Since its inception, the Delft School of Design (DSD) has been operating as a research based forum supporting the diverse population of PhD candidates working at the Faculty of Architecture. The DSD was established when it was identified that the academic research structure in the Faculty often resulted in isolated doctoral candidates working on their own individual islands. In an age of global communication, it was no longer possible for this to continue. This isolated and independent academic structure resulted in a lack of research synergy, simply because there was no forum within the Faculty of Architecture allowing for doctoral candidates to engage, share and exchange knowledge, or to collaborate in the development of lectures, conferences, workshops, etc. This necessary forum, the link between islands, was successfully founded by the DSD, and it continues to this day under what we like to call the ‘DSD Platform’. The platform has established an international and multi-disciplinary network of scholars attending the DSD to participate in conferences, symposia, workshops, and lectures.
Research at the DSD has expanded upon the accumulated knowledge gathered in the early years. From these initial findings, further critical issues of urgency in architecture and the city have distinctly emerged. As a consequence, DSD has expanded its research ambitions with regard to the problems of the city – the problématique urbaine - which has meant extending our horizons to encompass a wide variety of geographical areas from Tokyo and Mexico City to South Africa and Asia. As such, organizers of the DSD programs, along with individual researchers, work to find new methodologies, evocative ways of doing historical analysis, bridging the gap between (retrospective) analysis and (prospective) design practices. The DSD has also recognized the necessity to engage in the ever accelerating domains of knowledge production and accumulation, with regard to technological advances in lateral disciplines. These fields, pertinent to contemporary architectural discourse and practice, tackle issues as diverse as computational procedures, structural design innovations, and advanced design economy.
Such issues are approached through investigations in a multitude of ways, including:
• historical studies involving the analysis of our physical and socio-cultural past;
• theoretical postulating that analyzes the conditions by which objects and subjects are reflexively produced and, at times, spontaneously emerge;
• practical case studies of objects and methodologies within the urban and architecture framework that reveal the modes of thinking that make the production of the city and its objects possible.
What these approaches hold in common is the demand for a reassessment of traditional models and a readiness to grasp the emerging ‘condition’ of architectural knowledge in both an academic context and professional practice.
Contemporary practice in this manner makes it clear that the exclusion of disciplines related to and involved in the above approaches (historical, theoretical, practical) has not only become inadequate, but, can be seen as counter-productive with regard to state-of-the-art advances in the sciences and humanities. But that is not to say that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Though we are striving to develop new modes of inquiry and investigation in dynamic times, there can be no doubt that important circumstances remain in which specific discipline protocols, methodologically precise approaches to empirical object and speculative discourse are not merely relevant, but critical. For instance, methodological rigor within doctoral research is crucial and demands clarity and precision with regard to procedures as they have been developed within specific disciplines over hundreds, and in the case of philosophy and physics, thousands of years. Put simply, before approaching multi- and trans-discipline investigations, both the history and the limits of those disciplines’ boundaries must be understood. In order to address issues such as these the DSD brings together architects, historians, theoreticians, urban planners, and structural designers; additionally, we also bring together economists, geographers, social and political scientists, neuroscientists and philosophers, comparative literature scholars, film makers and artists. Each of these experts has extensive and specialized knowledge in their respective field, and the goal is to organize seminars, meetings and debates around various themes found to be mutually relevant to everyone involved. These encounters, while respecting the diverse disciplines coming to the table, are productive and generative for fresh approaches to the complex sets of problems engaging professionals, academics, and emerging doctoral scholars today.
The DSD has developed a strategy, or a field of inquiry, in order to map out new means of approaching the complexity of the contemporary urban condition, which are based in part on the following:
• the complexity of the object of study
• the complexity of the condition, or the state, of architectural knowledge, and
• the necessary methodologies, both incumbent and innovative, with which to approach the former two.
In the first instance, as we have already discussed, traditional approaches have proven increasingly inadequate due to the complexities of the object of study. For architects, historians, theoreticians, urban planners, and structural designers, the object of study is the contemporary urban condition. The object in question may vary in scale, from the global socio-cultural or geo-economic constructs, to the intimate scale of building materialization or construction detail. The problématique urbaine, in other words, presumes the city, defined as a set of inter-related conditions, at once facilitating and limiting. This complexity is partly due to the nature of the information age. We have developed technologies increasing our access to knowledge and are thus confronted with difficulties and epistemological composites previously imperceptible. Yet, on the other hand, these very same technologies present the challenge and opportunity to both grasp and represent our world in unprecedented ways. Our design instruments require serious mutations simply to be able to see, to understand, the present state of affairs. Global connections function at an incommensurable speed compared to those of only a half century ago, and at a much larger scale than traditional imperialism might have ever conceived. Today, few people have been left unaffected. Furthermore, not merely the scale, but the scope of global interconnectedness – what Saskia Sassen has come to refer to as ‘infrastructures’ - has greatly extended. These ‘infrastructures’ are multi-dimensional, and infiltrate and transform those economic, technological, political, juridical, social and cultural domains previously held structurally independent, and more fundamentally, territorially sovereign.
Particularly this latter characteristic has our attention. The dynamic and often unmediated interactions among numerous global actors create new levels of complexity for the relationships between policy, research and design practice. The notion of agency, once primarily a socio-political concern has become embedded in all forms of cultural and economic practices; architecture and urbanism will become sorely ineffective if they attempt to turn a blind eye to this new cosmology.
This problem of the object of study leads us to our second approach, being the complexity of the condition of architectural knowledge. In 1979, Jean-François Lyotard published La Condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir (The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, 1984). Often, it seems, the second part of this title has all but been forgotten; nevertheless, Lyotard was commissioned by the Council of Universities of the Government of Quebec, to produce this now seminal report on the current state of knowledge and information as it related to the sciences at that time. It was here that the question of ‘legitimation’ was raised with regard to scientific research and technology, or, as Jameson phrases it, ‘technocracy and the control of knowledge and information’. The DSD, some thirty years after Lyotard’s provocative insights, retains the critical understanding that it is necessary to continuously both refine and redefine design research in relation to other sciences and technical faculties. The central position, taken by our approach, is very much in line with Lyotard’s notion of the Postmodern Condition, specifically in the context of architecture - the “condition” of the means of design in relation to their effectiveness and social legitimacy. This brings us to the simple fact that it is necessary to question which ‘instruments’ are actually valid for use in analyzing the object both of and as design, and equally, which ones have become obsolete. In other words, can composition, semiotics, linguistics, philosophy, social theory, hermeneutics or phenomenology still claim to discover the value of a design? Or are we in the post-modern universe described by Deyan Sudjic, where all these disciplines are used as a complement to design? We have to realize that most design questions formulated in the Technical Universities have to do with the “how”, the question pertaining to the manner in which things are made, solely for the sake of improvement or innovation. The other question, however is “why”, which, for more than a century, has been the issue central to the social sciences. Since architecture and urbanism are both technologically and socially driven - creating, in fact, social constructions of reality - these fields have the responsibility to deal with both ‘how’ and ‘why’. However, in contrast to the other technical faculties, research in Architecture and Urbanism is dealing with society right from the start, not in isolation. Society, itself complex, prevents us from merely seeing things in terms of conventional causality (or ‘cause and effect’ as might be the case in technical sciences such as applied physics or aerospace engineering). We deal with a material concept that has a double connotation, both technical and social. It is technical in the sense that materials and procedures of architecture, in and of themselves, form a rich cultural matrix, capable of sustaining dense intellectual argument without much recourse to concepts and language borrowed from other fields. It is social in that we are dealing with, as mentioned previously, the very social construction of reality, the physical world we inhabit. This nexus of the technical and the social could be a “declaration of position” for the DSD, with the conclusion that architecture and art, in their first instance, are material practices, implying both theoretical and concrete dimensions.
Our third point naturally evolves from the first two points already discussed. Tackling the new complexities of the object of study and the condition of architectural knowledge leads us inevitably to address the complexity of the necessary methodology. Initially, we must look at the present-day curricula at Technical Universities and assess how architectural criticism is going to cope with its technical contexts. What we need is to analyze our current social condition and the requirements arising from this. This analysis is not possible without also characterizing the debates connected with current social theory, for example, the theories of Manfredo Tafuri, or the present school of ideology critique of Fredric Jameson. This is especially true where it concerns the consequences of these analyses and the specific situation of design training. The faculties of architecture are acutely affected by the perception that they operate in the seeming antithesis of social and political sciences and their future oriented design work. The social sciences can maintain a critical position with regard to their social object, whereas
architecture faculties must at the same time construct their future object. The most important characteristic of critical analysis is that it is retrospective – historical / theoretical analysis explains why something happened the way it did. In order to achieve such an analysis, the narrative must be shut down. Hegel’s ‘owl of Minerva’ - representing knowledge - takes flight at dusk, but it is destined always to arrive too late. Certainly, this is too often true for the planner and the architect who are left standing empty-handed because of an inability to separate themselves from their present condition.
This is a result of the underlying complexities found in architectural training. The competition between the genres de discourse (following Lyotard), the various social, political and aesthetic ideas, is immense. All these species of discourse, however, are essentially heterogeneous – one cannot replace the other. The idea of a machine technology is no longer decisive; instead technical universities deal with a knowledge technology subject to symbolic interpretation. The actuality of this situation – the heterogeneity of the discourses – precludes a harmonious arrangement. Nevertheless, the task of advanced research in the fields of architecture and urbanism must address such historically instantiated impasses. At the DSD we have taken the decision to advance towards both thinking and action that operates ‘between’; thinking, for instance, between science and society. Bruno Latour, in his often cited paper ‘Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern’ (2004), puts forward a criticism of the sciences, leveled at two fronts: one, the dangers within sciences that seek certainties in the construction of facts, ‘disguised as bad ideological biases!’; and two, the tendency within scientific thinking to exaggerate its retort to linguistically based arguments, perceived as reveling in the ambiguities of ‘interpretation’. In this view, matters of ‘fact’, the supposed basis of empirical science, have not been abandoned; they have simply shifted away from their presupposed relation to ‘reality’, in other words, away from the Kantian givens in experience. The argument here rests simply on the assertion that the examination of details, no matter how numerous or complex, will only lead to plausible or reductive social explanations. The relationship between the study and the object - or moreover, the relation between the study of objects and their objects of study - is in need of radical reassessment. Latour here refers to the American Pragmatist philosopher, William James, who over a century ago, displayed remarkable insight into the future condition, writing: ‘… the critical mind, if it is to renew itself and be relevant again, is to be found in the cultivation of a ‘stubbornly realist attitude’. The DSD seeks to advance new methodologies with a mind towards thinking, a disposition directed to acting, within a similar ‘stubbornly realist’ view.
The DSD defines itself as a scientific or scholarly platform in and for practice, aiming towards implementation of theories and ideas at both general and specific levels. Conversely, the construction of natural sciences aspires to universal application, as is its proper domain. Buildings and plans, however, have a far more contextually driven, and thus, unique character. The conditions in which the architect must work come from the outside; programs are determined beyond the purview of any individual or agent, including that of the architect. Or, as Stan Allen, dean of the School of Architecture at Princeton University has put it: the practice of architecture tends to be messy and inconsistent, precisely because it has to negotiate a reality that is itself messy and inconsistent. And maybe, it is better to drop the conventional theory/practice dualism, as Allen also recommends, and distinguish broadly between practices that are primarily hermeneutic, devoted to interpretation and analysis of representations, and those that are primarily material, such as urbanism, ecology, fashion, film making and gardening. Hermeneutic practice always point toward the past, whereas material practice analyzes the present in order to project transformations into the future. In this sense too, the DSD distinguishes itself from the other TU Delft faculties, where the function of the “laboratory” is fundamentally different.
In the end, the DSD believes in the three-tiered strategy for approaching contemporary complexity: the complexity of the object of study, the complexity of the condition of architectural knowledge, and the complexity of the necessary methodology. Architectural understanding is not only developed on a theoretical level, but also questions the status of knowledge itself, as well as attempting to develop the necessary tools in which to discuss this body of knowledge. Such is the “condition” of architecture, urbanism, and structural design. As a laboratory for emerging research and experimentation, the DSD is not only interested in understanding the world, but also in improving it through concrete interventions, by reconciling theory with practice.