Richard Buday, FAIA
Photography: Carl Bower

In July, Richard Buday, FAIA, published “The Confused and Impoverished State of Architectural Research,” a meditation for on why architectural research isn’t really aligned with orthodox definitions of rational inquiry—despite architecture’s reliance on empirical data and logic. Buday is a founder of the Houston-based digital arts studio Archimage, which counts the National Institutes of Health, IBM, Disney, and Nintendo among its clients. “As a species, we are working diligently against our existence,” he says. “Buildings can play a mitigating role in our demise, which means architectural research is now more important than ever.”

As architects, we should be careful about throwing around the term “research agenda.” It confuses us. A real research agenda identifies the gaps in knowledge that, when filled, enrich a community and increase the common knowledge of that community. When some architects say that they have a research agenda, it means something different. It means that they subscribe to a particular theory or have an idea of where they want to go with their work. But those kinds of agendas aren’t necessarily research activities.

I have been embedded with science researchers for the last 20 years. It became apparent early on that what they do is substantially different from what architects often claim as research. I’ve been a principal investigator of around $12 million of National Institutes of Health grants, and collaborated on another $30 million in grant-based research. The goal was combating self-destructive human behavior. We used narrative immersion and video games to reduce obesity by improving children’s attitudes toward nutrition and physical activity. I learned a great deal about the psychosocial aspects of persuasion, which I am now trying to translate into architectural strategies.

You have to go back to education to understand and address the confused state of architectural research. In my mind, we should be using established methodologies, rather than aimless exploration. You can’t rely on getting lucky. There are a lot of proven protocols to consider, from quantitative to qualitative, from the scientific method to art-based approaches.

Unfortunately, research as a disciplined activity is rarely taught in architecture school. You are introduced to design theories, personality cults, and a language no one understands, but not how to undertake a rigorous, systematic, and verifiable inquiry. That limits the profession’s opportunity to help save the human race, which is tragic. Architects have a moral obligation to do better. —As told to William Richards