About TACK TACK Book How to Use What is Tacit Knowledge?

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Learning from the unspoken: tacit knowledges engaged.


Christoph Grafe Lara Schrijver

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The research of this network has been an adventure for most of us, researchers and supervisors alike. When we put out the call for applicants, we were overwhelmed by the interest we received; this showed us that our network, formed to dig into knowledges less easily codified, was on target. Indeed, for many of the researchers who applied to be part of the programme, the network filled a gap between traditional academic research and the sustained in-depth enquiry of a reflective practice.

Is it then even possible to arrive at a conclusion, a coda, for a research project aiming to open up new horizons? Especially a project that involves ten universities in different places, belonging to different academic traditions and architecture cultures? The form chosen here, a compilation of material with a multitude of authors, reflects the many perspectives inherent in such a project, and emphasises the continual development inherent in research. Research is never complete. Everything is in flux: both the individual research projects and the publications that may yet emerge. What is presented now can only be an intermediate report of provisional conclusions, providing a foundation for further research. Therefore, this is a kaleidoscopic picture of positions, interests, and preoccupations, inherent in the project from the outset. Even the initial concept of tacit knowledge, i.e., that knowledge which is located behind, under, over, and outside of the authored, disciplinary knowledge engraved in language, holds so many different horizons that its examination must necessarily appear confusing.

In a conglomerate of social practices as represented by architecture, the role of tacit knowledge is complex and often contradictory. The unspoken is necessary for functioning in society; both for those who represent power and prevailing interests, and for the strategies that oppose or attempt to resist those interests. Tacit knowledge can be disruptive, providing quiet resistance to systems of control, but it can also be a means to consolidate power, with invisible boundaries set to exclude the disenfranchised. Either way, it contributes to a modus operandi that sees itself as pragmatic and professional.

Research questions pertaining to tacit knowledge arise from the horizons of action between the justification of architecture and the processes of conception, realisation, and reception. In a discipline that also sees itself as a profession and locates itself between technical–scientific problem-solving narratives and artistic speculative action, and that is, essentially, a cultural practice, the methodological contexts themselves are multi-layered. Every quantified calculation accommodates and conceals unspoken assumptions that can presumably be traced and described only with precise knowledge of the respective methods of data collection. An investigation of forms of representation requires the decoding of the art historical traditions which were effective in their invention. When it comes to the tacit knowledge operating in socially embedded planning, the focus shifts to the insights of the social sciences of sociology and cultural anthropology, or towards literary forms of cognition and generating knowledge.


So, what have we learned, and which discoveries were most provocative or unexpected? Our group of researchers is diverse, with topics including the examination of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne for its methods of establishing connections across centuries and cultural landscapes between images and cultural phenomena by means of association (Cattapan), the exploration of the virtual world and augmented reality (Strunden), and the close study of local policy documents in relation to housing developments (Vørsel). Along the way, the researchers and supervisors have constantly (re)calibrated their research assumptions and explicated their methods and approaches. For example, what started out as a project to examine the effects of the rediscovery and reinvention of representational techniques (the collage and the capriccio) in Europe and North America in the 1960s and 1970s employing Warburg’s methods, acquired a new topicality following acquaintance with the archive of the Belgian architect Christian Kieckens. In this case, the mobility implied by the secondments in the cultural institutions (here the Flanders Architecture Institute/ VAi) paid off. The encounter with the archive material substantially changed the research, its focus shifting from the examination of an episode in the transatlantic interferences in architectural theory to the effect of these cross-disseminations on a local European context, contributing to the creation of an embedded and vital architectural culture supported by public policy. As similar shifts in attention have occurred in other projects, the trajectories represent rich and rewarding processes of redefining parameters of architectural knowledge, and of rethinking how these forms of knowledge are constructed. Throughout, we became increasingly aware of the contextual conventions that also define how architecture is taught, practised, and researched.

Thinking beyond problem-solving

The motivation for studying tacit knowledge in architecture initially had several motivations. On the one hand, it can be understood as an attempt to contribute to the corpus of epistemological literature. As architects, we are familiar with processes of generating knowledge in which different methods, from text to model to drawing to informal conversation, are used alongside each other in answer to questions that rarely manifest themselves as clearly defined problems. Architecture is not a problem-solving discipline, but one that needs to problematise its own operations at every step. 1 Joost Meuwissen, Architectuur als oude wetenschap (Amsterdam: Wiederhall, 1988), 161.  This is one of the key features of design thinking as understood by Bryan Lawson and Kees Dorst: more than problem-solving, design is built on ‘problem-finding’, on (re)conceptualising a problem by offering a variety of possible outcomes. 2 Bryan Lawson and Kees Dorst, Design Expertise (New York: Routledge, 2009). However, one could feel uneasy about the reference to ‘problems’ – an inheritance from late modernist attempts to align architecture with the engineering sciences – altogether: questions in architecture rarely present themselves in the clear-cut fashion implied by the term.

This patchwork of multiple viewpoints and possible outcomes lends interest to the process of generating knowledge in architecture: its activities are intended to satisfy diffuse expectations for which quantifiable elements (the programme outlining use, energy–technical requirements, constructive conditions, etc.) would appear to possess a clear articulation. However, these usually do not cover the core of what architectural objects or ensembles are required to achieve. In most projects, beyond the ‘problem setting’ there is a horizon of expectations that are not formulated. This setting, as Donald Schön has noted, is not technical. 3 Donald Schön, The Reflective Practitioner (New York: Basic Books, 1982), 40. It is even doubtful whether the interactive process of naming the fields of attention and framing the context (actions which Schön identifies as part of the problem setting) can be exhaustive or, indeed, if this process really uncovers the real expectations, which often have to be left implicit. The process of generating knowledge, which is implied by the term ‘design’, necessarily involves the identification of questions that are not initially visible or formulated. In architecture, this identification of expectations does not generally take place in documents which are articulated in language, but in drawings or, in traditional building, in the constructed objects. Insofar as the reflections on the decision-making processes are rationalised at all, this usually occurs in retrospect, post factum. Thus, the specific methods of generating knowledge through architectural design are indeed suitable for making statements about methods of science in complex constellations or situations, which are by no means limited to architecture. The mesh of technical, social, and cultural types of knowledge seems to be of the greatest importance against the background of the more complex questions that arise from the understanding of ecological contexts. Perhaps – and this could well be a first conclusion of this research project – architecture offers its capacity as a laboratory for the type of non-linear and lateral thinking that would be necessary (for other disciplines, too) in addressing the challenges produced by the climate emergency.

What would a better understanding of the operations of tacit knowledge in the field of architecture entail for the theory of the discipline? The past forty years in architecture discourse have seen a growing academic culture, and a strong reflection on how architecture – in theory and in practice – can lay claim to scientific knowledge. Architecture has drawn from many different fields of knowledge, and was defined by various educational paradigms in the twentieth century – from those rooted in the Beaux-Arts or Arts and Crafts traditions via the workshops of the Bauhaus to the institutions operating according to the polytechnic model. As such, it would be impossible to define a singular accepted method of research, yet there are a number of approaches that have held sway for some time now.

Methods matter

From Schön’s reflective practitioner to Lawson and Dorst’s design thinking, the methods of research remain highly contextual and informed by each project. In the case of Anna Livia Vørsel, her questions on the reuse of a school in Stockholm led her from seemingly solid policy regulations controlling sound levels into a more subjective understanding of how the qualitative experience of a space can lead to a completely different understanding of its comfort. Throughout the network, the individual projects have engaged directly with questions of method and how to approach a problem with an eye on its particular context as well as broader issues.

One such method which was explored in several projects was the reenactment of installations or events. While this was initially not envisaged as a broadly applicable method for the network’s research topics, the approach has provided essential information that seemed particularly appropriate for studying the effect of performances and installations, while also creating occasions for public events addressing a wider audience. The recreation of one of Christian Kieckens’s exhibitions in Antwerp is one example. Similarly, Hamish Lonergan’s reenactment of educational situations characteristic of the ETH Zurich was instrumental in the study of the transmission of tacit knowledge in schools of architecture. The examination of cultures of craft as part of communities of architecture required first-hand knowledge of the operational processes – the making of things – and direct participation in them, as exemplified by the projects of Eric Crevels and Ionas Sklavounos. Reenactment then merged with immersion in the craft itself.

While simulating events and actions may be a well-known aspect of laboratory procedures in other fields, reenactment is not an established form of research in architectural scholarship. Here it also bears certain resemblances to experiments in the performing arts, the restaging of situations and encounters which endeavour to obtain a deeper knowledge of the interaction between the actors involved, revealing what is generally left unspoken. In the context of academic research seeking to provide material for further examination, the question then arises of how the moment that is (re)created may be recorded and analysed.

While the explication of methods and discussions on matter and context are crucial, it has also become apparent through the research of the network that largely quantitative approaches are insufficient to address the complexity of visual, material, and regulatory frameworks at play in architecture and related fields. Jhono Bennett’s project, for instance, explores forms of unwritten, tacit questioning of the operations of the discipline and its representatives, and their contribution to maintaining power structures. This is particularly evident in the study of images produced by artists in South Africa, who use motifs and techniques derived from popular culture, in order to understand the role of architecture in situations characterised by inequality and social conflict. Here, the scope of tacit knowledge extends into an examination of the forms of communication developed by those who have neither a voice nor access to publishing channels.

Constellations and contexts

Some of the work produced by the researchers follows on the heels of Warburg’s museum imaginary, but expands the cumulative attitude with contemporary approaches. These include data gathering, serial productions, and a variety of categories. Each shows how the lateral shifts between different but similar objects, attitudes driven by the expansion of a visual universe, can be informative and indeed reveal unexpected alignments or contrasts. For example, in Claudia Mainardi’s project on mapping the connections and continuities of the Venice Biennales, new insights into the connections between incidental and recurring events and a longer continuity of historical discourse arise. Along the way, the various hidden networks of professional exchange become visible, adding a new layer to the understanding of knowledge dissemination through international exhibitions.

Pattern seeking is part and parcel of architectural education, yet there remains an important role for understanding causality. The mere coexistence of patterns does not imply a causal relationship, and now ‘big data’ is increasingly important in all fields of research, a more in-depth, qualitative understanding of patterns and correlations is crucial.

Some of the longstanding insights of architecture have faded out of focus as academic institutions have increasingly adopted a codifiable logic. Yet, while academic research in the design sciences strives to generate knowledge that can be broadly applied, there is also a role for a more sensitive apprehension of history, culture, place, context, and convention. These conditions are meaningful, and transform how human beings look at things and position themselves in a world characterised by an ever-increasing cultural dynamic and diversity. Precisely in understanding a local context or a different convention, particular aspects of knowledge may be illuminated that otherwise remain invisible in anonymous and indistinguishable streams of data. If this local context is not stable, whether physically or culturally, this act of understanding will probably have to accept that it will only ever be scratching the surface.

Moreover, because of the entangled nature of architectural thinking, this requires an understanding of visible and invisible layers – it is not enough to simply identify a historical or geographical context. It instead requires an articulation of salient features that are pertinent to how a particular custom has developed, as shown for example in the sustained research and analysis in the craft-based workshops of the Boulouki (Sklavounos). Similarly, understanding cultural habits by identifying a highly situated vocabulary (Bennett), or revealing the many layers of a particular situation documented in drawing, photography, and writing through careful observation (Wijnbelt), show how these contexts shape spatial and social habits in hidden ways.

The medium is (still) the message

As a practice, architecture is tied to its media of expression. Or, as Stan Allen has noted: architects don’t build buildings, they make drawings for other people to build buildings. In other words, there are many moments of translation between idea and building. Moreover, as has by now become well-established, the medium is not an innocent bystander, but rather shapes the outcome. As such, it matters which choices are made throughout the design process. Understanding these media is an important aspect of understanding our cognitive and embodied responses to the built environment.

What these projects suggest is that there is still a wealth of insight to be gained precisely from the more direct, individual engagement with research. Paula Strunden’s projects require the audience to step in and try to explore the environment presented. The audience responses hint at the possibility of gathering a wider array of environmental experiences. Similarly, Mara Trübenbach has found a powerful research approach in the close study of embodiment in theatre. Resonating with the reenactment approaches, her work more closely examines the impact of up-close and personal experience.

Future research

One of the strengths of this network lies in its breadth and numbers. There are precedents in the twentieth century for similar questions, but they have typically been singular projects, centred on individual explorations. Here, the dialogues between individual projects that might otherwise never encounter one another provide new perspectives on methods, vocabulary, and context. The project as such is an encouragement for further projects in dialogue, and for experimental ground.

The operations of tacit knowledge in the research presented here show a varied spectrum of methods, themes, and outcomes. Overall, the project has taken up the challenge to draw out the hidden mechanisms that contribute to how architecture is conceived and realised, which subsequently shapes how it is used. The network’s different projects show that this mosaic of approaches can indeed enter into dialogues, helping to understand the different roles architecture may play in facing urgent challenges such as the climate crisis, housing inequality, and design justice.

If architectural design, in this network, is understood as a specific form of generating knowledge, this also raises the question of how this disciplinary knowledge is constituted and from where it is fed. The research network itself is predominantly located in the field of architectural theory. This is a form of research and teaching that is itself subject to constant dynamics. The diffuseness of the field of knowledge is already evident in its founding text, Vitruvius’s De architectura, which includes not only theories of composition and proportion, but also considerations of construction, climate, and the organisation of work. However, architectural theory as practised at most universities finds its origin in the rediscovery of historical references in the 1960s and 1970s. This implies a critique of positivist thinking and the reductionist legitimations of functionalism. Against the backdrop of the challenge of the climate emergency, this form of theory must, and does, sort itself out afresh. Alongside the – still necessary – examination of historical phenomena, there are questions arising from the accessibility of new technologies and forms of intelligence. Research, however, also needs to scrutinise them and critically monitor the development of these technologies.

We might also say: the relationship between heteronomous impulses and the autonomous knowledge tradition of architecture is being reformulated, and one of the very tasks of architectural theory is to prepare this readjustment in thinking. The complexity of the questions in the TACK network clearly reflects this situation.

  1. Joost Meuwissen, Architectuur als oude wetenschap (Amsterdam: Wiederhall, 1988), 161.
  2. Bryan Lawson and Kees Dorst, Design Expertise (New York: Routledge, 2009).
  3. Donald Schön, The Reflective Practitioner (New York: Basic Books, 1982), 40.