This PhD study demonstrates how spatial design – the core practice of design disciplines like architecture, urban design and landscape architecture – is an effective and reliable approach for solving multidimensional problems. This question is nowadays more relevant than ever. As environmental problems become more complicated, it is harder to define solutions and responses. This applies especially to urban design and landscape architecture. Our built environment forms an interface with natural and societal ecosystems, turning the question of urban sustainability into a defining imperative of the early 21st century.
Goal and Relevance
But what can spatial design do for addressing such problems? Is this not a field of specialists that can quantify, dissect and measure the extent of the problems? Maybe it is, but from a scientific point of view it is equally valid to explore the specific role that the designing disciplines can fulfil – in particular its generalist and synoptic attitude. Specifically, the efficacy and knowledge-producing traits of spatial design deserve close examination. If the designing disciplines are indeed effective tools for generating new insights (especially in the case of addressing complex problems) the challenge is to map out in sufficient detail how this knowledge-generation could work, and how the existing body of design theory and research is related to new findings from design experiments. The overall goal is therefore connective: linking existing theory to new insights; applying established design strategies in novel ways; and connecting theory and practice into a new, interactive and dialectic relation.
Structure and Method
Therefore, this PhD study combines theory and practice in one single research trajectory. Its theoretical part surveys a selection of recurrent ideas in design theory and connects them to the research question. The practical part carries out a number of extensive design experiments on two modernist neighborhoods: Hellersdorf-Süd (Berlin) and Pendrecht/Zuidwijk (Rotterdam). The design proposes a variety of possible pathways to increase the urban sustainability of these neighborhoods. However, the way to achieve this is not through quantification, neatly decomposing an issue into constituent problems, or executing targeted measurements, but by applying the core expertise of designers – spatial design – to the specifics of the problem and the architectural context. For a designer, every problem relates to space; it is the medium in which and through which it is addressed and transformed.
And that is exactly why a generalist attitude towards the world becomes an asset: in configuring possible futures and possible spaces that deal with a wide array of sustainability problems in an integrated manner, gradually transforming how the problem is understood, and developing new inroads for tackling it.
The design experiments aimed to exhaustively document the dynamics of a spatial design process – a “thinking-through-making process at work” as it were. With this experience, the contribution of spatial design in addressing a complex problem could be made intelligible and compared with the extensive theory review.
In conclusion, the results of this study can be used for further theory formation, thereby contributing to the progress and systematization of architectural science. More importantly, however, it provides a way to value the contribution of the design sciences in shaping the contemporary built environment.