Jeremy Till

New Introduction to 3 Myths and One Model

Three Myths and One Model : A New Introduction

The correlation between the effort of writing and the extent of its reception is never easy to gauge. In the past, I have spent weeks crafting an essay, endlessly sharpening the words in every sentence, only for the final piece to disappear into oblivion. On other occasions I have got something out quickly and directly, and it has gone much further. This essay, Three Myths and One Model, tends towards the latter category. I wrote it quickly and with some urgency, for reasons that will become apparent, and if I am completely honest find some of it rather awkward in its style and construction. And yet of anything I have written, apart from Architecture Depends, this essay has travelled further than others. For some reason it is particularly lauded in Spain, where I have given lectures on architectural research to reverently hushed audiences. It even reached into mainstream consciousness when published on Arch Daily, one of the world’s most visited architectural websites, who puffed it up by calling it “a canonical paper on architectural research.”


My slight discomfort with the essay is not false modesty, but just a reflection that things have moved on since I first wrote it in 2007. At the time I was Head of the School of Architecture at the University of Sheffield, a research-intensive institution. We were preparing for the 2008 RAE (Research Assessment Exercise), in which all universities and every discipline is submitted to detailed peer scrutiny and grading. Money flows in proportion to the results, and so there was a pressure and urgency to raise the game of architectural research. This essay was a small signal of that urgency, a call to arms to my fellow academics and practitioners to get our collective stall in order. In the context of the peer review processes of the RAE, Myth One in the essay (“Architecture is just Architecture”) is simply not a feasible option. If architecture detached itself from the accepted norms of the academy in terms of the delivery of research, then architecture would be expelled from the academy.


The question then comes: what do you mean by research? At this point Myth Two (“Architecture is not Architecture) comes into play. Here architecture seeks credibility in all other kinds of research orthodoxies, from rigorous historiography to the technical end of the sciences. At Sheffield we were pretty good at these, and had high ratings through them, suggesting that Myth Two is not such a myth, but a warning that one can go too far down the rabbit holes of other disciplines’ methodologies. However, we were left with a gap in research; a hole right in the centre of our discipline, namely research through the very act of design. In 2007, this was still a contested area. Myth 3 (“Building a Building is Research”) was a poke at some attitudes prevailing at the time. In the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise, some practitioners in schools of architecture had submitted their buildings as a set of pictures, with cursory descriptions and maybe a journalistic review in support. The implied argument accompanying the submission was: “I’ve designed a building. It is original. It must be research.” They were distressed when this argument was, rightly, dismissed, for the reasons outlined in my essay, primarily that with no explications of research questions, context, methods or impact, such an approach did not meet the basic criteria of what constitutes research as a communicable scholarly act.


The second half of the essay attempts to address these gaps, and is the part I am now less comfortable with, not because it is “wrong’ or “bad”, but because of the way that architectural research has so quickly matured in the meantime. Ten years ago, I was invited to a conference called “The Impossible PhD”, the title referring to the issues surrounding PhD by Practice, and whether it was a credible scholarly route. Now, at the University of the Arts London, where I work, over half of our PhD students are doing PhD by Practice. Practice-led / Practice-informed / Practice-based methods have been accepted as credible approaches to research in architecture and other creative disciplines.


It is in the light of this new maturity that design research can now be more confident in being developed on its own terms. It is necessary for design research to accord with the basic tenets of research in terms of rigour, originality, significance and communicability. But it should not be shoehorned into the methods of other disciplines. Indeed, it may be argued that design research has very particular strengths that are uniquely positioned to address the complex, wicked, issues that confront the world, and the other disciplines should be looking to and learning from these strengths. Where scientific research, at least in the Enlightenment model, is seen as searching after truth through linear reasoning, design research has no claims on truth. There is no such thing as the perfect building because, as I have argued in Architecture Depends, architecture and design are always contingent – they could always be otherwise. Design research often proceeds in iterative loops, cycling back on itself as a means of refinement. But most of all, design research is relational, allowing systems, buildings and things to be understood as part of wider fields of interaction. In this design research has to escape from the oft-cited paradigm of problem-solving – because that suggests that there are certain solutions to be found. Instead it is at best a means of sense-making; making sense that is of the complex interrelationships in a given situation, and through design interventions transforming it for the better. This is different from traditional methods of research which, in order to eliminate contingent forces, tend to investigate their subjects in relative isolation and with strict focus.


As we face climate emergency, the potential for mass extinction, and the breakdown of political norms – all of which are best described as predicaments rather than problems – it is exactly the relational, sense-making approach that is needed, which is why the next stage of design research might be to play back some of our methods and ways of thinking into other domains of knowledge.


April 2019