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How to select an Architecture dissertation/treatise/thesis topic

Article by Drikus Zwart, July 2023


For many students, a research project is an intimidating prospect. Some universities offer mini-research projects in their honour’s programs or sometime before the final year to prepare students for their final year. This exercise however doesn’t always equip everyone properly and it may be difficult for a student to grasp what a research project is all about and how they should go about it.


Firstly, I will define a research project and then how it translates to the architectural profession. The dictionary definition of a thesis is: “a long essay or dissertation involving personal research, written by a candidate for a university degree.”

The difference between a dissertation, treatise or thesis, is in short just the length of the research document as follows:

- Dissertation = not more than 20,000 words

- Treatise = up to 25,000 words

- Thesis = up to 50,000 words for a Masters & up to 80,000 words for a Doctoral Degree

For ease of writing this article, I will refer to a treatise in all instances. Each university will most likely determine what their research project will be referred to as.

In terms of architecture, the definition in the dictionary is entirely accurate, but it translates in a unique way when it comes to architecture. So how is it different from other fields of research? Architecture isn’t just a science or an art, it is both. Research and academia in this field thus consist of both, and results in visual presentation and academic writing and there is a balance between them, for instance, academic writing is followed by a visual result.


This gives a broad definition of a treatise in terms of architecture, but how does one select and execute a research project in architecture? If you understand that all architecture research projects consist of three main elements and what they entail, it shouldn’t be too difficult to know what you need to do.


The three elements of an architecture treatise:

Site, Theory, & Program Diagram 1

-Site

-Theory

-Program


If you are reading this article, I am expecting you to be familiar with those elements. Your treatise should consist of each of those, and when you are deciding on a topic you should start with determining which element will be your starting point and then you will “find” or “seek” the other two elements to “fit” with your starting element. This is probably the most important decision you will make. The starting element will differ from candidate to candidate and understanding how it affects the type of treatise you will be doing will help you in deciding where to start.


So, to assist in making that decision I will explain how these treatises differ depending on their starting element:


Site

Site, Theory, & Program Diagram 2

If you start with this element, you will have some significant site or location in mind. Dramatic or challenging in some way for instance a place with a very strong genius loci (sense of place). It is the site that defines the direction of the treatise. Therefore it needs to be a very strong element or it will be very difficult to determine the appropriate theory and program elements.


An example of such a treatise would be selecting a site that has been abandoned, like a sports stadium or factory where the building is debilitated and taken over by nature but there is some structure remaining which results in a strong sense or feel of the place when you are there. Your goal might be to capture that sense of place and apply a theory and programme that is appropriate.


The theory that you may deal with could be refurbishing historical buildings or how to respond to nature and how one imposes a new building program and functions on an existing structure. Your program will suit your site, maybe there is a need for market space or an entertainment centre in the area and this becomes the type of building that the site calls for, but more importantly, the program will be the most appropriate in terms of showcasing and exploring the theory that is associated with the site. If your program isn’t challenging the problems that you are exploring it will be a weak treatise. At the end of the day, you are exploring specific problems or challenges and have to research and discover ways to solve them or respond to them. It is this response that equates to how good the final result will be.

You can see that you will have to do extensive research firstly on the site and sense of place and then that will inform your decisions and research in terms of theory and program.


Deciding on starting with the element of site can be quite challenging because determining appropriate theory and program elements for a site isn’t an easy task and you might have to come up with various elements until you discover ones that will work best and sometimes the theory or program that works best isn’t enough to do a research project on. For instance, the best program might be a creche for the site but a creche in itself may not provide enough research for a final-year project and other building programs may not fit with the site or theory.


Theory

Site, Theory, & Program Diagram 3

I would say that theory as the starting element of a treatise is probably the most difficult type of treatise that you can attempt. In my years of study, the students that did this were usually some of the best students and even they had a hard time with it. It also demands a lot more research and many ended up making use of an additional year to complete their treatise. If you’re an academic and are mostly interested in theories and discourse about architecture this will be a type of treatise you will be interested in, however, keep the challenges in mind. The reward on the other hand of completing a good treatise based on theory is that it is quite impressive and can be a great showpiece on your track record.


An example of a theory element based treatise that one of the students did in my time of study was the topic of horror in architecture. From what I understood about it the goal was to define horror in architecture. If you think about places where the sense of place is horrifying when there, maybe a deserted structure in the middle of nowhere that has dark spaces and makes the hair on the back of your neck stand. How do you define this experience and can you “bottle it” and replicate it? These may be some of the research questions that get explored. Now with that in mind, you require a site and building program that will explore this theory. I think it is needless to repeat how difficult this task will be, but if you can accomplish this you are adding something very interesting and compelling to the discourse of architecture.


Program

Site, Theory, & Program Diagram 4

This is personally my favoured element; it tends to be more constrained and logical. You will have many choices to choose from as there are so many types of buildings, however, you mustn’t just repeat what already exists, the goal here is to understand what is already known and then look at the shortfalls or challenges that remain of such building type and then discover better responses.


An example would be a hospital, but again, just a general hospital located in a normal place where you will find any hospital doing all the normal things that any other hospital does will result in a boring and general treatise which just repeats what is already known about the topic. If you select a hospital, maybe looking at very specific types of hospitals will become interesting, for instance, I saw an architecture competition once to design a hospital for terminally ill children. Such a hospital will require specific research aimed at how to deal with these patients and how architecture should respond appropriately or better than it does now. There is a challenge in terms of how to respond and it cannot be the same as with any other hospital, because there is a strong social element and maybe even a spiritual one. This opens the door to an area of research that isn’t necessarily extensive allowing you the opportunity to provide insight.


Your program must be complex and deal with challenging aspects of architecture. The advantage of this topic is that you will most likely be able to find the answers to research questions more easily than with the other elements, but not always, especially if you're exploring research areas that are not that familiar. Your program will demand a specific site and theory which should become clear to you once you start with your research.



Approach & Execution


As you can see each element demands a different approach and has its challenges, and sometimes a student may start with one element but discover that one of the other two elements may be much stronger and they could end up focusing on another element. For instance, you may start with a site and then find a program for the site, but then realise that the research topic on the program will be much stronger and allow for a better treatise. This discovery process takes time and you must do this as early as possible. You don’t want to start with your final year and only then explore topics, you will end up chasing the train trying to catch up throughout the year. Whichever element you pinpoint as your starting element should be the dominating element and define the theme of your treatise. The other elements will be “accommodating” elements and should always conform to the dominating element and be the best fit in terms of allowing the most appropriate means to explore the main topic. The “accommodating” elements should emphasise the problems and challenges you are dealing with.


So with all that said, you may still be unsure where you should start. I would advise that you look at your strengths and what interests you the most. For instance, if you are more on the side of a logical/rational thinking architect, starting with a program will probably suit you best. If you are on the creative and art side, starting with a site could be your forte. Then if you’re the type of person that loves academic writings, journals, and debates on theory in architecture, a theory-based treatise will be something you might be able to attempt. It is also important that you don’t just go for what interests you the most and isn’t necessarily an area that you will excel at. I enjoy the theory topics in architecture and how it opens up our minds to new ideas, but I would never have attempted it as a treatise topic, because I’m much more of a rational thinker. Another thing to keep in mind if you have found a topic is to think about the execution. You will be required not just to write an academic research paper but also respond in the form of a building. Your research will inform your design but make sure that it is achievable. Don't go for something that is too complex, although you need to do something challenging, there is no point in attempting something that will be too difficult to achieve for the purpose of passing your final year. You can always pursue a doctorate after a master's and then explore as complex topics as you are able to come up with and also have the time frame that allows for that research.


Finally, listen to your lecturers and promoters. You may think that if they are discouraging or encouraging you to explore certain topics, they may be doing it for the wrong reasons, but they have been where you are now and they have already learned what you still need to. They also see treatises every year, so they are experts when it comes to what works, what is a good topic and which ones to avoid. They will also by now know where your strengths lie. So they should be able to advise you on which general direction to take when deciding on a topic.



Conclusion


Don’t be discouraged with the process of finding an appropriate topic, it could sometimes be a lot of trial and error, but as soon as you have clarity you will be able to get going. It is also normal to get started and then get stuck, being unsure of what to do next. Just go back to the starting point and remind yourself what questions you are trying to answer and what problems you are trying to solve and then do it.


This is why it is also important when formulating your topic, that it is concise and clear that the “what, how, and where” is defined to give you a framework to follow. So in other words you should be able to answer: What is your treatise about? Are you trying to uncover a theory, better a program, or explore a sense of place? How are you going to do it? Do you have precedents to analyse and formulate a critique on or show what works and what doesn’t, or maybe there are other research papers on various topics that can inform you? And then, where? Why there and not somewhere else? Can you validate the location or what were the selection criteria and does your selection apply the criteria? If you have these answers, you should have a clearly defined topic, even an abstract which will direct the whole treatise.


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