When you open the door and leave the house you are living in, you interact with architecture. Or take the example of the former Guinness brewery in Dublin’s inner city quarter The Liberties: When the building ceases to host a brewery and its industrial workers and is, instead, used as site for a technology park and for digital workers, it becomes visible how intimately architecture and the social are intertwined. But how can we approach architecture’s agency and its co-constitutive character for practices? How can something that is primarily bodily experienced be the subject of social scientific analysis? In this contribution, I am concerned with exactly these kinds of questions.

I started thinking about a suitable methodology to analyse something that does not talk back in the book Architecture, Materiality and Society I co-edited with Werner Reichmann on the agency of architecture. In this project, we proposed a methodology useful for considering both architecture’s materiality and the sociality of practices – and with this also architecture’s sociality and the materiality of practices.

To our understanding, architecture is not only the fabric in which knowledge is – literally – inscribed with hammer und chisel, it is not only the built manifestation of practices such as design and construction practices. Rather, architecture evokes practices itself by “making a difference” (Latour 2005, 71) to your practices – because it does make a difference to your practices of everyday life whether you leave a one-family house or a high-rise building in the morning, and it does make a difference to your practices at work whether your workplace is in a former brewery downtown or in a bungalow in a rural park. The importance of the environment for practices is highlighted by Schatzki (2001, 12) when he describes “the social [as] a field of embodied, materially interwoven practices centrally organized around shared practical understandings”.

Approaching these differences empirically poses a challenge to the canonical methods of empirical social research. We cannot talk to architecture about its interpretations of the world and the society it is located in; we cannot ask for its feelings about hosting industrial or digital workers, and we cannot participate in the different usages of a building from being a 19th century brewery to hosting a 21st century technology park as we just do not live long enough.

Office space at The Digital Hub, (c) The Digital Hub

How can we address these issues methodologically? The methodology that seems most reasonable to me implies a plea for the combination of different methods, depending on the empirical case at hand. The main challenge is the problem of verbalization: How can we verbalize pre-linguistic emotions, sensoric experiences, even atmospheres (Thibaud 2015) connected to a building? If we take seriously an approach proposed by science and technology studies, that is: following the relations between the different actors and translating them into the language used in the particular research (Callon 1986), we have to strive for a multiplicity of methods. The methodology that Werner Reichmann and I propose (2015, 232–42) combines three data collection methods: observation, interviews and document analysis. These methods do not enable us as researchers to make architecture talk to us. Rather, these methods stem from an established pool of qualitative social scientific research methods and address the different dimensions of the interrelation of architecture and the social to a different degree.

Many existing studies on the interrelation of architecture and the social use and propose observation as research method. Numerous of these studies are from the fields of STS and anthropology and are often designed as ethnographies (e.g. Gieryn 2002; Yaneva 2005). These studies deal with the questions how architecture comes into being and how its design affects the formation of specific social fields such as a scientific discipline.

If you want to address in what way architecture contributes to, enforces, hinders and alters practices, “shadowing” (e.g. McDonald 2005) can be another method of choice: Here, the researcher comes as close as physically possible to the person or the architecture in focus and asks the person to comment and to reason on his or her movements, spatial positioning, gestures, feelings – about, for example, the built environment and particular architecture. This is, for both the interviewer and the interviewee, a very bodily experience, aiming at making incorporated, pre-lingual practices explicable and intersubjectively comprehensible.

Another and different sort of qualitative methods often used for empirical research are qualitative interviews. Their advantage is that they often require fewer resources and are less time-consuming than the various forms of ethnographic fieldwork. Although it is highly contested among qualitative researchers whether interviews can be a way of approaching the interviewees’ subjective understanding of the world around them and of reconstructing the way they make sense of it, this is exactly what I want to propose here: to understand qualitative interviews in their various forms as one way to approach the subjective interpretation of the built environment and its bodily experiences and to shed light on architecture’s agency for human-nonhuman-interactions.

There are different forms of qualitative interviews. They all pose one big challenge: to verbalize experiences, feelings, actions, opinions and, eventually, to confront the researcher with texts instead of bricks and squares. We as researchers have to be extremely careful to use interview stimuli such as questions, photographs or video sequences in a way that helps to put experiences, opinions, feelings and actions into words.

In this contribution, I propose to use narrative interviews in order to write architectural biographies as a particular form of narrative interviews (Schütze 1983). These biographies can either be of architecture, such as a single building or a flat. But the biographies can also be written about the people inhabiting different architecture throughout their lives – a biography of architecture’s role in the lives of people.

The aim of the latter kind of interviews is to trace the influence of architecture on people’s everyday lives – that is: architecture’s agency. The respondents’ task in the interview is to describe the architecture that accompanied them throughout their lives and to narrate what feelings, emotions, routines etc. are connected to different buildings. Such an architectural biography can imply aspects such as these: a description of the interviewee’s parents’ home, the first and following flats, rented rooms, apartments or houses, the buildings and sites of the workplace, of the school, training school or university, or the like.

If researchers decide for architectural biographies, their aim is to access the subjective perception of architecture. For this research objective, narrative interviews (Schütze 1983) prove useful as they allow the interviewee to decide for herself about what to emphasize. The role of the researchers as interviewers then is to provide stimuli for the interviewees’ narrations. Narrative interviews differ from, for example, problem-oriented interviews (Witzel 2000) as the central topics are selected by the interviewee. This happens very often intuitively and without prior rationalization of the reasons why these topics are narrated. Rather, the topics emerge in the course of speaking. Methodologically speaking, in talking about specific topics, the interviewee him/herself is ranking their importance. In addition, the way things are narrated reveals a lot about the interviewee’s attitudes, norms, and positions.

How are narrative interviews structured in the case of architectural biographies? Generally in narrative interviews, the interviewer asks the interviewee to tell his or her life’s story. There, the task of the interviewer is to sensitively ask further questions to deepen topics. For architectural biographies, a particular focus will be on buildings – buildings in which s/he lived, school’s buildings, the building of the workplace, buildings of importance for leisure activities, etc. For example, when the interviewee narrates how s/he moved out from his/her parents’ place for the first time, questions should stimulate a narration on the parents’ home and on the first (and following) apartments, flats, rented rooms or houses of the interviewee.

After the interview, the researcher uses the interview material to reconstruct the role that architecture plays in everyday lives. Questions such as these can structure the analysis:

  • What kind of architecture is important to people in what sense and in what stage of their lives?
  • How do people evaluate architecture and its role in their lives?
  • What “array of allies” (Jacobs 2006, 12), that is of buildings, people, external events, single or group experiences, can be identified?
  • What practices of cooking, relaxing, meeting up with friends were enabled/facilitated/hindered by the building in which the interviewee lived?
  • How does it feel to work in the building of the workplace?
  • How does interaction with colleagues and bosses take place in the particular building and outside?
  • Where and how do they sit, stand, eat, drink tea or coffee in the building?

The analysis of interviews conducted as architectural biographies then gives the researcher material for grouping similar statements and for developing, for example, a typology of how architecture accompanies people through their lives and in what way it is an active part of their practices of everyday life.

Writing architectural biographies can thus be a way to empirically reconstruct the role that architecture plays in constituting the social and, in particular, in bringing about certain practices. However, this method is challenging in a particular way: reconstructing past experiences, feelings and actions implies huge selections as only certain things are remembered, others are ignored or forgotten, and some are emphasized more then others because they seem more important to the interviewee in the particular interview situation and/or phase of life. Therefore, architectural biographies are very subjective reconstructions of meanings that people assign to occurrences in their lives that also depend on the specific situation and context in which they are narrated. In addition, incorporated practices, based on sets of implicit knowledge, are difficult to express verbally. For the interviewee, narrative interviews also imply the problem of finding the right words for their perception of architecture and for their impact on everyday practices. It is extremely difficult to make implicit knowledge explicit. If verbalization is generally difficult for interviewees, it is even more difficult to explicate the interplay of practices and architecture beyond ‘I like going there because the building is nice’ or ‘I avoid spending a lot of time in that building because the rooms are so small and dark’.

One technique that has proven useful to make interviewees more comfortable with verbalizing architecture’s role in their lives is to encourage them to speak in metaphors. As researchers such as Lakoff and Johnson (2003), Moser (2000), Schmitt (2003) or Kruse, Biesel and Schmieder (2011) have shown in their studies, metaphors can be an instructive way for both the interviewees and the interviewers to put things into words. For the interviewer, the task here is, again, to use stimulating questions, pictures etc. to generate story-telling and to encourage the usage of metaphors. Speaking in pictures is what the interviewer wants the interviewees to do here. As narrative interviews are best suited for generating lively narrations, they also prove to be an adequate choice for stimulating narrations which are rich in metaphors.

I opened my contribution by pointing to the need for a methodology to approach architecture’s agency and its co-constitutive character for practices. A concern was that something that is primarily bodily experienced, such as architecture, is difficult to grasp in social research. My proposition is to write architectural biographies which are based on narrative interviews. The interviewees’ narrations of their bodily experiences, emotions, routines and perceptions allow us as researchers to ‘hear’ how ‘architecture talks back’ to people as the title of this post suggests. The architectural biographies, together with shadowing and ethnographic fieldwork, could then be part of a methodology to trace the actions of architecture in a given social context.

Anna-Lisa Müller

Senior Researcher, University of Bremen, Department of Geography




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