The history of born-digital archives is very recent, and many questions about how to handle them are as yet unanswered. In what essential ways do analogue and digital archives differ from each other? What new stories about architectural history can digital archives tell us? How has the software that makes them developed? Do digital archives call for a different collection policy, and a different way of providing public access to them? Digital archives offer new possibilities for research and reuse, which so far are mostly unexplored.
Designing with digital tools
The first (partly) digital archive ever acquired by Het Nieuwe Instituut, in 2009, was Carel Weeber’s. It contains born-digital material from the period 1991–2008, mainly from Weeber’s work as a member of the Architecten Collectief. It has about 300 DRW (Micrografx files) that may have been created on an Atari computer between 1991 and 94. Weeber, who was one of the first in in the Netherlands to use an Atari, said he learned how to do so from his students. He admitted that only simple drawings could be made on it, consisting of circles and straight lines – which suited him, as he liked to design simple buildings.
In about four decades, computers and other digital tools have completely changed architectural practice – technically, and also conceptually. Software for architectural practice was first developed in the 1960s and 70s. With the advent of the personal computer, by the late 1980s and early 90s the use of software had become commonplace. Often, this meant CAD software, which had already been developed in other sectors, such as the car and aircraft industry, and animation and 3D modelling software from the film industry. Sometimes software was used simply for its wide practical potential to support the design process. But it also resulted in new creative applications and a new design language. Architectural firms also started developing their own software for specific purposes.
"The emergence of CAD allowed architects to realize architectures that previously remained in the realm of so-called ‘paper architecture’ exemplified by the works of visionaries such as Cedric Price or Lebbeus Woods. Before, such designs either geometrically or conceptually exceeded technological possibilities available at the time. New formal and philosophical considerations related to fluidity of form and mobility of architecture inspired many architects. "
The study Understanding Digital Architecture (2021-2022) highlights various ways in which the new tools were used and the specific innovations that accompanied them, such as new possibilities for data-based design, where the design process relies heavily on collected data concerning the behaviour of future users. MVRDV explored the relationship between data and space from their first ‘datascape’ projects in 1998. New possibilities for visualisation, expression and experience arose. Partly due to the further development of software, this led to the rendering culture, augmented reality and reality-immersive media, in which real and digital worlds flow into each other.
"The architectural rendering language went so far in creating alluring images as to create a distorted version of reality itself. Young architects tend to step away from the refined aesthetic of an architectural rendering. They associate it with purely commercial practice and see it as ill-suited for artistic expression."
Complex office archives
The use of digital tools influences the composition and structure of archives and sustainable accessibility. They have often led to the formation of complex office archives, within which the context of the design process is not always easily traceable. Designers and architects follow a creative and often intuitive way of designing, sometimes switching between analogue and digital media. The digital tools allow for a high degree of iteration, a repeating cycle of design, testing and customisation. As a result, all kinds of copies with new variants appear in an archive. The formation, composition and sometimes inadequate management of archives by archive creators also pose a number of specific risks for the sustainable accessibility of archives acquired by Het Nieuwe Instituut.
"The process of the recycling of ideas became a strategy for survival in the fast-paced new normal of architectural design. MVRDV goes as far as systematizing its own recycling methodology published in the Copy Paste book in 2017. This method of recycling ideas raises interesting questions for the notion of the original and its role in the acquisition process. What can be considered original in the realm of born-digital architecture?"
New opportunities for collaboration and communication also emerged in digital architectural practice, contributing to the internationalisation and expansion of offices and to the ‘dynamic networking’ of offices, functions, expertise and skills. The design process became faster, but also more complex and fragmented and therefore more difficult to archive. Digitisation therefore also has consequences for what we see as authorship and originality. Iteration and the hiring of digitally skilled and innovative designers play an important role in this.
"Internships at renowned offices became a necessity for young, ambitious architects. Those young practitioners and students were entering big offices not as much to learn how to design as to deploy their digital design skills. This practice has become a broadly criticised form of exploitation, but also a way of spreading the office’s DNA all over the world."
Valuing digital archives and making them permanently accessible is a major challenge. It involves preserving designs and the underlying design process, and providing insight into the use of software and the digital innovations that took place. The technological environment in which digital archives are created is constantly changing, which means that the obsolescence of the software and hardware environment and the loss of information always pose a risk and accessibility is never guaranteed.
Ania Molenda. Understanding Digital Architecture. Stories Born in the Digital Archive. Rotterdam: Het Nieuwe Instituut, 2022.
Understanding Digital Architecture establishes relationships between various Het Nieuwe Instituut research projects, such as the reassessment of the collection policy, research into analogue reproduction techniques, the digital archive of MVRDV and the establishment of a Digital Archive. The growing importance of digitisation and born-digital archives is a reason to choose the interaction between digital culture and spatial design from the 1970s as a collecting theme. Which archives of which actors reflect developments in digital architecture? The elaboration of this collective theme provides the framework for the evaluation and selection of digital archives.
Setting up a Digital Archive
Understanding Digital Architecture builds on lessons learned during the digital archive implementation process, including past research projects that have been part of it, such as Between Creators and Keepers, a first inventory of how digitisation has influenced the practice of six Dutch architectural firms, and the development of a Preservation Policy for the Digital Archive. Read more about preservation strategies for digital archives in the article Migrating and Emulation as Strategies for Het Nieuwe Instituut.
MVRDV - Tools
Most of MVRDV's archive consists of digital materials – a fact that vastly expands the possibilities for searching and learning from it. Six designers (including MVRDV itself) have developed six new digital tools to explore files from emails and Word documents to images and 3D models, offering new narratives and interpretations of the studio's work and history.
Setting up Het Nieuwe Instituut’s Digital Archive
Het Nieuwe Instituut is acquiring increasing numbers of digital archives of architects, urban planners and organisations working within these domains. This calls for a new approach to the sustainable management of digital materials. After a test project, the Digital Archive will be set up in 2020. This will facilitate the effective, correct and controllable management and preservation of the digital collection.