Architects generally design according to systems they are familiar with and have accepted, but the breadth of this familiarity and acceptance is limited. We’re inclined to work inside a relatively small bubble of expertise. We stay within a comfort zone, most often because we don’t think we can know everything. As a result, the qualitative aspects of our built environment and its adaptability to social and technological change can be compromised or left to others who work in fields unrelated to architecture.
The social sciences are an example of a group of systems that architects often ignore and yet exist as a ready resource for study. We too often regard the fields of behavioral science, environmental psychology, and sociology as distinct areas of specialization rather than as bases for fundamental design skills to be tapped. For example, housing for low to moderate-income families has long been a topic for research in the social sciences (and it is the one substantial segment of housing that involves architects) but the inaccessibility of the findings to designers has precluded their widespread application within the architectural profession and schools of architecture.
This problem of unfamiliarity with systems that may be of use to architects is compounded by the nature of the design/construction process and the bias of our professional education. The data we can cull from behavioral and sociological studies tends to be separated from the formal principles that serve as the basis for our decision-making when we design. Because we’re trained to make choices via the study and evaluation of visual evidence, most of us ignore valuable information from non-architectural sources unless it is translated into patterns or diagrams we can easily grasp.
One of the reasons we love being architects is because what we do is so multifaceted. However, the mounting “burden of knowledge” is pushing our profession increasingly toward specialization and a willingness to outsource more and more of our responsibilities. Consequently, our stature is diminishing as our control of the overall process of design and construction wanes. Some architects believe this is okay and inevitable given the accelerating complexity of the problems we face. I disagree. Critics bashed the naiveté and social idealism of the early Modernists, but equally injurious I suspect was the abdication of social responsibility by many of the architects who came after them.
So what’s the solution? Is the answer to find ways to diagram essential design considerations founded upon research in the social sciences and other disciplines? Perhaps it is. Anything would be better than relying upon our intuition alone. Sticking our heads in the sand—ignoring wide-ranging bodies of research and wisdom outside of those most closely associated with architecture—is untenable in our increasingly diverse and complex world. The wealth of knowledge at hand is too great for us to ignore.