(Re)presentation and supposition

Prof. dr.ir. Taeke de Jong



Before a design is drawn, a program of demands can be object of empirical research and after realisation its evaluation as well. Is the design inbetween science itself? If science concerns making more explicit presuppositions of thought and investigating them, than design could be scientific. There is a direct relation between designing and varying suppositions in a representation. This article looks for such starting-points for scientific research by design. They don’t have to be the same as in empirical research. A technical science may use an assumption of possibility instead of probability. ‘Technically scientific’ here is defined as: ‘concerning a scientific way of thinking not only taking empirism as a starting-point, but also a not yet existing (possible) design.’ The article ends by defining context as the set of suppositions that can be varied as well as the object to be designed. This results in a classification of empirical design research and types of not fully empirical ‘research by design’.


People are capable of imagining – proposing – something that does not exist. Empiricists state that this kind of pre-sentation of an object is a falsehood, but the design profession consists of these kinds of lies. The statement (expression) of such an image in a document or other medium is a scheme[a]. A design is a scheme that is capable of being realized and through that a model (Argan 1965). This means that a design cannot only be a (re)presentation, but can also be a proposal. Once it has been implemented it is, from an empirical perspective, no longer a lie; it has been ‘realized’. It can then be empirically evaluated in terms of its spatial, ecological, technical, economic, cultural an managerial effects. Which scientific starting-point applies to RESEARCH BY DESIGN, before a design has turned into a realisable model?


The powers of human imagination are subject to two forms of limitation, which are of importance to the scientific development of research into design. The first limitation is that humans are capable of the simultaneous consideration of only a restricted number of components and details. Only in a dialogue with paper or some form of tenacious – but simultaneously pliant- medium (an alternation between imprint, expression and impression) a representation can outgrow this limitation. Only a few (for instance Carel Weeber and Frank Lloyd Wright (Duin 1987), (Brooks, Gossel et al. 1991), (Smith 1998).) claim to be able to conduct this dialogue in their heads[b]. Once this dialogue has been completed the conception needs only to be committed to paper. And when the idiom has been rendered definitive this presentation on paper can be performed by others, making use of the customary specifications employed within the design bureau. The more these specifications are laid down in the minds and computers of the bureau, the less difficult it will be to conduct this dialogue internally, in camera. The content of the message can be decreased in proportion to the amount of software available to the recipient for its interpretation.


The second limitation involves our unconscious involvement of numerous (pre-)suppositions in a pre-sentation, pro-position or a pro-posal. Moreover we never need to explain or justify them, since they are a self-explanatory part of the culture in which we express ourselves, our language game (Wittgenstein 1953). This results in tremendous savings in the necessary argumentation. No one asks us to justify self-evidences, except for the occasional sceptic who, throughout the centuries, has been a source of scientific and cultural renewal. Some of these suppositions are exposed during inter-cultural communications, which is a reason why students should be allowed plenty of opportunity to travel (at least for as long as differences in suppositions and linguistic expression, differences in culture, are still determined by geography[c] ).


However contacts, and above all cooperation, with others and other language games cannot only expose unexpressed suppositions; they can also confirm them to an extent such that they remain, more deeply ingrained than ever, in the form of a collective underlying myth beneath the powers of imagination. They can induce a warm feeling of well-nigh-religious solidarity – a situation in which the born sceptic is experienced as a nuisance. They are of commercial interest (for the client and the design bureau), although not of interest to technological science. The world is full of myths, even the world of science. Their number is not decreasing, but increasing, in view of the financially lucrative flow of commercial funds. In particular the will to achieve consensus, the neglect of doubt and honest debate, compel many a scientist to the superficiality that everyone can see and understand. Here scientific justification is comprised of quotations that are verified by no one. That this superficiality is founded on unexpressed and sometimes inexpressible myths[d] is no longer of interest – in view of the lucrative consensus – to those financing the research.


Boelen[e] defines creativity as the powers of imagination that are able to break free from at least one unexpressed supposition, for example that the five-man editorial board of an architectural journal can be the judge of what is scientifically correct and architecturally good. However, care should be taken to avoid bringing too many collective suppositions into doubt simultaneously, since otherwise every general form of linguistic or drawn expression would become unintelligible. A design is 99% tradition and 1% inspiration. The cultural context allows itself to be challenged to only a marginal extent. The local and temporary cultural context, and its perspective, allows itself to be caressed by avant-garde – but not stung. Art, like innovative science, is but a ripple on the boundaries of culture (the set collective presuppositions in communication). The driving force of a creativity is powered by the fuel of tradition, but cannot do without the oil of doubt.


Deciding on a suitable method to teach a knowledge of tradition is no major problem[f], but how should we teach creativity? If we adopt the definition proposed by Boelen then the first step amounts to creating an awareness of the unexpressed suppositions[g]. Which is as difficult as explaining what water is to a fish (Einstein 1998). If the fish had been able to understand that, then it would have been able to design a niche on dry land. This forms the basis of the human race’s capability of climate control to break free from their home in Africa – and from the Earth, by designing space suits and space ships. Architecture used to make a niche is a branch of technical ecology. This is no longer a question merely of a spatial or ecological niche, but also of a niche in a technical, economical, cultural and managerial context. During the past 3 billion years the empirical discovery of a niche and the technical realization of a niche has been a question of trial (and the genetic storage of the successes) and error (and frequent death, with a new beginning based on sexual dualism). And now there is a species that can imagine something that does not exist. How does someone arrive at such a representation? To some extent this is still a question of trial and error, but it can also be achieved by a scientific approach. Science starts by doubting collective myths. And if this scientific approach did not exist, then academic education in design would lack its reason for existence.


If you come to a creative impasse you can try to break free by evoking random thoughts, or by contemplating a metaphor such as a paperclip. This approach will create a slim chance , say 1 to 1000 per design per year, of you discovering something both feasible and desirable by trial and error. Soppose that chance for a culture with a thousand designers will be sufficient to be able to rejuvenate itself. Furthemore traditional solutions are locally optimised to find a suitable and viable alternative in a continually changing context. With the present number of graduation students at a Faculty of Architecture this approach would result in something new once every three years. A chance of this magnitude does not really constitute sufficient motivation to study Architecture, or to subsidize a traditionally-oriented vocational education of this type in the form of an academic enterprise. What are technological sciences other than applied empiricism? How do we systematically make ourselves aware of unexpressed suppositions in each individual instance – and then omit them, one after the other by means of experiment? In my opinion there are two approaches: contextually-oriented historical science and conditional analysis.


History is comprised of a catalogue of spatial, ecological, technical, economical, cultural and managerial contexts, contexts within which each building was constructed. Other periods of history lacked many of the numerous suppositions we now take for granted and, against our background, can no longer perceive. When studied in a certain fashion historical science will reveal suppositions in the same manner that geography (to a decreasing extent) will reveal them to us on our travels. However, this will not reveal those unexpressed suppositions that have been unexpressed since the beginning of history.


The conditional analyse of suppositions is a technique in which propositions are compared with each other. For example, if I am not able to imagine proposition B without proposition A, but am able to imagine the reserve, then A is an supposition for B. This means that A can accommodate propositions other than B. This is the approach used by the Chair in Technical Ecology and Methodology Faculteit Bouwkunde TUD. To this end, a few years ago all educational tools used in our foundation course were set down in keywords, and the resultant lists were submitted to the Professors with the request to check those falling within their own discipline. The underlying mutual sequence of suppositions for approximately 200 scientific and technological propositions has now been established[h]. This required, in principle, the solution of some 40,000 equations with 200 unknowns. However, not only are there a restricted number of verbal concepts, but above all a virtually unlimited number of (time and) spatial propositions, images, that can exhibit a conditional interrelationship with each other. The first question of relevance is the question as to which images, in a scientific sense, are intrinsically capable of comparison with each other. For example, an urban-development plan cannot be compared directly to a detail of a construction.


This has become a pressing question in the “Image Archive of Architectural Interventions” (IAAI) project of the Architectonische Interventie (Architectural Intervention) on the Internet (Jong, Damen et al. 2001). The storage and retrieval of graduation-study images in this archive does not only involve the registration of the usual characteristics such as author, date, keywords, etc.: it also requires a system to register the context (set of suppositions), thereby largely determining the extent to which they can be compared with each other. It is now possible to simultaneously retrieve images of a specific scale (frame) and level of detail (grain) and to view them from a specific perspective with a specific plan horizon to observe spatial, ecological, technical, economical, cultural or managerial effects, and to be able to compare these effects with each other. This archive safeguards the genetic storage of graduation study material in which the object as well as the context were variable. It enables a begin to be made in the methodological quest for suppositions as a part of the research of design (Jong, Cuperus et al. 2000).


In a university of technology, designs are made (research by design), examined (design research) and evaluated. Making a design, the preliminary investigation and its conclusion, the programme of demands, only partly direct the solution. The design does not follow unequivocally and reproductably from a programme like a scientific prediction from its basic assumptions ceteris paribus. Even with a strict programme, alternatives (eventually unexpectable) are possible in design. This is most explicit in building design. The choice of a final alternative is determined by the context of the object to be designed. The market, the location and the designer (context of invention) belong to the broader present and future managerial, cultural, economical, technical, ecological, and mass-space-time context and perspective of the object. ‘Context’ is different on different levels of scale and cannot be foreseen completely in the programme.








CONTEXT                                       PERSPECTIVE


Variable per level of scale         and period of change.

For example:                                                        tentative nationally:


managerial/political:   initiative            < >        laissez-faire        7 years

cultural:                   traditional           < >       experimental       15 years

economics:              growth               < >            shrinkage       30 years

technical:                 combination       < >       specialization       60 years

ecological:               heterogeneous    < >      homogeneous     120 years

mass-space-time:     concentration     < >   deconcentration     240 years



Context and changing context (perspective)


The number of  imaginable alternatives for buildings, mostly with a long term multifunctional programme of (conflicting) demands, is unconceivably large, subject to a combinatoric explosion of possible forms. Buildings and urban designs have a long period of use and they are earthbound. So they have to function in a changing context (perspective) that is unpredictable and not influenced by the programming authority, designer or user. From the viewpoint of their durability they should be able to accommodate varying programmes and daily changing aims of their inhabitants and users. This quality of building design is called ‘robustness’. ‘Flexibility’ is only part of it. So, from all artefacts, buildings have the most context sensitive function for use, perception and market, not to be evaluated without that context and therefore hardly comparable to each other (sometimes even unique). It is difficult to find comparable examples for design research to draw more general conclusions for design.

Design research concerns determined objects within determined contexts. Research by design (below grey) varies either the object (identifying design) or the context (typology) or even both (designing study):







CONTEXT               determined

Design Research

Identifying Design



Designing Study


Even with a comparable programme of demands, not only their own diversity of solutions, but also the diversity of their contexts or perspectives to function in, is very large. Consequently, the diversity of rational reasons (determined by context) to choose a final alternative is even larger. So, building design research often has the character of an n=1 study with limited general value to other designs. Design research, based on more examples than one, is often ignored by designers, because on location many design relevant circumstances appear different from what the examined examples had in common. The descriptive interpretation of context by researchers differs from the imaginative interpretation of designers, that stresses possibilities rather than probabilities. Moreover, the principal often asks for a unique design, ‘exploiting’ rare qualities of context. So design decisions seldom can be founded on examples univocally and professionally by the lack of material for comparison.




Argan, G. C. (1965) Sul concetto di tipologia architettonica in:  Progetto e destino (Milaan) ?

Brooks, B., Gossel, P. and Leuthauser, G. (1991) Frank Lloyd Wright (Koln) Taschen Verlag.

Duin, L. v. (1987) Architectonische studies 4 (Delft) Delft University Press.

Einstein, A. (1998) Space-time in:  Encyclopedia Brittannica CD-ROM.

Fukuyama, F. (1992) Het einde van de geschiedenis en de laatste mens (Amsterdam) Contact.

Jong, T. M. d. (1992) Kleine methodologie voor ontwerpend onderzoek (Meppel) Boom.

Jong, T. M. d., Cuperus, Y. and Voordt, D. J. M. v. d., Eds. (2000) Ways to study architectural, urban and technical design (Delft) International conference of Research by design Faculteit Bouwkunde TUD.

Jong, T. M. d., Damen, E. and Stelpstra, F. (2001) Image archive of architectural interventions IAAI http://iaai.bk.tudelft.nl/.

Smith (1998) Frank Lloyd Wright   America's Master Architect (New York) Abbeville Press Publishers.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations/Philosophische Untersuchungen (Oxford) Blackwell.




alternatives................................ 3

building design......................... 3

comparable............................... 4

conception................................ 1

conditional analysis............... 2

context........................................ 3

context of invention................ 3

design......................................... 1

design research.................. 3; 4

designing study....................... 4

diversity of solutions.............. 4

flexibility..................................... 4

forms........................................... 4

historical science.................... 2

identifying design.................... 4

imagination............................... 1

myth............................................ 1

perspectives............................. 3

programme................................ 3

research by design........ 1; 3; 4

robustness................................ 4

scheme...................................... 1

suppositions............................. 1

typology..................................... 4

unique......................................... 4


[a] Classical Greek (schma) for posture, gesture, external appearance, form as the condition, standpoint, position with respect to something, in other words pose. The condition of the proposal can be ‘unfurled’ of or ‘ex-plained’ on paper, and consequently in a spatial form; possibly in a series as an expression of time.

[b] The ‘ability to argue within your own head’ is de kortste mij bekende definitie van intelligentie, treffend geformuleerd door een jongere van surinaams-hindoestaans afkomst, Amida Matab.

[c] According to (Fukuyama 1992) it will not be long before this happens.

[d] ‘Sustainability’ is a good example.

[e] Boelen, Clarifying presuppositions in design, unpublished draft thesis, Deventer, 1998

[f] Tradition is actually the Latin for transfer; consequently this is etymological tautology.

[g] Demythologization was the basis of scientific thought in Classical Greece.

[h] (Jong 1992) Taeke de Jong, Kleine methodologie voor ontwerpend onderzoek, (Abbreviated methodology for research by design), Meppel, 1992; see also priliminary translation in English  http://www.bk.tudelft.nl/users/dejongt/-internet/008000000.htm