Research Statement

Geography as Paradigm

Increasingly designers are being compelled to address and transform larger contexts and to give these contexts more legible and expressive form. New problems are being placed on the tables of designers (e.g.: infrastructure, urban systems, regional and rural questions). Problems that had been confined to the domains of engineering, ecology, or regional planning are now looking for articulation by design. This situation has opened up a range of technical and formal possibilities that had been out of reach for designers. The need to address these ‘geographic’ aspects has also encouraged designers to re-examine their tools and to develop means to link together attributes that had been understood to be either separate from each other or external to their disciplines (for example, in the past decade, different versions of landscape urbanism have emerged in response to similar challenges).

Yet engaging the geographic does not only mean a shift in scale. This has also come to affect the formal repertoire of architecture, even at a smaller scale, with more architects becoming interested in forms that reflect the geographic connectedness of architecture, by its ability to bridge between the very large and the very small (networks and frameworks) or to provide forms that embody geographic references (e.g.: continuous surfaces, environmentally integrated buildings). Curiously, while most of the research around these different attributes has tended to be quite intense, the parallel tracks of inquiry have remained disconnected. For example, the discussion about continuous surfaces in architecture ignores the importance of continuity of ground in landscape ecology. Research in the lab does not propose that a common cause is driving these different geographic tendencies but it does insist that a synthesis is possible, even necessary, in order to expand on the formal possibilities of architecture and its social role. This makes the need to articulate the geographic paradigm all the more urgent because the role of synthesis that geography aspired to play between the physical, the economic, and the social is now being increasingly delegated to design.

The aim of the New Geographies Lab is to expose the workings of this latent paradigm and to help articulate and direct them towards a more productive synthesis. Even though the term geographic is used primarily in a metaphorical way to designate a connection to the physical context, the paradigm does overlap with the discipline of geography. Some clarification is necessary in this respect in order to benefit from the overlap while avoiding confusion. The history of geography is strongly linked to the history of discovery and colonization. The instruments for the discovery of territory were extended into its documentation and then, in turn, were extended into its appropriation and transformation. And yet the discipline has evolved to become more diverse and broad, to become institutionalized around geographic societies; to split into human and physical geography producing very different approaches and even subject matters; then to disintegrate (as in the case of Harvard) and migrate into other disciplines (sociology, public health, information systems); and then to be revived around central contemporary issues such as globalization. The paradigmatic role of geography in our thinking about design in this lab could be taken in the narrower sense of geographic as being an attempt to study the relationship between the social and the physical at a larger territorial scale but also to attempt a synthesis along the lines of ‘high’ geography by design. It may be an exaggeration to propose that something like a geographic attitude, both in method and in content, is guiding different strategies.

The New Geographies Lab is supported by the Aga Khan Program at the GSD. The Lab examines the urban transformations in the Muslim world and casts them in the larger regional and territorial landscapes. Importantly it also proposes alternatives for their improvement by design. The projects and writing undertaken by the lab casts these transformations in a comparative and theoretical framework that allows for a better understanding of the Muslim world’s uniqueness and impact. Specific areas of research in this respect include arid environments (deserts  and oases in Africa and the Middle East), rapid urbanization (the Gulf region and the Eastern Mediterranean), historic preservation (Turkey, Morocco, and Lebanon), and rural development (Turkey, Eastern Mediterranean, and North Africa).