Architectural Blatherations

The Very Short Life of Architectural Science

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The God Oil

Dr Garry describes his many years at the Department of Architectural and Design Science (DADS) at the University of Sydney, Australia, before he launched off into a private sector career.

My life in architectural science

At the University of Sydney, the Department of Architectural Science was an attempt to bring the benefits of science both to architectural education, and to the profession (as you can read here). It was founded in 1953 by Professor Henry Jack Cowan (1919–2007), a structural engineer. You can read a generous assessment of Dr Cowan in this obituary (Sydney Morning Herald, 27 August 2007).

As the department grew it brought in experts in acoustics, lighting, thermal and wind studies, environmental psychology and computing.

I had a great time there; but now, looking back, I see that it was a noble experiment doomed to failure. There is no doubt that the people there were (and are) world class in their field. The question is: what was the field? I don't think that architectural science constituted a valid and unified body of knowledge. It was a ragbag of quite separate disciplines, united mainly by the fact that the people were in the one building. There was some cross-fertilisation, true; for instance, between the environmental psychologists and the lighting people.

Apart from propinquity, the only unity is that they shared a common object of study, the built environment. A glance through the department's house journal, Architectural Science Review (ASR), would show a great variety of articles, with very little linkage between them. Much less than, for example, the articles published in the Journal of Architectural Education or the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. A general reader of the latter two could understand with little effort every paper published. A reader of ASR would have great difficulty comprehending any article outside his or her own specialty.

The educational legacy

The attempt to educate architects in the ways of the sciences sounded like a good idea. It took me twenty years to work out why it was a failure, and why it had to fail. Rather than produce architecture graduates with a deep appreciation of the physical properties of buildings; who would be aware of the effects of lighting, the weird ways of the wind, and who could design for energy-efficiency; we instead produced generations of students who deeply resented having to take courses they found dull and irrelevant.

Teaching architecture students

Why? Several reasons come to mind. First, while we tried hard as teachers, I don't think we were that brilliant. On the other hand, we were more than competent, and we knew our stuff. What I didn't work out for many years was that architecture students do not want competence: they want charisma. Architecture students are, frankly, not the brightest bulbs in the pack. They yearn for inspiration, not facts. The most highly regarded design teachers are always the ones who airily wave in front of screens of their masterpieces. No multiple choice assessment after these classes, thank you!

Second, as I have shown elsewhere, architecture students regard most favourably those courses in which they can demonstrate their class position. And the last place they can do that is with science- or engineering-oriented courses. The ones who most objected to our courses were always the ones from the most upper-class families.

Sustainable design

There is irony in dollops that the very topics we attempted to enthuse our students with are now hot-to-trot in some architectural circles under the name of sustainable design. We were talking about energy efficiency and economy of materials thirty years before architects ever heard the word kilowatt. The irony redoubles when we learn that the students who were most hostile to these very concepts are now their most ardent proponents. You can read more about this here.

The professional legacy

More successful was our attempt to provide services for the architectural occupation. Wind tunnel tests, facility management assessments and the like were worthwhile functions of the department.

However, the department failed utterly to integrate these into the culture of architecture, any more than structural design has been integrated into practice (every practising architect foists this sort of stuff onto the nearest engineer without question). They were regarded as purely external services offered by outsiders to the profession.

Perhaps the department's forte was its suite of postgraduate offerings: audio, computing, facilities management, lighting and many others. As the University of Sydney demanded that its departments attract ever greater outside funding, the department responded by producing a wide range of popular and profitable courses.

The research legacy

The department prided itself on its research outputs. Unquestionably, these were fine intellectual products. The issue was whether they are of any practical use. In many disciplines this is an irrelevant consideration (how useful is Latin poetry?), but architectural science purported to assist the very practical task of designing and constructing buildings.

Research in the real world

A few realities about research were brought home to me after I joined Australia's largest building automation research firm, James Hardie Building Services, in 1995. I was struck by how different research in academia was from that conducted in the private sector. At James Hardie we were very focussed and strove to produce solutions to real-world problems. We aimed to produce the best solution at the cheapest price using the fewest resources. We had real customers looking for real products.

Research in academic fantasy-land

Academia is the opposite. Sure, DADS produced papers and books, but very little made its way into the real world. And even less of this was used by architects: engineers and others, perhaps; architects, no. Academics crowed about the size of their grants, about how many postgrads they have working for them, about how much equipment they have bought: in short, about their inputs. The raison d'etre of academic research seemed to be to get money.

The outputs never seemed to materialise as anything except ponderous prose in obscure academic journals; each paper ending with a lament for further funding from the taxpayer. No one ever asked: well, what have you done with six man-years of effort (unpaid postgrads, of course), and a hundred thousand dollars? At James Hardie, you had to have a bloody good answer, or you were out on your backside.

Death of the discipline

As I foresaw in 2000 in the original version of this page, there was little future for the discipline, nor for the department that bore its name. Dear old DADS, the flagship of the discipline, is no more. As far as I know, there is only one department of architectural science remaining, that of Ryerson University.

The term pops up every so often, (such as here), although it is clear that these are recent coinages, without any knowledge of the original discipline that Henry Cowan so proudly established in 1953.

Mistake 1: Dr Cowan strangled his own child

Architectural science–the department–and the discipline, were doomed by two mistakes. First, DADS allowed its founder to hang around for 20 years after his retirement. When I mentioned this to colleagues some time ago, I was accused of ageism, of criticising the old for being old.

Henry Cowan
Dr Henry Cowan.

Not so. The point I was making was that Dr Cowan imposed his vision of the discipline on his successors, well after he should have let others have a free hand to change and grow. Although he supposedly retired in 1985, he was a significant influence over DADS for a further 20 years. In 1958, he founded the pioneering journal Architectural Science Review (ASR). Fifty years later, he was still the editor. ASR laboured under his withered gaze until a few months before his death: moribund. The issues he thought were the Great Debates of 1958 still heaved across his asthmatic editorials in the twenty-first century. His student successors and acolytes at the journal (unburdened by fresh ideas, and themselves approaching retirement) were happy to let the old man carry on. After all, what did they have to offer?

When Dr Cowan came to the school of architecture he brought some dazzlingly fresh ideas about what architects should learn, and some innovative ways of teaching it. But decade after decade, the department taught the same content with the same pedagogy. In the 21st century, Dr Cowan still kept his hand in with desultory lectures: the same ones he gave when Elvis had his first hits. His slides were fading with age; his demonstration equipment and models elegant but mouldering relics of the brass-and-mahogany era— more at home in a museum than a university.

There was a certain sad charm in Dr Cowan's resolve, but also an implacable determination not to move with the times, not to acknowledge that the world had changed; and a profound failure to understand that there always comes a time to let go so that others may forge their own vision.

By not letting it grow and develop, Dr Cowan strangled his own child.

A better exit

A fine example of a graceful exit was set by Dr Cowan's contemporary in the school, Professor Peter Johnson, who broke all ties when he retired as Dean, Professor, and Head of School. He moved on to other places and other activities. I admired Johnson hugely for that.

Mistake 2: Architectural science becomes design science

The second mistake, from the discipline's point of view, was to appoint as Dr Cowan's successor a professor with little empathy for the culture of architecture, and almost as little for architectural science: a few years after he won the position, Dr Gero persuaded the university to rename his chair to design science. No doubt Dr John Gero had a fine mind, was a dazzling administrator and would have adorned any university with his coruscating intellect; but by his own admission, he preferred to be a professor of design science, not architectural science.

John Gero
Dr John Gero

Like most Australian academics, Dr Gero found the charms of his very first tenured posting in 1967 so alluring and so comfortable that even the most enticing of offers was resistible. Dr Gero took his first job in DADS the year that Pamela Anderson1 was born. He stayed there for forty years.

To his great credit, Dr Gero did not repeat Dr Cowan's mistake. Upon reaching the mandatory retirement age that Australian universities usually impose, Dr Gero moved on. Reluctant to deprive a waiting world of his scholarly works, Dr Gero decamped to one of America's most exciting universities: Turd Blossom's beloved alma mater George Mason University2 in the Old Dominion. Dr Gero no doubt contemplated a happy, avuncular, and productive golden age; all subsidized by American students and taxpayers, rather than the Australian ones who had paid his salary for four decades.

We should all be grateful that an academic in his seventh decade can still manage to keep up a prodigious academic outpouring. His 2014 output alone, as shown on his site, lists nigh on 44 papers, and five books, magnanimously shared with 30 co-authors. We do worry if perhaps the good professor is a little behind the times. Dr Gero has lifelong associations with Elsevier and Springer, publishers at the centre of the academic publshing rort. Or perhaps they are just all good capitalists, making money whenever they can.


1. In the very year that Pamela was born Dr Gero wrote a seminal paper on pneumatic structures. Mere coincidence? We don't think so! And get this: Dr Gero was appointed professor of architectural science at DADS in 1985, the very same year that Pamela Anderson graduated from high school. Just a fluke? We don't think so! There's even more: Dr Gero moved to George Mason University the very same year that Pamela Anderson married Rick Salomon. A quirk of fate? We don't think so! We report, you deride.

2. ARWU ranks the University of Sydney in the 102-150 bracket, and George Mason University in the 203-304 bracket (2007 ratings). The other major international ranking system, QS Topuniversities, rates the University of Sydney 31st best in the world (2007 ratings). QS Topuniversities has no entry for George Mason University. For more information, see our page on Australia's best universities.