"Such things cannot be thought of, but must grow again from forgotten parts." Carl Jung.
The academic world is currently a buzz with talk of design thinking. With some cyclical regularity, the design professions in the academic setting become aware of a distinction they have from other areas of study, that being a particular cognitive relationship to problem solving known as 'design thinking'. When that form of problem solving is also connected to notions of innovation and the 'synergistic leapfrogging' of problems, institutions begin to invest, be it a new cross-disciplinary design program at U.C. Berkeley or architecture schools in the mid-west restructuring themselves intellectually along the lines of the d.school at Stanford. What is ironic about this is that the discipline of architecture, which traditionally has cultivated design thinking as central to its enterprise, is remarkably poor in describing the knowledge contained by that enterprise.
Science has clear basis for knowing and even agreement on how ideas are falsified as a way of advancing knowledge. Conversations with our literature friends confirms that while there is little agreement on meaning, there is great effort in articulating a theory and basis for meaning. In fact, this is mostly what is argued about. Architecture, as revealed in the conversations at design crits we attend, has neither this agreement on basis nor rigor of critical theory and rarely is a thesis falsified. At a crit, which is where a student presents her project to a jury of critics who evaluate its success, the discourse can be bewildering. Often, the student brings along process pieces, at best to gain insight into the project's development, at worst to scaffold up a rationale for the project. Inevitably, a jury member will rise, point to an earlier schematic model and say 'there you (the student) had it, and then you lost it.' As hope springs eternal, the student at this point is often confused but nevertheless comforted by the idea that once he 'had it' if only to lose it along way. In fact, there can be satisfaction with a project if the concept alone, the project's idea, is sufficiently interesting enough to sustain the jury's conversation.
All too rare is a cogent engagement of the design beyond the desires of the author, looking at a project’s form directly with the rigor of an argument about the configurational impact on use and, therefore, meaning. This always seems odd, because it is what designers, at least architects, do all the time. As we develop a design, choices (about organization and form) are reviewed and selected to advance design objectives. Even if the reasoning is highly intuitive, it is not without consideration. It is in this often unarticulated thinking where the answer to what we know can be found, but for us in this project on form, the more interesting question found here is how do you know it?
We are interested in form because that is what we think with, while drawing and designing. It is a way we know something. A drawing or model provides a cognitive structure to explore a design problem through its transformation, and for us it is the transforming that defines how we know. This is an important distinction, in part because of the humbling and abundant array of work of comparative precedent studies and descriptions of architectural vocabulary. Much of this work is offered as categorical information rather than describing the generative aspects of a form. As an example there is the remarkable work by Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand, who produced the 'Précis des leçons d'architecture…' in 1809 with plate after plate of designs encompassing the extent of then existing and emerging building types. Amongst his motivations was to bring the study of architecture into the Polytechnique, requiring a codified knowledge base. Of significance to us in this work is first few pages, where he lays out the diagrams from which all the buildings that follow are derived, the generative aspects of the buildings. Here, contained in these few pages lies an example of what we know and, more critically, how we know it.
further: Schon, Donald;"The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action". London: Temple Smith, 1983.