Doctor of Design Program Seeks to Transform Design Education in the 21st Century | Features
Image courtesy of the University of Calgary’s School of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape (SAPL)
In November 2019, the University of Calgary’s School of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape (UCalgary SAPL) announced its new Doctor of Design (DDes) program targeted towards practicing architects, planners, and landscape architects looking to “leverage their existing expertise into new areas of innovation.” While institutions within the United States offer such programs, UCalgary is the first to launch a DDes program in Canada. Currently, the program has two active DDes cohorts that began in 2020 and 2021 with a total of 16 candidates located in Canada, Nigeria, Nepal, and Saudi Arabia. To better understand the program Archinect connected with program critic Marcelo Stamm, Ph.D., and DDes candidate Barry Johns.
With applications currently open for UCalgary’s third DDes cohort, Stamm and Johns offer valuable insight to help prospective applicants learn more about the program.
Dr. Marcelo Stamm is a philosopher with extensive experience in philosophy of creativity and the philosophical appraisal of practice research at large. Positions held include Head of the School of Philosophy at UTAS and Deputy Dean for Research & Innovation at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). His research on innovative models of conceptualizing creative processes across all areas of art and design has been supported by numerous fellowships and research grants. Stamm is a Professor at Virginia Tech and a program critic for UCalgary’s DDes program.
Barry Johns is an accomplished architect with 40 years of experience leading his firm, Barry Johns Architecture, located in Alberta, CA. Johns is currently a part of the 2023 DDes cohort at UCalgary.
Below Stamm and Johns answer a series of questions where they share their experiences within the program. They explain how DDes fosters the work and minds of candidates looking to expand their architectural expertise in both practice and theory.
Katherine Guimapang: UCalgary’s DDes program is the first doctoral program for practicing architects, planners, and landscape architects in Canada. What sets this program apart compared to other DDes programs in the United States?
Barry Johns: I started my own firm in private practice in 1981. When I applied to be part of the first cohort of this doctoral program, I admit that I was tired. I had been reflecting for a few years already about the frustration of countless hours invested in building and maintaining a small business while using whatever hours were left in the day trying to remain current and build a reputation for design and innovation.
The Canadian prairie is a challenging marketplace, where a fiercely independent culture and its relatively young cities have been relatively slow to embrace the larger problems of urban settlements – institutions and governance, housing, transportation, density, and in recent years, of course, the sustainability agenda, social justice, and climate change. As an observer of the world around us but within this prairie context, we have often needed to hold in abeyance many ideas and explorations around architecture and the making of cities in favor of the pragmatics of making a living and working in competition with others in what is now an aging, eroded profession. It has always been a struggle, therefore, but a passion nonetheless to somehow make a difference in practice, despite the myriad challenges we face. The DDes program at the University of Calgary has opened wide, a door often closed to us in this dramatically changing world of practice – the door to new knowledge. It is precisely this newly claimed freedom to research and deeply pursue ideas and entrust them to our practice, that is important. In so doing, we can reflect upon our own work and the relevance of new work in this quest, without the constraints of client programs, budgets, schedules, and the conservatism that pervades professional life as a service business fraught with risk.
It has always been a struggle, therefore, but a passion nonetheless to somehow make a difference in practice, despite the myriad challenges we face. The DDes program at the University of Calgary has opened wide, a door often closed to us in this dramatically changing world of practice – the door to new knowledge. -Barry Johns
This freedom has yielded a new kind of energy that is being released in the work. By the time we are through this DDes journey, we will only be at the beginning of a new practice; that we expect to be transformed beyond that of the ‘consultant’, instead of aligned with other thought leaders among other disciplines. I see new directional possibilities for architecture and architects – influencing the making of public policy, bringing our rediscovered original holistic training to the societal issues of the day, and so on. In the end, the over-arching goal is to breathe new opportunities into the world of architectural practice and to transmit new knowledge into our communities to nurture positive change. This is neither naïve nor idealistic – it is rather what I now am calling a new form of inclusive, pragmatic optimism and the DDes is the motivational road map to get there.
Marcelo Stamm: Conceived as a doctorate and not a Ph.D., the DDes has been designed with a view to transform professional and academic disciplinary routines, to transcend conventional demarcation lines, and received ways of bridging the gap between professional practice and academy. It differentiates itself from ‘neighboring’ programs within the general practice research paradigm in three ways: Firstly, it concentrates solely on distinguished master practitioners, professionals with an internationally acclaimed and premiated body of work that has been recognized by their peers, not on hybrids such as academics with adjacent design practices. Secondly, these masters do not interrogate their practices as such and for their own sake but focus expressly on a transformational agenda either with the aim to transform the practice itself or to transform the field into which the practice is articulating. Both these directions explain why the DDes, different from other programs of design practice research in general and of creative and artistic research, in particular, is less interested in the interrogation of practice but is focused on transformation research.
…the DDes is aggregating a unique ecosystem of candidates with a decidedly interdisciplinary approach across the globe, yet galvanizing consistently around both orthodox and novel sophisticated problem-solving methodologies harvested from the tacit knowledge of these master practitioners. – Marcelo Stamm
Thirdly, while transformation research is not co-extensive with innovation research, the overwhelming number of the DDes doctoral candidates are engaged in specific innovation agendas and translate ‘transformation’ into ‘innovation’. Through this deliberate concentration, the DDes is aggregating a unique ecosystem of candidates with a decidedly interdisciplinary approach across the globe yet galvanizing consistently around both orthodox and novel sophisticated problem-solving methodologies harvested from the tacit knowledge of these master practitioners. The difference to conventional research is at times intentionally toned down for the sake of seeking specific design solutions for real-world problems. The emphasis is then on practice-based research. Folding these three considerations into one mantra, the distinctive transformational intent of the DDes could be compacted into the formula of problem-solving-driven practice-based innovation research for design professionals outside academia.
One of the real-world problems at issue may arguably consist of received ways of practice that are perceived as unproductive or outdated, opening up the DDes to a fascinating realm of inquiry with a distinctively critical goal: Under that premise, it critically exposes dysfunctional individual practices and calls out obsolete bodies of knowledge around which diverse design disciplines may have professionalized. Thus, the DDes both as a doctoral research program based at the University and its transformational impact on the new ways of experiential learning has the capacity to fundamentally enrich university education in the 21st Century.
What sets this program apart compared to other DDes programs in the United States?
Barry Johns: I am only familiar with a few comparable programs around the world, but our program is I believe, different in two respects: First, our practice-based research involves an external process whereby key informants (subject matter experts) provide input regarding our research topic at the beginning of the program to help the candidate focus on defining and analyzing the ‘problem space’. Subsequently, the same key informants ‘bookend’ this input process by reviewing the candidate’s work at the end or in effect, the resulting ‘solution space’ as the final doctoral thesis is being produced. This, in essence, enables self-reflection on the new work as a result of these independent, external influences, and this reflection (or evaluation), is written into the thesis as a ‘moving forward’ initiative to either validate or otherwise impact the outcome. It is expected that work continues in practice beyond the DDes as an extension of the program and so this is the second difference whereby the thesis becomes a living body of work and not an end unto itself. I have observed other DDes programs that while fascinating, are perhaps better defined as being more internalized – a deeply personal, forensic analysis of one’s practice where the central research is completed within the body of work of the practice itself. As such, the practice becomes both the problem space and the solution space.
…projects are breathtaking where the problem-solving and innovation mantras turn out to be ingenious conduits that lead us to an entirely novel understanding of both practice and research and the creativity that drives both. – Marcelo Stamm
As a part of the program’s community of faculty and critics, what type of work have you seen that excites you the most from this doctoral program?
Marcelo Stamm: The quality of the work of the handpicked DDes candidates is of the highest caliber, second to none at a global scale, which as such instantly excites all involved! I am fascinated by ‘problem-solving and ‘innovation’ agendas if they do not only address practical aims or real-world problems pointing as it were out of or beyond the practice but if the research is deliberately redirected back into the practice domains of these acclaimed masters. Through such a re-torsion, the research starts to address the fundamental question of the nature of the creative practice itself, and how to research into these emergent complexities. The most fundamental transformation to be attained from practice research in that sense is not research that yields innovation of ways and things to do with practice, to use a prevalent innovation parlor, but a fundamentally novel understanding of the nature of research itself. Hence, those projects are breathtaking where the problem-solving and innovation mantras turn out to be ingenious conduits that lead us to an entirely novel understanding of both practice and research and the creativity that drives both.
Barry, what research are you working on within the program?
Barry Johns: My research topic is the densification of housing typologies in mature urban neighborhoods. I am examining the house building industry, changing demographics, regulatory frameworks, and of course the attainability and affordability crisis in Canadian cities. After years of completing various housing projects and urban design for sustainable communities within the system; it is time to derive a different system – or, at least a better way of addressing some of its major problems – land cost among them, and to come up with new business models and design innovations to support these models in addressing densification, attainability, and affordability.
Marcelo do you have any takeaways as a guest critic of the program?
Marcelo Stamm: The term ‘guest critic’ stems from undergraduate evaluation protocols, vulgo: ‘crits’ within the studio paradigm. The DDes symposia should not be misunderstood as ‘crits’ nor as their mature cousins, the ‘super-crits’. Nor should those involved expect or engage in respective rehearsed and notorious patterns of behavior, including that of a ‘guest critic’. One of the most fundamental and transformative experiences facilitated by the DDes is certainly the emergence of an entirely novel community of practice that none of the DDes candidates can anticipate in advance: the ‘interdisciplinary’ community of practice of practice-based researchers. This community galvanizes around radically diverse individual practices: the concrete and situated prevails; the generic, abstract and formulaic recedes. Received models of supervisory roles and stereotypical committees are integrated into an entirely novel and very sophisticated ecosystem of what I call distributed stewardship, akin to distributed supervision.
The major ‘takeaway’ of all involved, not only of yester-decades’ ‘guest critic’, is the immersion of all into a unique medium of learning based on generosity, trust, and genuine curiosity beyond all educational agendas, as the terrain of individual practice research is by necessity unchartered territory for all involved. The deepest gain from such immersion is thus never to witness any specific step, no matter how brilliant, towards the solution of a problem, nor gesticulations of intended innovations, but the sense of mutual elevation of all in the realm of imagination. That stays.
Barry, any advice or perspectives you can offer to individuals looking into applying to the program?
Barry Johns: Perhaps I can offer some thoughts from a practice perspective, rather than advice per se. This is, without hesitation, the most demanding project of my career. After having reclaimed the ‘thinking time’ needed away from the practice day to day to undertake an intellectual pursuit such as this; combined with ‘unlearning’ some of the professional biases inherent to the world of practice, my effort overflows with internal conflict and doubt; ‘pivoting’ from one notion, or challenge, or discovery to another.
The pursuit of new knowledge is not inherently part of a consultant’s zeitgeist. The reality is that we are part of a service industry; so I have always seen this pursuit more as an oblique aspiration. I want to see that changed. Instead of being influenced as practitioners by too many external forces beyond our control that erode our scope and influence; I have discovered how important it is for architects to be dogged in the pursuit of new knowledge, eschewing trends, the norms of practice regulation, and a design world of increasingly superficial and irrelevant architectural form. The DDes is for me, a long and winding path where more than a year alone was needed to shed many preconceptions around the traditional role of architects, to yield a kind of ‘aha’ moment. While this is incredibly rewarding, it is certainly not how we live as practitioners. Normal practice drives ‘solutions’ into a much shorter dynamic space of time and money and I have spent a career in this unsheltered arena. Now, the pain and the freedom of discovery, have palpable, redeeming societal value for me. It is incredible.
*Applications for the next DDes cohort for Canadians, residents, and international students are due on February 28, 2022.
To learn even more about the program and speak with faculty members be sure to join SAPL’s DDes virtual information session taking place on Tuesday, January 18, 2022. The information session will be led by Dr. John Brown, Ph.D., SAPL Dean, and Barry Wylant, program director.