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Stanford Anderson, “Architectural Design as a system of Research”

4 Compositions 1

4 Compositions, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris (Le Corbusier)

Stanford Anderson, “Architectutal Design as a System of Research Programs,” Design Studies 5, no. 3 (July 1984)


While many theoretical positions since 1968 have labeled instrumental functionalism within modern architecture as pernicious, Stanford Anderson, approaches modernism through his critiques with, “an ideologically very different spirit intended to wake us up to the modernist principles of world making.” This is to say, that instead of assuming modern architecture as driven by technical or social imperatives, Anderson would consider modernism, as “an invitation to live differently.”

Classical Orders


Anderson’s approach of not seeking to suppress competing theories on the development of architecture, but rather, to insist on a plurality of modernist approaches to the development of architecture. He rationalizes this duality of approaches with the possibility of providing the architect a reasonable and non-arbitrary theory of how this new story, will be proposed. Anderson finds a compelling model for the construction of competing architectural conventions through Imre Lakato’s notion of scientific research programs.

Anderson draws two basic premises from Lakato’s model:

One, that architectural conventions of productions are only compelling so long as they involve considerations of relevant alternatives to their held beliefs, that are reinforced through their sustainment over time.

Two, while it is necessary for a convention to have a certain degree of autonomy and ‘internal coherence,’  architecture can never be realized without also addressing larger concerns. As in, “a convention will be methodologically compelling only to the extent that the domain it organizes can be systematically and rationally related to other features of the cultural world, independent of those of the primary program.”

This model of competing conventions can and should be interpreted with flexibility. Adoptive equilibrium or a balance of back round theories, interpretive conventions, and social practice can help us to decide the proper direction to make the argument. Thus, architecture is generous.


We can say confidently that knowledge, in every field, is imperfect and without ultimate verification. We know that, at least to a degree, the conventionality of cultural forms are, by their nature, inherently arbitrary. This question then becomes, ‘where will we locate the arbitrariness embedded in our practices, and how will we seek to deal with it rationally?’ Through the initiation of any human activity, we will always find some level of arbitrariness, and that risk certainly lies within design. But perhaps we should not think of this risk in terms of seeking to eliminate it, but rather, of turning that gamble into advantage. Through the design process and implementation, we can attempt to give those risks coherent fulfillment by testing, and learning from them, and if needed, rejecting them. Therefore, we should consider design in this regard, as a pursuit of rationality and commonsense, rather then some arcane special process.


We may hypothesize that in seeking to understand design, we may look to other studies of rational thought and practices to serve as models or a base in our Endeavour.  We will consider Lakato’s Methodology of Scientific Research Programs as an explanatory and normative model for design process.

In science, we put forward theories that consider falsification as our only secure ground. As in, if a theory is ever proven wrong, even once, then the entire theory must be reworked or thrown out. But we must consider that ‘every experiment has among its premises not only the theory under test but also initial conclusions stated, for example, as meter readings or other measures. Not only might these initial conditions be stated in error, but they also assume other back round knowledge, perhaps theories of optics or heat or whatever that are not to be considered to be part of the test.” And logically, one can direct the results of false test against the back round knowledge or initial conditions from which the test was conceived.

5 Points on Architecture

Because of this potential problem, it is important that we test large systems of theories rather then isolated ones. But where Lakatos is concerned, it is with the logic of the theories’ development. He would also say that dispite the likelihood that a research program is built around a particular problem system, that much of the success and rationality of science can be attributed to the competition and comparison of many research programs. From here we now consider the constitution of a research program. Each research program has within it a series of ‘theoretical states.’ “Each of these theoretical states retains a common element, and it is the constancy of this common element which identifies the series as a single program.

Hard Core

Lakatos refers to this common element as the “hard core,” the postulates upon which the program of research is based. This is to say that “from within it’s own research program, neither criticism, nor test results may be directed against the hardcore. Neither the origin, nor the structure, nor the completeness of the hardcore are stipulated by Lakatos; these would be historical questions.” “The rationality of assuming the hard core is not known a priori; it is a matter of agreement, a convention, to assume the hardcore.” We find that it is this hardcore that shapes and ultimately yields what Lakatos calls the “negative heuristic” or the research methods to avoid because of their inconsistency with the hardcore. But while the maintenance of the hardcore facilitates the coherent development of the program, there must also be that which is open to change. This responsibility lies within what he calls the ‘protective belt’ composed of auxiliary hypotheses. It is these auxiliary hypotheses that serve to bear the brunt of test. Experiential tests that turn out negative when directed against the auxiliary hypotheses are then altered to maintain the coherence of the hard core with the data. This protective “’belt’” can also serve a more positive role in that improved or perfected hypotheses can further perfect and extend the reach of the hardcore.

Now we ask ourselves, “if one proposes to adopt Lakatos methodology of scientific research programs in the considerations of design – more specifically of architectural design – is one committed to a view of design as science, or to the scientizing of design? But as this concept was discussed within the Vienna Circle, the debates conclude with Lakatos finding that science comes to be seen as a Cultural System. It is at this point where we are neither forced nor inclined to deny distinctions between such cultural systems as science and art, but neither are we inclined to draw hard and fast boundaries. It is more accurate to say that the ambition of this work is not to conclude architecture or design as a science, or to deny distinctions between the two, or even to force methodologies from one of these systems upon the other, but that these two activities share certain features as cultural systems.

“In positing these two parallel research programs, no priority is given to either one. The two programs are not deterministically linked; either one may anticipate and influence the other; or one may terminate without implying termination of the other. As already stated, each may provide a critique of the other, but no more than in science does one expect a ‘strong test’. The attempt to adapt methodology of research programs to architectural production is not seen as a revolution in architectural thought and practice, but rather as a potentially more detailed and rigorous manner of clarifying and judging competing practices.”

“For Lakatos, the structure of a research program and it’s logical development establishes a quite autonomous, what he called “internal” history. Indeed, he sees science, properly conceived, as possessing such autonomy. Lakatos recognizes an ‘external’ history as having its place in accounting for sociological and psychological features that may enhance or impede the achievement of science; but such matters do not, for Lakatos, effect the rational reconstruction offered by the internal history of a research program.” “Whether even science possess this degree of autonomy is widely challenged. In a field such as architecture, I would suggest that this issue – the degree of autonomy of practice – is usually part of the theoretical program. That is, explicit or implicit claims are made within the program’s hardcore or auxiliary hypotheses as to whether and how social, economic, political, technological , psychological or other factors are internalized in the theory and practice of architecture.”

Thus, by providing an analysis of architectural production through a scheme of two parallel research programs we may parallel Lakatos distinction of an external history verses an internal history (which is that history required by the programs themselves). “But in doing so, one is not prejudging the issue of the degree of autonomy of a field such as architecture Rather one is making two other claims. The first is that the range of factors to be considered and the manner in which they become determinant are formulated in terms of the programs own methodology. Thus, second, important debate on the degree of autonomy of a discipline such as architecture may be sharpened and advanced by a more rigorous comparison of the programs.”

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