Teaching the Tacit: Design studios as Communities of Tacit Knowledge
The tacit knowledge embedded in architectural pedagogy—which students and architects deploy when designing and judging buildings, but have trouble explaining—remains understudied, beset by methodological difficulties. Existing accounts emphasise isolated studio exercises or cognitive processes, often neglecting broader cultural contexts. Meanwhile, the operation of tacit knowledge is notoriously difficult to study through primary sources alone; processes easily recorded in archives are unlikely to be tacit at all. This research, instead, develops a suite of experimental methods to understand the social, historical and disciplinary dimension of how tacit knowledge operates in design studio education. To do so, it zooms into the case study of ETH Zurich, from the late 20th Century to the present. Through this one influential architecture school, it seeks to theorise the central role played by tacit knowledge in teaching architecture more generally, and which perspectives are privileged in the process.
Architectural schools form distinct ‘communities of tacit knowledge’. Such communities are bound by a type of shared tacit knowledge that informs a complex set of expected values, attitudes and actions, changing over time in a way that is difficult to make entirely explicit. The types of drawings and models produced or precedents referenced might seem entirely natural to those within a school—or specific studio—while remaining opaque to outsiders. Indeed, it is often only in those places where different ‘communities of tacit knowledge’ overlap that we can understand what is tacit and how it operates. In this project, I consider three such moments of encounter and confrontation between design studio education at ETH Zurich and other pedagogical contexts. (1) I look to the acculturation and initiation of new students into the discipline in first-year studios, focusing on Hoesli’s ETH Grundkurs (1959-81). (2) I examine the diverging aesthetic and ethical judgments of guest critics at the end-of-semester ETH crits. (3) I explore the interaction of different architectural faculties in international summer schools through ETH participation at ILA&UD (1976-85). Across these three moments, the project approaches the tacit in architectural pedagogy through the lens of the ETH Department of Architecture, relating its teaching and culture to other periods, cultures, disciplines, practices and publics.
Tasks and Methodology
There remain significant issues in locating or describing the tacit through traditional historical research and writing tools. This research begins with a standard literature review and visits to the gta Archives (with its material on Hoesli) and Poletti Library (holding the ILAUD archive) but more experimental are also needed. Indeed, a major component of the research will involve developing, testing and theorising these experimental methodologies for the study of tacit knowledge in other contexts, beyond the ETH. (1) The long duration of first-year studios will be studied through open-ended oral history accounts of Hoesli’s studio—alongside more recent ETH examples—synthesized through ficto-critical writing. (2) Recordings of ETH crits will be transcribed and annotated with auto-ethnographic reflection on my own architectural education at the University of Queensland. (3) The ILA&UD residential workshops from the 1970s and 80s will be re-enacted as part of the TACK Summer School, allowing direct observation of transferring the tacit.
This project involves a pedagogical secondment at the HNI, Rotterdam. This secondment will be used to develop the TACK Summer School, exploring the summer school itself as a distinct twentieth Century educational format. Indeed, in bringing together different schools—or ‘communities of tacit knowledge’—the summer school is a particularly fruitful site to explore tacit knowledge in architecture: a rare moment where the tacit comes to the surface. During this three-month secondment, I will develop the curriculum for the summer school—involving the collection of an archive of architectural summer schools and a re-enactment of the ILA&UD residential workshop—in collaboration with the HNI. At the same time, I will consult the HNI archives for summer school material, particularly on figures connected to ILA&UD including Bakema, van Eyck, Hertzberger, and the Smithsons.
Dissemination and Communication
This research will be disseminated through a range of formats. The TACK Summer School will result in a reader of relevant material and an online exhibition in collaboration with the HNI. Ongoing research findings will be published in a range of informal formats—including essays and on the TACK Instagram—alongside selected peer-reviewed articles. The project will culminate in the production of a thesis in fulfilment of the requirements for a doctorate at ETH Zurich, with the potential for a subsequent book publication.
More questions? Send Hamish an email.