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Editorial. New Voices in Architectural Ethnography

Editoriale. Nuove voci nell’etnografia dell’architettura
Albena Yaneva
p. 17-24
This article is a translation of:
Editoriale. Nuove voci nell’etnografia dell’architettura [it]

Editor's notes

DOI: 10.17454/ARDETH02.03

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1Few social research methods are adapted to the way architects work. Ethnography is one of them. The use of ethnographic methods in architecture holds remarkable potential to investigate new research and design questions. As early as the 1980s architectural researchers moved their attention from the products – buildings and places – to the processes of design thinking and negotiations. Donald Schön’s work on educational practice engaged in ethnographically unpacking reflection-in-action as standing against the systematic, scientific, and linear way of knowing in professional schools (Schön, 1987). Shifting the limelight of ethnography from the design studio to professional architectural practice, Dana Cuff famously stated: “If we are to offer a sound advice about how architectural practice ought to function, we must know more about how it functions now” (Cuff, 1992, p. 6). Her ethnography of US practices dug deeply into the significance of the daily professional lives of architects and offered a better understanding of the socially constructed nature of architecture. Up to that moment, to understand the social underpinning of design and architectural production, architectural scholars relied on a more traditional sociological perspective, based primarily on quantitative data (Blau, 1984); it was assumed that the social context has an impact on the characteristics of the work setting of architectural firms and the quality of the architectural work and creativity. Architectural practices were analysed as bureaucratic organizations with their specific hierarchy, formalized rules and expected objectives, and the specific correlations between firm ideology, office structure, internal organizational life and design quality were largely explored (Blau, 1976). Schön’s and Cuff’s work also gradually shifted the methodological toolkit of architectural scholarship from quantitative to qualitative methods, and the focus moved from architecture as organizational structure towards architecture as a process. When explored from within, with ethnographic tools, architectural firms appeared less as bureaucratic organisations, but more as ‘islands’ where a specific set of practices was performed, and where the customary performance of design routines could be witnessed evolving, weaving webs of meaning among different participants in architecture making; thus forming design cultures.

2In the last fifteen years we witnessed a new wave of ethnographic studies that focused on practising architecture (Jacobs, Merriman, 2011). Inspired by pragmatism and Science and Technology Studies (STS) and following in the steps of Dana Cuff’s and Donald Schön’s ethnographies, this body of research aimed at grasping the socio-material dimension of architectural practice (Callon, 1996). Some of them trained as architects, others were just anthropologists, but they all engaged in studies of the unfamiliar cultures of design making in contemporary societies. Their studies demonstrated architecture as a collective process of negotiation, and one that is also shared with a variety of nonhumans (materials, models, software, renderings). Architecture appeared in these accounts not just as a social construction, as per Cuff’s account, but rather as a composition of many heterogeneous elements, an assemblage. These ‘assemblage ethnographies’ followed the principles of ‘no hierarchy,’ attention to the details, and symmetry: attention to what happens between humans and nonhumans; and undivided attention to the words and the gestural and non-verbal language of the designers themselves. Scrutinizing the texture of the ordinary life of designers, they generated ‘thick descriptions’ of the knowledge practices of different participants in design; their studies resulted in long ethnographic accounts that made sense of the world of architects, computation models, sounds labs, and city maps, design knowledge, professional beliefs and work rituals (Houdart, Minato, 2009; Loukisass, 2012; Yaneva, 2009a, 2009b). Termed as the ‘ethnographic turn in architecture’ (Yaneva, 2017), this recent trend is the outcome of several related processes: the emergence of a reflexivity trend among architectural professionals as a key epistemological feature of architectural studies, the growing realisation of architecture as a social practice, the social nature of the outcomes of architectural production, and the tendency to acknowledge the collective nature of design. This development holds significant potential to dislodge the certainty of traditional architectural knowledge, the belief placed in the absolute authority of the historical archive, and the simplifications of its practitioners who reduce, even naturalise architectural research, to the production of critical discourse about practices.

3This special issue of “Ardeth” draws on ethnography as a unique approach used to unravel the “ecology of practices” (Stengers, 2010) of architecture making. ‘Ecology of practices’ is a politically sensitive concept that captures contemporary design practice; it pays specific attention to the texture of the ordinary life of different participants in architecture making without an a priori ontological distribution of entities that matter in design: architects, city planners, digital software, users, clients, models, renderings, sustainable technologies, drawings, design materials, bricks. While all contributions in the special issue address aspects of the ecology of contemporary architectural and urban practices, they scrutinize them as involving actors with variable ontologies, scales and politics, and bring examples from across a range of practices: residential architecture in Denmark, the making of an icon-to-be building in Manchester, the travel of design concepts between Foster’s office in London and Masdar city, the UK procurement system, the unheard voices of a material in a NYC-based practice, the various socially constructed notions of ‘user’ in differently scaled firms in Belgium, the role of affect in architectural installation making, and the designing of ‘living bricks.’ The various contributions grant us entry into the knowledge practices of the different participants in architecture making. Moreover, they also question the modalities and limits of ethnography – urban ethnography (Cuff), ethnography and historical methods (Cayer) as well as the specific variations of ethnographic accounts that shift according to the moves of architectural objects (Gottshling, Mommersteeg, Sharif) and the changing cultural and political ecology of architecture across contexts (Stender, Van der Linden, Malinin). The volume also includes experimental contributions that test the limits of extant ethnographic knowledge practices in architecture studies pointing toward other possibilities, within the boundaries of pragmatism-inspired ethnographic enquiry (Levebre, Ferracina, Kidd, Smitheram).

4Dana Cuff’s article forms a central contribution to the special issue. Tracing the agenda of the urban humanities as a field that could overcome the limitations of urban ethnography by crossing rigid disciplinary boundaries, Cuff sustains the argument that the intersections between architecture and anthropology hold remarkable potential for posing problems (rather than providing solutions). Glimpsing at different methods that can be used to explore the everyday life of cities and situated urban practices from within, the article offers good illustrations of how to use these methods creatively. Addressing an emerging schism between the histories of architectural practice (mainly US based studies on the interplay of power, capital, and architecture) and ethnographies of architectural practice, Aaron Cayer, drawing from Cuff’s work, examines the structural role of historiography and historical objects within theories of ‘practice.’ Arguing that a dichotomy between historical and ethnographic studies is problematic, he pleads for a better consideration of the role and structural implications of history within ethnographic studies of architecture and for a greater level of historiographical engagement. ‘Historical ethnography’ is for him a potential methodological model among others, to connect everyday practices to social, economic, and political forces more broadly – especially as construed through physical (and historical) objects. Cayer refers to the example of the architecture and engineering firm AECOM to illustrate how ethnographic studies bestow a potential to acknowledge the significance of historical objects to practice.

5Yet, once in a practice, as ethnographers, we know that design is neither timeless nor is it self-looping, or self-mirroring itself, as Cayer suggests; instead, the reality multiplies. We can better witness this multiplication in the article of Paul Gottschling who draws on the analysis of a document common within the UK construction industry, the Plan of Work Report, to question the way architects recollect architectural projects in narratives. He asks how the project itself (rather than the building) becomes recollected in storytelling. A project, we witness here, is a distribution of objects among sites, all relating and emerging together; the ethnographer sheds light at the different ways architects bring all these things together by telling stories. Drawing on insights from Michel de Certeau and Tom Ingold’s understandings of storytelling as a way of connecting movement, space and place, and by connecting them to the ‘material turn’ type of ethnographies of architectural practice, Gottschling argues that the report does not trace a narrative path through a project but instead enacts the project’s multiplicity. By telling stories, practitioners recollect the ecology of design practice; the work of recollection is one of enacting a particular understanding of how UK architectural projects unfold: a continuous agglomeration that moves through discrete junctures. Moving through the uneven terrain of another instance of design ecology that unfolds, Brett Mommersteegs article takes us to another turbulent journey to follow the trajectory of a building-in-the-making as it enters its design development and construction stages – the Factory in Manchester, UK, designed by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). As these stages are rarely explored in design studies, we know little about the ‘tribulations’ of a project on that unknown terrain, and we seldom witness how well it responds to ‘turbulence’ of different kinds. Shadowing a key OMA architect, Mommersteeg argues that a building develops along a contingent and branching trajectory, as it twists and turns through a complex ecology of actors according to ‘matters of concern.’ To account for the varying sets of experiences and ontologies that can be witnessed, a multi-sited ethnographic approach based on ‘ecology of practice’ is needed. While recent ethnographies of design account for the ‘trajectorial nature of design,’ most of them are site-specific and commonly trace the intensity of practices in one particular site. In contrast, Mommersteeg suggests an ethnography that travels and as it travels gathers and contains many actors (planners, members of the city council, contractors, and acoustic engineers), many sites (their offices, studios and labs), many worldviews and ontologies. Embarking on another far distant and much thornier journey, Ahlam Sharif’s ethnographic study follows the design, implementation and use of sustainable design technologies in Masdar City. Travelling many times between the London-based practice Foster and Partners (F+P), as an ethnographic site, and other design practices in Abu Dhabi and Masdar, Sharif recounts how concepts of sustainable design mutate as they travel back and forth between London to Masdar. We witness how the idea of green architecture and green technologies are also being translated, interpreted, enriched and implemented as contexts mutate. A whole spectrum of actors is brought into the story, all contributing to this translation: from the architects and developers to the various types of users and companies on the ground. Expanding the ANT-inspired ethnographic enquiry to include the users in Masdar City as important ‘translators’ and ‘interpreters’ of design innovations, Sharif advocates for a ‘transfer ethnography,’ that cognitively follows the continuous movement between sites (countries, practices, cities) as well as the multiple climates, cultural contexts, circuits of actors, equipment and skills, and the varying networks of users’ engagement.

6But ecologies of practice are not limited to the typical figures of architecture; they travel much further and extend to broader factors allowing us to see characters that previously have been excluded from architectural accounts yet nevertheless matter in architecture; like in fairy tales, it meets giants as big as mountains: the markets’ climates, the fictions of future users, or the dreams of the clients. Ethnographically tracing the process of place-making in Danish residential architecture, Marie Stender’s paper builds on and advances such an approach by focussing on the vicissitudes of the market as an actor in the complex ecology of architectural design. The market is here the first giant, nature follows. Yet, neither of them are abstract scary forces outside the remit of architecture. The ethnographic account shows how the financial climate becomes an actor in design by affecting the speed of construction, the building costs, and the ontology of actors involved. Stender’s proposal is to expand the ecology of place – making to include a various range of forces – from the natural to the economic. A number of unintended factors such as multispecies interaction, ecological and financial climate change also add to the complex and contingent nature of design; they manifest themselves in very tangible processes and actors that affect the overall ecology of design and dwelling. Stender’s suggestion is to comprehensively approach the complexity of design and to expand the ethnographic analysis to also include problems related to construction, post-occupancy, market crashes, and natural disasters. Laura Malinin revisits the work of Donald Schön – a giant on its own – and reminds us of the relevance of his ideas for the studies of design practice today. In the next essay we face another enigmatic giant: users. Accounting for the representation of users in contemporary architectural practices in the context of Belgium, Valerie Van Der Linden argues that due to the increasing complexity of design processes, architects rarely have direct access to the users’ perspectives. They often have to reimagine, to even construct or invent the users. Three different renowned architecture firms in Belgium – Canvas Architects, studio:ratio, and ArchiSpectrum – serve as ethnographic sites for the author to explore and compare the architects’ spectrum of attitudes in constructing the people they design for. Van der Linden’s socio-constructivist perspective to the study of architectural practice, implying that both meaning and the figure of the user are co-constructed in dialogue with the participants, might look limited as an approach, but instead pushes the limits of the constructions of the fiction of the user to its extremes criticising the missing users in architects’ accounts, and valorising the imaginative work that is needed to fabricate the fictive figure of the user in design. The author shows that while the users are rarely consulted and that architects are generally aware that the perspective of the end-users is often missing, they nevertheless mobilise, in their constructions of future users, their own experiences and imaginative selves as models. Moreover, the absence of the users’ voice is hardly questioned in architecture. Thus, both the dreams of the clients and the fiction of the users are giants we can confront and trace as beings in ethnography, while following their effects in practice.

7Questioning the limits of current pragmatist ethnographies of architecture, the special issue also contains three experiments. Pauline Lefevbre asks in her article: What does it take to describe the design of an object from the point of view of the object itself? Basing her study on ethnography of a New York based architectural practice, she engages in a challenging writing experiment: writing on behalf of the object, in the first person and in the active voice, while accounting for the challenges and limitations of such an approach, the article traces the tribulations and transformations of a material and suggests existing ethnographies of architecture should renew their techniques and find novel descriptive tools to acknowledge the agency of various nonhuman design participants. Moving away from the object, Kidd and Smitheram’s paper reminds us that the role of affect has been missing from recent ethnographic accounts. Discussing critically how design evolves through an interaction between humans and nonhumans and their unfolding relations, the authors trace the mediating role that affect has on the design process. Basing their findings on the recent work of New Zealand architect Simon Twose through an ethnographic framework, they suggest that further studies of the role of affect should be generated to question the privileged position of human subjectivity in design studies; the symmetric ethnographic accounts should consider affect as mediating the relationship between humans and vibrant matter, and should explore its different modalities of action. Another challenge: Simone Ferracina highlights how architectural drawing, as a technology for thinking and communicating design ideas between project stakeholders, has remained largely untouched by the advent of Actor-Network-Theory (ANT) and the ‘ethnographic turn.’ The idea of the architectural drawing, rather than changing to reflect the distributed understanding of agency or the lived trajectory of buildings continues to be associated with the simple line and valorised as a reflection of the architect’s creative genius in the mode of thinking that grounds architecture as an artistic domain solely. Ferracina’s challenge moreover points out that while ANT has triggered numerous explorations of architecture as multitudes of interweaved agencies, the drawing has been forgotten. His agenda is ambitious: to overcome the binary understanding of drawing by using ANT insights, and to gain an understanding of drawing as a complex fabric stretched over legions of actants and negotiated through overlapping sets of communicating ecologies, protocols, media, economies, materialities, methods and technologies. The Living Architecture consortium provides a frame for the author to experiment with the design of arrays of ‘living bricks’: modular units of construction that comprise bioreactors. Co-designing with bacterial communities, Ferracina draws the design path of the brick as both an arborescent adaptation towards a specific set of goals and at the same time as an organic, nonlinear and adaptive process of discovery. The drawing here precipitates encounters and feedback loops between lines and metabolisms; there is no final drawing, but a generic and malleable set of instructions that may be adopted by various actors and in different situations, generating sets of diverse regional arrangements. A significant experiment, and another territory for the future ethnographer of design to explore.

8Thus, charting news territories, but also highlighting the epistemological pitfalls and limitations, tracing the giants and the fictions, accounting faithfully or engaging in brave experiments, this volume offers a set of new voices in architectural ethnography. It provides: (1) knowledge of ethnography as a methodology for architectural studies today and how it can inspire research in design and architecture; (2) fresh methodological insights into the potential of architectural ethnography to inspire novel design solutions; (3) awareness of the challenges of architectural practice as it is torn between market and creativity, the various scenarios of users’ constructions, and the meandering course of architecture projects whose dynamics is impinged by a variety of forces from creativity to clients’ demands, from natural to economic. Drawing on the ethnographic studies of mainly star architect and engineering practices (like Houdart and Minato’s account of Kuma’s practice, Loukissas’ account of Arup engineers, and my accounts of OMA) the contributions in this issue shift the attention of architectural design research to a range of small and medium scale practices. The skills of conducting ethnography recalibrate according to the scale of these practices and the speeds of the urban and architectural projects traced.

9Moreover, the special issue argues for the importance of acknowledging the broader ecology of architectural projects. The increasing complexity of architectural projects and the expanded number of actors involved in the design process today challenge the available methodologies for studying design; it incites us to reinvent the formats of classic ethnography (within a single firm) as practices are becoming increasingly global and decentralized, and as the nature of architectural projects is becoming multi-faceted and widely distributed across media (digital and physical), actors (cultural, political and design) and scales (global, regional, local). While drawing on the findings of the STS-inspired ethnographies of architectural practice, the contributions in this volume acknowledge the need to fine-tune the techniques of ethnographic observation and to innovate its methodological repertoire; examples range from ‘the ethnography of transfer’ of Sharif, ‘the multi-sited ethnography’ of a building in the move of Mommersteeg, to the experiment of multiplying the techniques to make nonhumans talk of Lefevbre, among others. The volume makes a statement about the importance of ethnography for capturing the contemporary pulse of architectural practice, its quickly evolving current dynamics. We ask: what is the nature, the epistemological underpinnings, the potential pitfalls, and the political dimensions of architectural ethnography? How can we better grasp how architectural practice develops today, so that we can predict its futures?

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Blau, J.R. (1976), Beautiful buildings and breaching the laws, “International Journal of Sociology”, n. 12, pp. 110-128.

Blau, J.R. (1984), Architects and Firms: A Sociological Perspective on Architectural Practices, Cambridge, The MIT Press.

Callon, M. (1996), Le travail de la conception en architecture, “Situations Les Cahiers de la recherche architecturale”, n. 37, pp. 25-35.

Cuff, D. (1992) Architecture: The Story of Practice, Cambridge, The MIT Press.

Houdart, S., Minato, C. (2009), Kuma Kengo. An Unconventional Monograph, Paris, Editions Donner Lieu.

Jacobs, J., Merriman, P. (2011), Practising architecture, special issue of “Social & Cultural Geography”, 12 (3).

Loukissas, Y. (2012), Co-Designers. Cultures of Computer Simulation in Architecture, London - New York, Routledge.

Schön, D.A. (1983), The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, New York, Basic Books.

Schön, D.A. (1987), Educating the Reflective Practitioner, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Stengers, I. (2010), Cosmopolitics I, Minneapolis, Minnesota University Press.

Yaneva, A. (2009a), The Making of a Building: A Pragmatist Approach to Architecture, Oxford, Peter Lang.

Yaneva, A. (2009b), Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. An Ethnography of Design, Rotterdam, NAi 010.

Yaneva, A. (2017), Five Ways to Make Architecture Political. An Introduction to the Politics of Design Practice, London, Bloomsbury.

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Bibliographical reference

Albena Yaneva, “Editorial. New Voices in Architectural Ethnography”Ardeth, 2 | 2018, 17-24.

Electronic reference

Albena Yaneva, “Editorial. New Voices in Architectural Ethnography”Ardeth [Online], 2 | 2018, Online since 01 June 2020, connection on 29 September 2023. URL:

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About the author

Albena Yaneva

University of Manchester –

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