Tag - ethnography of architecture

Book Review

Piers Taylor reviewed Thomas Yarrow’s Portraits of a Practice for Architecture Today.

Most of the literatures within material cultures – particularly architectural ones – focus on the artefacts that are made, and ignore the contexts and circumstances that give rise to them. In a sense, that is why so many are so boring. Is there anything worse than an architectural monograph that focuses on mere objects when – as Paul Klee said ‘Form is the end – death. Form making is life’?

Instead, it is much more interesting to shed light on the processes that allow forms to come into being, rather than – as the anthropologist Tim Ingold describes – a backwards reading that begins with a material artefact and tries to make sense of the cultures that gave rise to it.

This is precisely what Thomas Yarrow’s Portraits of a Practicedoes. Yarrow – also an anthropologist – contextualises his work by reminding us that there is little sociological work conducted specifically on architectural practice. Dana Cuff’s The Story of Practiceis perhaps the most well known text that examines the culture of architectural production, and is considered by many a classic. However, Cuff’s book has always seemed to me a super-straight reading of the worst codes of autonomous architectural endeavour.

Yarrow’s narrative is more nuanced and subtler than Cuff’s. Yarrow’s study gets to grips with a particular way of knowing about the world – an architectural one – which as he describes, is uniquely placed to reconcile specific incompatibilities between things that seem in opposition.

The book uses a study of a small, rural office (Miller Howard Workshop) in order to explore and expand on a number of themes that are universal within architectural practice. Yarrow uses a number of distinct themes (office/lives/ideas/pragmatics etc) to structure his narrative and explore the way in which architects work. The book describes a quintessentially muddy, wooly, architectural way of knowing, and how we navigate between the diverse aspects of practice in order to design buildings.

This ethnographic frame reminds us of how little we know ourselves about how we do things – or most importantly, about how we design. With the messiness of small practice life always in the background, and meandering through the themes that structure the book (arranged loosely from idea to building) Yarrow reminds us there is a distinct designedly form of activity that separates it from other types of enquiry such a science, being dissimilar in its ‘problem solving’ methodologies.

As Yarrow demonstrates, we use design as a ‘way of knowing’ in the manner of that described in the Royal College of Art study ‘Design in General Education’ (1982) which said there that ‘there are things to know, ways of knowing them and ways of finding out about them’ specific to the design area, and with this, there are ‘designerly way of knowing’ as distinct from other fields such as science, art and the humanities.

Yarrow descriptions of the teamwork, discussion and teasing out of design proposals within a supportive environment of shared endeavour is familiar to many of us. It is also in the messy way which ideas are generated within a loosely collaborative environment that is particular to architecture. It shows that despite our over-use of terms like rigour and logic, unlike scientists who focus attention on discovering the ‘rule’, we architects obsess over result – with (as Nigel Cross said) ‘solution focused’ strategies. In his quiet observations of architects at work, Yarrow describes the manner in which we design ‘solutions’ and then evaluate them, and learn about the nature of the problem by trying out solutions rather than (as scientists) specifically studying the problem.

We recognise this in architectural practice where solutions appear at an early stage in the process of design – quite often before the brief is fully formed. If scientists solve by analysis, designers (problem) solve by synthesis. As we see in Yarrow’s descriptions of the numerous models, sketches and images we make, a central feature of design activity relies on quickly generating a number of solutions – which we then evaluate, discuss, mull over – rather than any prolonged analysis of any problem. It is a process of (Cross’ term) ‘satisficing’ rather than optimising; producing what might well be a large range of satisfactory solutions rather than attempting to generate the one hypothetically optimum solution. These semi-satisfactory solutions are then use to interrogate the problem in a reciprocal manner – each becoming redefined, reiterated and restated through this process.

This process of architectural enquiry in Yarrow’s book is something Jennifer Whyte has also written about in her paper Future Making and Visual Artefacts: An Ethnographic Study of a Design Project (2017) which documents how sketch representations of design proposals become enrolled in practices of ‘imagining, testing, stabilizing and reifying’ through which ‘abstract imaginings of the future’ are turned into a ‘realizable course of action’. This is in contrast to science practice where a forensic type of analysis is carried over a significant period of time without any propositional making or representations of solutions, before, at the end of the process of research, a solution is designed that ‘fits’ exactly the definition of the project. Yarrow’s account describes the spaces between intuition and exploration within which we find these solutions.

Yarrow also describes the breadth of architectural endeavour that, as a discipline, is unusually wide, spanning from contract to ideology and cost control to theory, with – as fits with a collaborative discipline – people always centre stage. Primarily, this is an unusually human book – so much more so than Cuff’s study which made architects appear smug, self-satisfied and elitist in claiming a view of the world born from a superior and exceptionalist sense of entitlement coming from little more than a rarefied aesthetic view point which masquerades as ethics.

In contrast, there is a good deal that we can recognise about ourselves – and take comfort from – in Yarrow’s portrait. Much of this is the charmingly ramshackle, romantic way we conduct ourselves, often in the manner of perpetual and un-commercial slightly scruffy students, which is partly why I am so drawn to architecture, rather than almost all other design disciplines, which seem so much less idealistic. As well as describing how we do things, Yarrow reminds us why we persist with this badly paid, insecure struggle of practice: less for the buildings and more for the particular way that we can use architecture as a way of being in the world and to help us understand our place in it.

© Piers Taylor

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