Empathy matters: architecture for the world's majority

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School of Arts, Design and Architecture | Doctoral thesis (article-based)
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Aalto University publication series DOCTORAL DISSERTATIONS, 50/2021
Co-design aims to bring designers and end users together to improve the quality of design projects. Enhancing proximity between these actors is valuable in low- to middle-income countries, where the social distances between them often prevail due to imbalances in, for instance, socioeconomic power, education levels, gender, or geographic origin. This can lead to challenges in collaborative design processes. While participatory work in both design and architecture has a long tradition in the Global North, there is considerably less literature published about such approaches applied in the Global South. Additionally, there is less systematised or visible inhabitant or user engagement in practice and often less capacity for it due to the time constraints of both the participants and the professionals, particularly in the case of formal architect-led projects. As a response, this thesis examines how the different actors can be brought closer to each other and how this proximity can enhance horizontal co-design that aspires to achieve equality. Furthermore, collaboration between actors in the design process can support the local and socio-cultural rootedness of a project. In this thesis, I understand the concept of design broadly, so that it also encompasses architectural practices. As an architect engaged in spatial design, I see the different forms of design activities as closely related, with the potential for mutual learning. Theoretically, the disciplines of design and architecture have distinctive discourses on participatory engagement and empathy. Thus, I aim to bring these perspectives into a dialogue.This is doctoral research by publication – a compilation thesis – consisting of five published papers and an introduction or “kappa”, which consists of six chapters. Three of the papers are peer-reviewed journal articles, one is a peer-reviewed book chapter, and one is a journal article that is not peer-reviewed. The introduction binds the papers together and explains the background, theoretical framing, research design, cases, results, and contributions. Empirically, this practice-led research through design builds upon findings from architectural design projects conducted in Tanzania and India. In this thesis, I study in-depth the design process of two projects: a housing proposal for a community threatened by eviction in Zanzibar, Tanzania, anda maternity ward for women delivering in low- to middle-income settings that was designed for Zanzibar, Tanzania, and Odisha, India. In the design projects, I employed collaborative design methods in working with the future inhabitants and users of the buildings. The results of these collaborative works influenced the design. However, I have achieved the resultsof this thesis through reflection on the co-design throughout the designand research process. Moreover, I have combined literature reviews with insights gained when retrospectively revisiting the two design processes.The results constitute reflection, recollection and understanding of the design processes and the relationship between myself (the architect) and the inhabitants. Hence, the physical outputs of the designs are not part of the research result. My research presents evidence of the significance of empathy in the design process. In the two design projects, I identified the benefits of empathising during the different stages of the design process. Thus, I argue for the adoption of an empathic approach that guides the design process from the beginning, throughout the project, and beyond. Designers can empathise both from a distance and when being closely immersed with the end-users. These understandings result in the presentation of three registers of empathy: empathy from a distance, engaging empathy and empathy in depth. My analyses of these registers indicate that there is no need to exclude one or another register. They can all be combined to complement each other or utilised in different circumstances when one of them might bemore appropriate than another. Through the presentation of the registers,this research draws attention to the potential offered by empathic engagement and supports designers and architects in becoming aware of their empathic abilities. My main conclusion is that utilising the whole spectra of the resulting registers of empathy enhances the proximity between actors and thus horizontality within the design process. Additionally, from a theoretical point of view, these registers of empathy clarify and reconnect the divergent interpretations of the concept of empathy in the fields of design and architecture. Moreover, employing the registers can have a wider value, not only for practice in both fields but also for research within and across these fields. In conclusion, this thesis supports the argument that empathy matters in design — it is a profound ability that we need to cherish. Moreover, potentially,and as a suggestion for further research, designing with empathy produces spaces that encourage empathic encounters.
Defence is held on 17.6.2021 12:00 – 14:00 https://aalto.zoom.us/j/62215487598
Supervising professor
Hyysalo, Sampsa, Prof., Aalto University, Department of Design, Finland
Thesis advisor
Ramia Mazé, Prof., University of the Arts, UK
design, architecture
Other note
  • [Publication 1]: Hollmén, S., Reuter, J., & Sandman, H. (2018). Equality quality: Architectural planning for underprivileged groups. Architectural Research in Finland, 2(1),29–35.
    Full text in Acris/Aaltodoc: http://urn.fi/URN:NBN:fi:aalto-201808214633
  • [Publication 2]: Sandman, H., Levänen, J., & Savela, N. (2018). Using empathic design as a tool for urban sustainability in low-resource settings. Sustainability,10(2493).
    Full text in Acris/Aaltodoc: http://urn.fi/URN:NBN:fi:aalto-201808084478
    DOI: 10.3390/su10072493 View at publisher
  • [Publication 3]: Sandman, H. (2020). Shouldn’t all architecture be designed with empathy? A case of affordable-housing design in Zanzibar. Architectural Research inFinland, 4(1), 36–56. The paper has been accepted for publication
  • [Publication 4]: Sandman, H. & Suomela M. (2020). Probing for resilience: Exploring design with empathy in Zanzibar. In A. N. Martins, M. Fayazi, F. Kikano, & L. Hobeica(Eds.), Enhancing disaster preparedness: From humanitarian architecture to community resilience, (pp. 149–165). Amsterdam: Elsevier. https://www.elsevier.com/books/enhancing-disaster-preparedness/martins/978-0-12-819078-4
  • [Publication 5]: Sandman, H., Meguid, T., & Levänen, J. (2020). Unboxing empathy: Reflecting on architectural design for maternal health. CoDesign.
    DOI: 10.1080/15710882.2020.1833935 View at publisher