Research architects and users

(This is a slightly modified version of the paper for the 'Research by design' conference on the faculty of Architecture of the Technical University of Delft in 2000; see the conference book 'PROCEEDINGS B')   
Flip Krabbendam
The proof of the pudding
Aristotle wrote in the fourth century bc that heavy objects would speed up more when falling than light objects. He never tried it, and nobody did, until 2000 years later, around the year 1600, Simon Stevin came to the idea to see for himself if Aristotle was right. And to his surprise he saw that Aristoteles was wrong. 1)
Today we are used to provide proof when we state something. We found out that it is very fruitfull to confront statement and proof; experiments make our understanding of the world around us develop.
Not only in science, but also in daily life we are used to connect statement and proof. We even have a saying for it: the proof of the pudding is in the eating. This saying is very common, so you can expect that any statement is accompanied with proof. You can expect it, but still you don’t always get it. In architecture, and not only in architecture, but that is what we are looking at here, in architecture you find many statements that are only supported by the status of the speaker. Or by his anger.      
An architect who builds in loam once told me that loam staightens out the temperature during the season. In winter it makes the house warmer and in summer it makes the house cooler. And the same goes for humidity: in a wet winter the house gets dryer, in a dry summer the house gets more humid. How? Because loam is a natural material, and nature always seeks the equilibrium, that’s how.
And how about the proof? Did he measure the temperature and the humidity in a house made of loam, in summer and winter, and did he compare his findings with temperatures and humidity in other houses? A very simple experiment, but he had not heard of it. And he wasn’t interested in it. He talked about the pudding and he knew that it tasted good without tasting it. Instead of a proof he extended the theory: natural things are ok, and since a loampudding is natural it has to be ok. 
Le Corbusier, by the time that he was trying to be straight and scientific, before the war, stated that: ‘the curved line paralyses everything’. 2) Do you see it before your eyes? A curved road on your left hand with all kinds of lazy people hanging around the bend, yawning and half asleep? While on your right hand you see a straight road, full of people who vividly walk to work, in straight lines, while little children feed the ducks very accurately in the straight canal that you can see in the distance?
Architects and research
Most architects do have outspoken ideas about how a design should be made. But they are not used to discuss these ideas. They tend to act like The Ones Who Know. And when they are confronted with each other, a strange communication takes place. They all Know, but they usually don’t agree. They are like impressive old masters who like followers more than questions. A theory that can be questioned, that is designed to be questioned, is not a common thing.     
Another reason that architectural ideas are rarely tested may be that users don’t speak up very much. They try to make the best of their homes and if they can, they vote with their feet. But voting with your feet is not the same as a real democratic vote where you influence the decision making ; it is rather a primitive and even coward way to show your content or discontent!
When users are not speaking up, how do architects know if they did the right thing? They often Know, but sometimes you can find them taking a walk in a neighbourhood that they have designed and there they may be surprised by the taste of the real pudding. They may even be more surprised by the ingredients that users have added to make it taste better. Architects can learn from these things, but they can also blame the users who don’t understand architecture. We are not very near ‘research’ here.  
Who else is tasting the pudding? Architectural journalists? These connaisseurs only smell the pudding, and their taste can be totally irrelevant. In spite of this they are taken most seriously, because they can help to build the image and the career of the architect.  
So there is design, but can there be research, when users don’t speak up, when architects only have a look when they feel like it and when journalists, as outsiders only smell the pudding?
Dream houses
Real estate developers claim that they do better. Depending on the appreciation of buyers, they are very concerned with the needs and taste of the latter.   
So it seems logical that they know what the user needs. But do they? Do they have a theory about architecture? And if so, how do they test it? What kind of research is done here?
The research by the real estate developer is mainly research by the cashbook. And just as voting with your feet is no real democracy, research by the cashbook is no real research.  
But may be it is not that bad. As good salesmen, real estate developers have a special feel for the wishes of the client.   
In some branches they go very far. Car factories used to produce dream cars and they investigated potential users about their findings. Chrysler once made a dream car with a turbine-engine and 50 of these cars were handed out for free, to 50 users who were asked to give their opinion after one year. This was in 1963. 3) Real estate developers may not know this, but may be it can inspire them to do a similar thing with dream houses where people can live for free in exchange for their opinion about different aspects of the houses (or the street).
Architects normally don’t like such experiments. When you serve the public too much, good taste will suffer. People will choose what they know and that will be the end of the challenge to invent new architecture. So when there is research, can there be design?  Architects tend to see this kind of research as dangerous. The end of architecture seems to be near!
Architects seem to believe that design and research exclude each other… but we don’t have to agree with them. I think we can make a connection between research and design in four steps. First we make a design. Secondly we build it. This enables the third step: people, users, can live in it. And then we can come to the fourth step: investigation of the users.
The findings can be used in the next design.
Here we can use the metaphor of the seasons, where each season has a meaning of its own.   
Spring is the season in which new things are started, the design.
Summer is the season in which things develop, the construction.
In autumn we reap the fruits, the use.
And in winter we evaluate our findings, which enables us to make a new start in spring.
So we have four distinctive moments together in a cycle. This cycle where design and research are connected, is in fact a spiral in which design and research can develop in time, thanks to the connection of both.  
In the picture below I have tried to put the players that we meet in the field of architecture in the right segments, in the right seasons.

                             Summer                                                              Autumn
                                         Contractor                                                          User
                  Publisher: Chroma Zone. Photo: Matheisl     
                            Spring                                                                        Winter        
                                    Architect                                                                      Who?
The architect is situated in spring, where new plans are developed. The contractor is situated in the summer; where the new plans are realised. The real estate developer covers two seasons here: spring and summer.   
The user is situated in the autumn, where he can harvest the fruits that grew in summer. 
Now we can realise that there is a empty season; who is taking care of the winter, when the fruits, the things that we use, are evaluated?
We do have sociologists. They can help to evaluate the findings of the user. It is often done, but their work only partly helps the architect. Why?
In the first place sociologists are interested in interactions between people, and the environment is more regarded as a precondition, and not as a subject of investigation.
Secondly, as I stated before: architects usually don’t have architectural theories that can be tested. So sociologists lack the instruments to test the architecture, to see if it has achieved its goals.   
User commercials
The role of the user or the consumer doesn’t seem to be very important.  Producers play the main role. They appear everywhere around us, on billboards, in TV programs and in magazines where they tell consumers what their needs are. When you are at home in the evening and you watch TV, about 20 or 30% of the time that you watch, is taken by producers who try to convince you that you need their products. We are like wives who’s old-fashioned husbands are telling them what to be and what to want.
We are so used to this that it is hard to imagine the opposite: imagine that you are at work at the office, with your computer and you are interrupted, 15 or 20 minutes each hour, when your screen is taken over by big consumer organisations who bombard you with user commercials, in order to influence the production work that is done in multinationals and in national and local enterprises all over the country.     
Fukuyama may say that history has come to an end, but I would say that our society is severely out of balance. 4) We think of a car or a house or a milk bottle as a ‘product’. Not only as producers but also as consumers. Why is it that consumers have no word of their own. From their point of view they might speak of a ‘consumpt’ instead of a ‘product’.
The future seems to be no longer survival-oriented, where functionality and production is most important. The change has already been made: our society has become experience-oriented. Here the user is vital. So if we want to tune in right, we should give attention to the consumer a place in the circle and we should research what he or she has to say.      
Birthday presents and the question about to be asked
Some architects will feel uncomfortable in this setting. They will use the same argument as they use against real estate developers. When you have to obey to the consumer, how can you make a good design. 
If you want to give a birthday present to someone, you don’t have to give what he or she asks for, if you think that that is boring. But is that a reason to decide that you will use your own taste as a basis, that you will give something that you only like yourself? Wouldn’t that be ignorant? If you find it boring to give what is asked for, you may try to provide a discovery. You may try to make the receiver say: ‘What a surprise, that’s just what I needed, and I didn’t even realise it’.      
The same goes for architects. As an architect you can also challenge yourself to come up with a surprise, to come up with the answer to the question that was about to be asked.  
When the designing process is linked to the user, it doesn’t mean that architects will have to deal with only the user; there is also a researcher appearing on the scene. A researcher who will ask the architect about his design theory. Because this will enable the researcher to ask the right questions to the user and to present relevant conclusions to the architect.
But since architects are not used to theories that can be tested and discussed, they may be afraid that the design will be limited by the theory. Architects may feel for the idea of surprising the user, the idea of answering the question about to be asked, but how can they do so when they are caught in a theory?
There are different ways to handle a theory. When you identify yourself with a theory, then you see bars all over the place. But you can have a more brave attitude towards theory and use it merely as a tool, as a reference. Then all the bars of the prison may appear to be horizontal bars… and the theory invites you to make new discoveries. And that is how architecture may develop.   
Compare this to the situation that we know now, where ideas are  not connected to research and where trends are more likely to appear than developments.        
For the development of design- and research theories I can imagine the university to play an important role. 
Design theories can work as a back-up, not only for students but also for practicing architects.
And when such -testable- theories are available then the communication between users and architects can also be realised. There is a whole field of science that can be developed and discovered here. We all have an idea about what architects do to make a design and how they inform users about the special qualities of their design. But what can users do, what methods can they use to make up their own minds and how can they inform architects about it?                 
My own research          
My own research is based on this idea that we need a design theory that can be tested and renewed in the 'cycle of
seasons' as I described above. A design theory that can fit in this 'cycle of seasons'. So this cycle is the basis 
of my research. What we can see here is that this cicle can clarify the distinction between two essential attitudes. The right half of the cycle is the domain of the consumer. Here, in autumn and winter we find the typical attitude of the consumer; the attitude that can be described as an attitude of  ‘awareness and alertness’.  
The left half of the cycle is the domain of the producer. In spring and summer we find the typical producers attitude of ‘acting and achieving’. 
I will give an example: when you take a walk in the park, you can adopt the consumer attitude of ‘awareness and alertness’ in which you undergo the smell of grass, the sound of leaves, the heat of the sunburned path and the coolness of the shadow. Then it starts raining. Now you change to the producer attitude of ‘acting and achieving’. You start looking for the folding umbrella in your bag. You unfold it. And put it in the right position. Then you can go back to your consumer attitude, to ‘awareness and alertness’ again, where you smell the rain and you hear the drops falling on the umbrella. 
In the two attitudes you have seen two different faces of the world. And each face of the world may ask for a different kind of design… My research question is: how does the distinction between the attitude of the producer (acting and achieving) and the attitude of the consumer (awareness and alertness) effect the way we design the environment? We can imagine an area of ‘awareness and alertness’ on one hand , and an area of ‘acting and achieving’ on the other hand. What would these areas look like? And which one do you need where? And as we have two areas now, how can we relate the two to each other? 

1)    ‘Wetenschap en Wereldbeeld in de Gouden Eeuw’ door Eric Jorink, Hilversum 1999
2)    ‘Utopia’ door Ian Todd en Michael Wheeler, Londen 1978
3)    Documentaire Discovery 1995
4)    ‘Het einde van de geschiedenis’ door Maurice Weyembergh en Marc Van den Bossche (red.), Nijmegen 1995

posted on Sunday, December 11, 2005 11:46 AM

Geef een reactie

Het e-mailadres wordt niet gepubliceerd. Vereiste velden zijn gemarkeerd met *