Zero Spaces: Professor Ranulph Glanville

Professor Ranulph Glanville (1946–2014) was a superstar cybernetician, design thinker, architect, artist and musician with three PhDs, the first of which was supervised by Gordon Pask, one of the godfathers of cybernetics. Innovation Design Engineering commissioned the film Zero Spaces to commemorate his contribution to the programme and its thinking. 

From 2008–2014, Professor Glanville was Research Professor for Innovation Design Engineering (IDE) where he supported the growth of the research group by introducing an international network of design thinkers and researchers. Based on his global experience of stimulating and developing design research cultures, Glanville helped to build a transitional PhD culture, which welcomes candidates from diverse backgrounds eager to engage with design research while building on their own experience and insights.

Glanville was awarded his first PhD in Cybernetics from Brunel University in 1975 and his second in Human Learning in 1987. In 2006 Brunel awarded him the highest degree of DSc in Cybernetics and Design. He began his teaching career at the Architectural Association (1971–8), followed by Portsmouth Polytechnic (1978–96). At the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University in Australia and Saint-Lucas School of Architecture in Belgium, he helped to develop doctoral programmes based in architecture and design practice. He was appointed Senior Professor of Research Design at LUCA in Belgium.

For 20 years, Glanville wrote a regular column alongside other articles for the journal Cybernetics and Human Knowing, and he was the first European to be elected to the prestigious position of President of the American Society for Cybernetics in 2008. Second order cybernetics was central to Glanville’s landscape of thinking, and was something he infused into IDE. Rather than championing the disconnected objective observer, cybernetics acknowledges the inherently active role of the observer. This strengthened and enriched the practice-based design research approach within IDE, by seeing the observer as an essential inclusion in the reflective feedback loop.

In 1984 RCA Rector Jocelyn Stephens closed Bruce Archer’s Department of Design Desearch, temporarily halting the RCA’s pioneering work in design research that had developed since the 1960s. The appointment of Glanville signalled a reconnection to that ambition, to once again push the boundaries of research and design thinking. His arrival allowed IDE to develop some of the unexplored terrain and new relevancies that have emerged through new societal and technological developments.

The impact of his time at the RCA can be described tenderly as a process of ‘infusing Ranulphness’. The lack of rules or rigid structure within IDE research gave Glanville license to practice his approach to learning, developed throughout his cross-disciplinary career.

About six months before he passed away, Glanville revealed to the IDE research group that he had a terminal condition, which prompted them to embark on a project with film director Delmar Mavignier to capture ‘Ranulphness’ through a series of interviews.

The resultant film, Zero Spaces, takes its cue from the Mayan concept of a space between the interior and outside world. The film itself is a sophisticated combination of design thinking exemplar, research in action, memorial and design provocation. Interviews with the PhD candidates Glanville supervised and footage of him leading seminars, offer an insight into his thought processes and enlightened approach to teaching.

Glanville considered cybernetics and design as opposite sides of the same coin. Discussing their relationship in the film he states: ‘Design is about bringing that which we don’t have into being, and it always involves this moving from not knowing to knowing. But it’s also a process of creating something, which we can then explain as if it were part of a logical process. So we can give it a causality, but it doesn’t have that causality as we make it, the causality is a post rationalisation.’