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Mouldy Smells and Tacit Noses: knowledges coming into view
Anna Livia Vørsel
In 2016 two ‘moisture experts’ visited a small public building in Stockholm. Moisture had started to seep in, and mould started to grow in the wooden park building, the spores making the staff working there ill. The experts recorded the levels of microorganisms in the interior air and the composite building materials with scientific equipment and expert noses, identifying certain elements through technological data and odorous qualities. The expert noses registered the same smells as the staff in the buildings, but evaluated, analysed and categorised them according to their expert knowledge field. Rather than aiming to make tacit knowledges explicit, this paper puts forward a methodological approach to tacit knowledge which unpacks and makes visible what tacit knowledges does, how it operates, and what and who it affects within architecture. By engaging with material ‘events’ (Bennett, 2010) and ‘stutters’ (Graham and Thrift, 2007), like this mould and its smell, through archival documents, scientific reports and changing building materials, the testimony of the material (Material Witness, Schuppli, 2020) makes visible the socio-economic and political value systems and decision-making processes embedded into the fabric of the building. It unpacks how things, otherwise hidden, come into view when systems, infrastructures and buildings break and fall apart, and how the various knowledge productions and value systems tied and embedded into this specific building and its mouldy materials can be unfolded and detangled through a theoretical framework of stutters, ruptures and events. Through this building, its smelly materials, and the different noses inside it, expert and non-expert, the paper unpacks how tacit knowledges operates, who or what can carry it, and what and who it affects.
It is a day in September 2015, and two building analysis experts unlock the front door of a wooden building in a park in Stockholm. They are from a private building analysis company and have been commissioned to inspect the property’s indoor environment by its owner, the city of Stockholm’s property office. The building houses a preschool and playground services, and the staff working there have begun to experience respiratory problems and symptoms: sore throats and irritated lungs.
The building analysis experts open the door and step inside, breathing in the indoor air. Dust particles mix with the smell of the 1960s wooden construction, the lino flooring, and the craft materials in the corner. They breathe in and out, registering the smell of the building with their bodies. One of them picks up a clipboard and notes, ‘no irregular smell in the building.’ 1 Björn Wuolokainen and Augustsson, Tommy. “Parkleken Fagerlind, Cigarrvägen 20, Farsta, Innemiljöutredning” (Stockholm: Dry-IT, September 1, 2015), 4. They are noting down subjective 2 The observations of the experts are listed as ‘subjective judgements’ in the report. observations on the building and its condition for a report, pointing out all relevant details of the condition of windows, skirting boards, and roof, while collecting samples of dust as they go along, gently wiping it off windows and doors with a cotton bud.
The building analysis experts breathe in and out, inspecting the smell in every room and doorway. They enter a small room and crouch down on the floor. One pulls out a knife, gently cuts a square in the lino flooring, and lifts the panel, exposing the bare wooden floorboards beneath. The other pulls out a tool, and drills a round hole in the floorboards (Fig. 2.1). The drill makes a crosscut of the materials in the floor: a layer of 22mm chipboard flooring, on top of 220mm mineral wool insulation, on top of a thin layer of weather-protective material, on top of a layer of pressure-treated wood boards opening up to the underside of the building. Air from below the building fills the room. It smells musty, they note on the clipboard. As well as noting down the smell, they measure the moisture levels in each material in the floor with a digital measuring tool, a Protimeter Survey Master II. They finish their inspection, write the last important details on their clipboard, wrap the cross-layer cut from the floor and a small sample of the earth from underneath the building in a sealed plastic bag, and leave the building, locking the door behind them. The materials are brought for further tests. Samples from cotton buds are sent for DNA testing for traces of microorganisms, and the crosscut of the floor is taken to a ‘neutral control site’, the company’s office elsewhere in Stockholm, where the analysts make subjective evaluations on the smell of the different layers, typing the results out in a dataset (Fig. 2.2).
In this chapter, I follow the mouldy smells in this small wooden building in Stockholm, the noses smelling them, the knowledge held and produced by different actors, and the decisions taken based on these, and attend to different kinds of tacit knowledge: knowledge held by individuals, by institutions, by experts and non-experts. By first addressing building materials as entities that can store and trace information of their contexts, second, looking at material ‘ruptures’ and ‘events’ as instances where this information comes into view, and third, arguing that looking in detail at these ruptures and events brings into view the tacit knowledge infrastructures and value systems that buildings exist within and that are produced through narratives, I interrogate how tacit knowledges operate within architecture, what they do, and what and whom they affect within architecture.
Material testimonies: materials storing information
The walls of this small wooden building in Stockholm and the layers of materials in the floor hold and store information about the building and its life: information on its production, ownership, use, and design, as well as the attitude towards it held by the institutions, regulatory frameworks, and people owning, managing, and using it. The smell in the building, registered by the knowledge of the building analysis expert, becomes a dataset in a report. The smell of the building, registered by the bodily knowledge of the staff, results in respiratory problems. Its microbial and chemical-smelling materials inform us about the slow accumulations of cold and dampness in the building over time, and of chemicals engrained in the wood. 3 In the report, the building analysis experts write that they see clear indications that the wood has been treated with chlorephonols – a chemical used in pressure-treatment of wood between the 1950s and 19070s in Sweden. The chemical develops a ‘mouldy’ smell when exposed to air and dampness. It hints at routines of maintenance and gives testimony to building production techniques in Sweden historically.
Knowledges, value systems, and structural conditions all become registered and stored in materials over time, as structures and elements that affect, change, and sediment within building materials. In her work on ‘vibrant matter’, political theorist and philosopher Jane Bennett looks at this notion of materials as harbourers of information, at the ‘vitality’ of materials and things and their capacity ‘not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own’. 4 Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), viii. Bennett sees materials in assemblages, able ‘to make something happen … distinct from the sum of the vital force of each materiality considered alone’. 5 Ibid., 24.
As well as storing information, these materials can mediate information by giving testimony. Through the operative concept of ‘material witness’, artist and researcher Susan Schuppli points to the properties of materials and their capacity ‘to register change resulting in an accrual of information’. 6 Susan Schuppli, Material Witness: Media, Forensics, Evidence (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2020), 7. In Schuppli’s words, the operative concept is ‘an exploration of the evidential role of matter as registering external events as well as exposing the practices and procedures that enable such matter to bear witness’. 7 Ibid., 3. The ‘material witness’ is an entity that makes visible not only the event, but also the practices and procedures that enable the material to speak of it, opening up the possibility to understand the enmeshment of buildings and their materiality and the oft- immaterial political and economic structures they are connected to through ownership, management, and value systems.
Ruptures: things coming into view
The building analysis experts gather their notes and test results and assemble them in a detailed report, an indoor environmental analysis. It lists data and conclusions, tracing the steps of the analysts through the building and the odours they encountered while they were there. The notes from the site and the test results form the basis of the conclusion: there are microorganisms present in the indoor air and a chemical smell emitted from the building materials, both of which can contribute to the symptoms experienced by the staff in the building. The existence of microorganisms and chemicals is proved by the odour analysis, the moisture test, and the DNA analysis of dust collected throughout the building. The building analysis experts recommend an extensive renovation of the building, exchanging the foundation and, as well as a deep-clean, additions of ventilation systems and air filters and resealing of windows and doorways. ‘Note that this proposal only focuses on improving indoor air quality, not eliminating the source of the problem itself’, 8 Wuolokainen and Augustsson, “Parkleken Fagerlind, Cigarrvägen 20, Farsta, Innemiljöutredning,” 9. Translated from the Swedish by the author. they conclude.
‘Things only come into visible focus as things when they become inoperable – they break or stutter and they then become the object of attention’, 9 Stephen Graham and Nigel Thrift, “Out of Order: Understanding Repair and Maintenance,” Theory, Culture & Society 24, no. 3 (May 2007): 2, https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276407075954. note urban scholar Stephen Graham and geographer Nigel Thrift in a study on maintenance and repair. They highlight how things that become inoperable, and out of use, come into view and become the object of attention. In this break, rupture, or stutter, certain things become visible. This building in the park is an example of such a rupture, a series of stuttering events. The accumulation of microbial matter in the air, moisture seeping into the wood from below the building, and chemical smells developing between layers in the floor, are all slow processes. Slow accumulations of matter, the disintegration of others, they go unheeded until their presence or changing state make the lungs of a staff member or the digits on the Protimeter Survey Master II stutter, making themselves known.
Graham and Thrift demand that we pay attention to these moments of rupture, moments when things become inoperable, as moments for bringing things into view. We often only pay attention to things and tools when they are no longer there, and when the action taking place through the object is disturbed. 10 Ibid. When the action disappears, the action becomes even clearer. Ruptures, breaks, or things becoming inoperable often require that action is taken to try to fix the problem. Paying attention to the act of repair highlights value and knowledge systems, showing the damage that has been done. It makes visible the cases where something is deliberately left in disrepair, where locking the door might be thought a better solution than mending that which has fallen out of use. Just as things come into focus when they break, so do infrastructures. Focusing specifically on knowledge infrastructures or ‘built information environments and practices’, sociologist Susan Leigh Star examines infrastructures and how ‘[t]he normally invisible quality of working infrastructure becomes visible when it breaks: the server is down, the bridge washes out, there is a power blackout. Even when there are back-up mechanisms of procedures, their existence further highlights the now-visible infrastructure’. 11 Susan Leigh Star, “The Ethnography of Infrastructure,” American Behavioral Scientist 43, no. 3 (November 1999): 382, https://doi.org/10.1177/00027649921955326.
The rupture in this building – materials changing their organic and chemical state, and the use of the building changing with it – is an event making things come into view. As Graham and Thrift note, it makes visible the workings of the building, and how they are failing, but also, as Star argues, the building as part of an infrastructure of care and leisure in Stockholm, and the building as an infrastructure in itself. This notion of the rupture and paying close attention to similar events bring into question what different discourses and value systems events and ruptures reveal, what they might tell us about knowledge production in architecture, and the evidence and voices that they rely upon.
Narratives and tacit knowledges
The indoor environmental report is signed and sent to the owners of the building, the property office of the city of Stockholm, arriving in the email inbox of a civil servant. The report gets distributed to the local city district which rents and manages the building, and its findings are shared at a city district council meeting. The voice of the building analysis experts and their subjective judgements on the state of the building are brought up around the table, their noses and electronic equipment affirming the presence of mould and chemical traces throughout the building. It is decided to close to the building for use as a preschool, and the services, staff, and children are relocated elsewhere in the neighbourhood. One day in October 2015, representatives from the municipality and park service arrive at the building. It has already been emptied of furniture, toys, and the contents of kitchen cupboards. The representatives check that the windows are closed, turn off the water and electricity, and lock the front door. 12 At the time of writing (Autumn 2022), the building is still locked and closed to the public. Several plans for renovations and reconstructions have been discussed since its closure and are still ongoing between the local district council, the city of Stockholm, and local interest groups.
The rupture in this building, its changing material state, the effect on its users, and the subsequent closure of it and the services it housed, highlight and make visible the importance of such a social infrastructure, but also bring into view the importance of this specific building in this specific place and the memories and lived experiences within it. The event also becomes defined in the response to it. Asking how is it reacted to and acted upon reveals codes and systems of value through the narratives surrounding decision-making processes. The stories we tell about buildings, what their value is, how they are used, and so on, become visible. The work of anthropologist and linguist Charlotte Linde addresses specifically how tacit knowledge is expressed as social knowledge and can be read through narrative. As she writes: ‘narrative provides a bridge between the tacit and the explicit, allowing tacit knowledge to be demonstrated and learned, without the need to propositionalize it’. 13 Charlotte Linde, “Narrative and Social Tacit Knowledge,” Journal of Knowledge Management 5, no. 2 (June 1, 2001): 160, https://doi.org/10.1108/13673270110393202. Focusing in particular on how large institutions and companies use narrative and storytelling as a way to transmit the tacit understandings of the institutions’ moral and ethical codes and values, she explains how ‘narrative is well suited to transmit the part of social knowledge that concerns history, values and identity’. 14 Ibid., 163.
Star addresses a similar issue of tacit knowledge as part of a social knowledge culture, a community of practice:
The taken-for-grantedness of artifacts and organizational arrangement is a sine qua non of membership in a community of practice. Strangers and outsiders encounter infrastructure as a target object to be learned about. New participants acquire a naturalized familiarity with its objects, as they become members. 15 Star, “The Ethnography of Infrastructure,” 381.
Hidden, or tacit, knowledge, she argues, lies within ‘what literary theorists would call a master narrative, or a single voice [speaking] unconsciously from the presumed center of things’. 16 Ibid., 384. Master narratives in information and knowledge infrastructures hold values and ethical principles, inscribed into the infrastructure as well as the materials constituting it. As Star points out, ‘unearthing the narratives behind boring aspects of infrastructure does … reveal, often in a very direct way, how knowledge is constrained, built and preserved’. 17 Susan Leigh Star, “Infrastructure and Ethnographic Practice: Working on the Fringes,” Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems 14, no. 2 (2002): 110. Master narratives are tricky to see clearly, and often ‘become invisible once … inscribed in infrastructure’. 18 Ibid., 119. They do, however, become visible in instances (or events) where the value and ethical system is tested, tried, or questioned, for instance through protests, resistance, or juridical questioning. She also points out how infrastructures and their narratives are biased. ‘[B]iased against new, unorthodox, and interdisciplinary paths, knowledges or approaches that tend to appear first at the margins of disciplines, in social movements, small presses, or in independent media venues open to risk-taking’. 19 Ibid.
In order to understand how these master narratives operate, Star argues that ‘it is necessary to “deconstruct” the boring, backstage parts of infrastructure, to disembed the narratives it contains and the behind-the-scenes decisions … as part of material information science culture’. 20 Ibid., 110. She proposes looking at these infrastructures of knowledge through the study of the traces that these processes leave behind – datasets, documents, and bureaucratic processes, among many others – the things often ignored, overlooked, or invisible in architectural processes. These things are not hand-drawn sketches by project architects, crafted visionary architectural models, or interviews with high-stake clients, but, rather, emails between public employees and building analysis companies, district committee meeting minutes, odour-test analysis data, and reports of respiratory conditions from community care workers. Looking at things, voices, and materials like these open up for inclusion and consideration as many voices and experiences as possible, especially those not necessarily visible in the archives or technical documents produced as part of architectural decision-making processes and history writing.
In this chapter, I have tried to briefly tackle the question of tacit knowledge in architecture from the perspective of rupturing materials and what these bring into view. Starting from the premise that materials store information, and that this becomes visible in events and moments of rupture, as argued by Graham and Thrift, I have looked to Linde and Star’s discussions on tacit knowledge as social knowledge, and codes of values and ethics, and how these are embedded into information infrastructures and networks, communicated through the stories we tell.
In these brief descriptions of the work of two building analysis experts in Stockholm, part of a much bigger story with many more perspectives, voices, and noses than depicted here, I try to hint at the various types of tacit knowledge embedded into and enmeshed within the design, construction, maintenance, care, and ownership of the building, and what types of knowledge are listened to in considerations of whether a social service should close or not, and considerations of how public buildings are maintained and cared for. The stuttering materiality of this building in Stockholm brings into view the framework of maintenance and ownership that the building exists within. It makes visible its ownership, the framework of expertise and knowledge relied upon in decision-making processes, and the value that the building has politically, socially, and materially in its context. The smell in the building, the smell of these slow, stuttering material processes, affects the bodies of the staff working there, the noses of the experts, and by extension the closure of the doors.
- Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.
- Graham, Stephen, and Nigel Thrift. “Out of Order: Understanding Repair and Maintenance.” Theory, Culture & Society 24, no. 3 (May 2007): 1–25. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276407075954.
- Linde, Charlotte. “Narrative and Social Tacit Knowledge.” Journal of Knowledge Management 5, no. 2 (June 1, 2001): 160–71. https://doi.org/10.1108/13673270110393202.
- Schuppli, Susan. Material Witness: Media, Forensics, Evidence. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2020.
- Star, Susan Leigh. “Infrastructure and Ethnographic Practice: Working on the Fringes.” Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems 14, no. 2 (2002): 107–22.
- Star, Susan Leigh. “The Ethnography of Infrastructure.” American Behavioral Scientist 43, no. 3 (November 1999): 377–91. https://doi.org/10.1177/00027649921955326.
- Wuolokainen, Björn, and Augustsson, Tommy. “Parkleken Fagerlind, Cigarrvägen 20, Farsta, Innemiljöutredning.” Stockholm: Dry-IT, September 1, 2015.
- Björn Wuolokainen and Augustsson, Tommy. “Parkleken Fagerlind, Cigarrvägen 20, Farsta, Innemiljöutredning” (Stockholm: Dry-IT, September 1, 2015), 4.
- The observations of the experts are listed as ‘subjective judgements’ in the report.
- In the report, the building analysis experts write that they see clear indications that the wood has been treated with chlorephonols – a chemical used in pressure-treatment of wood between the 1950s and 19070s in Sweden. The chemical develops a ‘mouldy’ smell when exposed to air and dampness.
- Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), viii.
- Ibid., 24.
- Susan Schuppli, Material Witness: Media, Forensics, Evidence (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2020), 7.
- Ibid., 3.
- Wuolokainen and Augustsson, “Parkleken Fagerlind, Cigarrvägen 20, Farsta, Innemiljöutredning,” 9. Translated from the Swedish by the author.
- Stephen Graham and Nigel Thrift, “Out of Order: Understanding Repair and Maintenance,” Theory, Culture & Society 24, no. 3 (May 2007): 2, https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276407075954.
- Susan Leigh Star, “The Ethnography of Infrastructure,” American Behavioral Scientist 43, no. 3 (November 1999): 382, https://doi.org/10.1177/00027649921955326.
- At the time of writing (Autumn 2022), the building is still locked and closed to the public. Several plans for renovations and reconstructions have been discussed since its closure and are still ongoing between the local district council, the city of Stockholm, and local interest groups.
- Charlotte Linde, “Narrative and Social Tacit Knowledge,” Journal of Knowledge Management 5, no. 2 (June 1, 2001): 160, https://doi.org/10.1108/13673270110393202.
- Ibid., 163.
- Star, “The Ethnography of Infrastructure,” 381.
- Ibid., 384.
- Susan Leigh Star, “Infrastructure and Ethnographic Practice: Working on the Fringes,” Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems 14, no. 2 (2002): 110.
- Ibid., 119.
- Ibid., 110.