Keynote: Michelle Addington_RESEARCH REDUX
Michelle Addington is dean of The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, where she holds the Henry M. Rockwell Chair in Architecture. Originally educated as a mechanical/nuclear engineer, Addington worked for several years as an engineer at NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center and for E.I DuPont de Nemours before she studied architecture.
Material and performance research in Architecture is often entangled in a methodological network constrained by missing knowledge, unsupported by foundational methods, clouded by conflicting domains, and untethered to meaningful impacts. The robust academic structure that both undergirds as well as overarches the research enterprise that forms the fundamental core of most disciplines, and should be that which frames and guides our research activities, is all but missing from our field. There is no consistent development and progression from undergraduate to graduate to doctorate to post-doctorate to faculty; what we have instead are small ad hoc fragments scattered about the world—a bespoke independent study program advertised as a research master’s degree, a funded special initiative that is singularly self-contained either as a unit or as a faculty member’s lab. While canon in architectural history is certainly being questioned, we know the extents of the field and what it considers as its principles and governing criteria. We cannot say the same about material and performance research in Architecture. Academic research both governs canon and is governed by canon. Without canon, there is no stable ground from which to launch an investigation, to open up an inquiry, to dismantle an accepted belief. Without canon as stable ground, then the starting point becomes that which we do and that which we are familiar with—aka practice and precedent.
Much of what we call research is thus incremental and relative, which is not to discount it as incremental research is certainly considered a worthy undertaking. But we are often left without a clear and meaningful beginning and ending point for what drives the iteration other than the desire to try something or to make something. Even when research is intended to tackle a grand challenge, such as climate change, we tend to allow precedent and practice to co-opt the starting point and the ultimate question, keeping us bound to the way that we do things, albeit with some possible improvements. Big questions devolve into minor adjustments if we even are able to implement the results. More often than not, we aren’t able to implement results beyond prototyping or demonstration
A robust research structure allows for questions large and small, enables methods that are repeatable and verifiable, establishes paths for dissemination that range from knowledge building to implementation to definitive (and verified) contribution. But we don’t have such a structure, and we don’t have the critical mass or canonic foundations to build one. For too long, we have tried to cobble together some semblance of a research structure for investigating materials and performance: a grant here and there, a few dozen doctorates, some experimental work carried out by firms, a scattershot of engineering-like papers appearing in numerous journals. For too long, many of us have been critical of what we perceive as the lack of rigor in how we educate architects in the questions and methods of research as well as in what qualifies as the products of research. Maybe it is time to stop trying to fit into the normative research structure that is the backbone of the more atomized disciplines, and build a research ecosystem that truly capitalizes on what knowledge we do bring to the table, what unique skills and capabilities we can bring to bear, how we fluidly collaborate and embrace enormous breadth across disciplines. What could and should it be?
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