needs to be relevant for either commercial or industrial needs.

 

         Johan Verbeke explains what research by design is, with a thorough description of contemporary trends within research by design in architecture. He attempts to produce a definition of design research, a curriculum, and a structure, all of which take from John Chris Jones’s idea of the generation of knowledge through design as a creative process.

 

         Leslie Kvanaugh’s chapter attempts to unveil how space is not a thing, arguing what space is and what it is not, through an analysis that starts from Leibniz and Brentano, Merleau-Ponty and Aristotle, Heidegger, Bloch, Foucault, Einstein, Newton or Vitruvius, using the city of Amsterdam as her main example.

 

         Richard Coyne explains design research as being much more than just architecture, inevitably fed by disciplines ‘outside its immediate orbit’. He discusses its supposed authority as having originated from any stated disciplinary corpus, for which purpose he draws on Derrida’s anti-form concept – deconstructivism – as unveiled in a conversation with Bernard Tschumi. The successive concepts he defines, the variety of media available and their intertwining for advancement, all clearly depict new approaches to research that KEA exemplifies as it introduces ethnography as an architectural research method yet productive in industrial terms.

 

         Teddy Cruz Essay goes back to the early 20th century to wonder whether we should return Duchamp’s urinary to the bathroom, in a groundbreaking essay on experimentation through design research. The latter, meanwhile, must be able to expand critical practice shortening distances with criticality, searching for new paradigms, re-evaluating the informal and getting closer to the radical. He proposes self-criticism, and rebuilding of social, economic and environmental conditions in search for justice – with a capital j - so that experimental architecture will naturally emerge.

 

         Murray Fraser’s closing chapter explores the dialectical powers of design research to produce critical practice through a process he calls ‘two-fold movement’ as conceived of by Eliel Saarinen back in the 1940’s. The author aims to show how design research gives way to speculation and experimentation in generating knowledge, an example of which, to him, is Shigeru Ban’s work.

 

         Rather than establishing a series of ideas for researchers on what the design research method is, the ways in which it may articulate or how a design research develops as a stated process, the volume presents a variety of results achieved by applying it. Therefore, rather than a manual on architectural research, the book is a disseminative collection of essays. Those interested in studying a postgraduate degree in design research will surely find reasons enough to do so. Those curious about the matter will find a selection of well-written essays with plenty of examples of what it is that each of the authors call design research in architecture and some of its possible relations with practice. The ordinary questions researchers ask themselves, and are supposed to answer through their research process, do not generally operate here. As Jane Rendell states, there is no posing a research question such as ‘the process operates through generative modes, producing works at the outset that may then be reflected upon later’. In many ways the former would sound very much like action research, as Katja Grillner underlines in her essay. However, design research clearly lacks methodology. The closest we can get to any such ordered structure of process is described by Johan Verbeke’s essay, where key concepts are defined – i.e., ‘systematic research’, ‘knowledge’, ‘interpretation’, or ‘design research’, always discussing previous opposing ideas and definitions illustrated with plenty of examples. Verbeke’s progressive approach to the issue, clear and didactically planned and explained, will be of great help for those who seek to clarify their ideas as to how design research can be produced in the field of architecture.

 

         Several common issues can be traced across the contributions included. Firstly, there is a tacit need to find a definition of design research, invariably attempted by most of the authors who propose nearly one per essay, whereas they acknowledge the intrinsic difficulty in doing so. As a result, generally they produce a collection of whatnots instead of a defining statement, clearly expressed. Thus, while some of them establish a link with the origins of design research, and others trace a dividing line with the ideas defended by the DRS and its founding members, Johan Verbeke clearly describes the design research realm. Secondly, there is a need identified by most of the authors who aim to describe the process through which design research produces knowledge, and its articulation, as a relevant point to them. In the third place, the lack of a clear definition of design research is the basis of the assertion that it is indeed an open field, which however clashes with the many statements by authors limiting its setting, scope, methods or process. However, if we accept design research in architecture as a new research method within the desired scope herein considered, this issue will surely be clarified by up-coming volumes within the new series. In the fourth place, all of the authors seem to feel the need to establish a connection between design research and practice,  and even inform it, yet in most cases they fail to explain how this could be done, other than through critical thinking and self-criticism. However, Johan Verbeke presents different possible paths which he reviews, discusses and exemplifies. In the fifth place, there is no such single new process, as other research methods can provide, but multiple processes, with each contribution adopting their own. Undoubtedly, this fact enriches the possibilities opened by design research in the field of architecture, even if it also introduces a degree of uncertainty which should be better understood as a means of criticism.

 

         Fraser explains the main reason for the final selection published is that ‘it became clear that most countries around the world do not as yet possess a sufficiently strong culture of architectural design research – nor seemingly the intellectual space and conditions for it to develop on an extensive enough scale as yet’. As the core of the perspective adopted for the new research method here studied, the setting and the selection presented, the former is a strong assertion. So much so that if Fraser had not previously stated that the volume sought for an open and varied scope, such a statement could, and would in all probability be taken as a research assumption – as not only does it lack an explanation, but neither does Fraser give evidence to sustain it. Therefore, it should be supposed that further insights by the new volumes of the series now presented will not exclude studies and approaches produced within some of the leading European countries in the architectural panorama throughout the last hundred years, who have established on their own merits an advantageous know-how that nourishes contemporary architectural education and practice on a global scale. This is clearly the case of Portugal, Finland, Spain, and in some way France. To label researchers from those countries as ‘Flat Earthers’ could undermine the validity of any serious research results such as these – even if the truth be that some of the toughest opponents of design research in architecture may come from those countries.

 

         An interesting asset of the volume is how it opens new possibilities for further research. For instance, with Richard Coyne’s suggestion that design research should adopt ethnographic disruption as its method in a wholly new concept of architectural theory, regardless of its many anthropological implications. This assertion is a groundbreaking point of the volume with endless possibilities which may produce vivid discussion for the benefit of design research in the architectural field.

 

         The quality of the text could be reputed as excellent, with plenty of good images, clearly displayed and ordered. Yet, if I may say so, perhaps the addition of an alphabetically ordered bibliography would further satisfy the reader of this otherwise highly commendable book. Anyway we praise the author’s final decision to include one.

 

         This volume poses a relevant question in introducing design research for public debate, regardless of how hotly discussed or contested it might be. As a research principle, it seems always positive to encourage discussion, and even to argue about issues. The concept of research courage should be considered for inclusion among the parameters with which to evaluate a research process, particularly when it comes to propose new enriching options, as is now the case.

 

 

Contents

Design research : The first 500 years / Jonathan Hill / p. 15
An 'artificial science' of architecture / Philip Steadman / p. 35
What if design practice matters? / Richard Blythe and Leon van Schaik / p. 53
Design research and critical transformations : situating thought,
projecting action / Katya Grillner / p. 71
Design research : translating theory into practice / Shane Murray / p. 95
A way with words : feminists writing architectural design research / Jane
Rendell / p. 117
This is research by design / Johan Verbeke / p. 137
Space is not a thing / Leslie Kavanaugh / p. 161
Even more than architecture / Richard Coyne / p. 185
Returning Duchamp's urinal to the bathroom? On the reconnection between artistic experimentation, social responsibility and institutional
transformation / Teddy Cruz / p. 205
'A two-fold movement' : design research as dialectical critical practice /
Murray Fraser / p. 217