Reflexive Design Research: Three Questions

Thoughts on “methodology” published in GroundWork, on the opening of the 2013 Wentworth Architecture Thesis Exhibition.

One response to the perennial question of what defines the discipline of architecture is to take note of the approaches that have come to constitute the core of how we design. Aware that the process is easier to describe than it is to do, the following three questions forged in the crucible of thesis explorations have proven useful to freshmen as well: 

What ‘s the big idea? In a world of plural phenomena, timeless ideas haunt every aspect of existence. Like ghosts among us, they are there for anyone to see, feel, and experience, yet most of us, most of the time, remain blind to them. Amidst the special reveries of architectural imagination, we tap into the larger forces underlying manifest reality and allow ourselves to be touched by big ideas. We do not “have” an idea so much as we develop an individual relationship with an idea that seems to exist on its own. This is why it is big.

What can this form do? We ask the idea what it needs of us to bring it across the abyss to take form in our sensual world as a concrete experiential reality. Every big idea compels a set of criteria that can be tested and explored through a specific means ofrepresentation, of “making.” We use drawing and other forms of making simultaneously to speculate on the possibilities for an idea to take form, and to test for outcomes of specific forms in specific situations according to specific criteria. We experience the clarity and constancy of criteria as rigor. We experience the specificity of forms and situations as precision.

How can you tell? Drawing selectively captures and obscures aspects of that which it attempts to represent. We take a critical approach to our tools and techniques to translate criteria through physical representation constantly struggling to capture architectural phenomena against the resistance of drawing/making. The sense of exploration and discovery characteristic of design research results from unexpected discoveries occurring in the deliberate or accidental liberties and constraints inherent in making. 

Repeat. Every time we draw (make), we simultaneously ask: What can this form do? and; How can you tell? We critique both the form, and the method of representation. Our critique proceeds according to specific criteria in order to yield more powerful manifestations of the big idea in form, and better drawings/representations that offer clearer insights. This critical making process is reflexive in the double sense that each iteration drives the next, and compels a constant refinement of the process itself. The resulting sense of compulsive iteration, of flow, seems to proceed according to an internal logic and can produce results beyond what could have been anticipated—the joy and genius of the design process itself.

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