The Architect as a Scientist

Architecture is a form of art – an overall technology or a techné. Different approaches to architectural design will employ different technologies, and this is going to have an impact on the final architectural product. As students, are we being taught how to adaptively respond to the increasing challenges on our planet? Architecture should address these issues not only through artistic sensibility, but also with the help scientific innovations and methods.

In many ways the process of developing an architectural proposal is similar to a science project. It begins with defining a specific problem that needs to be resolved and the objective is to offer an appropriate solution. The process includes multiple experiments, construction of models and, at the end of it all, a presentation where the proposal needs to captivate and convince the audience.

Even though universities are seemingly pushing us to think differently, are we really being offered the tools with which to combine our creative urge with the science-like testing and experimentation? We are taught to ‘own’ our designs, which is manifested through logical arguments for the purpose of self-promotion as artists. However, what lies outside of this internal design logic?

Universities should provide us with the tools and knowledge, in order to apply and fulfill their own developed methods of problem-solving, whether that would be traditional methods or more technologically advanced. Not all architecture schools throughout the UK have incorporated innovative technologies within their curriculum. Because of this, if a student were motivated to explore the applications of these innovations within their own projects, they would be very limited. Perhaps, if we were more encouraged to question the way buildings are meant to be designed, as well as their purpose in society, it would lead to many discoveries that could eventually create numerous job possibilities we had not even imagined could exist within the architectural industry. With sensible investments in the educational system, many other problems might be resolved, such as the job shortage in the industry for example. The quality of the educational system is largely responsible for how our society is shaped.

An example of an organisation that pushes young people’s creative urge and responds to issues on our planet is the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), which is the world’s largest science fair, organised for high school students. Nearly 1,800 students coming from all over the world are brought together to share the research they are working on. The most successful ideas are funded for their further development. This is great support for students to fulfil their creative desires while making the world a better place one discovery at a time.

Design is not simply the appearance of a thing, it is also how the thing works. Therefore, mastering technology is a way to master and improve our designs. It appears students enrolled on a STEM subject are encouraged to not only respond to current relevant issues, but also attempt to predict and be a step ahead of current technological trends.

On the one hand, our course is too long. On the other hand, despite it being so long, we are left with skills that quickly, almost instantly, become outdated. This is because we are not keeping up with technology, meaning the curriculum is not designed efficiently. On top of all that, the expensive and extensive architecture degree does not give you permission to call yourself a licensed Architect. It is even illegal to give yourself this title in the US, until you have passed the Architect Registration Exam. Maybe after that point you might engage with creative and innovative design experiments. That is if you are lucky enough to be working on the actual design, not simply carrying out executive tasks.

A woman who we could all look up to, regardless of the course we are enrolled on, is Neri Oxman. She is an architect at MIT Media Lab, where she leads the Mediated Matter research group. She is experimenting with 3D printable materials, from concrete to silk. “Can you print DNA? Can you print with calcium? Can you make a building with calcium? How can we reinterpret 3D printing that generates or suggests a new design language that is informed by the environment?” Further, she points out something very important: “Nature does not divide between the engineer, the architect and the construction worker.” By experimenting and having fun with what she is passionate about, she is responding to many issues that architecture needs to be considering. The architect as a type of scientists should embrace approaching challenges with unconventional and experimental methods.

Architecture school should not be about teaching us how to design to merely treat symptoms in society, but we should be able to learn how to respond directly to the cause through the built environment. As Bertrand Russell said: “The role of education for the individual is to enhance their roles as citizens”. It is important to not only introduce these technologies within architectural education, but also point out why they matter. By mastering and understanding them, we could start designing buildings that represent the beauty and creativity of the human mind while also existing in balance with nature.