Paper is patient; bits and bytes, however, continually demand attention. For instance, the blue-prints of De Meerpaal in Dronten (Frank van Klingeren 1965-67) are stored at the State Archive for Architecture and Urban Planning. Researchers can request access to them, and are able to view the drawings on long, high tables. But how will we consult the oeuvre of an early 21st century architect fifty years from now? Will it be viewable at all? This essay by Behrang Mousavi - Manager of the Heritage Department of Het Nieuwe Instituut - was published previously on Archined.
Cultural heritage institutions are tasked with ensuring that meaningful objects and information produced during our lifetime remain accessible for future generations. For years, different types of objects were categorised into groups, and held in separate collections: to consult sources, you visited a library to borrow books, and a museum to admire historic objects. Rapid computerisation and the development of the internet also mean that now, the same digital sources are collected in the once very different institutions, and in quantities never previously anticipated. This is due in part to the large-scale digitisation of authentic sources. At the same time, the type of born digital objects such as websites, blogs, tweets and multimedia applications, is growing at a prodigious rate.
Digitisation also creates other forms of accessibility and, with this, other kinds of use. Physically separate collections are now accessible by means of over-arching portals or linked data, and are easily connected to each other. This has opened up unprecedented opportunities for research and the use of these collections, and led to new contexts and new user groups. The documentation of this contemporary digital material is complex, partly as a consequence of the enormous amount of data available on ever-changing new formats, from official documents to artists’ personal email correspondence, and from tweets about important events to news sites. However, this raises the question of what should be preserved for the future: which objects will reflect our future history and remain accessible for future generations? Where paper was literally patient, a conversation on Facebook is difficult to transform into a collective debate, quite apart from the existence of forces that appear to impede the gradual formation of a collective memory.
This topical challenge facing heritage institutions also raises questions regarding topics such as authenticity and reliability, intellectual property, selection, privacy, and internationalisation. And presents us with enormous challenges: ongoing technological developments that make it impossible to open ten-year-old files, rapidly increasing volumes of data – a few years ago, a 1MB image was considered heavy – the high costs of digital preservation, new user groups with a variety of expectations, and the increasing dependence on constantly changing technology force us to make choices.
Canadian Centre for Architecture
Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) In view of the above, in 2015, the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) introduced a digital preservation policy that each year, in response to new technological advances, updates changing policy decisions and financing opportunities. Some years before, in 2012, the CCA launched the project Archaeology of the Digital, led by Greg Lynn. The multi-faceted long-term programme comprises comprehensive research and a historical reading of twenty-five important projects that integrated digital techniques into the design process: from early experiments of the 1980s to work dating from the beginning of this century, including both digital and analogue material. The architects of the twenty-five projects (and many of their staff) were interviewed to gain a clear understanding of the ideas behind the design and the relevant context, and to help determine how best to treat and archive the digital files. In addition to research and preservation, exhibitions supported by physical and digital publications are an integral component of Archaeology of the Digital.
The CCA currently manages 7 terabytes of digitally born archives. The material is of interest to architects and (PhD) students, as well as (art) historians whose research concentrates specifically on the process, such as software developed especially for the project or the context which gave rise to a design. The oldest digital files were created in the 1980s and include not only digital drawings or other design material in the form of AutoCad files, but audio-visual media, too. The CCA has since succeeded in making 80% of the 7 TB accessible for research although, once the most recent acquisitions have been processed, that number will rise to around 15 TB. Such quantities are indicative of the challenge facing a heritage institution. The costs involved in digital depots that are set up to safeguard the accessibility of catalogues and the data produced, are extraordinarily high. Nonetheless, digital preservation, and born digital material specifically, are high on the agenda of the CCA. Substantial budgets have been reserved for the years ahead, earmarked for dealing with the equally substantial growth – there are no backlogs now to speak of. And this is in addition to challenges such as data cleaning, ensuring the accessibility of software that has since become obsolete or unknown, for which ‘first step’ preservation of the original files presents a sizeable dilemma.
From the architect to Het Nieuwe Instituut
How does the State Archive for Architecture and Urban Planning, part of Het Nieuwe Instituut, approach digital conservation? The State Archive for Architecture and Urban Planning consists of approximately 18 kilometres of archives and collections, around 2500 models and an extensive library collection. The archives and collections acquired since the late 1980s include digital material. The first archive comprising a sizeable amount of digital project files was that of Carel Weeber, which was acquired in 2009.
When a digital archive is transferred from a firm of architects to Het Nieuwe Instituut, the context and management regime change. While at the agency, the archive’s primary purpose was to support the design process and other functions. At Het Nieuwe Instituut, the mission and collection policy of the Heritage Department of Het Nieuwe Instituut assigns the archive another meaning, one that relates primarily to the mission and collection policy of the Heritage Department, notably: to document Dutch architecture and urban planning, and the design process in particular. Moreover, the primary objective is to preserve and conserve such heritage forever, for cultural and historic reasons. These two contexts make different demands of management, preservation, description and accessibility. Where architectural firms generally pay little attention to digital sustainability, as an institution with a heritage mandate, Het Nieuwe Instituut is keenly aware of the need to preserve digital archives for posterity.
The previous reference to the issue of obsolete or degraded software or data carriers is illustrative. And this process of obsolescence is accelerating at breakneck speed. With a preservation and conservation strategy specifically tailored to these demands, the majority of data created digitally will be impossible to access within a couple of decades. When an institute has the choice between analogue and digital archives with precisely the same information, institutes such as HNI and CCA will frequently opt for the analogue version of a file. Such a choice is, however, increasingly rare. In analogy with the CCA, this prompted Het Nieuwe Instituut to launch a research trajectory on the basis of a case study relating to the acquisition of the archive of MVRDV. MVRDV, one of the world’s most distinguished firms of architects, gifted its archives to Het Nieuwe Instituut in the autumn of 2015. This archive is largely composed of born digital material. It contains the files of all projects, realised and unrealised, designed between 1991 and 2008, and is 5 terabytes in size. The digital archive alone contains presentation brochures, floorplans, cross-sections, renderings, texts, diagrams, photos, 3D animations, audio-visual material, emails and correspondence. In addition to computer files, MVRDV also donated a selection of models, and the firm’s paper archive.
The importance of the archive of one of the Netherlands’ most renowned firms is self-evident. Yet this archive is all the more exceptional in that the born digital portion of the archive cannot be considered separately from the analogue parts of the archive, most notably the models. MVRDV is a research-driven firm: an enormous number of variants are tried out during the design process. This may involve making models, mostly from blue foam, and using software programmes like Roxit or AutoCad. The models are intimately related to the digital archive. In many cases, the designs are a pairing of and interaction with digital and analogue designs. Sometimes, the models act as a ‘reality check’ for a digital drawing or rendering. And sometimes (photos of) models are reused in animations and other digital presentations. Another unique feature of this digital archive is that it shows that, in a great number of projects, MVRDV used computers intensively in the creation of new architecture, and also worked with programmers to develop their own software to create their iconic ‘datascapes’.
With this, the MVRDV archive is an unrivalled, rich source of research into today’s culture of architecture and design, whilst also doubling as the ultimate case study in researching the further development of the State Archive. The initial findings of the internal investigation reveal that this digital archive is categorised according to a more or less consistent template, which does not apply to earlier projects. Older documents often appear to have a more random structure. The dossiers regularly contain files that evade identification, or have an unclear status. Duplicated files can often be found (files stored using different software). The MVRDV archive also contains a great many CDs that we were unable to open. These early research outcomes are of vital importance for the institute in designing the future processes and structure of the digital archive.
Based on this preliminary segment of the survey, it is clear that an entirely new working method is required to evaluate and select digital archive material. In order to select material, the collecting institute will need to gain insights into the agency’s design process. In this instance, the questions will address fundamental issues such as: given the diversity of the files of a specific project, which ones are most important, where and how does the archive reflect the design process in general and highlight the moments of inventiveness and creativity in particular? Because it is these sections of the archive that must first be sustainably preserved, and made accessible to ensure that information of vital cultural and historic importance is not lost due to outdated software.
The advancing digitalisation of our society has a fundamental impact on our archives, subjecting our once so stable memory to the same dynamism that propels technological advances. A meaningful answer, however temporary it might be, is essential and the institute has resolved to engage with this issue, internally and externally, on the basis of a case study. In partnership with the Jaap Bakema Studiecentrum and the Research&Development department, Het Nieuwe Instituut will devote an exhibition to the archive and, specifically, conservation, preservation and strategies associated with it, in September this year.
Finally, here are a few tips on the subject of digital project archiving for designers:
- Work systematically, paying particular attention to systematising the data in a way that is also clear to outsiders.
- Make sure to specify the technical details of the software
- Make sure that meta data can also be included in the migration to a readable system
- If you encounter difficulties, ask specialists at relevant heritage conservation institutions for advice (and help) on how best to structure the archiving process.
This article was realised with the support of the following individuals: F. Neggers, S. Mulder (Het Nieuwe Instituut); M. de Vletter, T. Walsh, G. Borasi, Adria Seccareccia (Canadian Centre for Architecture), and Marcel Ras (NCDD)