Assignment: Research Paper

“Buildings are everywhere, large and small, ugly and beautiful, ambitious and dumb. We walk among them and live inside them but are largely passive dwellers in cities of towers, houses, open spaces, and shops we had no hand in creating. But we are their best audience.”
— Alexandra Lange

Architecture demands a high level of proficiency not only in design, but also in writing. After all, design and writing are simply different modes of critical thinking, and at the highest level, both design and writing are expected to contribute new knowledge to the field of architecture. Like an architectural thesis project in design studio, the research paper is a cornerstone of the writing curriculum. “The research paper (or term paper) can be one of the most valuable assignments we give students,” says educator John C. Bean. “Research assignments flow from our desire that students become self-directed inquirers who can bring their own critical thinking to bear on interesting problems.” (John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas, p. 224)

In this assignment, you are to formulate and defend an argument related to the role of material technology in architecture. You should address the changing nature of your selected technology—both in terms of how it has evolved over time, as well as how its application has transformed our experience of the built environment. You should also address the influences exerted by this technology on society and the natural environment.

In terms of content, you may choose from any of the topics covered in class lectures, readings, or student journals. You are also welcome to devise new topics that relate to class themes. You might decide to focus on a particular building that fascinates you, analyzing its material construction in the context of broader technological and social change. Alternatively, you could decide to analyze the trajectory of a particular material technology, discussing multiple buildings in which this technology has been used over time. The content and approach are up to you; however, the paper must be based on the construction of an argument supported by adequate proof. You must also weigh the pros and cons of your chosen technology, and speculate about its future course.

The research paper will have three stages of development, based on an approach outlined in John C. Bean’s Engaging Ideas. For each stage, please upload a PDF file to the Moodle course website for review.

  1. Prospectus (due November 20, 2012)
    Submit a 300 to 400 word prospectus that describes the interpretive problem or question that you plan to address. Explain why you are personally interested in and invested in this question. Show how the problem or question is rooted in your chosen material technology or architectural application. Show why the question is both problematic and significant.
  2. Exploratory Essay (due December 4, 2012; also bring a printed copy to class)
    Write an exploratory essay in which you narrate in first-person chronological order the evolution of your thinking as you reassess your chosen sources—including case studies and disciplinary texts—and investigate what other scholars and practitioners have said about your interpretive problem. In your paper, summarize the arguments of at least three individuals and explore your responses. At the end of your paper, you may or may not have found the thesis for your final argument.
  3. Final Paper (due December 18, 2012)
    Write a 3,000 to 4,000 word argumentative paper addressing a significant question related to any of the material technologies, buildings, texts, or related themes we have discussed this term. Include images, diagrams, and other visual materials that are important to illustrating your case. The introduction to your paper should pose the question or problem that your paper will address and engage your reader’s interest in it. Within your paper, you must join in conversation with other scholars and/or practitioners who have addressed your interpretive problem. Your proposed answer to the question (summarized in a single sentence) will serve as the thesis statement for your paper. Imagine this paper will be delivered at an undergraduate research conference. Assume that your audience has not read this assignment and will attend your conference session because your title hooked their interest.

Leaning Objectives
This assignment aims to achieve the following learning objective, which builds on the basic and mediating learning objectives of previous assignments:

Ultimate Learning Objective

  • To develop and explain in writing and visual documentation a well-reasoned personal position on the role of transformative technology in the built environment, including a framework for critical evaluation of the technology in the future, and to defend it while acknowledging its weaknesses and limitations.

This assignment will be evaluated according to the following criteria:

  • Clarity and purpose
  • Organization, coherence, and development
  • Flexibility and disciplinary appropriateness
  • Originality and engagement
  • Appropriate support
  • Proper editing and presentation
  • Meets basic requirements (word count, deadlines)

For further explanation of these criteria, refer to the University of Minnesota Student Writing Guide (free download), pp.7-9:

Example Articles
Two model articles that are analytical inquiries of material technologies in architecture may be accessed on the course website:


  • Alexandra Lange, Writing about Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2012)
  • University of Minnesota Student Writing Guide
  • University of Minnesota Center for Writing: no matter your skill level or academic background in writing, you are encouraged to utilize this resource as a way to enhance your work as well as prepare for a collaborative writing career.

Writing Guidelines
(Excerpted from John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas)

Most academic introductions follow some variation of a problem-thesis-blueprint structure, illustrated in these three basic moves:

  1. Begin by explaining the problem your paper will address.
    The writer’s goal is to hook the reader’s interest in the problem being examined, showing why the problem is problematic and what is at stake in solving it. (What are the gaps, contradictions, or disagreements that keep the problem open? What benefits will come from solving the problem? How will solving this one small problem help us understand or approach a related but larger problem?) In many cases, this opening section sets up either counter views that the writer intends to oppose or a gap in knowledge or understanding that the writer intends to fill.
  2. Present your paper’s purpose or thesis.
    After explaining the problem, writers sometimes state their thesis directly: “Whereas Jones says X, I am going to argue Y.” At other times, writers may use a “purpose statement,” delating their thesis until later. “The purpose of this paper is to show the inconsistencies of Jones’s approach and to offer a possible way to resolve them.”
  3. Provide an overview or blueprint of your paper.
    The final move in a typical introduction gives the reader an overview of the whole paper, either by providing a brief summary of its argument or by forecasting its structure through a blueprint statement (“First, I will show… ; the second part of the paper explores…; finally, I show…”).

A good title replicates in miniature the problem-thesis function of the introduction. Below are three of the most common conventions for academic titles. Using these guidelines, write preliminary titles for your Prospectus and Exploratory Essay, listed above.

  1. State your question.
    Some academic titles simply state the question that the body of the paper will address, thus implying that the paper will present a new answer (“Does Inhibition Decrease Overstimulation in Neural Networks?”).
  2. Summarize your thesis or purpose.
    Some academic titles summarize the paper’s thesis or purpose; thus implying the preceding question (“The Relationship Between Client and Therapist Expectation of Improvement and Psychotherapy Outcome”).
  3. Create a two-part title with a colon.
    Some (perhaps most) academic titles use a two-part structure separated by a colon. The most common approach is to present key words from the question or problem to the left of the colon and key words from the thesis to the right (“Monet and Growth: An Alternative Approach”). Another common pattern is to start with an interest-arousing “mystery phrase” that may not become clear until the reader reads the whole paper. Following the colon, the writer usually summarizes the article’s problem, thesis, or purpose (“The Great White Out: A Triangulative Examination of the Exclusion of Blacks from Big Business”).

Dowload the print version of this assignment here.


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