Supporter's Column: William Mann

A reflection on the idea of hybrid practice and the relationship between architects and academics.

Hybrid Practice, Tacit Knowledge?


A recent book, ‘The Hybrid Practitioner’[i], explores the relation between building, teaching and researching. The essays are by architects and writers whose work straddles these fields - hence the idea of the ‘hybrid’. Yet, while exchanges between practice and teaching are thankfully still reasonably plentiful, the gap between ‘builders’ and researchers seems substantial.‘Hybridising’ them, so that practice might become more deeply rooted in knowledge, and research more oriented to action, is an attractive notion, but it may need purposeful help to make it happen. To borrow the plant cultivation metaphor, some significant changes to DNA may be required.


To a certain extent, the gap could be narrowed by better communication. Through chance contacts and intermittent curiousity, I’ve stumbled on ambitious, engaging research in a range of universities. As a result, I’m a little wiser about the post-war reconstruction of Munich, varying interpretations of open space networks in Europe, and the precarity of human and material networks in London’s docks. Yet I haven’t found a reliable forum where I can browse academic research; frustratingly, too, when alerted to it, I find a good part are paywalled.


However, there’s something deeper that troubles me about this possible exchange. Although it’s nearly four decades since I started studying architecture, I find it hard to lay convincing claim to knowledge. It could be excessive modesty (ok, we can discount that one), or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention (I did skip quite a few lectures in second year while I tried my hand at printmaking). Over the decades I’ve magpied lots of bits of partial knowledge – about wind-blown rain, below ground utilities, piles and cantilevers, medieval fireproofing, the impact of the English Civil War on building, and comfortable heights for window cills. I learnt how to draw nicely - and then had to unlearn it when it got in the way of clear thinking. While some thoughtful souls are investigating architects’ ways of knowing under the rubric of ‘tacit knowledge’[ii], I’m sticking to my claim of (relative) ignorance.


For isn’t it the case that architectural practice and academic research follow very different logics? They differ in how they are legitimised, the cogency of arguments and the form of evidence that are accepted, and in the economics that underpin them. The templates of the exact and human sciences, observing and drawing conclusions about what is knowable, apply to what is either repeatable or resolutely past. Whereas, in practice, we are in the middle of things; we use a range of conventions, applying them to different situations, refining unstated propositions through a series of ever-closer approximations. These are what philosphers refer to as heuristics - that is, hacks and short-cuts that work most of the time – definitely not reliable knowledge.


What, then, can we practising architects bring to an enhanced exchange with researchers? A few books and articles that I’ve picked up over the years offer some direction.


Alvaro Siza writes with extraordinary directness about his Malagueira housing scheme, translated into English recently in the book ‘Imagining the Evident’[iii]. He gently punctures every superficial reading, recounting the turbulent political process and asserting the importance of logistical constraints. In the mid 1970s, when the project was conceived, there were significant material shortages, and Siza’s empathetic version of authorship was anathema to the revolutionary conception that ‘the architect is the hand of the people’. Perhaps his later eminence gave him the confidence to be this honest – he dispenses with any pretence of control.


In an essay titled ‘The Life of Buildings’, Rafael Moneo trains his forensic eye on the evolution of the Mezquita in Cordoba, drawing thought-provoking conclusions about the relation between durability and change. And Peter Smithson uses the simple expedient of walks through Oxford, Cambridge and Bath to explore the tension of city and institution, set-piece and as-found, part and whole.


In our asymmetric exchange with those who actually know things, we can offer these: a degree of self-knowledge, an understanding of intervening in the work of centuries, and a grasp of the city in all its complexity. Through practice, we can acquire partial knowledge of wholes. Put that together with deep knowledge of parts, and you really have something. 

[i] The Hybrid Practitioner. Building, Teaching, Researching Architecture. Eds. Caroline Voet, Eireen Schreurs, Helen Thomas. Leuven University Press, 2023.
Ebook available at: 
[ii] Communities of Tacit Knowledge: Architecture and its Ways of Knowing. 
[iii] Imagining the Evident. Alvaro Siza. Monade Books, 2021. 


This article was written by William Mann, of Witherford Watson Mann Architects, as part of the Architecture Foundation's Supporters Column.