March 30, 2015



Approaching practice through the lens of ethnography gives architects a powerful way to feel social forces and cultural resonances. Regularly interpreting space in this way can lead designers to develop an “ethnographer’s sensitivity” [#1] and an even greater capacity for empathy. The same is true of human-centered practitioners in other fields. Ellen Isaacs, a user experience designer, recently offered a unique glimpse into ethnography’s value in computer science (and beyond) at TEDxBroadway. Through her talk, Isaacs describes how ethnographic methods can be used to notice “the hidden obvious” and, ultimately, to solve problematic aspects of person-environment interactions. Take a moment to metaphorically put on an ethnographer’s eyes and ears, then look around. What new things do you notice about your environment? What design opportunities have presented themselves? For additional information on ethnographic approaches, methods, and experiments – including a look at some ethnographic studies of Hackers, Makers, and Engineers – visit Ethnography Matters.


There are many different creative approaches to conducting ethnographic studies. Sensory ethnography [#2] focuses on the unique ways that people give structure and meaning to places via the senses. For example, the smell or sound of a specific place contributes to its identity. The Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) at Harvard University explores this process and “encourages attention to the many dimensions of the world, both animate and inanimate, that may only with difficulty, if it all, be rendered with propositional prose.” Point of View magazine recently took an in-depth look at the SEL’s work, inspiring reflection into how the documentation of specific sights, sounds, smells, and experiences changes our understanding of a place. Is this the next generation of the site visit? For a particularly unique look at smell’s relationship to place, check out artist/designer Kate McLean, who creates smellmaps of cities around the world.


Ethnography encourages us to discard our cultural assumptions and to understand a place from the perspective of others, including the places that we experience on a daily basis. Ethnography in NYC [#3] is an especially rich experience, since there are so many subcultures represented in our city. In his 1999 book Sidewalk, sociologist Mitchell Duneier learned this first hand through a 5-year ethnographic study of sidewalk book vendors in Greenwich Village. (You can read the book’s introduction here.) What subcultural groups do you encounter regularly in your city? Could an ethnographic approach lead you to a greater empathy for the people within that subculture? A few other great examples of this approach have explored the lives of NYC doormen and of the content creators of the NYC subway.


Ethnography has also inspired a new take on architectural criticism. A series of films called Living Architectures by documentary filmmakers Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine primarily aims to “democratize the highbrow language of architectural criticism.” The two have interviewed a wide range of different people – including security guards, cleaning staff, facility managers, and repairmen – about their relationships to different buildings by a variety of high profile architects. This method of interviewing building users in the field has provided Bêka and Lemoine with access to “the raw stuff of lives” [#4]. In the words of the filmmakers, the relationships that these people have to their built environment “is as much part of the architecture as the walls, the windows, or the roofs.” Are these stories effectively opening up architectural criticism? Could this approach be valuable in post-occupancy evaluations? Learn more about Bêka and Lemoine in this recent Metropolis magazine profile of the duo.

photos by Flickr user Ed Yourdon, Flickr user David Blackwell, Flickr user eighty734, and Ila Bêka & Louise Lemoine.