WHAT IS DWELLING/HOUSING RESEARCH ?

Written questionnaires, group discussions,
interviews with experts etc.?<1>

Some critical remarks
regarding the "Wohn-Forum" of the ETH in Zurich

By Nold Egenter

 


Without any doubts, architecture and city planning can be seen at the top of a systematic whole which forms the largest production of a modern state. If we compare this with another domain like health, medecine, etc. the enormous expenditures flowing into research for the latter, that is into the different medical departments like pathology, pharmaceutics etc., are surprising. In the domain of architecture and city planning, the basic knowledge about the spatial organisation and design and the role of man and culture in this system has to be invented by each individual architect with each project in new ways. In this vacuum situation he struggles with his concept projecting his own personal 'visions' and his own 'imaginations‘. Note that in German imagination means also 'illusion' (Ein-Bildung) or 'conceit' (Dünkel) which is fairly grotesque (see Franz Oswalds paper in his book 'new urbanity' 2003). The result fairly corresponds to this disposition. In fact, architects produce a kind of permanent and gigantic in situ experiments in our vital environments. The so called 'laics' (normal humans as 'dwellers') are forced to play guinea pigs.

What the Swiss ETH-Z understands under 'dwelling or housing research' (Wohnforschung) can be read in a recent article published in 'BULLETIN' a monthly journal of the ETH Zurich (No 290, August 2003). In capital letters it says 'RESEARCH‘. 'NEW TYPES OF APARTMENTS IN ZURICH', 'AN UTOPIA REALIZED'. It is written by Vanja Lichtensteiger-Cucak. In the text too the reader is hit over the head with the word 'research'. The 'researchers' of the ETH Housing Forum, consisting of an interdisciplinary team of twelve researchers under the architectural professorship of Dietmar Eberle, concluded the evaluation of two innovative housing units.

Housing utopia? In fact a very outdated thing! One of the leading 'researchers', Andreas Huber, says himself: "The idea of autonomous housing units which are self-supporting, came up already in the 80ies...." And the methods too are certainly not 'innovative': evidently architectural experiments are 'evaluated' essentially by interdisciplinary research groups using mainly methods of sociology. Exactly this was done already 40 years ago at the thentime <Institute for Local, Regional and National Planning> (ORL) of the ETH. Planning was essentially done in interdisciplinary groups and sociological surveys were the main methods used. To a great extent the results of this synchonic procedures were disastrous. See for instance the evaluation study of the results of the agrarian planning of the ETH/ ORL-Institute by the ethnologist Elisabeth Weingarten. She showed that the planners had not the least understanding for the local culture and the cultural values of local inhabitans. They imposed their functional reasoning and industrialised concepts without any considerations for the local values. Thus the planning principles imposed on the agrarian population created tensions, hate and envy for decades. The traditional village structure broke down.

Evidently the central factor of dwelling and housing is 'culture' and this means history, cultural history. Thus planning of housing must include knowledge about culture. Methods that resemble animal experiments in a fully instrumented 'architectural cage' cannot be taken as 'research' on the human and cultural side.

"We have made a total investigation...."! Pardon? Did we hear correctly? "Each person above the age of 18" was adressed in writing. Questionnaires? And this is called "research"? "Luckily the backfeed quota was 74 percent per household for both housing units." Incredible:.."written surveys"...."group-discussions" and "interviews with experts"?. This could be called something like 'checking consumer-behaviour', or so, but "research"? The whole article is an extreme exageration.

In addition there is a serious lack of being informed. Title: "For a long time the only <housing researchers> in Switzerland" and then the following. "From the beginning the ETH Housing Forum was an interdisciplinary group: it was founded in 1990 with the aim to do research into the relations between social - that is economical, social and cultural - developments and forms of housing and its architectonic design." Margrit Hugentobler, member of the guiding team and project leader says: "For the past 10 years the ETH Housing Forum is the only university place which has done continuous research in the domain of housing."

First, if we take this statement on the simplistic level, it is highly questionable. If research is reduced down to this superficial type of questonnaire surveys of tenants of apartments, of discussions with experts etc., then we can consider as 'housing research' in the most elementary sense, all what is done in architectural schools  in the framework of collecting information from books related to architectural practice. "Housing research" as preliminary information and post-design evaluation? Everybody his own Einstein! A term seems to be seriously misused here!

But, evidently, this unique Swiss 'housing researcher' is not really conscious of the embarassment which results from her autistic statement. If we really want to speak seriously about 'research' then 'dwelling' or 'housing' which concerns about 7 million persons in this country, and which can, after the desastrous flop of 'modernism' and its bungling into so called 'post-modernism', definitely not be the best of all imaginable types of housing, and this is then "researched" by a small group of interdisciplinary researchers who act more or less miserably with questionnaires and sociological surveys. Evidently any type of toothbrush receives much more research today than human dwelling. An incredible disaster, in fact.

Further, at least since 1980, the 'Psychological Institute' of the University of Berne is active on 'dwelling research' under prof. Alfred Lang (nota bene: on the university level!). Among other things  a "psychological critique of architecture" can be discovered there! (Lang et. al. 1987).

In addition - and by the way: Since the 70ies and into the 90ies there was a fairly sophisticated ethnological or anthropological program of housing (or dwelling) research for architectural students in Lausanne at the EPFL, the sisterschool of the ETH in Zurich. Approximately 500 research projects produced plans and models of dwellings all over the world. They can be seen in the architectural department. Thus in this sense too Hugentobler's assertion is questionable.

A second and not less embarrassing matter is uncovered by the boastful style of the article and the exaggerated assertion of Margrit Hugentobler: a total ignorance of what is really going on in 'housing or dwelling research'.

From the early 70ies and on, interdisciplinary groups centered around architectural schools like Berkeley in California, Oxford in England, National University in Sydney, Australia etc. have started to do research into human dwellings and housing in the framework of human culture on the global level. Numerous books have been published during the last decennia - among others the 3 volumed "Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World", edited by Paul Oliver, and published by Cambridge University Press (1997). About 600 researchers of various disciplines have contributed to this milestone of research.

But, in Switzerland the architectural student hears nothing of this. Mainly because a group of art historians fixed on the written history about architecture have blocked the wider horizons of research. It would be against their dominant position in their institutes for the history and theory of architecture if students would be interested in architectural ethnology or architectural anthropology, that is if the problem of dwelling would be put into a wider human and cultural framework. Evidently building and dwelling in the traditional sense is temporally much more deeprooted than Vitruvius, the primordial father of architectural theory set up in dictatorial ways by the art historians. An unbelievable restriction, if one considers the social and cultural relevance of architecture. But, stubbornly the primary hut is still searched for in the Bible as this is demonstrated by Joseph Rykert in his book about 'Adam's House'. And the architects are supporting this incredibly narrow minded situation. Evidently for economic reasons: They want to build, research is out!

It is evident, in its architectural domain the ETH does not show the scientifically progressive face as the boastful article in the ETH Bulletin makes one believe. On the contrary, architectural research at the ETH is - measured against the world standards of present architectural research - methodologically backward, incredibly autistic and widely restricted on the horizon of a Eurocentric architectural library-program (See Werner Oechslin's gta program in the Internet! <http://www.rereth.ethz.ch/arch/geschichte/oechslin.proj_overview.html>).
 


NOTES

1) In English the modern condition of dwelling has produced a new word: 'housing'. It is used in the context of production or administration of modern design. In German the word 'wohnen' (dwelling) has remained the general expression of living in any type of dwelling, be it modern housing or historical or vernacular architecture. The expression 'dwelling research' and 'housing research' which might be different to some extent in English, are identical in German.
 


 
BIBLIOGRAPHY

• Lang, Alfred, Kilian Bühlmann u. Eric Oberli, 1987.
Gemeinschaft und Vereinsamung im strukturierten Raum; psychologische Architekturkritik am Beispiel Altersheim. In: Schweiz. ZS f. Psychol. 46 (3/4) :277-89).Schweiz. ZS f. Psychol. 46 (3/4) :277-89).
• Lichtensteiger-Cucak, Vanja, 2003
Eine verwirklichte Utopie. In: Bulletin - Magazin der ETHZ, Zürich, Nr 290, Aug. 2003, p.56
• Oswald, Franz und Nicola Schüller (ed.), 2003
'neue urbanität' - das verschmelzen von stadt und landschaft. gta Verlag ETH Zürich,