January 25, 2011

Thesis : In Search of a Critical Methodology

Increasingly, I am coming to the conclusion that a graduate thesis in architecture should not simply be an architectural investigation of a particular building type or cultural condition that one wishes to work on throughout their career, but it should also fundamentally be an investment in developing a highly self-conscious, critical and deliberate design methodology.

Let say you were presented with the design challenge I am approaching in my thesis: design Google's new campus.  How do you start? What steps follow? What does your methodology privilege, and what does it diminish?  A chosen methodology (whether deliberate or subconscious) necessarily conditions the types of outcomes that are possible in a design project.

From my experience, most design is carried out in a semi-subconscious way by drawing on design approaches accumulated from previous professors, employers, peers or notable architects in an unsystematic way.  Even for those who deploy a set methodology on each project, it is typically the product of an accumulation of experiences rather than being a carefully designed process. 

I typically take on a design challenge as a problem of site context and programmatic requirements, striving to produce an "insightful" combination of these ingredients in order to organize building form.  This reflects both my training in undergrad, and my experience in professional offices.  And while this is a totally legitimate (if not generic) approach to a design problem, it fails to engage my specific thesis in a significant or profound way.

Instead, I would like to develop a highly refined process that relates to the design challenge at hand, while reflect a fundamental personal set of convictions about architecture's role in the world.  

Conversely, the danger of developing a highly refined, yet static, methodology is that after time it loses its relevance in an ever-changing context (cultural, economic, technological, disciplinary).  The challenge would be to continually reevaluate one's methodology through application in order to adapt it to emergent contexts.

Parametric Methodology
Naturally, this discussion must confront the most pressing contemporary methodology-research-project (particularly at the GSD): the parametric.  The term has become a catch-all for any design that employs digital software to define geometric form and order.  As a general definition, a parametric project is one where a set of geometric relationships are defined by an ecology of interdependent parameters (numeric, logical) that can be adjusted manually, mathematically, or based on data inputs (environmental data, material data, etc).

In terms of methodological research, the parametric is exemplary for the breadth of research into its technical capacity.  From my perspective, while the ongoing research has produced many compelling Hows, it is still searching for a compelling Why.

One attempt at Why comes from Patrik Schumacher, of Zaha Hadid's office and the AADRL (who will be speaking at the GSD on March 9th as part of a symposium titled "The Eclipse of Beauty").  Schumacher has prosthelytized for the parametric in a number of essays, with titles ranging from The Parametricist Epoch: Let the Style Wars Begin, to Parametricism as Style - Parametricist Manifesto.  Schumacher believes that Parametricism is bound to become the dominant "style" in the same way that Modernism became hegemonic (concurrently, it is important to point out that on a meta level, he believes that the a dominant, unified style is a good thing - as opposed to a view that would embrace a pluralism in design approaches).  For Schumacher, Parametricism is fit for ascension due to two factors:

First, he sees a strong connection between the heterogeneous nature of contemporary society, and the capacity of Parametricism to represent and organize it:
Architecture finds itself at the mid-point of an ongoing cycle of innovative adaptation – retooling the discipline and adapting the architectural and urban environment to the socio-economic era of post-fordism. The mass society that was characterized by a single, nearly universal consumption standard has evolved into the heterogenous society of the multitude.
The key issues that avant-garde architecture and urbanism should be addressing can be summarized in the slogan: organising and articulating the increased complexity of post-fordist society. The task is to develop an architectural and urban repertoire that is geared up to create complex, polycentric urban and architectural fields which are densely layered and continuously differentiated.

Secondly, he believes that the ecological imperative that has been broadly embraced by architects and society-at-large represents a justification of the techniques:
The new style claims universal relevance for all architectural programs, on all scales from architecture and interior design to large-scale urban design. Parametricism is also uniquely geared to engage with the ecological challenges that architecture must address. Both in terms of techniques and in terms of sensibility, parametricist architecture is eager and able to elaborate adaptive responses to diverse environmental parameters. 

An interesting counterpoint (or at least alternative) to the parametric has been developed by Michael Meredith in his essay Never Enough (available here as pdf), and addressed in my Fall 2009 studio Mediums:
 Performance optimizaiton is not a fundamental architectural problem.  Architecture is primarily a cultural socio-political form, not technological determinism; it's super vague, it's inclusive, relational, it's parametric, but it's far more complex than any of us could singularly map out within the computer and totally understand because it's out of our grasp.  Not everything is easily quantifiable, not all relationships are geometric, and not all are to be coordinated into a smooth relationship.

I especially like the last point which questions the emphasis on smoothness or continuous differentiation.  While these formal tropes have been made possible thanks to advanced software tools, one must question the underlying socio-political subjectivity they constitute.  Furthermore, Schumacher's work with Zaha might still be considered to be operating at the level of an image.  The form and its image is produced (either with or without parametric tools, primarily focusing on geometry), and parametrics then comes in to rationalize it for construction in a way that is similar to Gehry's working method.

Instead, parametrics might be used to put a variety of geometric AND non-geometric relationships into order.  Therefore there is less of a reliance on a totalizing smooth form, and more emphasis on the parametric's capacity to produce emergent order (again, not simply geometric) that would otherwise be unmanageable due to shear permutations.

Of course, parametrics isnt the only methodology to react against in my drive to develop a coherent design method for my own thesis.  Recent architectural history has been filled with methodologies that privilege their own socio/cultural/political viewpoints, and sit within a particular historical context.

My hope is that I can develop small methodological experiments (operating on the context of the Google campus and the future of work) in order to achieve this coherent method (likely in a non-linear manner).