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Science Fiction

The growing interest in science-as-metaphor produces not science but something science-ish.

The ’70s can be blamed for many sins, not least of which was the conviction that architecture must adopt the language of some other discipline in order to establish its legitimacy. Thus began an unfortunate compulsion to see architecture in terms of metaphors. Semiotics, linguistics, and innumerable branches of philosophy have all had their turn at puffing up the profession’s claim to gravitas, while mostly baffling the few members of the public who bothered to pay attention.

The next contender is already evident: science. A few trial runs with the vocabulary of biology, ecology, and geology were the first clue; another is the genera-tional tic among those educated in the 1990s who dub their firms “experimental” or “speculative” practices. Now it seems that no one designs anymore — projects have been recast as “research” and “investigations.”

Let’s stop this nonsense before it does something dangerous. The growing interest in science-as-metaphor produces not science but something science-ish — at a time when we need the real thing.

Anyone who really wants to understand the state of the profession should spend a few hours at continuing-education workshops where practitioners gather, often hungry for technical information. Small-firm practitioners — who represent the majority of the profession — may be the most ravenous: Without access to big-firm infrastructures of technical staff and consultants, they make decisions on a daily basis about rapidly changing codes, energy concerns, sustainability, and new materials — always with the threat of liability. Attendees in after-session conversations shake their heads at reports of yet another failed miracle product, share rumors about green buildings that don’t measure up to their claims, and bemoan the legal cones of silence that descend over building and product failures, preventing anyone from learning from mistakes. Constrained by limited time and resources, they want answers — “just tell me what to do” — but they also want the confidence and knowledge to judge for themselves.

Architecture needs to embrace serious science. This is not a call for nerds and hipsters doing the kumbaya thing. Architects need to understand the science of building. But the profession also needs to address one of its most serious failings: its inability to develop a culture of true research and shared knowledge. And in this, architecture can learn from science.

Of course, the scientific ideal of objective rationality does not always match reality: The finest minds in science have always been subject to political and religious affronts, and the field has had its share of fraudulent and slipshod work despite mechanisms meant to ensure quality. Nor is the transmission of knowledge always seamless: As Dr. Jerry Avorn, a professor at Harvard Medical School, recently wrote in The Boston Globe, medicine suffers from an increasing inability to connect new information and research to the practicing doctors who need it.

But architecture is peculiarly hobbled by the fetters of tradition, legal hamstringing, and lack of funding. Someone needs to generate research, and someone needs to disseminate it.

Who is that someone? Everyone. The AIA could take a leadership role, expanding its research-grants program, revising its contract-documents series to include provisions for research, developing a research-based wiki, and sponsoring a clearinghouse that would serve as a sort of legal DMZ for discussion of construction failures; perhaps most significantly, it could sponsor follow-up performance evaluations of the buildings it has recognized with COTE/Top Ten Green Projects awards. Consortia of academics and industry leaders could sponsor, vet, and publish research online; the National Academy of Environmental Design, established in 2009, is already a promising model. Architecture firms, as a few already have, could integrate research and development within their practices. Perhaps some nonprofit could follow the model of San Francisco’s Public Architecture to provoke a cultural shift within the profession itself.

It’s not a radical notion. Scientists and architects are equally drawn to the question posed by the astronomer Johannes Kepler four centuries ago: “Why are things as they are and not otherwise?” Challenging assumptions and imagining alternatives can lead to good research and good architecture.