MENTOR SPOTLIGHT | JUNE 2014
Years at KU: 7
Describe your research in a few sentences that we can all understand. My research, in its broadest sense, focuses on the social, cultural, and psychological dimensions of architecture, urbanism, and historic preservation, specifically on non-Western traditions. In narrower terms, my research has so far been on global cultural heritage conservation, addressing theoretical and pragmatic issues related to UNESCO’s World Heritage Program, which attempts to preserve and manage historic monuments and sites with outstanding universal value around the world.
Q: How did you first get interested in doing research?
A: I remember that even during my middle-school days I was very curious about many subjects; I wanted to learn about many things. So, I read a lot, listened to a lot, and watched a lot on many subjects. In my undergraduate architecture program, we had to research and write two mini-dissertations, one on an architectural topic and the other on a social science topic. I conducted archival research, field work, and interviews, without much formal training in research methods. These academic exercises got me really interested in learning how to do research. I also had several professors who encouraged me to conduct research. However, my formal training in research did not occur until I started my doctoral studies.
Q: What do students in your discipline learn by doing research that they wouldn’t learn by just taking classes?
A: In architecture, we design all kinds of environments – interiors, buildings, settlements, urban spaces, cities, and landscapes – for all types of human needs and uses. Therefore, we should have a good understanding of a whole lot of things: not only how to design a place, but also how to construct; how to manage construction cost; how to respond to climate, culture, time, urban/rural context, geological conditions, topographical conditions, building codes, legal issues, social/ethical issues, design tastes, etc. As you can see, all these vary depending on the place, people, and time concerned. Most importantly, we should be able to respond to the needs of those who would live in and use those designed environments. Again, these needs are not universal: they change from time to time, place to place, and culture to culture. So, the architectural designer’s need for appropriate knowledge to inform his/her design decisions cannot be simply imparted in classes or design studios. Your classes can only provide you with the fundamental knowledge of various required knowledge domains. Every design project requires a great deal of research and new information/evidence.
Q: What do you find to be the most exciting part of doing research? What makes this line of work meaningful and interesting to you?
A: Since every design project requires a great deal of new information, every design decision you make is a hypothesis – a design hypothesis. The only way to "test" it is to construct the place you designed and to see whether it works for its intended purpose and people. So, every architecture project is inherently an experiment. This makes the architectural design a "research process." There is a great deal of anticipation for your design to be built and tested. This makes doing research in architecture exciting all through – not only in learning about the design project at hand, but also evaluating it after it is built and occupied.
Q: What advice do you have for undergraduates interested in doing research in your field?
A: As I mentioned above, it is important to keep in mind that architectural design itself is a research project. So, you cannot actually separate design from research. If you understand this, "doing research" is not a novel thing for us. We may be doing it differently from other academic disciplines. And, the way research is done in other academic disciplines, whether they are arts, humanities, natural sciences, or social sciences, is also useful to us, as architectural design requires knowledge from all these subjects. Therefore, do not think architectural designers "do not do research" or "do not need research." This understanding, or mind-set, is critical for architecture undergraduates.
Q: For many students, doing research is the first time they have done work that routinely involves failure and the need to troubleshoot problems. Can you tell us about a time that your research didn’t go as expected? Have you developed any tricks or habits that help you to stay resilient in the face of obstacles?
A: Once I was conducting ethnographic fieldwork in a South Asian historic town, investigating how its residents thought about their cultural heritage, heritage preservation issues, and town development issues. People in this town are predominantly Buddhists and their cultural heritage, especially all the temples, is closely intertwined with Buddhism, historically as well as today. I did not know at that time that there had been some situations where a Western non-Buddhist organization had been gathering information about temple properties to see whether they could buy all those properties and then basically shut down and eventually demolish those temples in the town. Some people thought I was a member of this organization, since I was asking questions about the temples (so, about cultural heritage), and they did not want to participate in my research. No one told me what was going on. I had a difficult time in gathering data I needed. Then the local police summoned me and interrogated me. They finally cleared me from the suspicion people had, but it did not helped me that much. Fortunately I had gathered enough data to complete my research. The mistake I made was not to go first to the leaders of the community and inform them of who I was and what I planned to do. Had I done that first – getting the trust and help of the "gate keepers" of that town – I would not have faced that difficulty. I learned my lesson. Now I go first to the community leaders before I enter the larger community. Nevertheless, I did not get discouraged by the difficulty I had. I considered it a circumstance that may have limited my investigation, its findings, and conclusions. I used it to discuss the limitations of my study. So, obstacles in research in fact help you to redefine and refine your research design and conclusions.
Q: How do you spend your time outside of work?
A: I really enjoy thinking of, researching into, designing, and teaching architecture. So, I do not consider all these as "work." Even when I travel, I visit great works of architecture, natural (landscapes, rock formations, etc.) or human-made (buildings, cities, etc.). When I watch movies, it is again architecture, as movies are in many ways like experiencing or designing a building. When I play percussions, it is architecture too, as "architecture is frozen music." You cannot really "escape" architecture; you are always in it. So, there is not really a time that is "outside of work" for me. :)