Robert Cowherd, PhD, is Professor at Wentworth Institute of Technology, Boston. His research and publications pursue global historical approaches to architecture and urbanism with particular focus on cultural political economy perspectives on Southeast Asia and Latin America. His most recent publication is “Spices, Spies and Sumptuary Codes in 17th Century Batavia and Amsterdam,” The Architectures of Trade, Patrick Haughey, ed. (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction, 2018). His work is informed by extensive research and fieldwork in the developing world including work in post-tsunami Aceh where his open-source model for village mapping and planning was widely applied. He holds a PhD in the History and Theory of Architecture (MIT), an Urban Design Certificate (MIT), and a BArch (The Cooper Union).

Statement of Interests: The operations of architecture and urbanism demonstrate what it means to know the world through translational acts of “making.” As manifest in the everyday experience of individuals and human societies, architecture bypasses language and cognition to exemplify meanings, structure relationships, and frame the unfolding interplay of the human drama on the stage of the city.

Operating primarily at the level of precognition, architecture renders us mute. Yet at the same time, it challenges us to acquire language capable of expressing that which is triggered by its manifold actualities. At each and every stage of translation, from stirrings born of the reveries of an idle moment, to the scratching of graphite and paper, to form released from the hand-mind to take a stand, to the miracles and travesties of industrial production, to the familiar yet unprecedented stirrings of the mind-body in the presence of form revealed in space and light, architecture operates across and through a series of deliberate and accidental losses and discoveries (“Lost and Found: John Hejduk and the Specific Autonomy of Drawing” in WAr).

The operations of architecture and urbanism are produced out of specific conditions through the application of a “disciplined” set of intentions, probings, and critical inquiries (“Reflexive Design Research: Three Questions” in GroundWork).

Misrepresentations of architecture’s disciplinarity has unnecessarily distracted many from the urgency with which design methods transgress former boundaries (“Notes on Post-Criticality: Towards an Architecture of Reflexive Modernisation” in T.U. Delft’s Footprint). Those who believe themselves to be defending the ramparts against disciplinary encroachments are facing the wrong direction and thus missing the larger insurgency of architecture out into the world where design is to the 21st century what science and engineering were to the 20th (“Second Modernity: Making Good on Architecture’s Social Contract” in ArchitectureBoston).

The most significant challenges of the 21st century are the unintended consequences of the solutions wrought by the remarkable successes of the 20th century. The key characteristic of the emerging 21st century modernity is a “reflexivity” found in the more agile design strategies beyond the ossified canon of high modernism as described by continental sociologists Ulrich Beck, Scott Lash, and Anthony Giddens in their 1994 Reflexive Modernisation (“Designing Reflexivity in a Second Modernity” in Responsive Architecture, Reflexive City).

The power of design thinking to integrate the expertise of multiple sectors into a single solution has brought design into business schools, given the world computer “architecture,” opened career paths for architects in the Digital Humanities, and contributed to the “spatial turn” in the social sciences. The power of built form to “change the facts on the ground” and to establish truths that quickly “go without saying” has made architecture and urbanism a significant instrument of not simply reflecting current values and meanings, but an instrument for establishing, reproducing and extending the conditions of power (The Cultural Construction of Jakarta and “The Cultural Construction of Surakarta” in The Emerging Asian City).

Beyond the reductive cause-and-effect analyses of 20th century social science, more reflexive methodologies demonstrate a greater capacity to apprehend the reciprocal interplay between form and meaning, structure and agency in ways that acknowledge the operation of powerful forces without precluding the possibility of individual agency. The term “cultural construction” encompasses a set of reflexive methods that frame and extend the explanatory power of political economy. Similarly, Pierre Bourdieu’s work on the spatial operations of power in North Africa suggest a convergence of graphic techniques and the literature of socio-spatial analyses. At the intersection of two long historic developments—capturing bodily presence and motion in spatial frames, and a literature spanning from proprioception in aesthetic theory to space and power analysis—we locate a set of methods towards the documentation and study of the spatial operation of social forces (“Sociography: The Spatial Operation of Social Forces” in Thresholds 42: Human“Bourdieu and Sociography” a Wentworth Architecture “Food For Thought” lecture). The power of sociographic analysis informs an ongoing development of understanding the operation of culture in diverse situations (New School Emerging Asian Cities as Cultural Constructions Forum).


“Embodied Agency” at The New School University

“Research Based Action” at University of Southern California

“Identity Tectonics” at Rhode Island School of Design

Reflexive Urbanization, Earth Standard, Medellin


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