J. Dahmen
Assistant Professor in the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture
University of British Columbia

Amber Frid-Jimenez
Associate Professor, Emily Carr University of Art and Design

Janice Sarra
Professor, Allard School of Law, University of British Columbia


This paper summarizes the dialogic and creative processes of an architectural installation at a leading university-based centre for interdisciplinary studies. An architect and an artist collaborated with scholars from the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and the arts to conceptualize a physical installation reflecting the challenge of communicating across diverse disciplines. The aim of the project was to design and create an installation that would both highlight and reflect the extraordinary challenges for meaningful interdisciplinary research. The design process, which followed an initial period of collaborative ideation with all participants, employed collective discourse, data visualization and recycled materials to create a spatial representation of interdisciplinary exchange. Recent research on acoustical analysis of recorded conversations was used as generative material that was rendered physically using digital fabrication techniques. The resulting installation is a physical artefact of collaboration that also serves a practical purpose, functioning as sculpture and furniture at the centre and as a focal point for fostering interdisciplinary conversations.  

The paper examines how collaborators from multiple disciplines can use architectural design methodology as a productive transdisciplinary framework to investigate and understand a common problem. Some of the most significant intellectual discoveries that benefit society come from collaboration across multiple disciplines. Yet there are considerable barriers to communication between fields of research, given different research methodologies and capacities and widely differing vocabulary within each core field of research. Design methodology can help overcome these barriers, enhancing innovative knowledge generation and problem solving. The case study here illustrates the potential of such collaborations by providing a detailed description of the conceptual design process, the finished installation and the idea exchange that it generated. The design process included initial ideation, iteration, design development, fabrication and then use of the installation to foster discussion. Each of these stages required different levels of participation from collaborators, raising productive questions about how the value of designing a physical artefact might differ from other more typical research outcomes, such as written work, in a transdisciplinary setting. Tensions between legibility of data and aesthetic performance in the finished installation suggest both potential and limitations of design as a framework for disseminating specific knowledge. The paper explores whether design might play a productive role in the formation of transdisciplinary frameworks, requiring individual researchers to relinquish discipline-specific roles to enter a territory in which no one discipline holds sway.


Background and Context

The Peter Wall Institute (UBC) is a leading centre for interdisciplinary studies dedicated to fostering excellence in research beyond disciplinary boundaries in a highly collaborative environment. While projects by the Peter Wall Institutes affiliates are typically transdisciplinary in nature, the majority of these efforts produce text-based outcomes typical of most academic production. However, as part of its commitment to diversity of perspectives, the Institute also respects the integration of multimodal and expressive arts through research, recognizing that the integration of the expressive arts such as drama, dance, poetry, and visual arts can make valuable contributions to transdisciplinary research in knowledge creation and dissemination. Previous projects at the Institute have included artistic performances, original musical composition and dance choreography exploring fundamental notions of fairness, requiring artists and scholars to move out of their comfort zones to collectively examine concepts that transcend science and the humanities, thus generating new insights (Sarra, 2013). Such innovativemodes of investigation represent a commitment to alternate means of exploring ideas that LeBaron maintains can offer valuable insights not always achieved through traditional scholarship (LeBaron 2013).

This paper describes the conception, design and fabrication of an installation undertaken by fourteen University of British Columbia faculty members participating in the Early Career Scholar (ECS) Program at the Peter Wall Institute  and an artist. The ECS included members from the hard sciences (marine biology, zoology, neuroscience, genetics, ophthalmology), social sciences (anthropology, sociology, psychology), and the humanities (architecture, linguistics, philosophy, English), in roughly equal proportion. The installation coincided with an international conference dedicated to knowledge sharing among centres of interdisciplinary study that was held at PWIAS in September 2013. It was aimed at embodying the ideals of the ECS programme, communicating the value of interdisciplinary exchange through the initial conception, design, and fabrication of the installation.


Devising the Project

The ECS members attended a two day research retreat in September, at which they became familiar with one another’s research through a variety of presentations and discussions. At this initial retreat, ECS members decided to develop an architectural installation or performance to be presented at a global conference on interdisciplinarity to be held at the Peter Wall Instituteone year later. The entire ECS cohort met again in January for two hours to brainstorm about preliminary ideas for the form the project would take. Three ECS members, consisting of an architect and two anthropologists, organized this discussion as a sort of parlour game. Members were asked to submit visual images that pertained to their notion of interdisciplinarity.  The group met informally to discuss the images. Each participant presented an image submitted by another, interpreting the image according to his or her own frame of reference. This initial response was followed by comments about the particular image from its owner. This method was intended to facilitate free ranging interpretation of the images to foster open discussion about the possible themes for an installation. While the interpretive process yielded some insights into the nature of disciplinary bias, the overall discussion failed to produce the desired brainstorming outcome. Rather than opening up a space of dialogue, the game seemed to close it down, illustrating the wide gap between frames of reference across disciplines. In practice, the initial presenters interpreted the unknown image within their own research framework, after which the image provider provided the “correct” answer. Most of the members were unfamiliar with an open-ended creative process, and the visual medium used to frame the conversation was an unfamiliar context, creating ageneral uneasiness within the group.

The difficulty in establishing a productive dialogue at this early meeting might be illuminated by CK Choi and Anita Pak’s characterization of the differences between multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary approaches in collaborative health research, services, education, and policy. The authors characterize multidisciplinary efforts as those that typically involve individuals from different disciplines working on a common problem independently, while interdisciplinary approaches are those that consist ofindividuals from different disciplines working on common problems collaboratively, allowing some blurring of disciplinary boundaries and harmonizing links while still maintaining a discipline-specific base. In contrast to these two modes, Choi and Pak define transdisciplinary efforts as those that invent shared conceptual frameworks that transcend disciplinary boundaries, requiring “role release and role expansion” of participants (Choi & Pak, 2006). Asking the members of the ECS to operate in a context unfamiliar to almost all required participants to forge a new form of understanding. Participation in this process, while uncomfortable, was ultimately valuable in thinking through the installation. It also affected the social dynamics of the group in that it ultimately opened up new channels of discourse.

One image notably departed from the rest. While most of the photographs dealt with some narrow aspect of research of members, the philosopher presented a photograph of a lactose intolerant cat that wandered through many different buildings at her previous academic institution, vomiting without regard to particular disciplinary boundaries, linking different spaces through smell. Walter Benjamin has commented on the important role that humour plays in creative production in Author as Producer (Benjamin 1966): “...there is no better starting point for thought than laughter; speaking more precisely,  spasms of the diaphragm generally offer better chances for thought than spasms of the soul…”. The humour that this image introduced into the evening’s proceedings opened up a space of dialogue where others had closed it down. The conversation generated by this image led the group to the conclusion that the challenge faced by the ECS group, and inter- and transdisciplinary efforts generally, is to find a common language capable of crossing disciplinary boundaries. It was observed that the main activity of the ECS group was to talk. This observation led the group as a whole to determine that the installation might consist of something that engaged with the nature of communication, and provide a place that might foster more interdisciplinary exchanges. A broad agreement emerged that the installation would embody the character of the ECS program if it provided physical objects creating non-monumental imaginative space that might encourage interdisciplinary communication, or simply spatial interactions of people like an ant bivouac depicted in one of the images.  The installation would embody the themes of the ECS programme while offering the conference attendees a place to interact with each other and enjoy the views from the terrace during social events taking place over the three days of the conference.


Design Process

With the project concept determined, the installation design entered a more focused phase. Based on the outcomes of the January meeting, the designers decided to pursue a deeper understanding of communication in the context of the research of two members of the ECS group: a neuroscientist and a linguist. The collaborative partner of the architect in the group, an artist with a specialization in data visualization, was included in the process at this point. The architect and artist met with the linguist and neuroscientist in their respective laboratories to discuss how their research engaged with communication. The neuroscientist demonstrated Electro Encephalogram (EEG) equipment capable of measuring brainwave response to aural stimulation. This equipment measures the electrochemical side of communication, translating electrical impulses generated by the brain in response to aural stimulation into waveforms. In contrast, conversations about communication with the linguist revolved around the importance of a class of words or phrases known as to linguists as “discourse markers.”  These expressions, which consist of words such as “oh”, “well”, “I mean”, and “um”, were previously assumed to be devoid of meaning, but are now often acknowledged as providing context for statements (Schiffrin 1988). The linguist pointed out that these words play an especially important role where communication must bridge across disciplinary boundaries, when establishing context for statements is essential.  As a result of the exchanges with the neuroscientist and the linguist, the architect and artist decided to pursue the visualization of the EEG in response to discourse markers so important to transdisciplinary communication, and use these tools as the base material for the installation. This conceptual design strategy was presented at a meeting of the entire ECS group, who expressed unanimous consent in favour of the idea.

With conceptual design complete, the group acknowledged that the design of the installation would proceed as a collaboration between the architect, the artist, the neuroscientist, and the linguist. The architect and artist paid several more visits to the laboratory of the neuroscientist and pursued conversations with the linguist regarding discourse markers and the choice of suitable content to be visualized.  Although the neuroscientist was enthusiastic about the collaboration and the possibility of seeing her research used in a completely new context for a different purpose, technical difficulties ensued. Measuring electrical responses to sound in the brain using an EEG yields inconsistent data that must be collected and smoothed over hundreds or thousands of samples to produce recognizable forms, which are often illegible in terms of specific response due to the complexity of the human brain. In the course of conversation, the neuroscientist noted the aesthetic similarity between EEG data, which measures electrical responses in the brain, to spectrograms, which measure the pressure of sound itself. Because of the difficulty achieving legibility with the EEG, it was determined to simply visualize the spectrogram produced by recording discourse markers. This approach amounted to visualizing the sound waves produced by discourse markers themselves, rather than the uncertain response of the brain in response to the sound.

The next challenge related to the choice of subject matter for the spectrogram: which discourse markers, and who would say them? The architect and artist recorded a list of discourse markers provided by the linguist to evaluate the spectrogram for formal potential in the installation. The hope was that certain discourse markers would have recognizable signatures. At this stage, the investigation raised questions around the legibility of data. The mapping of “ah” was not necessarily recognizable from “um” or “well”. These initial experiments led the architect and artist to seek greater differentiation of the spectrogram. A conversation between Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky, in which the former spoke French and the latter responded in English was examined from this perspective and discarded when it did not yield the differentiation hoped for. Rather, the material was taken from a artist Marcel Broodthaers piece “Interview with a Cat” (1972), which consists of a five minute recording of the artist interviewing his cat about visual and market trends in contemporary art.  The piece was chosen in part as a reductio ad absurdim of the difficulties of transdisciplinary communication, the affinity with the vomiting cat photo brainstorming session, and the legibility of the discourse markers in the recording.

The next challenge was to translate the spectral analysis of discourse markers from Broodthaer’s interview into something that could function as seating. Spectrograms are visualizations of data measuring sound pressure across acoustic spectra. A series of spectrograms were selected on the basis of aesthetic potential and subjected to translation into spatial forms. Using these visualizations as source material for seating forms led to a series of design operations and transformations such as scaling, cropping, extruding, revolving, and stretching.  This translation of data into seating was achieved by using a digital surface modeling tool to extrude a profile derived from a Mies van der Rohe chaise lounge along the sound wave. The resulting form was then sliced into regular segments 150mm thick, which were cut from recycled expanded polystyrene foam using a computer numerically controlled hot wire cutter. These slices were affixed to produce the final form, which was coated with a two part polyurea elastomeric coating and painted with a catalytic lacquer. The form that resulted from these operations diverges from the laminar smoothness typical of computational aesthetics and data visualization. Unlike the stylized “cool” of many computational forms, the quirky white iconographic form self consciously evokes the data from which it is derived, its alien presence serving as a conversation piece in keeping with the initial aims of the project.



The Peter Wall Institute was presented at the global conference and was the inspiration for a panel discussion on the meaningful outcomes that can be generated by moving past one’s unique field of research to embrace multiple methodologies and modalities of information generation and exchange.  The piece is installed on a rooftop terrace of PWIAS overlooking Howe Sound and the North Shore mountains beyond. I Hear You Say offers visitors a place to sit and converse in a range of attitudes from upright to partially inclined. Rather than being arranged in a circle, the three pieces of the installation are arrayed in a gentle arc facing the ocean and mountains such that those seated on the pieces can converse with one another while contemplating the vista, allowing communication of both internal reflections and expansive visions. The piece is also visible from the windows of shared interior spaces of the Peter Wall Institute, offering inspiration to the continued research collaborations. The installation draws considerable attention from visiting scholars, students and general members of the public because of its unique form and location. It is used by the Institute to help introduce the notion of interdisciplinarity, both the visual representation and the recounting of the collaborative history underlying its creation.  Its expected physical life is 2 to 4 years, also reflecting the impermanence of particular approaches and ideas.


Critical Reflections

There are a number of insights from the project.  First is that even where there is tremendous willingness to collaborate, it takes time and energy to work with scholars to conceptualize an architectural installation, given that their primary means of communication is the written and verbal word, not visual representations. It requires a sometimes difficult process of moving beyond specific disciplinary approaches and relinquishing individual expertise to create an image reflective of the goal sought, in this case, a representation of interdisciplinarity.  Equally, however, the process itself allowed scholars new insights into each other’s research and opened new channels of communication in respect of why they were interested in interdisciplinarity and how such an approach to research could be visually represented. It has fostered some continued research collaborations across diverse fields.

Second, the project offered new insights into legibility of data; the piece exists at a “double remove” from the actual soundsproduced by the utterance of discourse markers, and the project participants had to grapple with the tension between authenticity and aesthetics in creating a visual representation of the substance of the discourse.  A spectrogram is a visualization of a physical pressure wave of sound; the installation is a three-dimensional visualization of a two-dimensional visualization of physical phenomena. In that sense, it is impossible to observe the piece and understand the precise content of the words it visualizes; yet while the precise content is lost, the representation is evident through the contours and flow of the piece.

Third, while the installation was created for a particular purpose, it has had continuing resonance through media attention and the interest of local and international visiting researchers, illustrating that design has continuing application to fostering innovative research beyond the site specific purpose for which it may have been created.



Benjamin, W., 1966. The Author as Producer, trans. by Anna Bostock in Understanding Brecht, NY: Verso, pp. 85 - 103.

Broodthaers, M. (1970). Interview with a Cat. Audio file: 5’54” recorded at the Musée d'Art Moderne, Département des Aigles; 12, Burgplatz, Düsseldorf. 

Choi, B. and Pak, A., 2006. Multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity in health research, services, education and policy: 1. Definitions, objectives, and evidence of effectiveness. Clinical & Investigative Medicine, 29 (6): 351–364.

LeBaron, M., 2013. Whither the Body? Form, Flexibility and Fairness in Conflict Resolution. In Sarra, J., ed. An Exploration of Fairness: Interdisciplinary Inquiries in Law, Science and the Humanities. Toronto: Carswell.

Sarra, J., 2013. An Exploration of Fairness: Interdisciplinary Inquiries in Law, Science and the Humanities. Toronto: Carswell.

Schiffrin, D., 1988. Discourse Markers: Part of Studies in Interactional Sociolinguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.