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Archis 2001 #4

Architecture: an intractable science

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Let me explain. Architecture seems to me principally to be a field in which highly diverse modes of knowledge are united. Using Adorno’s conceptual framework we can argue that architecture appeals to both ratio – the ability to interpret the world through reason – and to mimesis – the visual ability to recognize similarities and differences and to process them. Many sciences, particularly the exact and technical sciences – approach reality from a position primarily founded on reason: their aim is to develop concepts and theories which will provide a rational model for explaining reality, a model which possesses a certain predictive force. The human sciences, and philosophy in particular, also focus on a form of reason, although in their case verstehen, the understanding of the inherent logic of a specific cultural field, is more important than the predictive force of developed theories.

What architecture as an intractable science can bring to this is a confrontation between a rational approach to reality and a mimetic attitude. In almost all schools of architecture, education is based on a combination of three components: technical sciences (stability, building technology, knowledge of materials, etc.); human sciences (architectural history and theory); and design. This means that in the best circumstances students of architecture combine a scientific education with a thorough training in design. Design today is a skill that places demands on the student’s mimetic ability in particular. A purely rational, calculated approach is simply not adequate for this work. The additional value of design lies in its imaginative force: precisely through applying a series of operations which relate to seeing and the processing of similarities and differences (between earlier designs or types, programmatic requirements, contexts, etc.) the student – when successful – is able to propose something that both fulfils the brief and goes beyond it by adding something extra to the context.

The most interesting developments I see in the field of education relate mainly to the expansion of this mimetic approach into adjoining domains. These domains do not involve design understood in a limited way (as the design of buildings or larger projects) they refer, rather, to what can be called ‘designerly research. Mimetic skills are employed to look at reality in a new, more encompassing way and to ‘see’ things which remain concealed for more traditional scientific methods. The area of scientific knowledge is, therefore, enriched by an intractable capability which departs from an architectural view of reality.

Examples of these developments can be found in a series of graduation projects by students at KU Leuven under Bruno De Mulder, which were aimed at gaining a deeper understanding of the reality of contemporary urbanity, in this case the area around Kortrijk. Kenny Cupers’s project in this series investigated the notion of the ‘margin’ in three ways: through theory, observation and design. In a theoretical essay he explored the meaning attributed to the notion of ‘margin’ in disputes about urbanity and the public realm. Field work carried out over a two-month period generated intriguing graphic interpretations of margins that had been produced by the construction of a motorway near Kortrijk. Finally, as a pilot project, he composed several designs which aimed to make the margins beside the motorway suitable for more intensive and polyvalent use.