Braving a November snowstorm, a small but motivated group of researchers gathered together at the University of Oulu School of Architecture to share the most recent research in architecture and urban planning from the point of view of human well-being. The National Symposium of Architectural Research, which has been held already for the sixth time, also adroitly celebrated the fifty-fifth anniversary of the Oulu school. At the same time, the understanding of the potential of architectural design and urban planning as key factors in human well-being, happiness, health and comfort was updated.
The researchers’ presentations emphasised the potential of the multidisciplinary approach, knowledge about local users and circumstances, and the importance of even small contributing factors. Case studies of residents’ experiences of the townhouse dwelling typology, the importance of the courtyard design solutions in senior citizens’ homes, as well as the differences in the concept of barrier-free environment in Sweden and Denmark were particularly rewarding for their practical approaches.
The symposium’s keynote speaker, Professor Kristina L. Nilsson from the Architecture Unit at Luleå University of Technology, emphasised the particular problems of northern climatic conditions. How does one create a good urban environment that functions faultlessly in all seasons and at all times of the day? Nilsson reminded the audience that the majority of current design ideals are based on light-filled, warm and snowless conditions. In research carried out under her supervision, many opportunities to improve the urban architecture that is suited for the northern climate zone have been discovered; for example, through environmental art, by developing street maintenance and by means of participatory planning.
The demand for a multidisciplinary understanding became probably one of the most important messages of the symposium. The world-renowned researcher of architectural theory, Jonathan Hale, who teaches at one of the UK’s best schools of architecture, the University of Nottingham, discussed in his lecture Materiality, Movement and Meaning: Architecture and the Embodied Mind technology’s potential to expand the dimensions of the corporeal architectural experience. The lecture took a refreshingly optimistic view of the increasingly technological world, drawing particularly on the thinking of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Bernard Stiegler, Raymond Tallis and Tim Ingold.
The angles of ubiquitous technology and cultural anthropology were emphasised in the lecture by Tiina Suopajärvi, a cultural anthropologist currently at the University of Oulu’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering. She presented her research in the field of ethnography on the experiences of senior citizens as the users of urban space. Her research method entailed walking together with senior citizens along their everyday errand routes. The intriguing research presented in the lecture provided much new information about the role of older urban inhabitants as the users of architecture. Suopajärvi emphasised how in the aging process it is a matter of both a socio-cultural phenomenon and changes in the performance ability of the body. Architecture and urban planning promote well-being if the aged are seen as active urban inhabitants, who have their own special needs but also possess of a lot of experience-based knowledge that can be of use in the development of the urban environment.
A step in the architectural-political direction was taken during the panel discussion that rounded up the research symposium. The panellists’ concluding remarks endorsed an increasingly permissible, more open and participatory architectural ideal, where architects expose themselves and their work to user feedback regarding the entire surrounding environment. In the discussion also some kind of new human-centred design approach was sought to replace the architecture that is being carried out from purely architectural starting points.
The concept of well-being is, however, built in to the very meaning of architecture: already in terms of its precepts, architecture aims at the general good, that is, a more functional, more beautiful and better built environment. Thus there is nothing inherent in architecture itself that would be a hindrance to well-being promoted by means of architecture; architecture does not comprise of ideals that consciously aim to achieve ill-being and suffering. Instead, in our living environment there is far too much poor, unsuccessful building, the creation of which is abetted by ignorance, carelessness, superficiality, a lack of ambition and the strive for short-term gain that entraps architects and urban planners.
Accordingly, the researchers who spoke at the symposium could in many different ways have stretched their helping hand even further towards practical designers. We need working methods backed up by research in order to promote a fruitful dialogue between the different stakeholders in planning. We sorely long for design solutions based on research and the better utilisation of research knowledge in architecture offices and the municipality planning departments. The Oulu architectural research symposium showed that to the extent that the universities – harnessed to the yoke of economic accountability – are still able to cherish their free and independent mission in teaching, research and general enlightenment, architectural research has a central position in defining any increasingly better architecture.
The proceedings to the architectural research symposium are freely available via the Open Journal Systems at: ojs.tsv.fi/index.php/atut. The next national research symposium is due to be held at the Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture in 2015 in Espoo.
The national architectural research symposium was held in Oulu on 23–25.10.2014 under the theme Designing and Planning for the Built Environment for Human Well-Being. The symposium was at the same time the annual symposium for the Nordisk Arkitekturforskning network.
Translation: Gareth Griffiths and Kristina Kölhi.