Archis 2006 #1

Exploding Practice

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Definitions are determined by institutions, committees and dictionaries, which try to find a consensus on the practice of terms and concepts in society at large. Practices are determined by practitioners who are not interested in fixed definitions but in the endless possibilities of usage of terms, except those practices which claims to be the ‘original practice’, the rightful heir, privileged in using the terms of his discipline in its ‘true’ meaning. This original practice always feels disrespected when its definitions are abused and thus fights abuse with its guilds and institutions.

How is the field of architecture constructed, configured or composed? The question can be rephrased in many ways but a consensus will never be reached. Architecture is a field that is intruded by real estate developers and contractors and exploited by all the practices outside the building industry, which claim the terms and concepts of architecture and manipulate them for their own use. The definition of the field of architecture is determined by a negotiation of the ‘old’ inside and the new and ever changing outside. Where the inside is building a golden cage around her discipline to preserve a certain ground to keep the violence of big money, real estate and politics out, the outside is developing concepts for architecture that push the boundaries of the field outward. But some initiatives are bridging the gap between the bars of architecture’s institutional golden cage and the new frontiers of the field. Theses initiatives are moving back and forth between the specific knowledge of the discipline and the outside of what still is considered or sold as ‘architecture’. Looking at architecture’s neighboring and overlapping discipline ‘design’, a great example would be red, a research and development team founded by the Design Council[1] in the UK. In their thinking about the limits of the field of design they quote Charles Eames’ answer to the question ‘What are the boundaries of design?’ To which Eames replied, ‘what are the boundaries
of problems?’[2]

‘In the first decade of the 21st century (…) we are experiencing two important shifts: fi rstly, in where design skills are being applied, and secondly, in who is doing the designing.’[3] The arena of design is shifting and according to red this has a lot to with how the nature of problems changed over the recent years. ‘Traditionally problems were seen as complicated challenges that could be solved through breaking them down into smaller and smaller chunks (…) the most important modern problems are complex rather than complicated. Complex problems are messier and more ambiguous in nature; they are more connected to other problems; more likely to react in unpredictable non-linear ways; and more likely to produce unintended consequences.’[4] Most of our world’s institutions and companies are still organized for a complicated instead of a complex world. Management consultants, policy makers, think tanks and research reports till approach the world as complicated. Design approaches are better equipped in coping with a complex world. What the agents of the complicated world lack is the ability to look at things from a ‘user’ point of view. red summarizes the user-centered
design approach in three core skills:
1. ‘Designers use a range of qualitative design research tools to understand a particular experience from the user’s perspective. (…) These research methods do not aim to yield any quantitative or objective research ‘truth’, but rather to provide inspiration and actionable insights.’
2. ‘Designers make problems and ideas visible, creating frameworks to make visual sense of complex information, and quickly sketching ideas to share work-in-progress with others. Making even intangible concepts visual creates a common platform for discussion, avoids misinterpretation and helps build a shared vision.’
3. ‘Designers like to ‘suck it and see’ by building little mock-ups or prototypes before they commit resources to building the real thing. In business terms, this is a good risk management technique: commit a little and learn a lot; fail early to succeed sooner.’[5] To show how these skills are put in action is illustrated with four projects addressing problems ranging from health care to supply chain logistics. Besides a shift in the arena of design, the creative expertise of the designer is demystifi ed. Design processes are open processes and experts, professionals and end-users are co-designers. A lot of the design skills can even be easily learnt, which discards creativity as exclusive talent and promotes it as an ability, which can be improved. This questions the notion of authorship of the designer together with what the expertise of the designer will be when his traditional skills are demystifi ed and becoming commonplace.
The redesign of the architecture discipline can strike a similar cord. Let’s juggle with defi nitions, dogmas and conventions in a way that we can invite the user in and push the borders of our design problems outward. Let’s ask ourselves the Eamesian question again: are the boundaries of architecture generous enough to encompass the boundaries of our contemporary problem?