Research is everywhere. Architects incite action, design materials and archive cities. They capitalize upon the excess energy of practice to launch unsolicited experiments into the world, or sidestep clients by joining forces with government think tanks. Discussions from classrooms have found currency at town halls, and findings from construction sites have migrated into basement laboratories. Yet for all of its vitality, research eludes definition. The term describes everything and nothing, leaving its assumptions–the drive towards innovation, certainty, and influence, for example–unexamined.
ARPA Journal is a forum for debates on what is applied research in architecture. We scrutinize techniques of inquiry to examine their ethical stance and spark ideas for their potential transformation. If the term applied research conventionally describes a practice adulterated by practical concern or funding bias, ARPA Journal asks how research can embrace its entangled nature, and experiment with the very problem of autonomy in application.
Innovation is nothing new in architecture, but has taken hold as a structured practice due to the rise of computing technologies–consider data mining, the search engine, and rapid prototyping. In parallel, architects have sought tools to grasp the volatility of markets and climates, and to capture phantom traces of neoliberal governance and mobile populations.
Research makes explicit political, cultural and aesthetic narratives in the built environment by working with the very mechanisms through which such meanings take shape. Settlement patterns are recognized just as machines for material assembly are retooled. Quarantine practices are debated just as data are mapped at an unexpected scale. Techniques of inquiry are subject and method. Yet, if the tools of research are conditioned by the context of their formation, is there anything inherently compromised about drone mapping or genetic modification? Or about soliciting sponsorship from the US Department of Defense or DuPont? To accept or deny such models wholesale would be to reinforce an impossible division between a critical and a positivist model, between condemning the tools of power and unleashing them into the world unchecked. The real question, instead, is how researchers design the reach of their inquiry through aggressive action of their own.
As an applied practice, research promises to engage contemporary actors, sites and techniques, combining experimentation with inquiry into researchers’ ethical responsibility. Such reflection demands scrutiny of the practice’s presumed tenets. Post-war federal funding for research and development has defined experimental criteria around the rigors of rule-based judgments. Markets demand ever faster, smaller and more efficient technologies, incanting the mantra of innovation in the name of growth. How do architects exercise judgment amidst a system structured around verifiability? When does the compulsion to look ahead fail to address current resources, future side effects, or obsolescence in retrospect? Researchers lay claim to certainty and invention narratives in order to wield influence and relay architectural discussions to parallel fields. Through research practice, architects may gain a seat at the table, but which table? For whom and from whom do architects seek legitimacy?