Exploring Theoretical and Methodological Frameworks of Environmental Design Research for Advancing Social Change
Last week, I was in New Orleans to present at the 45th annual conference of Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA). The theme of this year’s meeting was “Building with Change” and my symposium responded to the conference sub-track #7 titled: Democratic Design Praxis with Community. In this session, my co-presenters David Seamon, Julia Robinson, and I raised concerns about the diminishing stature of environmental design research and practice within the contemporary discourse on architecture and social change. Specifically, we asked: How might distinct theoretical and methodological frameworks, already well-developed within environmental design research, prompt re-conceptualization of the formal, programmatic, and/or spatial considerations of architectural design towards desired social change? At what scales do these frameworks operate? How might this session be introspective as well as projective to keep alive the transformative commitment of EDRA?
Each of the presenters built upon an important tradition within environmental design scholarship—broadly, phenomenology, structuralism, and critical theory—to evaluate a cultural phenomenon of significance. Jointly, we saw each of our frameworks operate at the level of what Groat and Wang refer to as “schools of thought” (2013) – conceptual systems that not only guide how distinct social needs are framed, but also suggest relevant strategies and tactics for addressing those needs. Additionally, we concluded that design experimentations in the absence of broader theoretical perspectives or schools of thought are likely to produce change that is idiosyncratic, short-term, and unsustained. Conversely, critical frameworks that do not engage questions of space, politics, and aesthetics risk perpetuating an oversimplified dichotomy of “objective” methods and “subjective” experiences. The session and the conference at large offered us a valuable moment to pause and reflect on the limits and potentials of our operative frameworks to participate in progressive social transformation.
A massive thank you to Mallika Bose, Paula Horrigan, Rula Awwad-Rafferty for organizing this umbrella track, and to David Seamon and Julia Robinson, again, for their brilliant papers.