Lessons from the 2015 AIA Knowledge Summit

“Is knowledge knowable? If so, how do we know that?”
—Nicholas Rombus, Carnegie Mellon University Professor, 1972

I spent the last couple of days with some of the smartest people I’ve ever known. This was AIA’s third Knowledge Summit, and I have been privileged to join each session. In fact, I was the only non-AIA person who’d been to all three. I have no idea why, but I’m honored to be included.

The group was a mix of about two dozen academics and practitioners who were asked to consider a variation on the quote above. The AIA feels (and I fully agree) that if the profession of architecture is to remain viable and relevant, it MUST become a more knowledge-based profession. We spent two days debating and exploring what that meant and why.

There was general, high-level consensus on the idea (would you expect a room full of academics and PhD’s to say “no?”), but the issue of how knowledge (we used the word “research” a lot, but research is just the process of gaining knowledge) relates to the practice of architecture was much less clear. While I spent eight hours on airplanes to get back home, I had a lot of time to think about that.

I believe every design project is a research project. Design is an approach or a vision of a unique solution. It starts with a problem statement: a question. After all, if the clients knew the answer, they’d do it themselves. Research and design are the same process—we identify the issues and questions around the clients’ need or problem, and then explore options (develop hypothesis) to see what might work. We test that design to see if it works (contractors, code officials, clients themselves, user groups—tough peer reviewers indeed) and refine it until we come up with a solution that works.

There are two things that we (both Strada, specifically, and the AIA, generally) do not do, that good research requires—we do not, for the most part, go back after the building is done to see if our hypothesis was proven correct, and we do not seek predictability. Both of these can, and should be incorporated into our Place-making process, to make the work we do more meaningful and valuable, both to the clients we design for, for ourselves and for future clients and projects. By stating our hypothesis clearly during the initial place-making discussion (a problem statement), we make our assumptions and ignorance plain, and we can then design with a better idea of where we’re going.

None of this precludes aesthetics. In fact, I submit that an ongoing, firm-wide research question we should explore on every project is the question of the role of aesthetics as a value to be achieved. Why does beauty matter? What value does a well-crafted, beautiful design add to the functional aspects of the design?

I believe that knowledge is knowable, and by asking hard questions, and then digging deep to find answers, we know it.