In his introduction to Architectural Regionalism (2007), Vincent Canizaro includes one paragraph that I find particularly relevant to the issue of critical design. In fact, the topic he alerts us to lies at the core of our mission as an interest group. (Having read this introduction as a student and as a TA this quarter, I found it too hard to pass up posting on. I apologize for the extensive quotations, but in this case, the entire paragraph is significant and worth representing here. Also, while the topic of his book is architectural regionalism, I believe that the issue he raises is relevant to design of the built environment more broadly.)
Canizaro begins his paragraph by situating ‘regionalism’ (read: ‘design’) vis-a-vis other ‘allied disciplines’: “By virtue off its manifold relations to human life, regionalism is also situated among theories of culture and concerned with issues of individual and cultural identity, authenticity, meaning, and the structure and governance of society. The disciplines of cultural studies, cultural criticism, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy (particularly phenomenology and critical theory), which address the effects of modernization and modernity, globalization, and technological development on individuals and society, are all allied disciplines from which architectural regionalists draw and to which they contribute” (18). Beyond the social sciences and humanities that he mentions, we can imagine almost any other discipline to this list. The reason Canizaro references these ‘allied disciplines’ is to establish a fundamental relationship between them and ‘design’: “Architectural regionalism differs from these other disciplines in its relation to practice. As opposed to the process of analysis and description, which attempts to remain somewhat neutral, practice is virtually always polemical and its theorization, prescriptive” (18). What Canizaro is arguing is that design and analytical/descriptive research are related but fundamentally different. While it is common for ‘practice’ (or ‘design’) to get conflated or subsumed under the heading of ‘research’, there is, as Canizaro notes, a fundamental difference in aims.
Unfortunately, he goes on to then imply that this difference is both symbiotic and sequential: “Regionalism may borrow the critique established in critical theory, but it does so from the perspective of practice, that is, with the aim of applying critical analysis to a situation to focus what needs to be done. As such, regionalism, whether in planning or architecture, may be thought of, in part, as the practical application of the social sciences–a sort of rough synthesis of allied disciplines” (18). Here, I would like to add some important caveats to Canizaro’s point. First, the relationship between practice/design and descriptive/analytical research is not strictly dichotomous. Specifically, ‘practice’ involves analysis and description, as well, or at least it should. What is generally described as the ‘pre-design’ phase usually entails research. This may be borrowed from ‘allied disciplines’ but often consists also of research performed by the designer(s) themselves. Also, on the flip side, researching the built environment cannot be reduced to a neutral act dialectically opposed to the polemical act of designing the built environment. Research is just as politically charged as design; the results may be different in type, but both can be effective instruments for change. Furthermore, construing ‘practice’ as “a sort of rough synthesis of allied disciplines” leaves open the question of responsibility by those in the allied disciplines themselves to engage with design.
The relationship between research and design, between ‘the allied disciplines’ and ‘practice’, is momentously important for the matter at hand, critical design. While there are many ongoing disputes and lines of friction within the various disciplines engaged with the built environment, and many of these are indeed productive, I get the feeling that this issue is most central for our historic moment. Honing in on both how the allied disciplines and practice currently relate to each other, and how they ought to in the future, is a crucial task for Critical Design. Which is why we are excited that for our first event of the Winter Quarter, Tad Hirsch will focus on this very topic: the fuzzy line between design and research. This will undoubtedly allow us to turn our attention from “what’s wrong?” to “what’s already happening that does something about it?” Stay tuned…