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Research should not be optional in spatial design. But what is research then?

Research should not be optional in spatial design. But what is research then?

Markus Appenzeller

Recently, I came across a lecture of Le Corbusier. In his short talk, he explains the principles of modernism on a chalk board – good old style. What struck me was the attitude he showed. He presented as if he was explaining basic natural laws – results of scientific research. In his explanation, modernism sounded like science. I asked myself: is that really what modernism in architecture and urbanism really was? The answer must be a clear no. Corbu’s principles lack any form of scientific evidence. Admitted, there have been results of research that showed that a lack of daylight and ventilation were partially responsible for tuberculosis, and Frederick Taylor’s scientific management mapped the most efficient ways work can be done scientifically. Also, a lot of materials research has been done, delivering new materials for construction. But none of these scientific results dictated to a particular aesthetic expression. Architectural modernism therefore is ideology in a scientific wrapping. The formula for half a decade was hugely successful because it gave the impression of being scientific, giving those who wanted to build in that way the seal of science that they were doing the right thing.

Le Corbusier

While the profession has moved on from its modernist past, its working methods have not. There still is a great deal of ideology with a thin, scientifically looking veneer on top. Here are some examples:

Architects love trees on buildings because they are good to fight climate change – they claim. That is not exactly true. Planting a tree on a building generates more CO2 than that tree can ever capture. Trees are heavy, there needs to be a solid structure to support them. If that structure is steel or concrete, that is additional CO2. Irrigation systems are needed. If they are made from metal or plastic – additional CO2. Trees need maintenance. The machinery used embodies CO2, and its operation generates CO2 as well. Most likely, the trees cannot grow too big and therefore are not suitable for timber construction after. Instead, they will be composted and release the CO2 they stored into the atmosphere again.

Building high is efficient. There is better ground use and that is sustainable. At first glance, this is true, but this statement reduces sustainability only to the question of ground space use in the location in question. But there is more to building. Building above ground requires stairs and lifts and the more people you need to get up to the upper floors, the more space this vertical circulation demands. In high buildings, the system of cores takes the shape of a pyramid inside the structure, eliminating a lot of floor space. The higher a building is, the bigger the structure and the foundations have to be since all the load added on top has to get into the ground. Wind speeds and weather conditions in 200, 300 or 400 meter above ground are much more severe and demand better materials and sealing. All these buildings must be equipped with sprinkler systems and additional escape routes in case of fire, since fire engines cannot reach the floors from the outside any more. All this adds up to huge amounts of CO2 and depletion of natural resources so that extremely efficient land use comes with vast destruction of nature elsewhere.

Trees on buildings

Building in wood is sustainable. At first glance there is nothing wrong with this statement and cities like Amsterdam started mandating a certain percentage of wood as part of every new construction project. But one also has to ask where the wood comes from. A country like the Netherlands does not have significant wood resources suitable for building. That is one of the reasons why historically, most buildings were largely built in brick. The wood that is used now is coming from Scandinavia, the Baltic countries and elsewhere. Their forests are being cut to provide the market with timber, destroying functioning ecosystems and the cooling capacity of forests there.

Density is always good. Dense cities are functioning better since infrastructure can be used more efficiently and their compactness leads to a relatively smaller carbon footprint. Dense cities have a smaller impact on their surrounding landscapes because they simply are less space hungry. But – density also comes with more sealed surfaces and more surface water run-off, increasing flood risk and dropping groundwater levels. Density also increases the heat island effect with all the glass, concrete and tarmac it brings. And density in most cases has a negative impact on ventilation, leading to more harmful substances in the air in the city and reducing natural cooling.

In recent years, the 15-Minute City has been the goal to strive for in urbanism debates. Every city wants to be a 15-minute city. There is nothing wrong with a mixed urban environment with short commutes and services around the corner, but for the model to work properly density is needed, and a city has to have a mix of uses already. If both is not the case and the ‘a quarter of an hour’ urban fabric has to be created by massive new construction, the negative environmental impact of this retroactively created compact city might be far bigger than the benefits – especially with an electric mobility future.

In all these examples it becomes evident that good or bad, right or wrong are dependent on many different factors and that simple solutions to the complex problem of climate change are very unlikely. If we urbanists and architects want to make a difference and be seen as credible professionals, we have to abandon the last remaining piece of modernist ideology – the almighty designer that can set the world at his own hand to solve the problems we are facing single-handedly and out of his own genius.

We have to let the results of research guide our designs and become honest if something is not based on scientific evidence but on our own artistic freedom. This also means we have to abandon the practice of selectively choosing results of research that only support what we wanted to do anyway.

But what is research then for spatial designers? After all we are not biologists, physicists or sociologists, Our research should have its own methods and its own system of validation. Here the problem starts: spatial design is about the totality of space in all its aspects, and creating laboratory conditions needed for scientific research in other disciplines will necessarily eliminate this very totality. When it comes to design, the term ‘research by design’ is frequently used as the method, spatial designers are using – but nobody can give a conclusive definition of what it actually is. Everybody defines it himself. For some, it is documenting an iterative design process and evaluation of the results of every iteration. Others use analytical data to generate designs and add additional data to modify it. And yet another group sees research by design as proto-empirical study of references to draw conclusions for their own design.

I believe ‘research by design’ the way it is usually practised now is not delivering the results we need today. But what method, what conceptual framework shall we use instead? To be able to define that, it is good to get back to the basics of what our professions are: We are not pure scientists, and we are not pure artists. We apply the knowledge generated in both fields. Consequently, our research should focus on application and integration. I want to call this ‘meta-research’.

Meta-research looks at a spatial problem in its entirety:

  • In a first step, all the aspects that could be relevant are mapped.
  • In a second step, for the relevant topics, the field of available research is identified and evaluated.
  • In a third step, these topics are ranked by impact the solution of a spatial problem might have on the particular topic.
  • In a fourth step, this impact is further investigated and discussed how impact can be mitigated.

The meta-research approach defines a path to identify out of the totality of knowledge the relevant one for a distinct spatial problem. Depending on the scale and the likely impact of changing space, identifying and evaluating relevant aspects can involve generalists from different fields that can help widen the perspective.

The advantage of this approach is that it does not claim universal truth. It is highly situational. The result is in depth analysis and conclusions for a distinctive spatial condition – real life space.

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