Style as Research Programme
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Looking back over 10 years of DRL work the most striking feature is the great sense of continuity across the years. This continuity bears witness to Mies’ famous dictum that you cannot invent a new architecture every Monday morning.
The totality of nearly one hundred projects - authored by about 350 students working in teams - gives the impression of a single oeuvre. At the same time there is a cumulative build up of virtuosity, resolution and refinement. This is not only due to improving tools and techniques. It is a function of the consistency of agendas, ambitions and values that allow each generation of students to build upon the achievements of their predecessors.
This continuity also reflects the DRL’s active participation in a closely knit discourse within the contemporary architectural avant-garde. This discourse encompasses other units at the AA, other schools like Columbia, Yale, U-Penn, UCLA, Vienna Applied Arts etc., as well as a whole series of innovative architectural practices that all have been linked in one way or another with the academic hubs mentioned.
The shared concepts, programmatic biases, computational techniques, formal repertoires, and tectonic logics that characterize the work under the auspices of this discourse are crystallizing into a solid new paradigm for architecture, engendering the formation of a new style: Parametricism.
Avant-garde styles might be interpreted and evaluated in analogy to new scientific paradigms, affording a new conceptual framework, and formulating new aims, methods and values. Thus a new direction for concerted research work is established. My thesis is therefore: Styles are design research programmes.
It is important to distinguish between research programmes in the literal sense of institutional research plans from the meta-scientific conception of research programmes that has been introduced into the philosophy of science: whole new research traditions that are directed by a new fundamental theoretical framework. It is this latter concept that is utilized here for the reinterpretation of the concept of style.
With respect to research programmes in the literal sense we must note their total absence from the domain of architecture. This absence of dedicated research institutions places the burden of innovation upon the shoulders of certain avant-garde schools and firms. Both have to divert their resources away from their supposed core task - training students in the case of the schools and servicing clients in the case of the firms - to pursue design research. There is no other mechanism of innovation in architecture.
Innovation in architecture proceeds via the progression of styles. This implies the alternation between periods of cumulative advancement within a style and revolutionary periods of transition between styles. A similar rhythm structures scientific progress. This rhythm has been captured in Thomas Kuhn’s famous distinction of two very different patterns of scientific communication: “Normal science”proceeding within a dominant scientific paradigm and “revolutionary science” engendering paradigm shift. Accordingly we can distinguish cumulative design research from revolutionary design research. During cumulative periods the avant-garde designers are eager to solve problem after problem posed by the style/research programme shared within the hegemonic avant-garde movement. Revolutionary periods ensue when the dominant research programme looses its fertility. The search for alternative routes forward produces schisms and isms and the philosophers trump the designers, until a new vital paradigm gains ground and ascends to hegemony once more focusing a new cycle of innovations under the auspices of a new style. The DRL was born at such a new take off point that was made possible by the preceeding revolutionary period and its decisive resolution.
Styles represent cycles of innovation, gathering the design research efforts into a collective endeavor. Stable self-identity is here as much a necessary precondition of evolution as it is in the case of organic life. Avant-garde design projects are best understood as speculative hypotheses, formulated within a certain style. The style serves as a cohering research programme that allows for the construction of a systematic series of design experiments.
With respect to the critical evaluation of avant-garde work, it is important to emphasize that the status of the avant-garde project as original, speculative hypothesis is its very raison d’être. The avant-garde is not aiming at the delivery of state of the art solutions, or fully corroborated improvements. Improvements that can compete with the state of the art bench-mark of performance cannot be expected from those who set out to push the boundaries.
This initial task-inadequacy of avant-garde styles is mirrored in the initial inadequacy of new paradigms in science. New scientific research programmes often start with idealized, knowingly unrealistic assumptions, without yet expecting empirical corroboration. The theoretical edifice that can eventually stand full empirical testing will be constructed via a series of interim stages that can only cover partial aspects of reality, remaining enveloped by preliminary assumptions. The research programme is thus a rough roadmap for a future that is based on radically new principles.
To hold on to the new principles - the hard core - in the face of difficulties is crucial for the chance of eventual success. This tenacity - abundantly evident in the 10 years of DRL projects - might at times appear as dogmatic obstinacy. The obstinate insistence of solving everything with a folding single surface - project upon project, slowly wrenching the plausible from the implausible – might be loosely! compared to the Newtonian insistence to explain everything from planets to bullets to atoms in terms of the same principles.
“Newton’s theory of gravitation, Einstein’s relativity theory, quantum mechanics, Marxism, Freudianism, are all research programmes, each with a characteristic hard core stubbornly defended, … each with its elaborate problem solving machinery. Each of them, at any stage of its development, has unsolved problems and undigested anomalies. All theories, in this sense, are born refuted and die refuted.”
The same can be said of styles: Each style has its hard core of principles and a characteristic way of tackling design problems/tasks. Avant-garde architecture produces manifestos: paradigmatic expositions of a new style’s unique potential, not buildings that are balanced to function in all respects. There can be neither verification, nor final refutation merely on the basis of its built results.
The programme/style consists of methodological rules: some tell us what paths of research to avoid (negative heuristics), and others what paths to pursue (positive heuristics). The negative heuristics formulates strictures that prevent the relapse into explanatory patterns that are not fully consistent with the core, and the positive heuristics offers guiding principles and preferred techniques that allow the work to fast-forward in one direction. The defining heuristics of parametricism are fully reflected in the taboos and dogmas of the DRL design culture:
Negative heuristics: avoid familiar typologies, avoid platonic/hermetic objects, avoid clear-cut zones/territories, avoid repetition, avoid straight lines, avoid right angles, avoid corners, …
Positive heuristics: hyberdize, morph, deterritorialize, deform, iterate, use splines, nurbs, generative components, script rather than model, …
The most profound new scientific research programmes are preoccupied with working through their own internal logic and implications rather than focusing first on empirical verification. In the context of developing architectural research programmes/styles this prevalence of mathematical over empirical problems transposes into the prevalence of formal over functional problems, especially in the early productive surge of an emerging new style. This phenomenon of a formalist emphasis can be observed in all emergent styles of the 20th Century: Modernism, Post-Modernism, Deconstructivism, and Parametricism. In this context the charge of formalism that has been leveled against the DRL becomes a badge of honor. However, the DRL has always complemented its formal preoccupation with a systematic programme agenda.
Innovation is always suspended between two poles: the investigation of a domain of problems (analysis of new societal/programmatic demands) and the expansion of the domain of potential solutions (proliferation of new spatial repertoires). Embodied by the Dutch avant-garde and the US avant-garde respectively, both aspects have been pursuit independent from each other. The independent elaboration of the two domains makes sense, as a division of labour or specialization. However, this led to two opposing ideologies, programme versus form, both equally one-sided. The necessary synthesis requires the oscillation between the two domains and is itself an act of creative intelligence. What we call design research is the attempt to systematise this oscillation within a focal frame that narrows down both the realm of problems and the realm of solutions.
The final question is which social/programmatic arena would best allow us to explore the architectural opportunities afforded by the new concepts, and strategies of parametricism? So far the DRL answered this question via its three successive research agendas: Corporate Fields, Responsive Environments, Parametric Urbanism.
What will we do in the next ten years? I expect parametricism to consolidate its hegemony in architecture. Both its scope and depth will increase. This suggests that there will be many new agendas that can serve as vehicles to push the parametricist paradigm forward. I prefer to frame the forthcoming agendas more tightly, to go deeper, pushing technical precision, to attain the next level of virtuosity, resolution and refinement. Cumulative research is to continue until the paradigm’s ability to produce fruitful design problems recedes, either internally due to inherent exhaustion or externally due to unexpected societal evolution. When this might be is utterly unpredictable. Unlike art, architecture does not allow for revolutionary periods to be engendered wilfully. There is only the will to power, the desire to stay close to the central axis of progress. The power of the DRL shows up in the contributions that ex-DRL students have been making to the key projects of the last decade. The next decade we simply have to stay on target.
 This interpretation of styles is valid only with respect to the avant-garde phase of any style.
 Imre Lakatos, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes, Cambridge 1978
 Despite its name, the DRL (Design Research Lab) is no real exception – it remains a teaching unit with its inherent limitations: students with limited tenure instead of permanent professional research staff.
 Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, University of Chicago Press, 1962, Second enlarged edition, 1970
 This preceding revolutionary period was the long period of debate and gestation since the crisis of modernism in the 1970s. It produced conflicting, transitory phenomena like post-modernism and deconstructivism.
 The individual design hypothesis, together with the style it is embedded within, is being empirically tested through its detailed elaboration, construction and social use much later.
 The history of science testifies to this.
 Lakatos, Imre, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes, Cambridge 1978, p.5
 The final reckoning takes place later, in the arena of the mainstream adoption which only indirectly feeds back into the central, discursive arena of the discipline.
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