Identify your transformative trigger: Exhibition shows how reflection on practice enriches work
ADAPT-r is something of a showcase for the practice-based PhD. This exhibition, staged at the capacious Ambika P3 gallery at the University of Westminster, disseminates work from the EU-funded ADAPT-r research initiative into the processes of 35 creative PhD participants – a collection of architects, designers, landscape artists and artists from seven universities in Europe. This admirable project was set up to give participants paid time to reflect and analyse their creative practices – a rare luxury in the hurly-burly of working life. Each worked as fellows with a partner institution in a country other than their own.
This type of PhD is not about trying to make the researcher into an academic. Instead, says exhibition curator and Ambika P3 director Professor Kate Heron, it affirms and reinforces the value of work in practice.
‘It gives a much greater weight to practice-based work. The intellectual base of a practising architect is extremely compelling,’ she says.
As well as presenting the participants’ individual research, the exhibition cross-analyses the processes of the PhD students as they self-analyse their work practices and motivations, reflecting on their community of practice and identifying ‘transformative triggers’ in their practice. For some, this transformative trigger is a flash of insight, for others a shift in approach over time that delivers a tranche of work that embodies change.
The show introduces us to many interesting protagonists and their work. A few will already be familiar to a UK audience – Deborah Saunt of DSDHA, Tom Holbrook of 5th Studio, CJ Lim – but most not. There is a huge range here, each with a depth of work inevitably hard to convey in their designated spaces. Self-taught Danish designer Johannes Torpe describes himself as a design activist. His PhD analyses his relationship-based creative practices by considering the seemingly ‘random’ encounters that have shaped his varied career in music and design, which includes four years as group creative director for Bang & Olufsen. His exhibit includes a laptop table designed with a base which is lifted up to allow the user to tuck their feet underneath without fear of scuffing the leather thanks to the base’s silicon underside.
Several research fellows explore digital interfaces with design and architecture. Anna Pla Català’s tactile exhibit shows CNC-cut wooden tiles, their contours designed to host lichen, while Hseng Tai Lintner’s research looks at the potential for hybrid synthetic ecologies that ‘dissolve the boundary between human and non-human systems’.
In some cases, undertaking the PhD has affected the way the individual, and their practice, works. The work of John Brown, who is professor of architecture at the University of Calgary, reflects how his practice has evolved to focus on designing adaptive buildings that support long-term ageing across multiple housing types. This includes a Portable Dwelling for Frail Elderly, a 44m2 prefabricated unit leased for use in the back yard of a family member so that they can life semi-independently close to their family.
Research by Steve Larkin, an architect and musician in Ireland, considered composition and improvisation and observed commonalities in the processes involved in architectural design and traditional Irish oral music practices. Deborah Saunt, who analysed the practice’s work using a set of subjective performance criteria, refers to a ‘new consciousness’ and a fresh way of considering the work DSDHA makes with a ‘different eye’.
According to ADAPT-r co-ordinator Dr John Verbeke, the project’s embrace of practice as a key part of the research process has completely changed the scene of architectural research in Europe. Though not a light browse, this meaty exhibition certainly gives food for thought.
ADAPT-r, until 18 December, Ambika P3, University of Westminster, 35 Marylebone Road, London NW1 5LS