Monday, December 12, 2011

Design Practice and Pedagogy: 

William Tozer, ‘A Theory of Making: Methodology and Process in Architectural Practice,’ Architectural Research Quarterly, (Cambridge University Press, volume 12, 2008): 134–148.

This paper was presented at the University of Sheffield Alternate Currents symposium and is drawn from research I conducted through the Bartlett's PhD by design programme, titled 'A Theory of Making: Methodology versus Process in Architectural Practice'. The research aims to examine the gap between what architects say they do and what they actually do, and its relation to the gap between the architectural profession and academia. The call for papers for Alternate Currents implied an assumption of a single and well-understood definition of ‘normative practice’ before calling for investigations of and proposals for alternative modes of practice. It was also suggested that these modes are likely to have explicit social and political agendas or define themselves outside of the professional realm of the architect. This paper sets out to challenge the symposium’s assumptions about both normative practice and alternative practice. An historical case study of alternative practice is utilized to re-read the nature of architectural production since the modern period, and a contemporary mode of alternative practice is then proposed that operates within the established profession but informed by this alternative reading. This is a mode of alternative practice that remains fully engaged with the production of the built environment, utilizing to its advantage rather than resisting the mechanisms of the profession.

‘Normative practice’ seems to be generally understood by academia as the production of drawings and other representations by registered professional architects working in offices, with the intention of their contents being constructed as buildings. This understanding is reinforced by the professional institutes, whose structures of registration and professional development posit design as a practical rather than intellectual undertaking. Against this background, academia defines ‘alternate practice’ as a variation of the above where the process is motivated by an agenda—or more broadly, as any form of architectural activity that does not result in the production of buildings. If normative practice is recognized as agendized, alternate practice identifies its agendas as outmoded and proposes their replacement. Aside from drawings, models and other representations, the processes of normative practice are assumed by academia to be creatively neutral, and so they are given only professional rather than intellectual consideration. Due to academia’s intellectual focus on drawing and modeling, its observations on practice are generally limited to an ‘avant-garde’ whose stated design methodologies foreground these concerns and are recognizably intellectualized. Implicit in this process is an assumption that the limitations of ‘normative practice’ stem from the profession and its professional bodies, but not academia. It is argued here that a definition of ‘normative practice’ is required to interrogate the assumptions of both the profession and academia in order to be productively critical, rather than simply exacerbating their retreat into autonomous realms. The identification of what is currently normative by these terms requires a critical reflection upon what is generally considered avant-garde, rather than the comfortable consignment of each other’s entire field as ‘normative’ and one’s own as ‘alternative’. In these terms, to both the profession and academia, contemporary ‘normative practice—as it pertains to architects and their relation to the built environment—could be described as the valorization of large-scale building and novelty of form-making; and reciprocally related predilections for large practices, the competition format, and apparent conceptual complexity.

This conception sets aside definitions of architecture that do not pertain to the built environment, but this should not be understood as an attempt to diminish the importance of the separation between the professional and academic realms. It is acknowledged that this separation provides a useful distance in every discipline, allowing academia time for reflection and experimentation free from the constraints and limitations of the profession. The implications of academic experimentation and reflection for architectural practice may not be immediately clear, but this does not diminish its potential importance. However, when academia sets out to redefine its own operations as practice, its research as an end in itself, or to dismiss all of most of the entire production of the profession, there is a danger that it will become an increasingly autonomous field focused on self-reflexive relations to its own body of knowledge, and ever-diminishing relations to its original subject—the built environment. While one could make an argument for such an autonomous discipline as an intellectual field, the problems of the built environment remain unaddressed. Furthermore, it could be argued that this form of investigation constitutes a normative form of academic architectural practice, connected to the normative model of the profession identified above. If academia is to have significant implications for the built environment, the unwillingness of practicing architects’ to engage with academic notions of architecture cannot be dismissed as entirely a failing of the profession. Rather, this would require academia to engage with the issues of the profession, and connect its own body of knowledge with these themes. Through understanding its own mechanisms and potential, architecture could develop modes of operation that are resonant with them, rather than adjunctive—aligning design processes with stated methodologies, and academic and professional understandings of the discipline. 

In the introduction to The Reflective Practitioner, Donald Schön argues that ‘[Universities] are institutions committed, for the most part, to a particular epistemology, a view of knowledge that fosters selective inattention to practical competence and professional artistry.’ Conversely, Schön explains that, ‘It is as though the practitioner says to his academic colleague, ‘While I do not accept your view of knowledge, I cannot describe my own’’ and concludes that, ‘These attitudes have contributed to a widening rift between the universities and the profession, research and practice, thought and action’.[ii] The very labeling of practice as ‘normative’ is indicative of a polarization of academia and practice into autonomous fields. While architectural academia is too readily dismissed by practitioners because it fails to address most of the problematic issues involved in practicing architecture, most aspects of practice are generally dismissed by academia because they do not appear worthy of intellectual consideration. Academia focuses the vast majority of its intellectual attention on design, and gives only ‘professional’ consideration to the other subject areas required for practice. Architects’ relationships with their clients, other professionals, contractors—and with one another—are generally understood in academia as creatively neutral, and unrelated to architectural design. These facets of practice are viewed as practical rather than intellectual, and an investigation of their role in the design process is dismissed in favour of the introduction of material from outside the discipline of architecture that is more recognizably intellectual. In The Projective Cast, Robin Evans laments architecture’s tendency to draw upon mathematics, the natural sciences, the human sciences, painting, and literature, and asks ‘Why is it not possible to derive a theory of architecture from a consideration of architecture?’[iii] Like all creative disciplines, architecture benefits immensely from its relationships with other fields, but it can be argued that architecture does so at the expense of a full understanding …

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