As part of the Bologna process and the European Commission’s ‘Higher Education Modernisation Agenda’, schools of architecture are challenged to develop educational programmes not only at Bachelor’s and Master’s levels but also at PhD level. Many European schools have developed curricula that adopt methodologies from disciplines with strong research traditions in the natural or social sciences. However, research questions located at the core of architecture and design practice remain largely unaddressed. Hence various programmes have evolved in the last decades to address Research by Design (RbD) at PhD level – to establish a unique design-based approach, to form a school’s identity, and thus, to promote the recruitment of students. This essay explores, using the example of the Aarhus School of Architecture (AARCH), how architecture schools can develop and strengthen a RbD approach in a PhD programme.

The essay further aims to establish a new way of understanding and discussing the framework of such emerging PhD by Design (PbD) programmes in architecture. The curriculum plays an important role in structuring educational programmes, but we have seen that the term itself can hold and describe different ideas and practices. It is therefore necessary to ask what understanding of curriculum may be conducive to framing the PhD programme. Subsequently, we aim to develop an awareness of the aspects, conditions and qualities needed to successfully accommodate a PbD programme within a school.

At some architecture schools the RbD approach appears to arise more naturally, while others make more attempts and adjustments to their specific programmes. This has raised the question: What might be the underlying cultures that facilitate the research outcome of such programmes? Our studies of different programmes, undertaken in the form of document analysis, and our interviews with the programme director and students of AARCH allow us to argue for a broader concept of curriculum, one that reaches out beyond a narrow approach to understanding a PbD programme and towards what we call ‘curricular culture’.

Framing and exemplifying the term ‘curricular culture’ is thus the main aim of this essay. We hope that in the future, this discussion will help the PbD programme to necessarily evolve from the school’s particular culture. In that sense, this essay does not provide a recipe for a PbD curriculum, but instead opens up a field of curricular conditions that may apply to individual schools. Raising awareness of these conditions may help situate and frame other research programmes within their specific culture.

In order to position the discussion on curricular culture within the specific field of research, a brief introduction to design as research method is required. As stated in the EAAE’s ‘Charter on Architectural Research’:

In architecture, design is the essential feature. Any kind of inquiry in which design is the substantial constituent of the research process is referred to as research by design. In research by design, the architectural design process forms the pathway through which new insights, knowledge, practices or products come into being. It generates critical inquiry through design work. Therefore research results are obtained by, and consistent with experience in practice. [1]

This definition, according to Johan Verbeke, points to:

that kind of research in which the process of designing, as well as experience gained from practice, plays a crucial role in research – not only as inputs to be observed, but, more importantly, as the actual methods and outcomes of the research itself. [2: p. 137]

The knowledge evolved in RbD is a different type of knowledge with its own sets of methodologies related to the practice of the profession. Donald A. Schön introduces the term ‘reflection-in-action’ as a method for evolving knowledge through practice, where the practitioner engages in a reflective conversation with the situation:

In this reflective conversation, the practitioner’s effort to solve the reframed problem yields new discoveries which call for new reflection-in-action. The process spirals through stages of appreciation, action, and reappreciation. The unique and uncertain situation comes to be understood through the attempt to change it, and changed through the attempt to understand it. [3: p. 132]

Intuitive actions and inspirations are tested and reflected against the frame of the intention, a ‘what if’ approach that has the focus on making change. Through ‘reflective research’, the practitioner may reveal the processes of his or her practice by engaging in a conversational situation with the design process. The designer thus generates knowledge of how to make changes and act [3: p.309]. Critical challenges in this research approach are the transferral of knowledge that is implicit (rather than explicit) in the design process incorporating multiple types of knowledge, and the difficulty to communicate precisely about tacit knowledge [2: p. 142].

Studying the use of the term curriculum opens up pathways to rethink the framework of an educational programme. It is, in particular, its ambiguous application that directs us towards a number of questions around what may structure a PbD programme.

Curriculum is defined in the Cambridge English Dictionary as ‘the subjects studied in a school’, or ‘what each subject includes’ [4]. According to Sharon P. Fraser and Agnes M. Bosanquet, the term is applied much more broadly and ambiguously in practice, despite being one of the core concepts of education [5]. Within a programme of study, they point out, academics understand the term curriculum in four different ways: the structure and content of a unit or subject (Category A); the structure and content of a programme of study (Category B); the students’ experience of learning (Category C); a dynamic and interactive process of teaching and learning (Category D). The first two categories of curriculum are concepts that refer to ‘curriculum as a product that can be defined and then recorded on paper. These views of curriculum focus on what the individual teaches, i.e. a unit or subject, but may also incorporate the whole programme of study undertaken by a student’ [5: p. 272].

In relation to the PbD programme, these two categories point to the set of courses and deliveries that support and structure the stages of developing a dissertation. With the first category, interviews with doctoral programme leaders of schools that offer PhDs by Design (Chalmers University of Technology in collaboration with the Swedish research network ResArc; AARCH; The Bartlett School of Architecture) have revealed that these do not necessarily offer a curriculum specific to RbD. Rather the education takes place within the same framework as that for general PhD students in architecture.

We also observe that the general guidelines for PhD students are not necessarily specific to RbD, but the guidelines at AARCH, for instance, accommodate this type of research by including a broader range of media in the presentation and evaluation of PhD work, in addition to the general standard of a monograph or collection of papers [6: p. 13]. Aligning with general standards in PhD education is seen here as making the programme more resilient and open to a broad range of research methods in architecture while at the same time avoiding the insecurities that come with the development of discipline-specific standards.

With respect to both the courses and the general guidelines of a PhD programme, we conclude that they must not necessarily target PbD expressly. Therefore, the narrow understanding of curriculum as a structure and content of a unit or programme may not by itself clarify how RbD could be specifically framed.

The perspective opened up on the term by the two latter categories (C and D) provide a broader and more dynamic understanding of curriculum that seems to offer directions of inquiry into a PbD. Category C, ‘the students’ experience of learning’, conceptualises curriculum as ‘a process and structure that enables student learning’ and category D, ‘a dynamic and interactive process of teaching and learning’, considers curriculum as ‘a dynamic, emergent and collaborative process of learning for both student and teacher’ [5: p. 272].

While the curriculum in undergraduate teaching generally operates as a set of courses offering a series of experiences, a PhD study programme operates without an established pathway; it ‘unfolds within a more or less loosely defined space’ [7: p. 16]. The curriculum is seen as ‘a space of emergence’ [8: p. 325] that is ‘design[ed]-in-action’ [9: p. 45] and has ‘a certain rhythm – a temporality. The project unfolds, the dissertation builds, knowledge emerges’ [7: p. 16]. These ideas align with the two latter categories of Fraser and Bosanquet: ‘the curriculum cannot remain static or fixed, as it operates within a system that is constantly changing … dynamic and in flux, and has aspects that cannot be anticipated or held in a template’ [5: p. 276, 282].

On the one hand, these definitions formulate a concept of curriculum that refers to the specific guidelines and courses for the PhD programme that enable, encourage and support practising RbD. On the other hand, they open up to include the idea of the emergence of the discipline’s specific knowledge in the process of a dynamically evolving research process. This latter notion is particularly interesting as it responds to the specific conditions of the RbD approach, where moments of reflection, evaluation and adjustment repeatedly occur.

The term ‘curricular culture’ refers to the idea of cultivating the framework or ‘space of emergence’ within which the PhD takes place. The metaphor of gardening is not new to curriculum studies. Alistair Ross discusses a series of garden organisations, functionalities and purposes in relation to curricula. ‘Curriculum gardening’ emphasises the changing condition of curriculum as performed, alive and cared for as well as structured and organised [10: p. 1]. The idea of the naturally landscaped curriculum is particularly suitable for this discussion as it visualises the ‘learner-centred’ curriculum: a ‘process-driven curriculum should enable the student to understand the world in her or his own terms, through her or his own enquiries’ [10: p. 137].

Ranulph Glanville describes aspects of designing through the metaphor of wandering: the trust or confidence that is required to navigate in the unknown, the recognition of the position from where the wandering makes sense, and eventually reflecting on the process of getting there [11: p. 115]. This form of understanding design as a reflective activity is seen as research [3: p. 309]. As Glanville states with respect to RbD, design operates ‘both as an object of study and a means of carrying out that study’ [12: p. 11].

We would like to think of the curriculum in a RbD project as this wandering of the individual PhD student. The PbD programme can be strengthened through a supporting environment – the landscape or garden – emerging from a unique ‘curricular culture’ that enables (1) a confident wandering; (2) recognising spaces of emergence; and (3) reflecting on them. Each of these phases presents its own challenges that must be addressed by a supportive environment in order for the research to thrive (Figure 1).

Figure 1 

Curricular culture as a landscape within which the PhD by Design unfolds [Courtesy of the authors].

Approaching PhD by Design Programmes

In our reading, RbD is still a relatively young field in the European research landscape generally. A strong network is therefore required to form a critical mass for reflection, development and practice. This network is based on physical and digital encounters through regular meetings that involve researchers, practitioners and academics at all stages of their careers.

The figure below presents the European RbD network’s schools (listed geographically from north to south), research projects and conferences (listed chronologically), and their supporting associations. The lines on the diagram indicate the involvement of schools and research associations in various research projects and conferences (Figure 2).

Figure 2 

Diagram framing the European landscape of architectural schools with a PhD by Design programme (listed from north to south); research projects and conferences/workshops/symposia related to research by design (listed chronologically); and research associations [Courtesy of the authors].

The findings of this essay rely on an empirical study consisting of the analysis of multiple cases [13]. Only schools that name RbD as a research method within their PhD programme, implying that they would engage in critical discourse and reflection on the method and its research approach, were chosen. Cases were identified either through their prominent appearance in the media or through the consortium network of the Erasmus+ project titled ‘Mapping, Reflecting and Developing PhD-by-Design Programmes’. In the first stage of the research, three means were used to investigate the cases: (1) concise website and document analysis of the school’s PhD programme was conducted to learn about the programme’s framework; (2) interviews with programme leaders, teachers and PhD students were held in 2019 and PhD presentations were attended to understand the relation between a particular dissertation process and the curriculum; and (3) the analysis of multiple cases was accompanied by a review of literature that reflected on RbD and on curricula in higher education in general.

In a two-day workshop within the ‘Mapping, Reflecting and Developing PhD-by-Design Programmes’ research group, the first findings were discussed and sharpened.

On the one hand, this initial research investigation unveiled the research landscape of PbD (Figure 2). On the other, this first stage of research supported our understanding of the particular culture of a school’s PbD curriculum, on which we strived to focus in a second stage of the research. The map’s objective is idiosyncratic: it does not guarantee completeness but aims to reveal not only the stakeholders and key players but also the chronological development of the networking activities. Here it is noticeable that AARCH has been involved strongly and continuously in the network’s activities and discussions on the role of research in architecture, and this from early on.

Hence in the second stage of the research, AARCH came to serve as an in-depth case study to discuss the curricular culture in PhD by Design programmes particularly. For this research we have conducted in-depth interviews with the current head of the PhD school, Claus Peder Pedersen (CPP), and current and past PhD students with a focus on RbD: Anders Kruse Aagaard (AKA), Maya Lahmy (ML), Joel Letkemann (JL). They responded to three thematic clusters of questions: (1) how they define their PhD by Design programme in epistemological terms, and how it is positioned within their school and its set of values; (2) how the research process and attitude informs the curricula; and (3) what the role of the RbD is in the curricula, and vice versa. The PhD students who were selected for the interviews represent a section within the PhD programme that has a strong focus on RbD. Coincidentally, the selected interviewees all share an interest in advanced digital fabrication.

When many institutions across the discipline are struggling with framing and legitimating RbD methods within the context of PhD research, we see that AARCH, rather than focusing on the installation of a RbD programme, has gradually built a basis for practice of RbD through the design focus in their education. We argue that this forms a foundation for the school’s approach in design research, which makes the school particularly interesting as a case study.

The Aarhus School is an independent institution and enrolled its first PhD candidate in 1988. From 2013 onwards, it has placed the focus of the programme particularly on RbD while simultaneously creating a professorship in that field. The school’s experience in architectural research is made clear by its long-established involvement as a partner in many architectural research networks, such as CA2RE, ADAPT-r and the Nordic Research Courses (Figure 2).

The programme has evolved through several stages, and agreement on the value of research in architecture has not always been a constant at the school [14]. However, Pedersen et al. claim there has been a RbD practice from the beginning [15: p. 130]. With its participation in the ADAPT-r programme (from 2013), the school engaged in PhD education for practitioners who run successful offices in a similar manner to the practice-based PhD programme at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), which as far as we are aware was one of the first official design research programmes internationally [16]. Today the spectrum of research approaches at AARCH ranges from RbD and practice-based research to artistic and scientific research [17].

The PhD school is a collaboration with Design School Kolding. Both schools share the same PhD guidelines, structures and courses and have some 24 to 27 funded PhD candidates enrolled across the overall programme. This essay concentrates on reflecting this programme through the architectural PhD candidates based at AARCH. Because the legal framework for scientific research, as regulated in AARCH’s PhD guidelines [6], does not make a distinction between the various forms of research, the school is able to take a fairly open approach to research methodologies and approaches with respect to the subject of inquiry.

The PhD school organises biannual presentations of the research in progress, known as a ‘viva’, inspired by the Practice Research Symposia of the RMIT model. They are open to the entire school and bring together PhD students, the supervisory team and the head of the PhD school. The ‘Big Viva’ is a more recent format that takes place at around two-thirds through the course of the PhD thesis. On that occasion, for a whole afternoon a guest critic reviews a PhD candidate’s research work, and the session then concludes with a public lecture. Besides these elements, the PhD students are required to contribute the equivalent of one semester of work to the school by teaching, organising research events, or disseminating research findings at conferences or other external venues.

In our discussions with them, the interviewees at AARCH revealed aspects pertaining to the building of a culture that may be more specific to the situation of the PbD. While we see the curricular culture of PbD as a part of research culture, we understand the term as being more specifically related to how the PhD programme is embedded and framed within the school. Situatedness, mindset and competency are hence the lenses through which we can show how curricular culture may open up a space or landscape for the PhD research to unfold, based here on the example of the Aarhus School (Figure 3).

Figure 3 

Circular diagram illustrating the relation of the three perspectives on curricular culture [Courtesy of the authors].


Through the notion of both structural and physical situatedness, we can look at how the PhD programme is embedded to support a research culture, and furthermore how the PhD project is structured within the school with a focus on the situations where knowledge might emerge in the PhD research.

A first trait of structural and physical situatedness relates to what we see as ‘vertical intersections’. The motivation for the PhD programme is reflected in the structural situatedness of the PhD school within the education programme. The research is tied into the school’s daily activities, and the idea of culture – as cultivation – is supported through this practice. In Aarhus, the PhD students are embedded in the school’s research environment by being affiliated to one of the three research laboratories that organise all members of the academic staff. The research laboratories, for their part, are linked with education through the affiliated design studios at both BA and MA levels. This connection between research and education can be seen as a ‘gravitational field’ that encourages exchange and dialogue across a vertical structure. In practice this means that PhD students help run design studios, teach modules and participate in reviews (Figure 4). As Pedersen and Bundgaard have written about the AARCH PhD students:

Figure 4 

Momentary principal section through structural relation of education and research [Courtesy of the authors].

They are the new generation of researchers, and they are an important part of the research environment of the Aarhus School of Architecture. The PhDs are active in the school’s three research labs. They collaborate with senior researchers, publish their own research through recognised publishing channels, experiment in our workshop facilities, and bring their knowledge and expertise into play in courses for the school’s students. [18: p. 8]

Within the research lab, the PhD students perceive themselves to be integrated in a flat hierarchy: ‘When we enter the school, we get directly into a research lab – those labs are small enough that you are in immediate contact with all of the researchers in the lab’ (JL).

Contributing to this experience is the fact that the PhD candidates are employed by the school and therefore are looked upon not solely as PhD students but also as colleagues. Where some of the same tasks are shared, such as teaching obligations, there is a potential for situated conversations, which are also supported by the spatial organisation of the research laboratories. Pedersen says: ‘In the last years we had a lot more focus on organising our researchers in larger open spaces so that they could share ideas. That will be even more the case when we move to the new building’ (CPP). Pedersen’s words here also refer to the fact that during 2021 AARCH will be relocating to a purpose-built campus designed by ADEPT & Vargo Nielsen Palle.

A significant portion of former PhD students continue to work at the Aarhus School after completing their dissertations. Thus the programme contributes to strengthening the research environment and to building design knowledge. This is the case in evolving the discipline’s approach to digital technologies, whereby PhD projects are the means to develop skills in digital fabrication and, by employing the respective students, knowledge resources are strengthened.

A second trait of structural and physical situatedness relates to what we see as ‘horizontal intersections’. As a physical place, Pedersen observes:

… the PhD school is sort of an entity within the School of Architecture, so every PhD student has a workplace, a table in a general office surrounding, but there’s fairly good space for doing other things. So right now, we have one shared working environment to support the formal learning (CPP).

The abovementioned relocation of the school has engendered reflections on the workspaces used by the PhD students that highlight the different phases of PhD research, while sometimes, other working situations and modes of situatedness within the school may be more productive. While the initial phase might prioritise dialogue, interaction with PhD colleagues, and working with artefacts, this is also the phase when the introductory research courses take place, and hence it may foster a studio environment and discourse culture. In this period, the exchange and debate with peers seems particularly supportive. Students have the opportunity to come into contact with each other’s work on a day-to-day basis, through communication and direct encounters in their shared PhD working environment. As a consequence, this focus on the shared PhD working environment isolates the PhD students to a certain degree from the research departments.

In the later phases of research, different conditions for situating the PhD students within the school are desirable, such as moving them into the research context in ‘a close connection with experienced researchers who work with similar topics, and within the same sub-disciplines or interest areas’, where they ‘would also be closer to their supervisors.’ While in the last six months the students ‘might need a small, closed office where they can concentrate on putting everything together before the dissertation or presentation of their research.’ The ambition here is to be ‘more anchored in the research environment and probably also more exposed to the students of architecture’ (CPP).

A third trait of structural and physical situatedness relates to what we see as ‘infrastructure’. The term infrastructure here describes the in-between structure, the amalgam that fills the gaps and connects. If the school’s organisation in design studios and research labs places the PhD department as a spatial entity remotely in the school, the infrastructure still enables it to achieve an interweaving of individual experiences throughout and across these structures. The workshops serve as an example of activating infrastructure for conversation. The strong emphasis of the school to support and equip the workshops with both traditional tools and new digital technologies is used especially by the RbD projects but also stressed very early on in the education at AARCH. Particularly important for the PhD research is not only the access to tools, workshops and workshop space, but also the low threshold for support in workshop skills and financial means with respect to resource-demanding projects. By facilitating access to materials and resources, design experimentation is encouraged.

The school has an open hall, which, thanks to its proximity to the workshop, can be used for physical exploration and engenders an engaging work environment. As such, it fosters physical encounters with a broad variety of approaches and design experiments widely across the school. According to the interviewees, this environment again serves as a means to stimulate conversation and dialogue.


This section focuses on the importance of the network of people in framing the PhD school through a mindset that provides a basis for a confident PhD by Design approach.

Here we understand mindset as the shared understanding and practice of a research culture. In the case of AARCH, establishing a research culture has been a process that took place over several decades. The school participated as early as 1990 in building a network for research training, known as the Nordic Research Courses, initiated by Halina Dunin-Woyseth at Oslo School of Architecture in collaboration with Jerker Lundequist from KTH Stockholm and Anna-Maija Ylimaula from UIAH Helsinki, and aimed at exchanging perspectives about the possibilities and role of research in architecture. During a phase in which the school’s individual research environments were still small, the research courses supported the participating schools in building expertise for basic research education. They helped initiate a debate from which the schools could harvest to evolve their own specific approach [14: p. 33]. As described by Pedersen et al, AARCH subsequently went through several phases in which the understanding of architectural research at the school evolved into the RbD focus that it has today. To establish research in architecture, one of the main hurdles seems to be the perceived separation of the domains of research and design [15: p. 131]. While some schools choose to hire researchers from the field of humanities to strengthen their research environment, in Aarhus the programme evolved further by gradually building it up from within. An openness and freedom that allowed a design approach to thrive at AARCH as an ‘experienced-based’ (CPP) approach existed in this phase, even before RbD became a more common topic of discussion in Europe – for instance, via conferences such as ‘The Unthinkable Doctorate’, organised in Brussels in 2005 by the Network for Theory, History and Criticism of Architecture and Sint-Lucas School of Architecture (Figure 2).

With Johan Verbeke appointed professor in RbD at AARCH, the school acquired an experienced resource to help strengthen the PhD school’s RbD focus. With his involvement in many European networks and associations in the field of RbD, he introduced an extensive international network to the research environment in Aarhus [18: p. 132]. Close to this kind of recruitment, Pedersen has argued that establishing a RbD PhD requires ‘the patience that it takes to really build a research culture, how to make a balance by trying to transfer what you are already doing, trying to qualify that, trying to look at it in a new way and to bring in people with experience from other places and have them build it up’.

In our view building up a research culture relates to the confidence in the knowledge seen as implicit both in the school and in each individual scholar’s practice. This confidence is an important factor in enabling PhD students to venture into the insecurities of design research practice. We might recall the metaphor of the garden or landscape, and how, in the initial phase of wandering, trust and confidence are required to navigate the unknown. Equally, experience in qualifying and contextualising knowledge is required to recognise the place of arrival. The mindset that Johan Verbeke brought to Aarhus supports this practice: ‘[He] had a very clear mindset about RbD: that it is through the knowledge of your profession and the knowledge you have within your profession that you create new knowledge’ (ML).

Currently, the PhD school covers about a third of the mandatory 30 ECTS credits through joint introductory PhD courses entitled (1) ‘Research by Design’; (2) ‘Research in the Fields of Design and Architecture’; and (3) ‘Experiments, Art and Artefacts’. Pedersen explains how the courses aim ‘to introduce some of the challenges, for instance about an open-endedness that might be part of a design-driven approach to research.’ They give an ‘introduction to the field of research in architecture and design’ with the ambition to ‘help the fellows to clarify and develop their positions’ and to discuss ‘how to use the ways of working and fields of expertise of architects to establish knowledge or insights’ (CPP) rather than introduce a specific methodology. While designers are trained to justify their design solutions, in a research context the design focus is instead on developing a method. The research courses aim to open up pathways for RbD.

To evolve from a design process to new disciplinary knowledge requires supervisory experience. As Pedersen notes: ‘Some of the PhD students think very much about the design in the context they are used to. This balance of how to reflect on it in another way than arguing for the results, this part is tricky and requires experienced supervision’.

Building up supervisory experience is one of the major challenges in a particularly small school with a broad focus in research. This is due to the small number of cases each supervisor has the chance to experience. The Research Training Sessions (RTS) as organised at the Sint-Lucas School of Architecture in Brussels and Ghent, Belgium, are an interesting example for developing supervision competence as part of a culture. In 2006 that school began developing the annual RTS as the means to train the first potential supervisors. The sessions were initially aimed at the school’s staff to initiate and evolve the reflection on the teachers’ personal design practices. The programme consisted of a set of courses by invited experienced personalities in the field of RbD [19: p. 10]. During this initial phase, the first cohort of PhD students from Sint-Lucas were enrolled mainly in the RMIT PhD programme or at Chalmers University of Technology [20: p. 15]. Simultaneously, this strategy helped to develop a design-specific research culture within that school.

The RTS programme turned into a full-fledged PhD programme when Sint-Lucas became the Faculty of Architecture at KU Leuven in 2014, which can be seen as an important step in developing the specific implicit knowledge – the metaphorical DNA – within the school’s own design culture, notably by involving local and external voices in the conversation.

This understanding of how to evolve from an orientation on design practice to an orientation also on research practice might serve as a specific example for the notion of mindset. We see this mindset as particular to each environment and research culture and as something that necessarily evolves through confidence, experience and exchanges with the professional and academic network.


Turning back to AARCH, its structure encourages a specific field of knowledge. It links research and education and strengthens the research environment by building research experience in the school. The design practice is rooted in the school through the focus on design studio teaching, which organises all modules around or integrated into the design project. This model differs from approaches where theoretical and technical knowledge is taught alongside the design studio and where the modules are structured along the premise of theoretical or technical subjects.

‘The education on both Bachelor’s and Master’s levels is very much design-driven and organised in studios’, Pedersen claims. He adds of students:

They are allowed quite a lot of specificity, and at least in some studios there is also some room for the students to develop quite particular interests or skills. The school has undertaken a really big effort to keep the focus on the design-based studio work so that there is knowledge-based input. Theoretical and historical topics and experiences with other subjects such as writing are always tied closely to the design work, which might mean that our students certainly have a strong focus on design. I think that would be an argument for having a strong design element in the PhD education as well, where there might also, at least for some students, be an experience with developing things through designing in depth, focusing quite narrowly on certain interests that could be part of a PhD foundation as well. (CPP)

While this approach leads to a strong focus on design at the first two cycles of education, it also enables some students to experience developing interests in depth, which is seen to build a potential foundation for PhD studies. In that sense the PhD programme can be understood as an intended extension of the general education:

The intention with the programme is to extend the kind of design thinking that goes on in the rest of the programme to try to have a profile, that there is some sort of third stage in the education that supports that kind of thinking, extends it and adds the elements that could qualify as research. … It is also relevant as a foundation for building and extending research interest and ways of doing research that is going on in the research labs of the school. The management has increasingly become interested in some of the school’s own DNA going into the PhD school both by having the design-based approach to research and by being connected to the research that goes on at the school. That is a way of building a tradition. (CPP)

The selection of PhD candidates for the programme reveals specific challenges. While capacity and experience in academic writing are seen as highly important, in their admission of new PhD fellows, AARCH is debating whether strong writing skills may outbalance weaker design skills. The selection of PhD candidates for the programme reveals specific challenges for the AARCH-educated students because the strong design focus on the Bachelor’s and Master’s results into fewer academic skills such as writing and structuring research. An ideal candidate for the PbD, says Pedersen, would have ‘exciting design experience’ as well as ‘an interesting concept for how the PhD might start with a design-driven approach’ in combination with ‘a broader academic understanding’ that allows them to contextualise the work or more generally have the skills to articulate longer coherent arguments and in-depth analysis.

An urge or fascination seems crucial for exploring through design. This motivation has been described as an important driver in the research model of RMIT’s practice-based research [21], but as a relevant criterion it has also been put forward that the students display a ‘strong conviction’ and ‘drive for exploring’ through design (CPP). Several of the interviewed PhD students mention the moment of not-knowing. Differing from design tasks, RbD might operate without the classical architectural programme. This means the design process requires a different driver – the urge or fascination for exploration itself.

I was told to go to the workshop. But what should I make? Just use the machines! Just use the tools, grab the material! My work became very playful. Walking into the unknown ground, while at the same time trying to understand how the machines work and how the different processes reflect in the materials (Figure 5). (ML)

Figure 5 

Multiple CNC routed tests were made to test the wood’s bending by hand and then a digital simulation of the bending was programmed. Illustration from PhD thesis ‘Processing Imperfection: Exploring Creative Possibilities in the Digital Architectural Drawing Process’ (Image: Maya Lahmy).

We see that traditional modes of research are included but not emphasised at AARCH. There are positions that proclaim the importance of understanding modes of knowledge production referred to as ‘Mode 1’ (traditional) prior to post-academic research modes such as researching by design (‘Mode 2’) [22: p. 43]. However, as a point of departure, standard approaches based on a hypothesis and a clearly framed research question appear less fruitful, as was advanced by Pedersen: ‘It might be particularly relevant for research that is design-based that the research questions and hypothesis play a different role, and maybe they even materialise quite late in the process compared to other research approaches’. Verbeke saw RbD related to ‘grounded theory’ in terms of:

… developing knowledge gradually without a hypothesis that could be proved or disproved – but also not as an analytic work that comes after collecting everything but working back and forth and reflecting on the general understanding of what this is about. (CPP)

Verbeke furthermore introduced the term ‘designerly grounded theory’ [23: p. 162], in which he compared the RbD approach to Kathy Charmaz’s understanding of the application of constructivist grounded theory [24].

We argue that the situatedness of the PhD student as well as the mindset in the school provide a framework for enabling the students to handle the space-of-not-knowing. In particular, the structures and frameworks form a backdrop for entering unknown territories, and we suggest that the situatedness in the school and the wider network can bring a sense of confidence. Besides skills in design and academic reflection, this requires an urge or fascination – a specific driver within the design approach to move forward.

The PhD programme operates with an open approach towards research methods that originate from, for example, the natural sciences or are based on design-driven approaches. Research courses aim to tackle the difficulty of providing understanding of the fundamental differences between these research types within the field of architecture. It needs to be mentioned that establishing a clear position within the methodological approaches poses a struggle for PhD students within what we have referred to as a relatively young field of research. In particular, the design-driven approach to research may be subject to open-endedness, with the consequence that it cannot be structured in the same way as other, more traditional research methods. Dialogues on knowledge groundings of individual research approaches at an initial stage must take into account that the work is still vulnerable, and the timing for introducing this criticality might be a topic that the supervisors need to be specifically trained in to avoid steering the discussion towards research mode during this initial phase of exploration. At AARCH it seems that the necessary meta-reflection is taking place during a phase of further matured research.

While there are different approaches, we see that, where the design exploration begins to qualify as research, the supervisors require competency for the conversations on meta-reflection:

To me, the most important thing is an awareness and an ongoing reflection on what you are trying to achieve. The main thing is to spend time to reflect on and figure out how to get that aspect to qualify as research. It’s very much about taking the time that is needed to develop this kind of meta-reflection – which does not necessarily change the design, but might change the way we engage with it, or communicate it, or reflect on it. (CPP)


This essay has shown how situatedness, a unique mindset, and competences specifically form a curricular culture at AARCH. This curricular approach is both grounded in the school’s design and research cultures and ensures an engaged research environment that manages to facilitate the curricular groundings for PbD students. Looking more closely at PhD research and its position within a school’s culture, we propose discussions about the importance of situated conversations that are encouraged at various moments in the research process. This dialogue plays a crucial role in the emergence of design knowledge. Its importance extends not only to dialogue with others but also to the work itself, and most importantly, we are stressing that the situatedness of the dialogue plays a crucial role in RbD.

The most direct dialogue that a PhD candidate has is with the work itself. As put forward by Glanville, the process of designing can be seen as a conversation that one has with the work:

It is we who do it: we act. The role of observer-as-participant, in making knowledge, abstracting it to theory, theorising about theory; and in constructing the way we obtain this knowledge, then obtaining it accordingly, is central/essential/unavoidable/inevitable and completely desirable. [12: p. 10]

In the process of the design research, the student is in a dialogue with the artefacts, the physical matter and the tools of the study as well as through reflecting and writing:

You create something and then while you are creating you are having a sort of a dialogue with the stuff that you do and the way you do it. When you are done with it and look at it, you take a step back and start to write a text about what you have done, but then that is a different voice, then when you are creating it. … Then you have another round, where you look at that whole pool and ask what this is trying to be about, what are the terms that are used and how are they productive for understanding what I am doing, what they are trying to perform (Figure 6). (ML)

Figure 6 

Failed attempts to find a structure for the bendable capacity of the CNC routed parts of timber. Illustration from PhD thesis ‘Processing Imperfection: Exploring Creative Possibilities in the Digital Architectural Drawing Process’ (Image: Maya Lahmy).

During the research, a series of conversations take place at AARCH that are situated within the PhD project itself, within the structure of the PhD school, and within the institution and the wider network. We have seen that its PhD students are strongly embedded in the school, are part of the research labs, participate in teaching, are employed by the school, and are well situated in the school through the work environment inside the PhD school.

If we consider the PhD candidate as a wanderer within the research territory, this journey does not take place in an abstract space. The notion of a disciplinary topology may illustrate how the PhD at AARCH is situated within the framework of the PhD school and at the same time has various intersections with other places and parts of the broader school. These intersections hold the potential for reflection and dialogue. When Donna J. Haraway coins the term ‘situated knowledge’, she understands knowledge as derived from the physical embodied perspective [25: p. 582]. We argue that the close connection with the space of practice in the conversation strongly enables by-design knowledge to emerge:

There are different types of knowledge, as I understand it. Along the way, all the settings create different knowledge. In the thesis, I call it voices – text voices – different voices that you speak with, and at points there are also the voices of the stuff that you do. … I made an exhibition for the defence and I tried to bring these voices into it. Putting that together in a space created a new or possible future for the artefacts, my understanding of them and my reflection on them. (ML)

The importance of the situatedness of the various modes of knowledge speaks from this quote. It emphasises the different situations in which the three phases of the research take place: the knowledge that is enacted within the design work, the reflection of the process of designing, and the contextualisation of the work in the dissertation. Specifically, the work on editing the exhibition through these different modes of understanding brought forward new narratives or meanings. In their reflection on the ADAPT-r research programme, Verbeke et al pin pointing situations that allow us to gain new perspectives on the work by using the term ‘transformative trigger’:

Though the research investigation itself takes us from our comfort zones, the act of re-positioning ourselves can bring us some critical self-confidence, needed to identify the critical moments in our creative practice, when we need to trigger ourselves and/or others to move forward, towards a higher level of maturity in our creative actions. … The reflection on transformative triggers uncovers the challenges and the challengers of creativity, the creative practitioners are usually not aware of. … Many important triggers are identified from the public behaviour situations: interaction with the network, with the supervisors and the panellists. The space of ‘not-knowing’ plays a major role in shifting to the new knowledge and understanding creation – it embraces uncertainty in the research process. [26]

We see that these triggers are active in situated conversations, where the work is encountered in a context and particularly in cases of varying contexts. It points to the importance of the context of artefacts as well as their modes of communication. Still, the relationship to the transferral of knowledge is far from simple. Pedersen notes: ‘It raises questions, of course, of how knowledge can be transferred or assessed, in artefacts, models or installations’ (Figure 7).

Figure 7 

The Timber Curtain as exhibited at Aarhus School of Architecture for the Making Research/Researching Making conference in Aarhus, 2015. Illustration from PhD thesis ‘Processing Imperfection: Exploring Creative Possibilities in the Digital Architectural Drawing Process’ (Image: Ryan Hughes).

With Verbeke, a dialogue-based approach was introduced to the research courses, an approach that is still in use today. This takes place as monthly meetings, which include not only presentations of theoretical positions and presentations by invited resources from the network, but also discussions on PhD work by previous fellows and reviews of recorded PhD defences. The intention is ‘to build knowledge from what is closely around’ and ‘to find out the local condition of others who might not be the most brilliant international scholars, but who are more like yourself, to make you reflect on what you could have done, or what you should perhaps do in another way’ (CPP). This approach builds a culture for conversation supported by the experience of a PhD student. ‘What we’ve been trying to do among the PhD students is to establish a conversation around what practice-based research means to us’ (JL).

The bi-annual viva forms another mode of conversation with the emphasis on sharing the progression and understanding the modes of research between the PhD students and the faculty. The school encourages senior researchers to attend, and it has in cases opened up collaborations and exchanges across the school. As Aagaard emphasizes:

There was also a good culture that many senior researchers would come to the viva and see our projects. You started to talk with people about shared investigations or experiments or whatever. Papers you could write together or something like that. (AKA)

The viva here is aiming ‘for a broader understanding of what research is amongst the PhD students, get them to share their interests and to get some insights into how others are progressing or are structured during their research, and, not least, it gives their supervisors experience’. (CPP)

While we explicitly emphasise the culture of situated conversations, there might be hurdles to communicating embedded knowledge. Bringing artefacts to the viva is seen as very useful, but it takes time and space to prepare physical exhibitions, which, in the framework of the presentations, is often difficult to achieve.

The PbD is assessed on the basis of a monograph or collection of papers, but in addition the non-verbal elements may be shown in an exhibition and provided, along with the monograph, to the assessor by means of video and photographs. Prior to the defence, the assessors have the opportunity to review the exhibition. Where artefacts form an important part of the PhD dissertation, the evaluation of by-design research on the basis of a monograph poses challenges. We argue that there is a particular challenge in communicating the knowledge embedded in artefacts. If the physical artefacts are presented in a monograph, this may suggest to the reader a theoretical debate, and therefore the format may not be directly suitable to the form of research, instead requiring adaptation to the type of knowledge that is presented. When the work is presented in an exhibition format, the theoretical reflection and discussion seamlessly relate to the design work, as Aagaard suggests:

I took all that I had created during the three years and put it all in one big room. I did my presentation of the work with no PowerPoint, just directly on the work itself. I would be walking around the work, presenting my thoughts and different references, pointing at my work and talking about references and theory, and that worked extremely well. (AKA)

While the Aarhus School of Architecture has a strong culture of applying theory directly in the design studios and may have a high level of expertise in communicating the work in a studio situation, communicating design through a written dissertation seems to be an aspect that requires particular attention. There may also be difficulties caused by the expectation of the reader when a RbD is evaluated through a theoretical lens of understanding research. This problem seems to be less apparent when the PbD research is presented with the physical work, and the school therefore facilitates physical access to the work where possible.

If you really insist that the modes of exploring and communicating through artefacts or drawings matter, then it can seem reductive that you can only access that through photographs or downscaled drawings, so we try to add the opportunity for the PhDs, that it can be made available, that the assessors travel to see it. (CPP)

Giving the artefacts a higher priority in the evaluation is restricted through the national guidelines, but potential is seen in:

… trying to make PhDs aware that it might be possible to work with technics, not just word by word, but also in a more visual way, not just in graphic layout, but in making it spatial when you try to do research to address some of these relations that might be formed. (CPP)

To summarise, the curricular culture consists of a seemingly clear structure of interweaving infrastructures. The situated conversations across the school are important factors for anchoring PbD approaches to the research environment of the school as well as connecting the school to a broader international research community. It also bridges the research interests with the education at undergraduate level and contributes to the distribution of digital technology knowledge and by-design knowledge across the school. Communication platforms such as the research labs and bi-annual viva operate as trigger situations where work in progress is shared amongst faculty and students.

While there have been various formats for conversations, there are recurring remarks by the interviewed students that emphasise the potential of a situated conversation for building culture, networks and synergies. The school has gradually arrived at being able to provide the students with supervisors that link the PhD candidates to a network related to their position and process of exploration. A strong curricular culture needs to be kept in constant dialogue to survive the personnel changes, but once in place, it can become an important tool for nurturing and building a resilient research attitude from generation to generation within the school. Conversations and dialogues can link situatedness, mindset and competency to form a school’s specific curricular culture.

While this essay aims to argue for evolving and strengthening a curricular culture in PhD programmes, we do not mean that such culture emerges by itself or grows naturally. By examining the case of AARCH, we have tried to point out potential strategies and key components while at the same time highlighting the challenges in each instance. It is in those challenges that each school of architecture may potentially find its own response.

Ultimately, RbD is practiced at AARCH as a research method without a clearly framed methodology, with the consequence that it can entail a number of confusions and insecurities – sometimes in the PhD student, at other times in the supervision, the evaluation or the communication with the research community and the wider network. We see curricular culture as a frame for supporting and enabling the PhD student in embracing these kinds of challenges with confidence.