ESR 5 – Claudia Mainardi

Investigating the 21st Century Emerging Approaches to Practice: Codification of Architectural Epistemes, from Discourses to Practices 

Research Objectives

How is the actual socio-political-economic conjuncture tacitly influencing the architectural practice? 

Which are the different approaches to practice in current times? Which are their design tools?

Extensive recent literature[1] outlines a relationship between architectural production and the cultural context in which it is produced.

The research will probe whether it is possible to frame tacit patterns of co-evolution between the practice and the socio-political-economic conjuncture at the turn of the 21st century, as an attempt to define the architectural codes[2] in the making. 

The 2008 financial crisis is assumed by the research project as a line of demarcation that questions the consolidated structures of the profession, which triggered the beginning of the decline of the star-architect system as a model and the end of the so-called “architecture of exuberance.[3]

The research is interested in investigating a specific community of practices born in the 21st century, whose production –despite different approaches– seems a reaction to a context in which the market is adverse, global public commissions are decreasing, construction is no longer at the centre of production, and research is used as a fundamental instrument to find models suitable for the current conjuncture.

Even if the exact chronological boundaries have still to be defined, the chosen time-frame –.ca 2000–2020 aims to the enrichment of a reflection on the contemporary: providing an uncharted knowledge, a theoretical framework and new categories of interpretation for architectural critics, analysing contemporary design tools for practitioners, and opening up a reflection on terminology that highlights the emergence of a set of concepts, notions, and words as a brand new vocabulary for pedagogy.

Project Description

The research aims to investigate –within the European context– the codification of diverse forms of tacit knowledge in the 21st-century architectural production, tracking its transfer and translation from institutional narratives to principles and conventions that are crystallized in the everyday practice of a series of design offices.

The work is imagined to be developed through three phases complementary in terms of structure, object, and intentions. 

The first one –conceived as horizontal macro-analysis– is proposed as an attempt to reconstruct a historical framework in which to outline a system of events not yet historicized of the recent past. Within this phase, selected institutional occasions such as Biennales and Triennales held since 2000 are used as the research ground, conceived as an observatory of current practice. In fact, due to their recurrence, these events represent an objective source of information and an instrument of confrontation in its interrelation with the context through time, providing a homogeneous body of knowledge.

The second phase identifies the protagonists of the contemporary debate in which the research is interested, using their recurrence and contribution to the international exhibitions as a tacit tracker of the relation between their theoretical and practical production. The second phase culminates with the reconstruction of families/groups of practices in relation to their positioning and design approach towards the socio-political-economic conjuncture. 

The third phase –conceived around “biographies of practices”– analyses in-depth four case studies, each belonging to a different group/agency extracted from the second  phase and ideally charac­terized by different codes and conventions.

Tasks and Methodology

The research uses diverse methodologies –heterogeneous and complementary– that correspond to the phases that compose the research.

Although located at the intersection of already consolidated lines of research, the first part uses an empirical approach collecting various kind of sources (i.e., catalogs, curatorial statements, press-kits, media-coverage packages, and oral histories based on interviews with institutional directors) leading to the construction of an archive that compensate the lack of a consolidated body of literature. Given the amount of data to be processed, it is proposed the use of unconventional forms of restitution –multi-layered thematic maps / interpretative cartography, diagrams, and timelines,– which are themselves contributions and research tools. The diagrammatic exercise is seen as a search for a position and orientation through an expanded reading of relationality, experimenting methods, and digital humanities tools[4]

Due to the tacit nature of the objects of investigation, the case studies’ analysis was first imagined following an ethnographic approach. By cause of COVID-19 restrictions, the methodology has undergone some changes extending its action between the physical and digital realm: construction sites visits, face-to-face meetings, day-to-day observation of the office routine and design processes, and investigation of the physical archive, but also on-line meetings (both internal and with clients), interviews, production of surveys, on-line server survey, access to the study agenda, etc. All elements useful to outline a personal yet multifaceted picture of the tacit design process of the offices object of investigation beyond the constructed image through which they publicly self-represent themselves.


The research project involves two different secondments. 

The practice-based one at the Milan-based architectural office onsitestudio acts as a pilot case for the ethnographic research, whose analytical categories are assessed and eventually reiterated with other practices to extract a consistent body of sources. The research, finalized at investigating the studio’s method and approach, aims to observe the actual design process, and the collateral elements that influence it. 

The curatorial secondment at the Het Nieuwe Instituut instead focuses on an upcoming project lead by the institution on the CIAM, rethinking archives and curatorial practices through digital technologies and social media. The research here aims to investigate the networking and forms of communication used by CIAM and compare them with the 21st-century practices that the research intends to investigate.

Dissemination and Communication

The Ph.D. project will be communicated via various formats. 

Ongoing research findings will be published on the TACK collective readers and the TACK Instagram account, alongside selected essays, peer-reviewed articles, and international conferences.

As a consequence of the investigations conducted on selected architectural offices, the research is proposed to organize the analysis in a series of publications, one per firm object of study. 

The dissertation will culminate with a thesis following a doctorate’s requirements at Politecnico di Milano, with the possibility of a consequent book publication.

To recollect the heterogeneous products, findings, and methodologies, the thesis sees in the exhibition the possibility to unpack the project globally. In fact, the exposition could be considered a production site –capable of bridging theory and practice, providing an alternative to the built project as a carrier of the practice of architecture– and a powerful communication tool of tacit findings.[5]


Claudia Mainardi, “Architectural Diagram”, in Lidia Gasperoni (eds.), DOM Publishers, Berlin, forthcoming publication, 262-268

Claudia Mainardi, “Federica Doglio in a dialogue with Mirko Zardini: A book interview on crises during a crisis.”, in FAM Magazine, 55, 2021, 182-183

Claudia Mainardi, “MobilityLandscape: From Experiment to Reality and Return”, in Eyes of the City: UABB 2019\ Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Berlin, 2021, 193-206

Claudia Mainardi, “Tra Continuità, Ambiente, Sobrietà e Durata. Onsitestudio, Mapei Football Centre, Sassuolo, 2019”, in ARK, 2021, 25-34

Claudia Mainardi, “Investigating the 21st Century Emerging Agencies: Codification of Architectural Epistemes, from Discourses to Practices”, in Fabrizia Berlingieri & Francesca Zanotto (eds.), COMPARISON: Conference for Artistic and Architectural Research Book of Proceedings, LetteraVentidue, Siracusa, 2020, 111-123

More questions ? Send Claudia an email.

[1] to mention a few: Petra Čeferin (2008), Albena Yaneva (2012), Francesco Garutti (2020), Bryony Roberts (2020).

[2] Isabelle Cupers and Doucet Kenny, “Agency in Architecture: Rethinking Criticality in Theory and Practice,” Footprint, no. 4 (2009): 1–6.

[3] Ellen Dunham-Jones, “The Irrational Exuberance of Rem Koolhaas,” Places Journal, no. 2013 (April 2, 2013),

[4] Anne Marshall, “Timeline Drawing Method”in Handbook of Research Methods in Health Social Sciences, Preanee Liamputtong, ed.  (Singapore: Springer, 2019).

[5] Christophe Van Gerrewey, Tom Vandeputte, and Véronique Patteeuw, “The Exhibition as Productive Space,” OASE, no. 88 (2012).