Because the computer is an indispensable tool in the design process, the National Collection for Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning, housed at Het Nieuwe Instituut, is increasingly collecting digital archival materials. Digital files are an important component of the archive of MVRDV, the architectural firm responsible for high-profile projects such as the Martkhal and the new Depot Boijmans van Beuningen, the vast glistening bowl in the Museumpark with a curved, mirrored façade. The conference Repositioning Architecture in the Digital included a workshop dedicated to MVRDV’s digital archive: Behind the Screens. It discussed a variety of topics relating to digital archives, such as acquisition, management and preservation, accessibility, usability and publishing.
In 2015, Het Nieuwe Instituut acquired the first part of MVRDV’s archive with materials from the practice’s first 400 projects. Because MVRDV has been working digitally since its foundation in 1993, the acquisition of its archive followed an unusual process. Normally, a selection of archival materials is made and arranged in boxes, folders and drawing tubes in Het Nieuwe Instituut’s storage facility. But in this case, in addition to the paper archive, there was also a small box that required special handling and which was crucial to the acquisition: MVRDV’s hard drive with five terabytes of data. Or rather, a copy of the hard drive, since MVRDV is also keeping the materials, which are still frequently consulted and reused for current and future projects.
“Het Nieuwe Instituut has acquired the MVRDV archive because it is an extremely important resource for research into developments in Dutch architecture over the past two decades,” explains Suzanne Mulder, curator at Het Nieuwe Instituut. “Architecture and digital culture are among the main themes in our new collecting policy. MVRDV has played an important role in the development of the computer as a design tool since the 1990s, through the development of its own software, but also through its interdisciplinary approach and design methodology of datascapes: designing new spatial plans based on digital data. In addition to architectural projects, MVRDV is also involved in research projects, books, websites, games, software, exhibitions, multimedia installations and even dance performances, and so these too are reflected in the archive.”
Het Nieuwe Instituut’s collecting policy focuses on the design process. Instead of preserving only the presentation materials for a project, such as final floor plans, sections, views and renderings (architectural visualisations), Het Nieuwe Instituut also aims to preserve the underlying design process that is hidden in digital files such as Rhino models, AutoCAD files and BIM libraries. But digital heritage is endangered. Numerous computer programs from the 1980s, 1990s and even more recent years have fallen into disuse. Some software companies no longer exist, and updates are no longer available for certain operating systems. So how can those files still be opened? The archive does not necessarily contain the old computer equipment on which the files were generated, so Het Nieuwe Instituut is looking for solutions to keep digital archives accessible.
Another issue arises with regard to the design process and digital archives. How was the software used at the time? Even with recent projects, this may be hard to understand because of the speed at which programs supersede one other. Also, different architecture firms use software in different ways. During the workshop, Georg Vrachliotis, Professor Theory of Architecture and Digital Culture at Delft University of Technology, talked about an experimental project he collaborated on at ETH Zurich in which several short films were made of someone working with different software on a computer, allowing the human-machine interaction to be recorded and studied afterwards. Suzanne Mulder added that she has conducted interviews with MVRDV employees and others involved in the design process in order to get an insight into the human stories behind the digital files so that the archive can be made more accessible. She has talked with them about how the digital archive was created and how it is used today. MVRDV itself is the main user of the archive.
The folder structure of Pig City
Digital archivist Frans Neggers is one of Het Nieuwe Instituut’s experts in the field of born-digital materials. He is currently evaluating the files in the MVRDV archive in terms of preservation and sustainable accessibility. The MVRDV archive is an important case study in the creation of an infrastructure for digital materials. He showed the folder structure of Pig City, an MVRDV project on land use from 2001. The folders include documents, renderings and films. In some cases, it is difficult to reconstruct the design process: what is the relationship between the various files and between them and the overall process? Which copies and versions were essential in the design process and which were not?
This information is important for the metadata associated with each archival object. But the design process was not linear. Jan Knikker, a partner at MVRDV, pointed out that the files are like an ecosystem. Understanding this ecosystem and indexing it clearly is a massive task. Here again, the importance of the conversation between the archive creator MVRDV and the archive managers comes to the fore. Frans Neggers explained the two biggest threats to digital heritage associated with the history of design software. The first is the loss or unintentional alteration of the digital object itself, for example by data degradation, also known as bit rot. This can be countered by a bit preservation strategy. The second threat is the obsolescence of the original software used to create the file: if the software no longer exists, the file cannot be read. One solution is to convert the file to an open file format, such as converting a Word file to a PDF, making it readable in the future.
The community of digital archivists meets regularly to discuss these issues, for example through the Dutch Digital Heritage Network. By working together, they can develop strategies and services that keep digital materials legible. An example of this is emulation, which aims to produce a ‘virtual simulation’ of the original technical environment of the hardware, operating system and software.
A living archive
Dirk van den Heuvel, head of the Jaap Bakema Study Centre, noted that MVRDV’s hard drive actually contains only one version of the archive, frozen in time. As long as MVRDV continues to build, the archive will continue to grow. And old design models, methods and components can end up in the practice’s new designs. Ellen Smit, curator at Het Nieuwe Instituut, remarked that many architects reused and copied their designs before the introduction of the computer. Architects’ archives usually contain several copies of a single design in different formats and with different annotations depending on the context in which they were used. It could be interesting to compare the paper copies and digital copies and study their role in the design process. Georg Vrachliotis posed the question: how can we approach these new ways of continuously copying and sampling theoretically? What is the remixability of the archive? Jan Knikker emphasised that this is mainly practical in nature: by using what is available, MVRDV can work faster and more creatively.
MVRDV sees its collection as an ecosystem or biotope, where countless parts can be preserved in a small device. For MRVDV, it doesn’t really matter how it is stored, as long as it can be used. It does not have to be kept in exactly the same condition in which it was originally created. Indeed, that may not even be possible. Het Nieuwe Instituut, of course, has a different perspective. As a heritage institution, it is a guardian of historical resources, and the collection managers try to stay as close to the original state as possible. Paradoxically, the copy of the archive at the MVRDV office will remain frozen while the copy in the National Collection can be consulted and will therefore undergo an evolution and migration. In this sense, the archive remains alive only in the institute, and not at MVRDV. This workshop made it apparent that there is a growing interest in living archives: archives that can continue to be used and continue to grow. In this context, Dirk van den Heuvel mentioned the tamagotchi of the 1990s: a virtual pet that can only be kept alive through constant attention and interaction.
The concept of the ‘living archive’ could help to further define the meaning of the digital in the National Collection for Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning.
Experiments are already underway with this ‘remixability’ of collections. Curator Eline de Graaf leads Open Archive, a project in which artists are given the opportunity to create a new media work using the digital collections of Het Nieuwe Instituut, the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision and the International Institute of Social History. De Graaf explained how creative reuse and artistic research contribute to keeping the collection alive. The media works do not have to relate to the object’s original context. How do artists approach this? How blurred can the boundaries between history and fiction become? In the previous edition of Open Archive in 2019, Donna Verheijden gave archival documents a new life by making them part of a thriller, while Guy Königstein used photographs and films of offices from the archives for his installation and made audio of fictional, uninvited visitors.
Accessibility is essential for Open Archives. Some works are copyrighted, which creates a possible stumbling block. That is a fairly straightforward issue, but those surrounding privacy and ethics are more complicated. De Graaf wondered whether, for example, personal letters or archives related to the colonial past should be dealt with differently. The workshop participants addressed this matter. Why should some records receive special treatment? Should collection managers contribute to the normalisation of certain subjects? What was not discussed in the workshop was that, once something is online, it can spread uncontrollably and end up in all kinds of new contexts, for example in memes or on a Pinterest board. What responsibility do archive managers have in this? It is clear that dealing with digital archives is still largely unknown territory, but it is now in full development at Het Nieuwe Instituut.
A public programme, including an exhibition, will be developed around the MVRDV archive in Octorber 2021. Flora van Gaalen, head of programming, concluded the workshop session with an introduction to the first exhibition idea: “The archive is incredibly specialised, and we have been given the fantastic task of making it public.” The programme will be more than a celebration of the iconic architecture firm’s built projects. It will also make tangible MVRDV’s way of working, which is interdisciplinary, networked and digital. The exhibition will also trace part of the history of the computer in architecture through MVRDV’s work: how architecture and design have evolved in relation to the digital revolution and the advent of the computer within the design process.
Behind the Screens
The Behind the Screens workshop was part of Repositioning Architecture in the Digital, the seventh conference at the Jaap Bakema Study Centre. The conference took a critical look at the interaction between architecture and digital culture since the 1970s. It was organised in association with Professor Georg Vrachliotis of Delft University of Technology.
- Flora van Gaalen, head of programming at Het Nieuwe Instituut
- Eline de Graaf, curator at Het Nieuwe Instituut
- Suzanne Mulder, curator at Het Nieuwe Instituut
- Frans Neggers, archivist as Het Nieuwe Instituut
- Ludo Groen, researcher at Het Nieuwe Instituut
- Jan Knikker, partner at MVRDV
- Marten Kuijpers, researcher at Het Nieuwe Instituut
- Marina Otero Verzier, director of research at Het Nieuwe Instituut
- Ellen Smit, curator at Het Nieuwe Instituut
- MVRDV – NEXT
- Dirk van den Heuvel, head of the Jaap Bakema Study Centre
- Georg Vrachliotis, Professor Theory of Architecture and Digital Culture at Delft University of Technology
Text: Soscha Monteiro, coordinator at the Jaap Bakema Study Centre
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