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.

Social Life, Zone Sociale
Image: Imagining the field, Engaging the field: Kroll’s Zone Sociale, Woluwé-Saint-Lambert, UCL

Last month, my colleague and friend, E. Keslacye invited me to deliver a guest lecture in her graduate seminar on architectural research methods at LTU, Southfield. The title of my talk was “Fieldwork: Human Factors and Social Research.” I devoted the bulk of this presentation to discuss my selection of field tactics for examining the two case studies of my dissertation, in particular, the respective manifestations of Kroll and Tschumi’s design-polemical theories. Prior to my lecture, however, I had circulated two sets of readings that jointly addressed the humanistic discourse of environmental design studies. The first set laid out some of the ways of conceiving our field and fieldwork in epistemological terms. The second set discussed the qualitative and case study research strategies for engaging the field and its ground conditions. The talk and readings together raised some very good questions among those interested in pursuing empirical research. Thanks for the opportunity, EK!

EDRA44_Research_Methods_SymposiumEnriching Environmental Design Research

I had a brilliant time at EDRA44 in Providence last weekend. Every year, I look forward to reconnecting with my mentors, meeting new members, and feeling encouraged in the company of colleagues committed to the design and scholarship of livable environments. At this year’s EDRA, I led a panel on environmental design research methods. The framing of this session was inspired by the symposium on contemporary challenges for qualitative methods held at EDRA43 last year. The concepts and tactics presented during that meeting constituted the growing number of attempts in the last decade at outlining the strengths and legitimacy of qualitative methods for environment-behavior scholarship. What value does qualitative research have for environmental designers? How might qualitative methods inspire newer connections between research and design?

In order to continue the conversation from last year and engage these questions in renewed light, I invited Linda Groat and David Seamon to co-participate in a symposium on enriching environmental design research. Groat’s paper set the stage for other presentations on the panel, and discussed both separate and shared qualities of design and research through distinct conceptual frameworks [1]. Seamon’s work expanded upon the notion of “synergistic relationality,” and illustrated the relevance of synergistic mode for environmental design scholarship using a six-part phenomenological model [2]. My presentation explained how a case study research design with appropriate qualitative tactics might help examine the consequences of polemical theories as embodied in distinct architectural projects.

Elsewhere at the conference, I was delighted to meet Ayda Melika and Susanne Cowen, the makers of a soon-to-be-released documentary film, Design as a Social Act: Social Factors and Participatory Design, 1960-1980. Their two-part film screening and ensuing conversation with panelists (and key interviewees) generated much debate and discussion among members in the audience. Needless to say, it was at once exciting and motivating to engage figures such as Henry Sanoff, Galen Cranz, and Randy Hester in a conversation about current predicaments in the field. My notes and emerging ideas from the meeting are overflowing; I hope to review them over the next few weeks. For now, I am happy to be back in Ann Arbor, and back at the Writing Institute, to continue with my dissertation writing.

[1] Linda N. Groat, “Does Design Equal Research” in Linda N. Groat and David Wang, Architectural Research Methods (New York: J. Wiley, 2013).
[2] David Seamon, “Analytic and Synergistic Understandings of Place: What Does Qualitative Research Offer Environmental Design?” (paper presented at EDRA44 Providence, RI, May 31, 2013).

Hard Space, Soft Space, and Architectures of Appropriation

My spring-term field trip to Europe culminated in Seattle, at the 43rd Annual Meeting of EDRA researchers. It was wonderful to connect back with friends, colleagues, and precious mentors at EDRA, and equally brilliant to interview one of the members for my dissertation research at the venue. Whilst details of my field work will be forthcoming, here is a snippet of the symposium I led and participated in at EDRA.

The theme of EDRA43 conference was “emergent placemaking.” My session entitled, “Hard Space, Soft Space, and Architectures of Appropriation” discussed the notion of “emergence” in terms of the social makings of an environment through design. It focused attention on architectural and urban design frameworks that allow distinct social groups to take ownership of space and negotiate harder aspects of space. The panel saw hard space as material space: space as defined by physical elements such as walls and boundaries; it discussed soft space in terms of the everyday social coding of space: space made and remade by human activity through everyday social interactions with material space; finally, it imagined appropriation as a dialogic relationship between harder and softer aspects of space: the practice of space, both real and imagined.

Overall, the symposium looked at each of these three components as key interrelated elements of emergent placemaking. Specifically, it sought to position space as an agent in the discourse on emergence, and ask: How is space defined through use patterns of its inhabitants? What kinds of design strategies afford possibilities for spatial appropriation? In what ways does space provide agency to its inhabitants, if any? The aim of this session was to bring theoretical and descriptive work on design and localized use together in a conversation. Continuing the conversation from last year, one of my goals at this meeting was to clarify the social meanings of environmental design with diverse perspectives from design researchers and academics and to seek connections between and among spatial concerns, both old, new, and ongoing.

– K. Franck, Professor, College of Architecture and Design, New Jersey Institute of
– K. Patel, PhD Candidate, Architecture, University of Michigan
– P. Aeschbacher, Assistant Professor, Architecture and Landscape Architecture, Penn State University (in spirit!)

Image: Fernandes N; Chaudhury, C. Bombay Then | Mumbai Now (2009)

Yesterday, I gave a talk entitled, “Communicating Space: Framing space and urbanism in Bombay” at the South Asia Seminar Series at Emory University in Atlanta. The event was organized by Middle Eastern and South Asia Studies Program, and co-sponsored by the Program in Linguistics. Speaking to a group of scholars, academics and students interested in the many cultures and languages of South Asia, I focused attention on the city of Bombay and illustrated its multiple urbanisms through the lens of space and communication. Specifically, I situated the notion of communication in HL’s concept of “texture” and placed emphasis on both verbal and non-verbal communication as they relate to city’s spatial culture, spatial conditions, and spatial practices. I juxtaposed distinct material narratives on Bombay and discussed the many ways in which the textural relationship between space and communication reframed questions of voice and difference and spoke to multiple Bombays (Bombay, Bambai, and Mumbai including).

The talk was less about following a single line of thought to its logical conclusion, and more about presenting a diverse set of interconnected material on space and communication as a series of questions. Throughout, I employed the notion of texture as a framework to understand the relationship between space and society, but most importantly, to get past the view of space as either a neutral setting in which social processes take place, or some text whose reading might reveal the everyday social life. Intellectual stimulation aside, I was very happy to gain the support of an extremely encouraging and loving community at Emory. Sincere thanks to Ruby and Benny for inviting me to speak at their School.

Additionally, I was extremely pleased to learn that K. Rattenbury and S. Hardingham’s “Bernard Tschumi: Parc de la Villette [SuperCrit #4]” was released by Routledge this year. The actual SuperCrit #4 event was held in October 2005 at the University of Westminster, London and organized by Research Centre for Experimental Practice EXP and The Architecture Foundation. Speakers included Peter Cook, Bruce McLean, Nigel Coates, Carlos Villaneuva Brandt, and Murray Fraser.

[At this point, I can’t wait to get my personal copy. Also see: John Morgan Studio (format design)]