Using books as floatation devices is nothing new.
Cradle to Cradle, subtitled Remaking the Way We Make Things, is printed on waterproof paper for this reason.
Poetry anthologies served this purpose after 9/11 as did commonplace books carried by soldiers.
In fact, the book I’m about to introduce you to defines the original use of the word “communication” to mean bringing something to the “common place, to the community, to make it part of the larger social group.”
That is what I hope to accomplish with this review.
Building Knowledge in Architecture is a new book and lifesaver by architect, educator, researcher, scholar and poet, Richard Foqué.
On the academic side, Foqué is a professor and dean emeritus at the Henry van de Velde Higher Institute of Architecture at the University College Antwerp.
On the practice side, Foqué is the founder and honorary principal of FDA Architects (now OSAR), one of the largest architectural firms in Flanders.
Richard Foqué’s work is characterized by the integration of architecture, art, design and science and reflected in the book “Bringing the World into Culture”, dedicated to Foqué and in which 21 eminent scholars, architects and designers bring a tribute to his work. An interdisciplinary thinker, Foqué lives and works in Antwerp, Belgium.
But don’t read Building Knowledge in Architecture because of his credentials.
Read this book because Richard Foqué is the first poet to write beautifully and meaningfully about the architect, design, creativity,
And as importantly, digital design tools such as BIM and collaborative work processes such as integrated design, design-build, lean construction and design thinking, subjects at the focus of these discussions.
You had me at Introduction
A book, like any of us, competes in a marketplace for attention.
Building Knowledge in Architecture, until today, appears to have been satisfied waiting patiently to be discovered on library shelves.
Book, wait no more.
Because that’s how long our attention spans today have been shortened to.
Reader, here I’ll introduce you to what will surely become a fine traveling companion and fellow conversationalist in the weeks ahead.
But I’ll need 9 minutes to do so – not 9 seconds. So please bear with me.
Man Measuring the Clouds
A passing glance at a sculpture, Man Measuring the Clouds, inspired Foqué to reflect on architecture and what it means to be an architect today.
“The architect works in the field of tension between imagination and reality. The architect’s task is to convert the dreams and often unreachable wishes of the client into a buildable concept, which should be functional, technically resolved, and in compliance with all building and safety codes, but at the same time must inspire a sense of well-being and have the necessary aesthetic qualities to contribute to and enrich its context.”
Foqué then asks:
“Is the architect the person who is measuring the clouds all the time? Is architectural design, per se, an impossible task to perform? In other words, what is the essence of being an architect? What are the skills, competencies, and knowledge an architect needs to perform as a true professional?”
Aware of the access to practical knowledge readily available to other fields such as medicine, business and law, things can be otherwise for the architectural profession, the author sets out in search of a robust knowledge base architects can access:
“In my own practice, I have endeavored to use my professional experience and accumulated know-how in an innovative way for every new commission. But I have always been left with a feeling of discontent: Could I have done better? Did I use all the creative potential and knowledge at my disposal, and did I not overlook essential elements?”
Foqué concludes that the architectural profession no longer has a shared knowledge base. Building Knowledge in Architecture asks all of the important questions:
“Why did we abandon or sacrifice (this) knowledge base? Why is the architectural profession drifting? Why are we sometimes reinventing the obvious? Why do we struggle to cope with contemporary technological evolution, and why is it so difficult to integrate in a satisfactory way new findings and insights into our design solutions? Why are we losing ground, and why are essential responsibilities of our professional practice being assumed by others?”
One page into the book, you realize you have underlined every line. It is one of those books.
The Creation of New Knowledge through Practice
The book is organized in two parts.
In Part 1, Building Knowledge in Architecture serves as a practical overview of contemporary architectural design methods, and proposes design – apart from science and art – as a third way to investigate the real world.
“Perceiving themselves as practitioners of a ‘creative’ profession, architects hover between science and art.” p. 25
This is one of the very few books that discuss new digital design tools such as building information modeling (BIM) from academic, theoretical and practical standpoints (discussed for the first time on p. 93.)
But also integrated project delivery (IPD) or at least a facsimile of the same.
In the section called The Exteriorization of the Design Process, Foqué indicates that recent evolution of communication information technology processes forces designers
“…to interact increasingly with his environment. He has no escape, so to speak, but must engage in a permanent dialogue with his surrounding world.” p. 82
Foqué points out that the concept of transdisciplinarity – and the way specialized knowledge can be integrated – harkens back to the work of developmental child psychologist, Jean Piaget, in the 1970’s.
Where, according to the author, specialized knowledge needs to be incorporated into a comprehensive body of integrated knowledge, “within a global system of values and well-considered choices.”
Per Piaget, those who have taken part on integrated design teams will recognize the suggestion that multidisciplinary collaboration is, at root, child’s play.
“Learning should be revalorized in the sense that the creators of knowledge should also be held accountable for the application of that knowledge.” P. 24
“It is recognized that at the modern university, there exists a hierarchy of knowledge, which starts with the basic and fundamental science at the top, applied science in the middle, and technical skills at the bottom.” P. 26
Explaining why digital design tools, while used extensively, are infrequently taught at the university.
“…grounded in the field of tension between ‘technical’ performance and ‘artistic’ creation. It is exactly in that field of tension that every professional discipline grounds its own knowledge base.” P. 26
Foqué defines a critical component of the architect’s arsenal, intuition, as “a not-yet-conceptualized and not-yet-systematized form of knowledge.” P. 27
Before I go on to quote every line in the book, I want to point out an additional pleasure in reading a book written with a poet’s sensibility.
In describing the synergistic integration of art, science and technology, Foqué uses the seemingly simple example of learning to ride a bike.
“If you describe every part of a bike in extreme detail and add these descriptions together, you will by no means have produced an appropriate description of a bike.”
He concludes this explanation:
“In other words, it is not by knowing the why that you master the how. You need to add the artistic dimension, the art of bike-riding.”
As only a poet – who is also an architect, educator, scholar – could have written.
Foqué explains the now familiar story of how architects abandoned responsibility, and in doing so, relinquished authority, over the past 40 years.
He asks: How can we reverse this decline?
Part 2 of the book presents his case, so to speak.
Reinventing the Obvious
In Part 2, Building Knowledge in Architecture makes the case for case studies in architecture.
The case goes something like this:
Because case studies are used as teaching tools at law, medicine, and in MBA programs, architectural training should also include more reading and creating of case studies.
Here’s the problem with this argument:
It doesn’t need to be made.
In the introduction, the author asks: Why are we sometimes reinventing the obvious?
And then proceeds to fall into this same trap.
Architecture curriculums already make use of case studies. I know, for example, when I taught an integrated design/technology studio, we made great use of them.
They are not only, as the author argues, a practical tool for documenting complicated building projects, finding solutions to technical problems and expanding a firm’s expertise.
They are also excellent opportunities for having architecture students work in teams and learn how to collaborate on a project team while still in school.
The complexity of building projects almost guarantees that the teams will be multidisciplinary.
An example is Aaron Greven’s course in the College of Architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in the Integrated Building Delivery program, a class that focuses on integrated practices and the technology that facilitates collaboration across a broad range of building project participants, for the Masters in Integrated Building Delivery program, a post-professional program that is in its pilot phase.
While the example does not prove the rule, I have previously reviewed these case study presentations here.
And more recently, they have been reviewed here.
The book does an excellent job explaining case study research as a means to establish a knowledge base and, as importantly, develops a practical method to do so.
“Architecture is no longer considered a true discipline, based on a comprehensive knowledge base, as it was for more than 2000 years. It is clear that this situation is no longer tenable, if architecture wants to survive in the Information Age, and in a quickly changing globalized world. A key question regarding the discipline of architecture today is how we can build a store of knowledge again.” P.174
But for me, proving the case for use of case studies in architectural education is not the reason to read this book.
Perhaps it is not case studies that are needed but a knowledge management and information system that can readily access the design professional’s accumulated knowledge.
There are people out there who do just this.
But this book does provide the rationale as well as a unique approach to constructing case studies, grounded in the arguments and methodology presented in the first part of the book.
And more importantly, this book explains how we can build knowledge in our profession and industry through the use of case studies.
The strengths of the book overwhelm its few weaknesses.
Weaknesses first. For all of the wonderful discussion about design and creativity throughout the first part of the book, there is nary a general mention of or reference to either in the index. It is almost as though the index was created for academics who might scrutinize sources for perfunctorily academic reasons but alas, not for the general reader’s ease of use.
Likewise, many of the otherwise wonderfully rich sources cited, are from the 1970’s or earlier. The book would have benefitted the reader (but no doubt not fellow academics) by referencing more contemporary examples of the same ideas or even the cited author’s more recent work.
On the strength side, the book’s diagrams are truly spectacular and help to illustrate many of the book’s finer concepts.
Another remarkable and no doubt unintended strength of the book is it is eminently tweetable.
A book of well-composed sentences, Building Knowledge in Architecture is remarkably aphoristic, and there are literally hundreds of quotable 140 character lines that are just crying out to be tweeted on Twitter:
“Intuitive thinking and rational thinking are not opponents; they are the twin poles between which the artist structures reality.” http://amzn.to/lyhDEl
Foqué explains that in earlier craft societies, severe penalties were imposed on those members who reveal knowledge in public. P. 93
Today, we are rewarded for the same by being retweeted.
See below for how critical Twitter is to this discussion.
Read or drown
Read Building Knowledge in Architecture even if you don’t learn anything new by reading this book (you will.)
Because you will come to realize that by doing so, you will know what you know for the first time.
And that is some accomplishment. For any book.
It is absolutely critical that you read this book. Why?
Here are 3 reasons:
For all of the reasons I have stated above.
For the reason that it tells us where we have been, where we are today and where we are headed.
And for this reason:
When drowning and you are thrown a life preserver you don’t say, “no thanks, I’ve seen one of these before,” and toss your line to safety aside.
Do so and you’ll surely drown.
A strength of this author, as mentioned, is that he has one foot in academia and the other in practice, a perspective evident in nearly every sentence:
“Professional disciplines…reduce the gap between real world problems and academic research, research increasingly captured by its own agenda.” P. 25
A book such as this can go a long way starting to fill the gap between education and practice.
That the author is a published poet can be seen in the book’s nearly perfect prose – so clear that you will not need to go back and read any sentence twice.
But you will do so anyway.
Because the sentences are so well-written they’ll strike a chord in you.
And you will find yourself rereading them for the sheer wonder and pleasure.
So don’t read Building Knowledge in Architecture because it develops a general design theory, a theoretical framework and practical instrumentation to establish a knowledge base for the discipline of architecture.
Read it if you want to improve your understanding of the impact and motives on decision making so that your designs are more responsive to real needs.
Read Building Knowledge in Architecture because you are an architect, an educator or student.
Read it because books like this are why we still have books.
Read Building Knowledge in Architecture because we as a profession are adrift and this book has been thrown to us as a lifeline.
Read it because at a time when the publishing and construction industry are experiencing upheavals, it is heartening to discover a book that is as well-written and well-illustrated as it is well-constructed and physically beautiful.
The book feels good in the hand, like a book by Peter Zumthor.
When you hold it in your hand for the first time it will be as though you have done so before, as though the book is being returned to you after a long absence.
To you alone.
That is because this book has been written for you.
The book, Building Knowledge in Architecture, was recommended to me by Ryan Schultz, founder of http://www.openingdesign.com/ via Twitter
@theoryshaw P. 78 of Building Knowledge in Architecture (Design as a rational Process: The Triangle Broken) could be your mission statement. Thanks!
FYI This blog was posted for readers at my other blog by a different name.