The STEM Turn

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It’s an acronym that can be heard a lot coming from the mouths of educational policy types, who usually use it together with words such as competitiveness, research, innovation, and productivity, and rarely in conjunction with words such as sociology, humanities, anthropology, or culture. Every discipline wants to be identified with STEM these days, because STEM is where the money is. It’s where multinational corporations, which don’t like to pay taxes even though they make a killing, are eager to invest in tax-deductible R&D (Research and Development). They also hope, of course, to thereby benefit from new technological innovations that could increase their profits even more. No problem with any of that, just so long as it creates wealth for all of humanity while saving the environment. The problem is when fields such as architecture and design suddenly take a STEM turn because that’s where the money is, abandoning the part of the discipline that concerns the humanities just because that’s not where the money is these days.

But when scientific claims are made that are not empirically substantiated, well, then we don’t have a problem, we just have phoniness, which is architecture’s problem every time it dabbles in yet another discipline it really knows little if anything about.

An example is the ‘Bio-Photovoltaic Panel’, which proposes generating electricity from plants. It’s published in various architectural media, with a detailed description of the experiment and its form, explained as being optimal for both the growing of plants and the harvesting of electricity. It’s a beautiful object. Wouldn’t it be great if we could harvest all the electricity that is generated by plants with beautiful objects such as this one? I didn’t even know plants generated electricity, come to think of it. Which led me to wonder: just how much electricity is being generated by plants in this scientific experiment? The Domus article doesn’t mention that rather important little detail. So I wrote this question in the readers’ comments, and in passing, why there was no mention of that in the article, since, ahem, that would seem to me to be the 64 thousand euro question. Another reader answered my query by pointing out another article about this project. This one is in DesignBoom, where indeed an answer to my question could be found: “Voltage and amperage were measured in all the experiments, and even though voltage was always present, no amperes were observed. The containers were connected in series to increase the voltage and still there was no amperage. To get amperage, the batteries must be connected to a capacitor or step down converter.” (italics added).

Now, if all we have to do is connect it up to a capacitor or step down converter, then what are we waiting for? Connect it up and let the amperes flow freely and abundantly! But no. That, apparently, wouldn’t be interesting, according to another comment in the Domus article by one of the authors of this project: “We are not interested in selling the idea, what we are interested are other people who want to continue to research on the technology to make it better.” [sic]

What a let-down! I mean, once you’ve gotten this far, why not take this brilliant idea all the way? Why stop now, when only one more little connection is needed before it works? It was designed to generate electricity….wasn’t it? Maybe not. No: maybe it was made in order to be, first and foremost, a pretty object. The whole electricity-generating discourse is just to make it sound ‘scientific’. You know, because that’s what we architects do: we just like to sound like the flavor of the month.

Now I know why we architects prefer to stick to theory. In theory, architecture always works perfectly.

Screen shot 2014-12-15 at 14.17.32
image courtesy DesignBoom

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  1. I think there has been a change in the understanding of the notion of measurement. Perhaps until a decade ago, science and technology and engineering were closely attributed to ‘measurement’. Everything scientific should have had the capacity of being ‘measured’.Culture, society, and humanities were not considered as scientific disciplines because they were not readily measurable.
    In those days, star-architects such as Foster, Grimshaw, Calatrava, and most importantly Rem tried to prove that ‘architecture’ was a scientific field by rendering it as a measurable object. (I think Rem had said that “Architecture must be measurable”; he albeit meant measurable in size and scale!). Measurement of architecture helped them to easily correlate it with money. The bigger, the more expensive; (regardless of its social aspects).
    Nowadays, after the post-crisis era, things have even taken a more dramatic turn. Even measuring science and technology has become irrevelant. They wouldn’t even bother measuring the amperage and the amount of electricity the Bio-photovoltaic cells produce. The object looks good and it sells. So, why bother measuring it.
    In an age in which capitalism is lone-riding, money remains the only relevant subject of measurement.

  2. To be fair, Mostafa, the team DID take measurements, and they even supplied this information. Turns out that the measurements didn’t support the hypothesis, so they didn’t exactly advertise that fact. Hey, nobody can expect to get things 100% right on the first attempt. You have to keep trying and tweaking, which is precisely the hard part that they have decided not to pursue and to leave to others instead. Nothing wrong with that. The problem is that it was published by Domus AS IF this were a technological breakthrough. Domus even names this project one of the ten best student projects of 2014, showing its lack of scientific rigor.

    If architects and designers are going to dabble in STEM and claim to be making technological breakthroughs, then these claims have to be verified. It’s called the scientific method, and its purpose is to ensure rigor.

    Alas, this is by far not the first time. There’s an office building in Barcelona that won an international ‘best building of the year’ award for its performance, but the building is actually not working as energy-efficiently as is claimed (anyone can see for themselves: the measurements are posted online). If prizes for performance are given out purely on the basis of image, as appears to be the case, then there is a serious problem in the profession.

    So, more than a lack of measurement, I would say there is a lack of rigor, a lack of accountability, a lack of responsibility.

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