Architectural Anthropology: And why architects are afraid of involving users

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Design anthropology has in recent years established itself as a field of research as well as practice. Innovation companies use anthropological methods in developing new designs and technologies, and in Denmark we now have research and teaching in both design anthropology and techno-anthropology. Within the field of architecture, however, there has not yet been quite the same eagerness to include anthropological approaches in design processes. This paper discusses why this is so and how and whether architectural anthropology has different conditions and objectives than other types of design anthropology. On the one hand, there are obviously good reasons for developing architecture based on anthropological insights in local contexts and anthropologically inspired techniques for ‘collaborative formation of issues’. Houses and built environments are huge investments, their life expectancy is considerably longer than most other designed artefacts and once erected they are not easily moved or replaced. In other words: if anthropological approaches make sense within other fields of design, it is hard to see why this should not equally be the case for the large-scale design of buildings, cities and other spaces that architects are preoccupied with. On the other hand, the distinction between architecture and design is not merely one of scale. Design and architecture represent – at least in Denmark – also quite different disciplinary traditions and methods. Where designers develop prototypes, architects tend to work with models and plans that are not easily understood by lay people. Further, many architects are themselves sceptical towards notions of user-involvement and collaborative design. They fear that the imagination of citizens and users is restricted to what they are already familiar with, and that this will restrict the creative design process. Also, the end user of architecture is not easily identified, as a new building should not just accommodate the needs of specific residents but also those of neighbours, future residents, other citizens and maybe society as such. The paper explores the challenges and potentials of architectural anthropology, and questions how disciplinary factors influence how people – and professionals – gather around the formation of an issue.

Original languageEnglish
Publication date2015
Publication statusPublished - 2015
EventCollaborative Formation of Issues: Research Network for Design Anthropology - Moesgaard Museum, Aarhus University, Århus, Denmark
Duration: 22 Jan 201523 Jan 2015
Conference number: Seminar 3


ConferenceCollaborative Formation of Issues
NumberSeminar 3
LocationMoesgaard Museum, Aarhus University


  • architecture
  • anthropology
  • design
  • user-involvement


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