16 January 2011

Thesis: Initial Thoughts

The time has now come for me to begin to formulate my initial thesis proposal for the MA in Architecture and Urbanism I am currently studying for at the Manchester School of Architecture. When applying to the course I had to submit a brief outline of what I would like to study and it is from this that I am beginning to develop a proposition to engage with more thoroughly. My application material highlighted an interest in: the complexity of the contemporary construction process; the role of "design" versus "executive" architects; responsibility and the rejection of liability by architects; the banal versus the iconic; the role of architects in 'place making'; how procurement methods and legislation are used as opportunities, not restrictions, in the design process. These curiosities have come about due to a number of factors with the below image highlighting some of the key influences over the previous 18 months.

Initial primers for research - scattered on a coffee table -
the connections are often clearer in my head (September 2010)

Key amongst these influences is an interest in finding 'pragmatic solutions' as opposed to imaging unachievable utopian visions, working with existing urban frameworks (policy, regulation, economic conditions, social conditions). Examining and working with existing conditions is a trait often found in the work of architectural practice OMA, in particular the writings of Rem Koolhaas who's theoretical position has been more influential, in many cases, than his built works. The influence of OMA spreads to a number of other practices including BIG (Copenhagen), JDS (Brussels) and REX (New York) who have previously worked under Koolhaas. This is not to say that other architects don't take the same approach however it is the 'OMA School' that has been more extensively published. Examining this approach and the research surrounding it will undoubtedly provide a wealth of information to draw upon.

Observations about the division within the architecture profession, principally the split between executive and design Architects, is not a new idea or theme, they have been made for over a century. Recent additions to this discourse include comments made by Bjarke Ingels, in his practice's manifesto 'Yes Is More', that "historically the field of architecture has been dominated by two opposing extremes." Ingels defines his approach as "operating in the fertile overlap between the two opposites. A pragmatic utopian architecture that takes on the creation of socially, economically and environmentally perfect places as a practical objective." This has undoubtedly been informed by his associations with OMA.

The work of Jeremy Till was also key to formulating my application proposal and will undoubtedly provide key insights as I develop my proposition further. His recent publication 'Architecture Depends', provides an insightful account of the dependent forces within the architectural profession and the role of contingency within it. As Till puts it "we must bridge the gap by opening up to dependency not as a threat but as an opportunity" working with the "mess" of the everyday. Also of interest to me are the observations made by Till that "the contingent researcher welcomes each new book with a sense of curiosity" - this is an approach I intend to use in my own research, to work as a contingent researcher.

Since then a number of other texts/arguments/ways of thinking have come to my attention, principle among those has been the 'call to arms' led by Winy Maas and The Why Factory in Visionary Cities. In this brief discourse, born very much in the depths of a 'crisis', architects, urbanists, designers and society are challenged to meet the 12 urgencies or critical urban issues that they see as most relevant today - the solitary (dreams); the iconic; the fun; the miniature; the complex; the cautious; the faithful; the green; the poor; the old; the re; the future. As they eloquently put it "While Pritzker Prize-winning Architects are designing Vodka bottles and necklaces, unknown Developer-Architects are building entire cities from the ground up" whilst "the city is being held hostage by procedure." The challenge is thus to better understand the complex relationships that exist but also to tackle the design process itself - the design process itself can become the subject of design. This involves taking a similar approach to the "eco-effective" approach proposed by Michael Braungart and William McDonough in Cradle to Cradle. Designers should "expand their vision from the primary purpose of a product or system and consider the whole" and embrace "the challenge of being not only efficient but effective with respect to a rich mix of considerations and desires." Of course, part of this is understanding the current system and it's failings, there can be no point in blindly starting from scratch and coming up with an equally flawed system.

Traditionally the architectural profession is a slow one, slow to adapt and to change. Today it operates in a world where connections between places, cultures and economic markets are rapidly increasing. These external forces manipulate and affect a design process that was already a notoriously complex system, full of contradictions when you consider the dependent forces whom and that are at play. Architects seem to be struggling to adapt to these conditions and their is a feeling of disbelief amongst pockets of the profession as the role of the Architect is diluted - loosing out to other, more adaptive and responsive (or pro-active), professions leaving architects continuously lurching from crisis to crisis. Are architects at times their own worst enemies in propagating this situation? Have they refused to accept responsibility and rejected liability which has in turn affected their status with the industry and society? Does it even matter?

In brief summary then my thesis will be an investigation into the role of professionalism within the 'Architectural Profession' and how this impacts upon our cities and urban landscapes. Some of these investigations are already present on the blog - they are the things that I am interested in - others will appear over time, as will developments in my thesis proposition.


Till, J. (2009), Architecture Depends, 1st Edition, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
Maas, W., Sverdlov A. and Waugh, E. (Editors) (2009), Visionary Cities (The Why Factory), 1st Edition, Amsterdam: NAi Publishers
Braungart, M. and McDonough, W. (2002), Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, 1st Edition, North Point Press