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Conversation – Lara Schrijver, Peg Rawes and Margitta Buchert
Lara Schrijver Peg Rawes Margitta Buchert
So we decided to start this conversation talking about how we understand tacit knowledge for each of the different aspects in our cluster which, in my case, is about contexts and a situational understanding. So to discuss how I understand that, I kind of want to go to two aspects of tacit knowing. One of them is the fact that it’s non-codifiable. It can’t be caught in a textbook; it can’t be written out as a rule. But I think that the fact that we gather information, know it and understand it intuitively, even if we cannot write out exactly by which steps we get there – in the way that one would write out, say the rules of physics – is very much part of that architectural understanding of a space, of a square, of aesthetics. And to me it’s very interesting that to get there, in architecture, you have to do something to get that knowing. So you can talk about a floor plan, but you actually have to draw it out to understand it better, and that’s your own process. So we study things by precedent: that’s perhaps our codification. But we have to actually do it, to create.
The other part of tacit knowing that I think is important – in terms of the context and situational – is this idea Polanyi talks about as a kind of diagnostic knowing: the way that we recognize faces, e.g., the way physicians diagnose something is because of a constellation of features. So it’s not one thing; it’s a whole series of things. And that constellation of knowing is really important in understanding how we deal with situations and contexts: these things are possibly even harder to codify because it’s a whole mix of factors in what you’re looking at. This goes into the question of reading contexts; of understanding that each intervention, a design intervention, or even an analytic understanding, is by definition contingent. It depends upon which things have been read by the designer, it depends on which moment it’s been read, and then leads to a kind of synthesis. Now, in some ways, this is interesting, because it distinguishes a human understanding of the situational and contextual. This kind of tacit knowing might be able to help make a distinction between these ideas and algorithmic knowledge – because algorithmic knowledge goes by rules, which means that it must be in some ways codified. But there’s a distinction in how human knowledge has associated leaps. It has a visual nature that allows for a different approach to this tacit knowing. This is one of the aspects that to me is very interesting because we talk a lot about various elements: we study urban sites, we study architecture, we have pieces that come together – precedents and definitions and handbooks – but that one jump from the constellational understanding to a kind of synthesis in design is crucial. I hope in some way that trying to unravel some of these pieces can help us understand a little bit better how these particular qualities of design are different from computer-based design knowledge.
The last piece about this kind of situational understanding has to do very particularly with architecture. How much of the knowing that goes into it sits in the drawings and the models and the urban context; in the things we read that we don’t write out in words so much but we read and take them into the process?
The UCL contribution is concerned with values. So, in the same way that Lara, you identify tacit knowledge as: outside the concept of rules or scientific conceptualization of the world or codified into understanding; associated with scientific convention, axiom, and transmission of information; I come to the question of values and situated contexts as a concern with the lived experience of the practitioner, the community and the social formation of that individual and community. It pays attention to what is often currently called ‘lived experience’: in the past, perhaps called phenomenological knowledge, or also called temporal or spatio-temporal knowledge. Knowledges that, in previous architectural historical, theoretical and practice discussions, have been the shared vocabulary. But what I’m coming to understand, and what Jhono Bennett is examining, is an idea of values as a contemporary tacit knowledge vocabulary, rather than these earlier values which some of us have been trained in and know/work with. This corresponds with your comments that situatedness is partly social, e.g., through historical formation, and also a reflection of the social values that form and construct that individual, their practice, their environments of practice, and modes of practice. So, this is a multiplicity of values which, by their nature, are not just singular. They don’t produce a simple universal idea of the architect. They inevitably construct the notion of the individual architect across a range of spheres.
Within the framework for the UCL Team, these are contemporary discussions of ‘difference’; of affirming social cultural differences that may historically not have been quite so well documented, received or included in modernist architectural design cultures, languages and communities. By this, I refer to communities who have not been present very strongly in those previous narratives, including women, people of colour, or individuals who are not recognised within the standardized formation of the architect. Other current values are ecological issues and environmental responsibility, because we are indisputably living in human-made climate change. These environmental values through which the architectural community have and are exploring at a small and large scale of construction and fabrication may seek to address how to mitigate against climate change. They may also focus on creating inventive new vocabulary through which architects contribute to producing built environments which are responsive and responsible. So the environmental value system is one of those large-scale complex planetary systems of value. It is also associated with the dominant global neoliberal forms of social organization. This also raises the question of inequality whereby, because of inequalities, some communities are still not able to live their lives or have self-determination. This is where the values contribution in the project is linked to your notion of context. It brings in these external values which may produce tension and traction, or sites of investigation, critique or debate for the architectural community. These are very much agents to change. They are values that may be tacit in the discipline and which need to be more explicitly articulated than they have been by certain communities. Or they are the values that have changed the vocabulary, and the way in which the architect locates themselves in their practice. This aspect of values, as agents which may be both inside and outside the discipline, or which come from other domains (for example, sociology, ecology or economic spheres), is important for how the architect then constructs themselves within these domains. This is where the values discussion brings in questions which might commonly be called ethical: how does the architect construct their authorship and their contributions to their field ethically? How does a designer recognize the historical and societal place in which we are constructed?
To outline the perspective of the Leibniz Univeristät Hannover contribution, I want to continue by discussing personal knowledge, where the term ‘tacit knowledge’ describes the not completely, not precisely, explicable knowledge of a person. This so-called tacit knowing is embedded in processes of perception, judgment, expectation, decision-making, and action. In other words, the tacit is linked to the practical, and it is present in the ways we think, recognize, evaluate, perceive, and act. I also think we should not only look at others, but include ourselves.
As a background, we can sketch tacit knowledge in a three-fold way: in a first-person perspective, the actor’s knowledge, which is a kind of internal perspective; in a third-person perspective, that of the observer. What makes up the observer´s knowledge is a somewhat open question. What is our knowledge which switches into this context, when we are researchers? Is it an outside perspective: the third-person perspective? [To these two perspectives] I want to add the common ground perspective, which describes dispositions, habitus, and the collective.
I would also like to highlight especially future-oriented projective dimensions by uncovering them with the lenses of reflexivity and sur-réflexion, which here are both inspiring and critical questioning and artistic thinking, as integral parts of this alignment. They both act as generators in short-term and long-term actions that build up their base for long term practice, as well as for epistemological and empirical pursuits. They are in many ways an indication of the reciprocal nature of the perception of, and references to, the world and the self. It’s a kind of parallel to the lived experience. By explicitly striving to attentively understand approaches, decision-making, and embeddedness, I think we can come nearer to finding out what we might mean when we are talking of tacit knowing.
At the same time, reflexivity and sur-refléxion provoke diverse points of view, and they conduct the uncovering of the interplay of the explicit, the implicit, and the unknown. This is another distinction I want to make in the creative formation of architectural knowledges for inventive future action and reflection. There will always rest, let’s say, a blurring of the unknown. It’s not possible to make everything explicit, and it’s also not the goal. Rather, the question is which beneficial knowledge we can gain if we have this perspective of tacit knowing. In highlighting artistic thinking, besides rational and analytical thought, what comes out of reflexivity and sur-refléxion are the ways research can get to a specificity particularly suitable for architectural spatial disciplines.
Reflexivity is an attitude, and approach, and modality of thinking, being, and acting, and it goes beyond only focalising tacit knowing. It is supported by dynamic, flexible, and process-oriented dimensions, by which researchers and designers cross scales, categories, and viewpoints with projective ambitions. Integrated are prospective, as well as retrospective, modes of operation to surpass the familiar, to touch overlooked and hidden phenomena and connections, other agencies and other perspectives, and also looking for new and renewed approaches to analysis, interpretation, generation, and articulation.
Thereby this explicit or distant reflexive stance integrates questioning mindsets and ways of acting, as well as recognizing, exploring, and detecting different ways of creative knowledge-gain in architectural design and research. They can act as good and complementing partners of tacit knowledge with some family resemblance. This is something that I’m thinking about. External references for these notions, especially as articulated by the anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu and philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, offer impulses for structuring cognitive activities and triggering imagination into composite and plural conditioned fields of creating spaces and places. Bourdieu’s concept of reflexivity aimed at enhancing knowledge gain by a plurality of points as well as by interaction with media and materiality. It’s not only the person in this case. In parts his thought also refers to Merleau-Ponty, who opted for a plurality of being, another aspect of plurality, who recognized the senses and meaningful qualities of an active and contextually embedded perception, and its continual reset and revitalising character.
If we want to find out something about our own implicit knowing, this is a process which is always in flux. Merleau-Ponty furthermore encourages us to understand vagueness as a positive phenomenon, linked to artistic ways of producing alterity. And, along with the term sur-refléxion, Merleau-Ponty underscores the capacity of reaching beyond existing structures in order to generate others.
I identify reflexivity with non-obvious alternatives to habitual ways of thinking and acting. And with its projective activities it is attentive to the world as it could be.
There are connections in our ways of treating this tacit knowing. Margitta is raising this issue of multiplicity and vagueness. I really like this idea of vagueness because I also feel that there’s always a kind of gap between the definition of things we make through rules, handbooks, precedents and things. But at the same time, they always get renewed by new actions, by those many individuals. So I think that comes very close to a few different things which I’ve been thinking about.
Peg, your values discussion, and the friction that you raise, is one of the things I’m intrigued by. Again, the way we all kind of point to these gaps, where there’s friction, or there’s a vagueness, or a kind of constellation that gets filled in differently each time. So I rather like that connection. Margitta, you’re much more explicit in the kind of historical reference points, e.g. Merleau-Ponty, Bourdieu. I was thinking of him for my piece because, in some ways, when we talk about situational knowledge, it’s almost inevitable to come back to his habitus.
Yes. There’s also something interesting about how, on the one hand, we often look at Bourdieu from the sociological perspective of exclusion, e.g., you don’t know the rules, and therefore you don’t fit; but there’s also a kind of synthesis of many knowledges, a multiplicity that is positive as well: different readings of situations lead to different possibilities. We have all these things next to one another in this cluster: there’s less of a single line forward, but multiple ways of looking at the tacit next to each other.
There are some very striking correspondences here, especially in this modality, or in the sense of difference, in both emphasising that subjectivity and experience is different, and these are temporal transformations. Margitta, you’ve drawn attention that this is not a static concept of subjectivity. Merleau-Ponty, Bergson, these are philosophers of the vitalist project, who are part of this conversation today about the importance of recognizing difference positively, rather than as a weakness. It isn’t about a weak personality, or someone not knowing their discipline, or being unable to have authority. These are new kinds of authority or expertise. I think we are all pointing to the qualitative contribution that, by defining knowledge in this form, these are the lived experiences of the architect in the everyday, in the studio; not the theorist constructing a theory by which they then expect everyone to perform religiously to a script or be prescribed by. These shared values have come through strongly in what we are each saying.
I do have another question: it seems to me that some of these discussions are more interested in ontology rather than epistemology. These are concerns about the differences between these kinds of processes and projects: in contrast, there can be the sense that epistemology is ‘the place’ that discipline re-transforms itself, becomes more powerful, more visible and more culturally valued. This is the kind of value which financial value systems emphasise; the moment something becomes transparent and accountable. Such values or benefits are often associated with epistemological projects because they confirm codification or use-values which can be ascribed, and therefore the transmission, dissemination and commodification of knowledge. In contrast, we are drawing attention to tacit knowledge in practices and relationships between people, places, materials, tools, etc., that are not quite so easily codified. Perhaps this has much more correspondence to paying attention to and respecting, ways of being, ways of living, which is an ontological rather than epistemological, concern.
You can think about this if you ask yourself as a researcher, so it’s a kind of experience, and there are thousands and thousands of impacts. But if you want to write them down, it’s not possible, but maybe we can uncover some features of this.
Because that ties more into this kind of attitude that you were talking about?
No, this is more on the modalities. Attitude is a stance. Attitude includes looking at them, e.g., to include people of colour, to be oriented towards an environmental crisis. These are, in my view, kinds of stance or attitude, or part of an attitude; a kind of critical stance or attentiveness for contemporary conditions. That’s one point, but it’s not the main thing we are looking for with this research project. Maybe it’s not present enough, and we don’t like that it’s not present enough, but it seems not to be the specificity of tacit knowing. The question is, if we also can work out some features of this specific tacit knowing in architecture and research, and in the architect as a designer and as a researcher.
I think thereby the important aspect is corporality and sensuality. I once framed it with the concept of empathy. But now, as you have observed, I use the term ‘attentiveness’. Maybe they are coupled. It’s a kind of sensual and corporeal dialogue with the given situation. When we want to uncover some parts of the tacit knowing of architecture, it is a mixing of capacity and informality.
Experience is also very important. Polanyi called it connoisseurship, which includes what you referenced with books, Lara. For me, it’s also linked to places and spaces of the architect´s experience in this situation. This includes the built, the everyday places we are surrounded by, which we have perceived with our bodies, and which are also part of the background of our socialisation in the architectural and artistic context. This is a very important disposition for tacit knowing and also to have drawn, and to know how to switch from the building I see to a plan, to some black lines on paper, which usually are not recognizable by lay-men/women. We should be aware of such background.
It’s the same for our culture conditioning. Maybe sometimes we have enough sources or people who talked about their context to say something on another culture or to say something on buildings in another culture. But it’s very difficult for us to say we have to include other cultures, because I think this also may be a kind of intellectual colonisation.
I agree. We are all rethinking the concept of, and the kinds of cultures, we engage with. I agree this is what we call ‘research’. Architectural research may include people who have professions or who have been trained through other traditions, e.g., modernism. But we are now also asking when is the architect required, and how do we engage with other cultural contacts. In the context of my own recent work; I am spending a lot of time actively having to engage in rethinking my own research methods for writing about black 1960’s arts practices. So your point about how these values construct the researcher – also not just the doctoral student (i.e. the Early Stage Researcher) are active for all of us involved in the programme.
These are aspects to characterise reflexivity in the context of research of tacit knowing. I also integrate them in my own thinking, and ask myself, what am I doing.
It’s also interesting because in some ways I think it is about finding a way of defining authority that is not exclusive. I like that many of the words coming up are also about listening and about perception. Margitta, you raised empathy and attentiveness. These are things that if you look at the modern history of architecture, we don’t immediately think of things like that. It’s more about statement, clarity and objectivity and so it’s interesting that we could start to think about an approach that has authority, but that is not so colonializing, not so dominating.
I think it’s difficult because there is not this one and only modernity. There always have been different ones. If you remember the sixties, Aldo van Eyck, Herzberger, Gregotti; they all wanted to address modernity and change it. Revision is a part of modernity itself. It’s not as simple as saying, there was ‘this’ modernity, and now we are here. And now, we are influenced by Deleuze and Guattari, their rhizome concept etc. A lot of contemporary western theorists are hinting at these notions, no matter whether they are feminists or with other alignments. These ideas spread out in different perspectives – it´s about multiplicity and diversity. I’m happy this is outgrown from democratic contexts and, hopefully, this will continue. It is also one structure of our time. Maybe doing research on tacit knowing may give us the possibility to handle complexity in a better way.