Critique of Pure Research

A new graduate program at London’s Goldsmiths College explores architecture as a tool of social and political practice.

Manuel Herz is planning trips to refugee camps in Algeria and Chad. Shumon Basar is looking for a final venue for Can Buildings Curate, a traveling exhibit he curated on how gallery spaces affect artistic practice. Florian Schneider is organizing a series of events that examine the changing nature of war since 9/11. Architecture would seem to be the last thing these three have in common. But diversity in subject matter and point of view is a guiding principle of the new PhD program that they and 17 others are enrolled in at Goldsmiths College, in London.

The Centre for Research Architecture is as concerned with politics and human rights as it is with architecture. It dispenses with the practice of building and delves into the profession’s more political and theoretical applications. Eyal Weizman, the founding director, derived his approach to architectural research from his own study of conflict zones in Israel. The laws and restrictions on space were often so vague on paper that they provided no guide to policy; to determine where Palestinians could and could not rebuild after their homes were destroyed, Weizman worked with a nonprofit organization to reconstruct them and see how the government would react. “The law was unpredictable,” he says. “You had to provoke to reveal the government’s internal logic.” At Goldsmiths, Weizman has brought these lessons to the classroom, turning the traditional detached academic perspective on its head. “Practice is not the result of investigation,” he says. “It is the tool of investigation.”

The PhD candidates learn through doing—by visiting refugee camps and putting together exhibits as well as engaging in more traditional research. They also critique one another in monthly weekend-long meetings. “The students are very sharp, from diverse backgrounds,” Herz says. “They test your assumptions and keep you from glossing over things.” He is studying how refugee-camp planning affects the refugees as well as political processes. The decision to build clay structures rather than pitch cotton tents improves conditions for inhabitants, for instance, but the comfort and permanence of these buildings can ease the pressure on politicians to address the underlying crisis. The program at Goldsmiths encouraged Herz to visit camps early on in his research and has honed his eye for the political fallout from what appear to be apolitical planning decisions.

Though the program was only launched a year and a half ago, it is already making its mark on education in the United Kingdom. For example, Basar started an initiative at London’s Architectural Association that explores the intersection of architecture, art, curating, and writing. “I was inspired to propose the program thanks to the example of Eyal,” he says. With applications for the center’s new master’s and PhD programs piling up from across Europe and the United States—and books, exhibitions, and research projects by current participants proliferating—much more change may be on the way.

Recent Programs