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Report from the TACK Talks #1


Hamish Lonergan

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August 18, 2020

What sort of tacit knowledge can we glean on Zoom, when so much architectural literature on the tacit insists on prolonged physical interaction? The answer is a great deal, going by the first series of TACK Talks. Across 9 online lectures, 9 practices, 14 designers, 10 ESR respondents, 3 moderators and a weekly audience of between 85 and an astonishing 535 viewers, the TACK network joined together to tackle a deceptively simple question: ‘how do we know?’. Their responses reveal the breadth of experience and depth of reflective thinking in the network, already establishing key themes in how we conceive tacit knowledge.

The TACK talks began with a hunch that the tacit might be most important where architects collaborate. Indeed, practices spoke of a dizzying array of actors, from employees, restoration specialists, artists, engineers and planners, to clients, future users, contractors, and craftspeople. In a large, multinational firm like Cityföster, these interactions are, paradoxically, codified into explicit office policies, work methodologies and a sophisticated process of introspection. In smaller practices like Korteknie Stuhlmacher, they might be more organic; developing a common sense of ‘rigour’ with collaborators over years and many conversations. At other times, this tacit knowledge is most obvious where it differs. De Vylder and Vinck described how the Caritas psychiatric hospital restoration relied on contractors’ craft knowledge to elevate concrete blockwork into a sensitive intervention, in a way that could not be made entirely explicit in their documentation. Meanwhile, foreign employees at Spridd are often surprised by the flat office hierarchy, something which is typical of Swedish offices.

These differences in cultural and disciplinary understanding might be difficult to explain to outsiders, but they become rich sources of inspiration for architects working within the tradition. Spridd spoke of the difficulties and satisfactions of navigating the Swedish construction industry—dominated by regulation and powerful contractors—against the backdrop of the Million Programme and a tradition of ‘old masters.’ For other practices, architecture emerges from an intimate knowledge of the history and context of their own city, as in De Smet Vermeulen work in Antwerp and Ghent. Onsitestudio’s understanding of Milan was only possible by first leaving, allowing them to see the city from a fresh perspective from the outside.

Similar transnational journeys criss-crossed the talks, and the globe, revealing how communities of tacit knowledge spanning space and time. SOMA traced a typical Austrian migration from Vienna to the Bartlett in London, Sci-Arc in L.A., and back to Innsbruck. Haworth Tompkins’ renovation of the Warburg Institute drew on the migration of the institute itself, from Hamburg to London in 1933, where its idiosyncratic conception of knowledge became anomalous in the vast University of London system.

Offices often alluded to this tantalising potential of tacit knowledge embedded in buildings, materials and architectural references themselves. It was only through a ‘forensic survey’ of the Warburg Institute that Haworth Tompkins could grapple with replicating its character and atmosphere in a renovated building. In Mechthild Stulmacher’s description of the Mechelen Library, the textures and materials of the semi-ruined Monastery emerged as almost-autonomous actors in the design process, holding their own type of knowledge to be uncovered. In a similar way, Stuhlmacher spoke of the architectural precedents that she had come to understand on a deeply personal level through discussion and writing, becoming part of a repertoire of strategies that are not always explicitly recognisable in the work. Holgar Hoffman of One Fine Day architects uses digital tools to excavate meaning from old building types—the country house or the mosque—to uncover a dynamic, tacit understanding of typology that can be applied to new projects.

At other times it was equally crucial, and difficult, to understand the role of intuition in the architects’ work. SOMA spoke of the importance of imagination and ‘informed guessing’, while Cityföster suggested that sometimes design happens best when the architect lets go. For Hoffman, design requires us to acquire enough depth of knowledge that we always make the right move, on an almost instinctual level. Even while acknowledging the importance of training and preparation, these cases hint at the importance of a certain inexplicable leap in design thinking; more than the sum of its inputs.

How, then, do designers access that tacit knowledge embedded in a material, a precedent, or an intuition? Any attempt to make such knowledge entirely explicit—to paraphrase it through an intermediate medium outside architecture itself—seems bound to reduce its complexity and, therefore, utility. As SOMA noted, whenever they try to capture the qualities of a reference image in their design, something is inevitably lost in the translation.

Perhaps the strongest conclusion from the first round of TACK Talks is the potential of those traditional tools of the architect—drawings, images, model, material samples—to communicate the architectural tacit on its own terms. Paul Vermeulen spoke of the tactics of deploying certain models and drawings at particular times. The firm used an intentionally simple model of their New Ghent project to show that the design was not finalised during community engagement, implying that public feedback could still affect the final outcome. Both Hayworth Tompkins and Onsitestudio frequently work with very large models to explore and communicate materials and scale as they really are. Cityföster accumulates drawings, models and materials—the office is ‘not slick, but sticky’—to spark connections and layer the intangible qualities of a site in a way that can be communicated with others. SOMA, for their part, are exploring software that will directly extract those tacit qualities in an image and transform them into manipulatable digital models, bypassing the explicit programming required of older digital tools. Hoffman spoke of the potential for digital and analogue drawings to become ‘speculative images’, generating architectural ideas through the juxtaposition of parts, similar to a metaphor.

Indeed, sometimes thinking about architecture might only be possible through drawing, never making it explicit through other means at all. Spridd found the process of drawing Million Programme towers—many of which had never been adequately documented before—crucial to their work: the more they draw, the more they understand, and the less they need to build. Vinck and de Vylder are currently engaged in redrawing a balustrade detail at 1:1 scale for a project already under construction to understand exactly how it relates to its context, revealing something about the building that even looking and talking would fail to encapsulate.

But this redrawing, as Vinck notes, is also an enormous pleasure. Across the nine firms, this sense of fun returned time-and-again as crucially important, making worthwhile their struggle to render the architectural tacit, if not explicit, then at least comprehensible.

Find all the talks here.