Aurel von Richthofen on Research / Teaching / Tools / Practice

What is Design? 

My research interests as well as my teaching philosophy and architectural practice are rooted in the fundamental question of architecture and urbanism: What is design? Since I started my studies in architecture in 1998 at ETH Zürich I have approached this question from various angles exploring more formal and digitally-driven avenues at first. During my post-graduate studies at Princeton University, I expanded this search to a set of questions ranging from the understanding of design before form, to procedural approaches of design, to design-thinking and finally to systems theory and cybernetics in the shape of parametric urban models. 


These interests led to a series of self-initiated research projects on networks (Subway Sorter), fields (Wave Breaker) and systems (Smart Dots) during my time in the United States and Berlin. All of these projects involved custom made software tools. These tools were the result of the search for a way to represent the dynamic and informal nature of architecture and urbanism. By overcoming traditional means of architectural representation these research projects revealed new possible forms of design. Since my arrival at the German University of Technology in Oman (GUtech) in 2010, I initiated, contributed to and organized four major research and consultancy projects.I co-investigate on The Research Council Oman (TRC) founded project Towards Sustainable Patterns of Urbanization in Oman. Indicators of sustainable design are integrated into an urban parametric sustainability model, ultimately resulting in a compact city for Oman.  My contribution covers dwelling typologies on the regional, urban and architectural scale, recorded with digital tools. I am the co-author of the Eco-Friendly House competition entry by GUtech and the main contri­butor to the Mutrah Redevelopment and Master Planning consultancy project. I am keen to transport the findings of my research on architecture and urbanism in and outside of academia. I have presented my research on Muscat Capital Area on eight international conferences with four publications over the last two years. 


My main motivation to teach architecture and urbanism is to enter a dialogue with young architects. I have taught architecture in the United States, Europe and Oman to undergraduate and graduate students for more than five years. All these students come from different social and cultural backgrounds. At the Ohio State University (OSU), I taught graduate design studios and undergraduate Bachelor theses. In Berlin and Karlsruhe, I led a series of seminars on design and theory. The cultural differences in an Arab, Muslim country like Oman demand a particular cultural sensitivity, pedagogical confidence and thorough re-conception of what architecture and urban design ought to be. Oman has been propelled from the middle ages to the 21st century in less than a generation’s time span. The dialogue with young Omani students at GUtech has been overwhelming. In Oman, there is a real chance to empower the next generation – young muslim women in particular – to actively shape their society through design. I am teaching architectural thinking through methods such as computer aided design (CAD). The model as information entity has become a central tool in my pedagogical approach. I initiated the first network of CAD student Experts in Oman. Wherever possible I involved students and young researchers in my projects, for instance interns for the Mutrah Redevelopment and Master Planning project or my founded research.


Design and representation go hand in hand. My CAD classes establish the ground for architectural representation in studio. This representation before design parallels my approach to design before form. While students experiment with different digital tools they understand their model as a dynamic information entity and representation of their design intent. They learn that one model can have different forms of representation depending on the architectural question addressed to it. These include standard forms of representation such as plans, section and elevations, but also Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) models and Building Information Modeling (BIM). Parametric design is a powerful tool to transgress the limits of standard design software. Moreover it requires a rigorously structured approach to design which helps students to formulate and articulate their design intention. Geo Information System (GIS) mapping is a key element of urban analysis. With advanced modeling tools, students interpret and render their vision of urban design. Digital tools and design-thinking become ever more interrelated as the scope and accessibility of computational tools penetrate every day design education. Based on my ground work over the last three years a future design curriculum at GUtech will take these considerations into account. 


Research in architecture and urbanism is relevant in as much as it is applicable to real-life conditions. Architectural projects meet these conditions since they usually have a client, a site and a program. Therefore, architectural projects lend themselves to experimentation. To practice architecture allows to develop experimental design because of the real-life constraints put onto the design process, namely its materiality, structural and tectonic principles, ecological and climatic performance, and, last but not least, usage by people. The majority of my projects consist of open international competition entries. Competitions are chosen to manifest ideas forming a larger research project. Design complements writing. My earlier projects such as the Zurich Elephant Park and Nouvelle Comédie de Genève are reminiscent of the search for innovation through formal expression. Projects like the tensegrity series (Tensegrity Tower, Connecting Link, Maribor Bridge) defy gravity by innovative combination of structure and geometry. Later competition entries like the Veyey and Crissier schools explore program and form in conjunction with materiality and construction. Radical projects like New Bowkunde Delft, Tetra City and Einheits Denkmal defy scale, as they represent rule-sets rather than formal manifestations.