Intersections Between the Academy and Practice, Papers from the 2017 AIA/ACSA Intersections Symposium

By Proxy: Design Problems and Collaborative Inquiry

Intersections Proceedings

Author(s): Michael Leighton Beaman

Running parallel with the increase in partnered research initiatives in the fields of technology, medicine, and engineering, collaborations between private sector commercial or research organizations and academia are on the rise in architecture. There has been a recognition particularly in the last ten years of the value of incorporating design thinking into problem solving across scales and industries. From focused material investigations to long-term strategic planning, those outside of academia are looking to architects and spatial designers to leverage their approaches and processes to address real-world issues faced by communities, organizations, and businesses. Universities use these partnerships to fund research, offset capital expenses, and expand their influence. But these partnered research initiatives do not come without costs. The responsibility for companies and organizations is to see a return on their investment. Consequently, for universities, the academic freedom and maintaining of a clear pedagogy can be met with pushback. In addition, project goals and values do not always align, and expectations between partners can vary. This paper examines a number of strategies that address the inherent tension in partnered research design projects by reconfiguring stated problems into proxy inquiries. Proxies, as stand-ins for another- a person, an organization, an action or a process -allow for existing problems to be reconstructed into pedagogical ones – they allow for scales to be shifted and they generate holistic outcomes in the truncated duration of a semester, rather than offer piecemeal results. Proxies offer a methodology for accepting the constraints of partnered research as a way of expanding design inquiry, while remaining grounded in problems fundamental to architecture and design. More than just a substitute, proxies transmit agency. Outlined in the paper are findings from the Proxy Series, which began in 2007 as a set of research based academic inquiries focused on the exploration of emerging technologies and their reshaping of 1) design theory, 2) design process and 3) design production. Conducted through studios, seminars, and independent research, each inquiry investigated a discrete set of issues spanning these three areas. While each is constructed to address a specific design problem within a pedagogical framework, the imposition of extra-academic considerations allowed for the pursuit of production techniques, materials research, and software experimentation, while working with partners and collaborators outside of the design discipline. As such, proxies offered an alternative formulation of the design life-cycle – one that emerged and evolved beyond conventional forms of practice or current problem solving approaches, while mirroring the aspirations of the partnered research model itself.

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