The Architectural Design Doctorate
At the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London (UCL), I direct the Architectural Design doctoral programme, which was founded in the mid-1990s. The idea to start this programme began a few years earlier, and we were fortunate that both the Bartlett and UCL were very supportive and understood its value and potential. I was already full time at the Bartlett, running the professional Bachelor of Science (BSc) programme and a Master’s degree design studio. The Architectural Design PhD began with the Director of the School, Professor Philip Tabor, as our principal supervisor, and two colleagues, Yeoryia Manolopoulou and Penelope Haralambidou, and I as the first students (Figures 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9). We thought that it was appropriate and ethical not to publicise the programme until one of us had finished it. I was the guinea pig. When I completed the PhD in 2000, I began to direct the programme, which we then advertised to new students.
The first PhD in creative writing in the United Kingdom was established in 1987 at the University of East Anglia. There have been a number of art and practice-based PhD programmes at other British universities, but we were the first architecture programme of this kind in the UK, and the first in the world to have a graduating student, as far as we are aware. Some art doctoral programmes define themselves as different from the traditional PhD. But we always emphasise that ours is a PhD within the mould of what you expect a PhD to be in Britain. The only significant difference is that while a familiar PhD is purely written, the Architectural Design PhD combines a project and a text that share a research subject and have a productive relationship.
We consciously named it the Architectural Design programme, and not the Design and Theory programme, because we didn’t want people to assume that theory was just text-based. We see drawing and building as key elements of the process of developing theories and practices of architecture. In the doctoral thesis, there is always an academic text of around 60,000 words, but the relationship between project and text depends on the research subject. The design project can be filmed, sculpted, built or drawn, or employ any methods and media that are interesting and appropriate to the subject. Consequently, Architectural Design PhD students often create a thesis that integrates a number of ways of working. If you produce a singular piece of work with one type of output, you may tend to have a singular idea of authorship. But if you work between media, as you do with an Architectural Design PhD, you need to realise and conceptualise your place within this process.
Unlike a professional programme focused on the education of architects, a doctoral programme can have a broader conception of architecture. There are currently 50 to 60 students in the Architectural Design PhD programme. About two-thirds of them have an architectural background; there has been a medical practitioner, a site-specific poet, as well as artists, geographers, historians and urbanists.
UCL is a large, multi-disciplinary university. The principal doctoral supervisor is within the Bartlett School of Architecture, while the subsidiary supervisor can be anywhere in UCL, whether from anthropology, computer science, medical science, or fine art, for example. Our intention is for doctoral subjects and supervisions to be as broad as the discipline of architecture and to connect research to related disciplines to foster productive and rewarding collaborations. Within the Bartlett, the Architectural Design PhD programme has a longstanding, fruitful association with the Architectural History and Theory PhD programme. Every year we collectively organise a series of regular seminars and events, and an annual conference and exhibition with international critics, so that students can present work-in-progress.
Designing the Architect
As I am an architect and an architectural historian, I will now briefly situate the Architectural Design doctorate within the history of architecture, investigating historical understanding as a creative stimulus to design. In contemporary discourse and practice it is familiar to discuss design research as if it is new to architecture. But this is to ignore the history of the architect. The Architectural Design PhD is a comparatively new qualification. But its methods and means are not. Indeed, they have been invaluable to the architect for over 500 years.
The history of design is interdependent with the history of drawing. The term ‘design’ derives from the Italian disegno, which means drawing and associates drawing a line with drawing forth an idea. The Renaissance reasserted classical antiquity’s appreciation of the timeless, immaterial geometries of ideal forms but introduced a fundamental change in perception to proclaim that drawing mediates seamlessly between the mind and the world, allowing the three visual arts of architecture, painting and sculpture to be acknowledged as arts concerned with ideas. The command of drawing – not building – transformed the architect’s status, establishing the influential myth that architecture results from individual, artistic creation not the accumulated knowledge of a construction team.
In contrast to the architectural drawing, which is seen in relation to other drawings and a building, the painting and sculpture are unique, thus appearing closer to the world of ideas. The architectural drawing depends on two related but distinct concepts. One indicates that drawing is an intellectual, artistic activity distant from the grubby materiality of construction. The other emphasises the architect’s mastery of the collaborative building process. Creativity as well as confusion has arisen from this contradiction.
In 1563 the painter and architect Giorgio Vasari founded the first art academy, the Accademia del Disegno in Florence, which offered instruction in drawing and geometry, providing a model for art and architecture schools ever since. In the new division of labour, architects acquired complementary means to practice architecture: drawing, writing and building. To affirm their advanced status, architects began to theorise architecture both for themselves and for their patrons, ensuring that the authored book became more valuable to architects than to painters and sculptors, whose artistic status was more secure and means to acquire and complete commissions less demanding.
Modelled on Vitruvius’ De Architectura Libri Decem (Ten Books on Architecture) from the first century BCE, Leon Battista Alberti’s De Re Aedificatoria (On The Art of Building) was the first thorough investigation of the Renaissance architect as artist and intellectual, written in around 1450 and printed in 1485 [1, 2]. The first architectural book to be published with illustrations, Francesco Colonna’s 1499 book Hypnerotomachia Poliphili established the multimedia interdependence of text and image that has been essential ever since . One model for the architectural book, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is a fictional narrative illustrated with pictorial drawings. A second model is the analytical manifesto illustrated with orthogonal drawings, such as Andrea Palladio’s I Quattro Libri Dell’ Archittetura (The Four Books of Architecture), published in 1570 [4: bk. 1, ch. 1–10, p. 6–16, 4: bk. 2, ch. 12–15, p. 45–68]. A further literary model, the manual conveys practical knowledge and is illustrated with diagrams. But these models are not hermetic, and many architectural books refer to more than one, as in Palladio’s attention to practical matters. The relationship between history and design was important to Colonna and Palladio. Historical references appear in both books but for different purposes. In one they enrich a specific story. In the other they legitimise generic solutions.
The Renaissance’s concern for history was inseparable from its own history. Erwin Panofsky identifies a creative and critical nostalgia for classical antiquity ‘that distinguishes the real Renaissance from all those pseudo- or proto-Renaissances that had taken place during the Middle Ages’ . In their book, Anachronic Renaissance, Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood write:
The ability of the work of art to hold incompatible models in suspension without deciding is the key to art’s anachronic quality, its ability really to ‘fetch’ a past, create a past, perhaps even to fetch the future. [6: p. 13–18]
Between classical antiquity and the Renaissance, Western achievements in historical writing were no more significant than in the Islamic and Chinese worlds, and only in the fifteenth century did European historians begin to acquire the respect that their counterparts enjoyed in China [7: p. 23, 34–35, 89, 172, 227]. In Renaissance Europe, history’s purpose was to offer useful lessons; accuracy was not necessary. In subsequent centuries, empiricism’s emphasis on the distinction between fact and fiction transformed historical analysis. The historian began to employ a methodical and comparative method to characterise changing cultural, social, political and economic processes in which the deeds of specific protagonists were contextualised. But this transition was slow and most eighteenth-century histories inherited some of the rhetorical approach of earlier histories, implying that the truth does not always depend on facts alone.
The global history of long prose fiction is around two thousand years old, but the novel is a more recent innovation. Often characterised as the first European novel, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605–15), claims to be an accurate account of an actual person . The novel’s development into a distinctive, popular literary form is often identified with early eighteenth-century England. In valuing direct experience, precise description, and a sceptical approach to ‘facts’, which needed to be repeatedly questioned, the empirical method created a fruitful climate in which the everyday realism of a new literary genre – the novel – could prosper as ‘factual fiction’ [9: p. 213, 10: p. 70–80]. In contrast to the epic or romance, which incorporated classical myths and archetypes, the novel concentrated on everyday lives in enterprising, expansionist and increasingly secular societies, emphasising individualism as well as imperialism. The dilemmas of personal identity and fortune were ripe for narrative account. Frequently described as the first English novel, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), is a fictional autobiography . Defoe describes Moll Flanders (1722), as ‘a private History’, and Roxana (1724) as ‘laid in Truth of Fact’ and thus ‘not a Story, but a History’ [12: p. 3, 13: p. 21]. History’s uncertain and evolving status supported authors’ claims that the first novels were in fact histories.
Focusing on the fate of individuals, the early novels – fictional autobiographies – developed in parallel with the early diaries – autobiographical fictions. People have written about themselves for millennia but the formation of modern identity in the eighteenth century is associated with a type of diary writing that Michel Foucault describes as a ‘technology of the self’, the process of self-examination by which moral character and behaviour are constructed and reimagined [14, 15]. Objectivity may be an aspiration, but no diary is entirely truthful and the diarist cannot fail to edit and reinvent life while reflecting upon it, altering the past as well influencing the future. Equivalent to a visual and spatial diary, the process of design – from one drawing to the next iteration and from one project to another – is itself an autobiographical ‘technology of the self’, formulating a design ethos for an individual or a studio.
In drawing greater attention to the conditions that inform self-understanding, the eighteenth century fundamentally transformed the visual arts’ objects, authors and viewers, stimulating a new type of design and a new way of designing that emphasised the ideas and emotions evoked through experience. Rather than universal, ideas were understood as provisional, changeable and dependent on experience at conception, production and reception.
With regard to design research, a further important development occurred in the nineteenth century, when an exponentially expanding market stimulated the sub-division of knowledge into specialisms in which the technocrat was the model practitioner. Associated with utility, the design disciplines that proliferated due to industrialisation were categorised as applied arts at best. Painters and sculptors discarded design once it became associated with collective authorship, mass production and problem solving. Among the three original visual arts, only in architecture is the term regularly referred to today. In public discourse, design is more often associated with the newer design disciplines, but older and newer meanings are familiar in architectural discourse and practice. Whether they are academics or practitioners, architects combine multiple meanings of design because they reflect the histories and complexities of the architectural discipline.
Often a design does not get built and an architect must be persuasive to see that it does. Sometimes building is not the best means to explore architecture. Influential architects tend to write, draw and publish as well as build. Palladio is an early exponent of this tradition; Le Corbusier and Arata Isozaki are later exemplars. The relations between the drawing, text and building are multi-directional. For example, drawing may lead to building, writing may lead to drawing, or building may lead to writing and drawing. Listing the architectural works that inspire us, some would be drawings, some would be texts, and others would be buildings either visited or described in drawings and texts. An interdependent, multi-directional web of influences, drawing, writing and building have together stimulated architects’ creative development for over 500 years.
The Physical Historian
Architects have used history in different ways, whether to indicate their continuity with the past or departure from it. Until the early twentieth century, the architect was a historian in the sense that an architectural treatise combined drawings and words to consider relations between the past and the present, and a building was expected to manifest the character of the time and knowingly critique earlier historical eras. Modernism ruptured this system in principle if not always in practice. Advocating an architecture specific to the present and discarding previous educational models, Walter Gropius excluded the history of architecture from the Bauhaus syllabus. But even modernists who denied the relevance of the past relied on histories to validate modernism and articulate its principles. Books such as Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement (1936) and Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture (1941), identify a modernist prehistory to justify modernism’s historical inevitability, break from the past and systematic evolution [16, 17].
By the mid-twentieth century, modernism was no longer new, and was ripe for reassessment. The Second World War was more scientific than the First, undermining confidence in technological progress as a means of social transformation. Notably for the generation of architects who saw military service, modernism’s previously dismissive reaction to social norms and cultural memories became anachronistic. Modernism developed into a polycentric, worldwide network of distinct, varied and interdependent regional and local modernisms.
In 1966, a decade before Charles Jencks familiarised the term, Pevsner characterised the post-war designs of Le Corbusier and Denys Lasdun as ‘postmodern’, which he associated with the anxious aftermath of war, writing that ‘phases of so excessively high a pitch of stimulation can’t last. We can’t, in the long run, live our day-to-day lives in the midst of explosions’ . But it is more accurate to categorise their designs as simultaneously premodern, modern and postmodern. Associating history writing with storytelling, Lasdun remarked that each architect must devise his/her ‘own creative myth’, a collection of ideas, values and forms that stimulate design, and concluded: ‘My own myth … engages with history’ . In a similar vein, in 1969 Vincent Scully stated that the architect will ‘always be dealing with historical problems – with the past and, a function of the past, with the future. So the architect should be regarded as a kind of physical historian … the architect builds visible history’ [20: p. 257]. Thus, the architect is a historian twice over: as a designer of buildings and an author of books.
As a design is equivalent to a history, we may expect the architect ‘to have a certain quality of subjectivity’ that is ‘suited to the objectivity proper to history’, as Paul Ricoeur concludes [21, 22: p. 99, 243]. Historical writing requires imagination as well as analysis. But the architect does not usually construct a history with the rigour expected of a contemporary historian, and may express other qualities too. Histories and novels need to be convincing in different ways. Although no history is unbiased, to have any validity it must appear truthful to the past. However, a novel may be believable but not true. In ‘The Fiction of Function’, written in 1987, Stanford Anderson emphasises that there was no coherent theorisation of functionalism in the early twentieth century and little indication that it was rigorously applied to design. Instead, he argues that ‘modern architecture, more than that of any other time, emphasized stories about function’ .
The architect is a ‘physical novelist’ as well as a ‘physical historian’. Like a history, a design is a reinterpretation of the past in the present. Equally, a design is equivalent to a fiction, convincing users to suspend disbelief. We expect a history or a novel to be written in words, but they can also be delineated in drawing, cast in concrete or seeded in soil.
Especially in the second half of the twentieth century, suspicion of meta-narratives developed in many regions of the world, including the West [24: p. 31–110, 25: p. 241–250]. History today offers not a singular model but a multiplicity of hybrid approaches, and concepts of fiction are equally varied, transforming architectural stories too.
What is New?
While a prospect of the future is implicit in many histories and novels, it is explicit in many designs. Some architects conceive for the present, some imagine for a mythical past, while others design for a future time and place. Alternatively, an architect can envisage the past, the present and the future in a single architecture. Creative architects have often looked to the past to imagine the future, studying an earlier architecture to selectively appropriate and transform it for the present. In many eras, the most fruitful architectural innovations have occurred when ideas and forms have migrated from one time and place to another by a translation process that is as inventive as the initial conception. A design can be specific to a time and place and a compound of other times and places.
Twenty-first century architects can appreciate the shock of the old as well as the shock of the new. To ask what is new involves other questions: why is it new, how is it new, and where is it new? In William Gibson’s memorable statement: ‘The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed’ . To understand what is new, we need to consider the present, the past and maybe even the future: we need to think historically. Defining something as new is an inherently historical act because it requires an awareness of what is old. A concern for innovation need not reject the past and sometimes the old is more radical than the new [27: p. 212]. In many disciplines today, a number of practices and procedures of differing ages remain relevant and stimulating. The result is an interdependent network of diverse – new and old – models of architectural authorship that exist together, not simply because they are useful but because they also have social and cultural value.
Beyond the PhD
Studying the history of practice as well as the history of architecture allows us to appreciate that architecture is not made by architects alone. The contemporary relevance of interdisciplinary research, which occurs within, between and across disciplines, indicates that the profession is but one model of practice and implies that a combination of past and future models may be more rewarding. In this sense, the architectural design doctorate is a means to consider and develop alternative models of architectural practice and discourse. Consequently, to conclude this essay, I will briefly discuss the work of some graduates of the Bartlett Architectural Design programme, to give a glimpse of the range of subjects and methods employed, their debt to the 500-year history of the architectural book and attempts to extend this history.
A UCL doctoral thesis can be a maximum of 100,000 words and this is also the limit for the Architectural Design doctoral thesis because it is just as possible to design through words as it is to design through drawings. One example is the doctoral thesis by Kristen Kreider, a site-specific poet whose research was supervised by the Bartlett School of Architecture and Slade School of Fine Art at UCL . All of her thesis consists of words, but they are different types of words. Some are words that you might associate with conceptual art, concrete poetry or critical analysis, while others combine these practices. Kristen was until recently a Professor at Goldsmiths College, University of London, where she directed a practice-based art PhD programme. She is now a Professor and the Head of School at the Ruskin School of Fine Art, University of Oxford.
Functionalism remains a default position for many architects, but it can be a limiting way to understand architecture. Of course, we sometimes want specificity of function. The most obvious example, you might assume, is a hospital. Hina Lad is an architect who has years of experience designing medical facilities. Her PhD focused on the redesign of the operating theatre, which has not been thoroughly addressed for decades . Instead, more and more new equipment has been squeezed into a room that was conceived long ago without recognition of the changing needs of staff and patients. Even this spatial type, which should be up-to-date and functional, is actually outdated. UCL has a well-known medical school and when Hina presented her research some of the attendees were surgeons. Acknowledging that conceptions of function need to be inclusive not universal, Hina emphasised that the experience of the operating theatre depended on each person’s role, which she considered from the viewpoint of the patient, the nurses, the doctors, and the anaesthetists. At first, the architects in the seminar thought that this was rather obvious, until we saw the surgeons’ fascination and heard them remark: ‘No, we never think about the patient’. It was an eye opener for us all.
As the programme has grown, some Bartlett students have tried to develop a number of parallel ‘voices’ in their writing and drawing. For example, there might be, within the same thesis, a deliberately lyrical text in conversation with another that is more analytical. The theme of Alessandro Ayuso’s PhD is the diminished role of the human body in contemporary architectural representation and design . Although his work combines the analogue and digital, Alessandro particularly associates this problem with present-day digital representations that reduce the body to a cipher or an abstraction (Figures 10, 11, 12). To make the argument for richly nuanced bodily representations within drawn and built architectures he studied the Baroque and conceived a little putto, a 500-year-old cherub that originated in one of Michelangelo’s designs. As the cherub had lived through five centuries, it appeared in various historical moments in Alessandro’s research, becoming another critical and creative voice within the thesis. The major voice in the thesis was clearly Alessandro, and the putto would interject and question, telling him what he had missed or misunderstood. This narrative device allowed Alessandro to consider multiple authors and multiple readers. Throughout his research, I assumed that the putto was another Alessandro, but after his doctorate was completed, he informed me that it was also a hybrid, incorporating a lot of him and bits of me and a mutual friend, the Florentine architect Franco Pisani.
Many of the students deal with socially engaged work in actual sites, which makes them particularly conscious of architectural authorship, using the academic context to reflect on their roles as practitioners. Before she applied to the PhD programme, Nerea Amorós Elorduy worked as an architect in Rwanda and was involved in establishing the first architecture school there. Her thesis conceives the built environment as an educational resource and marginalised voices as key to more effective, situated knowledge production, seeking to improve the learning processes of pre-school children who are born and raised in refugees in East Africa (Figures 13, 14, 15) .
UCL is a multi-disciplinary university, but it does not have a music school. David Buck, a landscape architect who completed a PhD on the musical qualities of landscape (Figures 16, 17, 18), initiated our collaboration with the Royal Academy of Music (RAM). We soon discovered that our discussions with people at the Royal Academy are enjoyable and stimulating because, rather like architects, they have an idea of notation and composition; they have an idea of space in which a work is performed, and they have an idea of reception as creative interpretation. They don’t use the same terms as us, but their questions and issues are quite similar to ours, which makes it a very fruitful collaboration. Consequently, we now usually have a few students doing PhDs that combine architecture and music.
David was aware that various architects have connected design to musical notation in the last 40 years. In discussion with Professor Neil Heyde at the RAM he realised that these architects have referred to rather traditional notions of music notation, not more innovative examples. Studying contemporary music composition and notation allowed David to reconsider the history of landscape design. Wary of the assumption that landscape is primarily visual, he came to recognise that the eighteenth-century picturesque is somewhat misunderstood. Researching early and mid-eighteenth-century texts and gardens, he discovered that they included many references to musical and aural qualities in the conception and experience of landscape, which David exploited to indicate an alternative landscape history and suggest a new influence on contemporary landscape design. Looking at his subject through another discipline’s eyes enabled David to expand his own authorship and to publish a book based on his doctoral research .
A number of graduates have undertaken the PhD because they want to develop a working life that combines academia and practice. Questioning aspects of conventional architectural practice and searching for an alternative (Figures 19, 20, 21), Jan Kattein entitled his thesis ‘The Architecture Chronicle: Diary of an Architectural Practice’ . As a part of his thesis, he won a design commission in Blackpool, a seaside resort in the north of England known for its observation tower and brightly illuminated beachfront. As his site, Jan chose an ordinary street of nineteenth-century terraced houses, a mile from the seafront. Through his subtle and persuasive consultation, the residents agreed that their streetlights would be turned off for a week during the Blackpool Illuminations, the annual festival of electric light. Emphasising a keenly environmental agenda, Jan replaced the streetlights with his luminaires made of reclaimed and discarded elements. To generate light, the residents fed their new streetlights with organic household waste, which generated methane and thus illumination. After his doctorate, Jan established an innovative and successful practice. First known for its transformation of a suburban high street to coincide with the 2012 London Olympics, it was subsequently commissioned to develop similar urban projects by numerous other London boroughs, combining creativity and community collaboration.
Marcos Cruz was an early graduate of the Architectural Design doctoral programme. In his thesis, he argues that the familiar term, the ‘skin’ of a building, is an inappropriate architectural analogy because it just refers to the external layer. Instead, he proposes a more bodily metaphor, the flesh of architecture . Some years later he became Director of the Bartlett School of Architecture and a professor. More recently, he founded the Bio-Integrated Design Masters’ degree and also supervises PhDs on this subject, both of which he undertakes in collaboration with the Department of Bio-Chemical Engineering at UCL.
One of the most rewarding aspects of the doctoral programme has been to see its contribution to staff career development. Graduates include six academic staff who are now professors at the Bartlett School of Architecture, who have undertaken valuable roles such as Director of School, Director of Research, Director of Communications, and Directors of the BSc and Master’s degree professional programmes. Other graduates include professors in Austria, Denmark, South Africa, the UK and the United States, award-winning architectural practitioners, a director of one of the world’s most influential art galleries, and a curator at a national art museum.
Keen to ensure that the best design research is published and widely disseminated, Murray Fraser, Jane Rendell and I founded the ‘Design Research in Architecture’ book series initially at Ashgate and then Routledge. Now Murray, Lesley Lokko and I are series editors at UCL Press, Britain’s first fully open access university publisher, which enables books to be downloaded for free and printed on demand. This innovative book series – still the only one of its kind – highlights architectural design research from around the globe, drawing on a range of exemplar positions between practice and academia. The first book was published in 2013 and 14 titles have now been published, with more to appear soon. Some, but not all, of the books have developed from design PhDs at UCL and other universities. There is no exact formula for an architectural design doctorate, and it would be prohibitive and restrictive to advance one. A doctoral programme should grow organically from the strengths and skills of the host institution, benefitting the internal dynamic of the school and the external dialogue of design research (Figures 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27).