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Trained Judgement

UNStudio

Trained Judgement
By Ben van Berkel -

In the past architects learned to design through the eye-mind-hand triad, at a time when learning was primarily concerned with the development of new and practical techniques for design. However this approach is no longer tenable on its own in a profession that has recently undergone considerable expansion in scope, requirements and - therefore ultimately - in its possibilities. Similarly, we can no longer concern ourselves purely with aesthetics. For some time now aesthetics no longer carries the all-encompassing meaning it once enjoyed, neither in architecture nor in a wider cultural context. In architecture today aesthetics is more linked to a healthy form of provocation, with the architect now in a position to reference other creative disciplines such as art, fashion, literature etc.
The scope of the profession has in recent years also expanded considerably in terms of its functional responsibilities and requirements. In contemporary practice we are concerned - now more than ever - with the utility of space, with efficiency models, with the importance of incorporating sustainable constructive elements and with global and economic constraints and considerations.
This augmentation of what is required from the contemporary practice of architecture means that architects today are required not only to resolve complex structural relationships, but are also called upon to find a cohesive integration of variables. A building can no longer simply be approached as a purely autonomous entity or the sum of disparate elements, merely in terms of a grid, a façade or an iconic “image”. Today’s architect is in a position to create an architecture that is as integral and fully holistic as possible. In order to achieve this, however, there is call for a multi-faceted means of judgement, one that involves the synthesis of a broad spectrum of variables, information and knowledge; a trained judgement.
So how do we bridge the supposed gap between the functional / utilitarian (objective) and the innovative / expressive and experiential (subjective), both of which are inherent and essential to the profession? In order to combine empirical knowledge and continued immersion in the ever-evolving science and technology available to the design and production of architecture today we need to apply trained judgement; a means of experiential critical interpretation and the development of alternative critical skills.
Trained judgement could then be seen as requiring a constant balancing act of the subjective - as connected to the design of architecture - and the objective - as related to the construction of architecture. However, when we delve into the thought processes involved in judgement, we notice that perhaps we are mistaken in assuming that such degrees of tension in fact need to exist between architecture’s autonomous, artistic character and its technical and functional dimensions. Rather, I would like to suggest that we should not take this tension as a given, but instead approach this perceived rift by also evaluating the many and complex psychological mechanisms which occur both consciously and sub-consciously during the process of judging.
Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s investigations into the dichotomy between two modes of thought and their suggestion that we in fact place too much confidence in rational human judgement1 is perhaps pertinent here. Kahneman and Tversky’s posit that behavioural biases in decision making are in fact more faithful to human psychology, and challenge the idea - accepted among social scientists in the 1970s - that “people are generally rational”. This thesis plays an essential role in our current understanding of the complexities involved in judgement. It also perhaps raises the question as to whether or not judgement can be fully trained, or if it can at best simply benefit from an awareness of the psychological mechanisms involved in the judgement process and therefore be trained only within currently understood parameters.
I would support the latter. Kahneman and Tversky’s extensive research discovered “systematic errors in the thinking of normal people”, but also observed that these errors arose not only from the corrupting effects of emotion, but are in fact seen to be built into our evolved cognitive machinery. This proposes adaptability in terms of the evolution of human judgement, but in the end the architect today can only rely on and respond to such psychological investigation as it relates to the current human condition.
But perhaps most pertinent to the question regarding the apparently opposing forces of the subjective and the objective are Kahneman and Tversky’s identifications of two separate, yet linked systems of thought. The first (system 1) they identify as automatic, fast, stereotypic and largely subconscious. The second (system 2) is identified as a slow, deliberate, logical and consciously effortful mode of reasoning. Although this would initially suggest a clear separation, they go on to propose that whilst system 1 uses association and metaphor to produce a hasty understanding of reality, system 2 sub-consciously draws on the judgements of system 1 to arrive at determined beliefs and apparently reasoned choices. Simply put, if we accept the findings of Kahneman and Tversky, what we understand as purely objective thought is in fact subconsciously guided and influenced by the subjective.
So how do we apply this understanding of human judgement to architecture and design? And how can it affect and be integrated into the decision making process of the architect? Design thinking cannot, of course, be carried out purely by rationally biased or computational thought processes alone, as this would introduce a one-dimensional method of communication towards the perceiver. If the ultimate goal of design, beyond the purely pragmatic, is to guide how the work will be perceived and experienced by the end user, then the architect has to assimilate and synthesize the abstract and the figurative within the design process in order to create buildings that are operative on multiple experiential levels.
Throughout history the subtle but conscious (or semi-conscious) exploitation of visual perception has for the most part been the prerogative of the artist: if the objective of a work of art is primarily to communicate, then the artist must possess a certain understanding of how to manipulate the potential readings of his or her work; how to effect an immediate psychological, subjective receptivity whilst simultaneously triggering a more engaged cognitive response, and in so doing either guide the viewer towards an understanding of the concepts and ideas behind the work, or conversely elicit individual experiences and interpretations. The artist could typically be said to first engage the viewer by means of visual intrigue, but once this has been achieved, an immediate merging of secondary cognitive reasoning and associative, metaphoric and subconscious thought processes occur. And it is this assimilation of thought processes that results in the eventual individual interpretations of the work.
Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Mirror paintings from the 1960’s and 70’s perhaps provide an apposite illustration of these dual thought processes when applied to perception in art. Particularly, his 1970’s photographic images of men and women silkscreened on to highly polished steel plates result in us, the viewers, initially focusing our attention on these life-size figures and their two-dimensional surface as they look back out at us from within the detached confines of their “canvas”. However as we approach them, we see our own reflection join them in their tableau, in their otherwise abstracted space. As we look straight back out at ourselves from within the picture frame a shift occurs which, as it were, shocks the gaze from a passive, receptive state to one of rationalisation, born of the desire to make sense of this deviation in perception. As such, this play on perception creates a need in the viewer for a rational understanding of what he is seeing and experiencing. But perhaps equally relevant here is the fact that fundamentally the semantic distinction between the definitions of the term “reflection”, for Pistoletto, harmony between seeing and thinking, is to be found both in the occurrence of a visual likeness and the act of mental contemplation.
In architecture, however, we of course have to add functionality to this equation. Yet by merging the abstract and the figurative, the hard and the soft sides of the profession, we can greatly enrich architecture and allow for unexpected moments of innovation and creativity within the design process. As a result, we can introduce elements of illusion and ideas of the oblique into the psychological effects of transformative spaces. Spatial experiences and multi-representational effects can emerge by understanding and employing merged thinking and design techniques. In this way architecture can affect paradoxical readings and provide complex spatial experiences.
Pavilion projects can prove very useful in this context as temporary testing grounds for these processes, not simply as models for experimenting with materials or construction techniques, but also as models for thinking; as intellectual constructs. As such the pavilion is an extension of an instrument for design and can function as a possible apparatus for the process of design. The pavilion can perhaps be seen as an aggregation, in the sense that it can form an accumulation of many different architectural ingredients that interact and influence each other, but may not as yet provide a perfect synthesis to be applied to larger, more complex building project. Internal and external values can be tested and combined in the temporary structure and can later lead to concepts and practical solutions which would perhaps otherwise not have been possible to test in a building. Pavilions can provide a prototypical stepping stone or apparatus for ideas and solutions that can later be expanded upon in buildings.
Although trained judgement requires an understanding of the psychological effects and readings of space, it is important to note that it is not in any way formulaic, nor does it provide some kind of optimum or infallible blueprint for architecture. In architecture, trained judgement is moreover a form of analysis, pattern recognition and choice-making related to how we guide and direct information in design. The broad spectrum of information and knowledge available to the architect today ultimately requires the facilitation of a critical approach and the editing of all parameters, irregularities and values in order to facilitate new relational choices, which would inevitably - through acquired skills - seamlessly combine all elements needed to create a design that ultimately simply “works”. And it is this critical approach that, for the architect, I refer to as trained judgement.
The question then arises, can such an approach be taught? Or does it remain the privilege of the seasoned practitioner with years of experience and numerous built projects under his or her belt? I would argue that, to a degree, it can and should be imparted to future architects. Whilst the unforgiving necessity of experience cannot be denied, trained judgement on a basic level requires the ability to recognize the changes and the abundance of new possibilities within the profession and act upon these. Furthermore architectural theory has always been seen as the most important aspect when learning about the practice. However, if you do not educate in the latest scientific developments and their complexity and diversity, then you are not teaching how to design. In order to guide the student in the process of design, not only is it necessary to impart knowledge about and encourage research into the hard side of the profession. It is also essential to train students how to judge, select, edit and combine both hard and soft knowledge.
Trained judgement therefore requires “active theory practice”, a play between the making within the practice and the theory, which ultimately need to go hand in hand. It is about understanding reality in all its facets and then applying this in reality. And whilst it is an active and dynamic method of evaluation that celebrates choice, it is also ultimately a form of recognition guided by experience within the new context of an expanded architecture.

Ben van Berkel

1-    Daniel Kahneman. “Thinking, Fast and Slow”.
    October 25th 2011, Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-4299-6935-2

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