Friday, March 12, 2010

1% for Architectural Research

Some of my time these days is spent reading, thinking and writing, seeking perspective and insight into the current challenges related to our profession - in particular the critical role of research in addressing ways to create more responsible architecture despite the impacts of economic pressure and globalization of practice. I find myself looking both backward to historical precedents and forward to the actions we must take to advance our profession.

In my last post, I cited a paper on Caudill, Rowlett, Scott by Avigail Sachs, and now I'm adding references from her most recent award-winning research paper, The Postwar Legacy of Architectural Research. From these research papers and Bill Caudill's TIBS, we can see the historical context for architectural research, the professional need for this research, and the difficulties both past and present that architectural firms face in funding their research work.

In a 1966 TIB, Bill Caudill stated his view that architecture needed theories, research and greater creativity to respond to an increasingly complex profession. He further observed that many professionals in his firm, CRS, were resisting the need to delve into design research. One could make that same observation today about architectural practice.


Worlds -- THEORY

23 June 66 WWC

"Our complex profession is getting more complex. We must have theories, simpler methods, greater creativity, and much more design precision to solve our problems and those of our clients.

We are faced not only with the complexities of the team, technology, and larger projects, but we have problems relating to tremendous changes in architectural design created by new building types, large scale projects, advanced technology, and the necessity for team action.

I mentioned the need for new theories to solve the new and more complex problems relating to architecture. I find many CRS people resenting our activities in delving into design research. Too egghead is not CRS, they believe. They think theory is too foreign to CRS -- that it kills creativity, and only complicates things.

Theory should not frighten us. We architects are problem solvers -- practically or artistically."

As Avigail Sachs points out in her CRS study, Caudill's philosophies of practice were formed in the late 40's and early 50's by practicing in College Station, Texas; teaching at Texas A&M; and conducting research at the Architectural Devision of the Texas Engineering Experiment Station. This trinity forged the idealized institutional setting for establishing a firm theoretical basis for modern architecture and design. The following quote from Avigail's CRS paper gives Caudill's even earlier 1952 perspective on the profession. In the ideal institution, Caudill explained:

"The staff should practice architecture (to understand the problem), then do research (to find out how to solve some of the problems), and then teach it (to pass on to the students their broad experience and knowledge)."

While the quote shows the issues framed primarily in a university setting, Caudill carried these three perspectives into the structure of his research based, learning practice. These three ideal practice perspectives are still critical to contemporary architectural practice, and more so now than in 1966 when Caudill was considering the complexities of technology and larger projects. But as the history of CRS's and the AIA's commitment to research show, the reality of changing economical conditions, corporate or practice goals, and philosophy make the application very difficult to accomplish. The wide economic swings in the building industry put immense pressure on the AE process, challenging in many instances, some firm's survival. So how do today's firms resolve the contradicting and competing pressure to support research in their practices, beyond their philosophy, beliefs and determination?

These contradictions were established early on as shown in the Caudill comments noted in The Post War Legacy of Architectural Research.

"We believe that if architects can in some way carry out a continuous research program within their own office, if only on a very small scale, good advancement can be made. We also believe that if architects will exchange ideas, and will unselfishly work towards improving our architecture, the profession will be much better off."

The key concepts I take from the quote are the need for a continuous research program and the unselfish exchange of ideas. But as noted by Avigail Sachs, these concepts proved a challenge to realize even by Caudill and his partners. The following captures the contradictions:

"But as Caudill complained, this project was supported, and therefore also controlled, by the design work done in the firm: when we are busy we cannot spare the personnel; when we are not busy we cannot afford research. Caudill's comment also points to the snag in the AIA program. Although cooperation and collaboration were seminal ideals in the profession projected to emerge from the re-professionalization project, the existing profession was based on competition between private practioners."

So here we are forty to fifty years later, with the professional competition model far more developed than the cooperative model. As a result, the majority of architectural research has been advanced by the university community, specific interest groups like the Center for Health Design, industries like Steelcase, and the AIA.

What next? There will need to be a belief that there is an economic basis for our research in addition to the increases in intellectual capital, cultural capital and professional capital. Certainly research or evidence based design approaches now could be the basis for a 're-professionalization project', similar to prior attempts in the 50's to create the needed professional and intellectual capital. Collaboration with established university research programs, which has been the strategy of a few large firms, would leverage both intellectual and professional capital, and is an avenue that I believe can be expanded as CRS did. Improved design quality would be evident, but where is the economic engine to support funding beyond the scattered and incremental self-funded research programs which are often driven by a competition/differentiation model?

So perhaps the model of corporate social responsibility established by Y. Chouinard and Patagonia, called 1% for the Planet, could provide an alternative funding model. I previously wrote about 1% as it relates to sustainability, but I believe that this model could be reframed for the A/E profession and redefined as 1% for Architectural Research. Participating firms would contribute 1% of their gross income to a not-for-profit organization which in turn would provide funding to create an opportunity for a professionally supported, continuous research program. Parallel with this initiative, individual firms who believe in the economic and societal value, could simply allocate 1% of their gross income internally to achieve a similar goal within their own organization.

What do you think about investing 1% for Architectural Research?

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