MVRDV is transferring its archive to Het Nieuwe Instituut. It is the first major archive to be added to the State Archive for Architecture that consists primarily of digital materials. This fact was the subject of an evening’s discussion held on 22 October 2015. Jacob van Rijs, architect and partner at MVRDV, Manon Janssens, head of exhibitions and archives at Zaha Hadid Architects, Suzanne Mulder, heritage expert at Het Nieuwe Instituut, and Annet Dekker, researcher on digital preservation, discussed the preservation and management of digital archives. The discussion was chaired by Flora van Gaalen and Maarten Kloos.
Management and romance of the digital archive
MVRDV is transferring its archive to Het Nieuwe Instituut. The acquisition of this archive is remarkable for a number of reasons. First of all, MVRDV is one of the most important Dutch architecture firms, celebrated internationally and working on projects all over the world. Secondly, it is the first archive made up largely of digital files to be added to the national archive for architecture.
When establishing their office, the partners at MVRDV (Winy Maas, Jacob van Rijs and Nathalie de Vries) did not invest in drawing boards, as had been customary up to that point, but in computers, Jacob van Rijs explained. ‘We were educated with ink, but we started to work on computers.’ The very words Arkey, MiniCAD and Attari raised a chuckle among the audience. A large portion of the MVRDV archive therefore consists of what is known as ‘digital born’ material. Some of it cannot be opened by the office today because it is stored on floppy disks that are no longer accessible using current computers and software. And so we arrived at the first question of the evening: what is needed to ensure access to digital archives now and in the future?
Manon Janssens recalled that when she started at Zaha Hadid Architects in 2003, wonderfully organized CDs were made after the completion of each project. Today, however, the office can no longer open those CDs. That has no effect on how the office itself uses the archive now, she explained, because the image bank of drawings saved as JPG, TIFF and PDF files is still easy to access, and that is used as reference material for new projects. Problems emerge with CAD files, for example, because you need earlier versions of the software and hardware to open old files. Depending on the project, the designers at ZHA work with so many different types of software that they often can’t even open one another’s files.
Annet Dekker, who researches digital preservation, put everyone’s mind at ease. Old digital files can certainly still be opened, she explained. All you need are the right computers and software. Material was even extracted from computers destroyed inside the Twin Towers by means of ‘digital forensics’. Indeed according to Dekker, you could argue that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to lose material.
Moderator Maarten Kloos asked her whether in the future we might develop one single system to open any type of file. Unlikely, she answered. Software and hardware is produced by various companies, and each of them develops its own system. Even open source programmes will not always remain accessible for everybody. Moreover, JPG and TIFF files are not destined for eternal life. Dekker referred to the phenomenon of ‘bit-rot’. Copying results in the loss of bits and bytes and an accompanying decline in the quality of files. A digital copy is never an exact copy, since something is always lost. In archiving digital material, one must therefore pose the question: what do you want to preserve and how do you want to preserve it? How do you want to present the material in the future? Herein lies a task for architects, she believes, because you shouldn’t wait until the end of a project or oeuvre before starting the job of archiving material.
For architects, in this case MVRDV, the fact that the proper maintenance and management of an archive costs a lot of time and space was precisely the reason to hand it over to Het Nieuwe Instituut now rather than later, for example when the founding partners of MVRDV eventually leave the office. According to Van Rijs, the office hopes to arrive at a good system of archiving together with Het Nieuwe Instituut, one that is beneficial not only to the office but also to scholars who wish to study the material.
According to Dekker, we should not become fixated on the state of the objects or files themselves. You can also approach the digital archive as basic material for making new translations. Architects do that themselves by reinterpreting parts of earlier work in new projects or exhibitions. Dekker made a comparison with the archives of theatre or dance performances, which are ephemeral and can only be preserved when translated into other forms. They are often performed again, and each performance is different, but the essence remains the same. Things change over time. That applies to a painting by Rembrandt just as easily as it does to a digital file, a file that compels us to adopt a point of view, to make choices.
One employee at the collections department of Het Nieuwe Instituut has been there for a very long time, Dekker continued. That man (Alfred Marks, ed.) knows everything. He can tell remarkable stories about tiny details and can make connections. Such a source of knowledge would, she thinks, be ideal in a digital environment. How do you render those sometimes unexpected relations visible in a digital archive?
The collection at Nieuwe Instituut contains the archives of some six to eight hundred architecture firms, extending back to the nineteenth century. According to Suzanne Mulder, what makes the approach of Het Nieuwe Instituut so special is that it not only preserves drawings and models of completed projects, but also devotes a lot of attention to the material produced around designs, and that material offers all sorts of information about the design process. That is different to the approach of the Centre Pompidou, for example, which has collected models by MVRDV as independent works of art.
Making choices was always the most important aspect of the collection policy at Het Nieuwe Instituut, explained Mulder. But for her, the arrival of digital archives raises the question whether you should select material or whether you are better off saving everything and investing in opening up access to the archives and establishing relationships within them.
But there are other changes taking place. Het Nieuwe Instituut increasingly views architecture as a reflection of society, she stressed. Previously, the institute worked with a long list of architects whose archives it sought to secure. Now it also looks at what architectural developments were important in a particular period, and the collection then focuses on those.
From the audience, architecture critic Hans van Dijk asked about other material that is so important to researchers: letters to and from clients, contractors and relations, and all the paperwork containing information about an architecture practice. How is this issue addressed in a digital era?
Mulder agreed that letters, contracts and notes are the material most often consulted by researchers. The archive of Het Nieuwe Instituut is full of drawings, and this is great for architects and for the public, but it is rarely used for academic research. Scholars are especially interested in the written material, and the most personal and private sections of an archive prove the most popular. Mulder cited the example of the notebooks belonging to Hertzberger, in which he made sketches of buildings next to shopping lists and other personal notes. How is that with digital material? Will the archive provide access to all emails from MVRDV? Should twitter feeds be preserved? Information about the social context in which the work is created is of great importance to researchers.
A colleague of Mulder’s in the audience drew attention to another aspect: the so-called toolkit of the architect. Information about the tools used by the architect, about developments in the construction process, budgets, techniques, is just as important as the drawings and models that have always been the focus of attention. Such a toolkit allows you to research how working digitally has influenced the way of designing. What do we need to file in the archives to be able to tell that story? Should we also start collecting software?
At the end of the evening, one could detect concern among the audience about the loss of adventure. If archives are digitalized and can be consulted anywhere, can researchers still make unexpected discoveries and visit special locations? To Mulder, the MVRDV digital archive is just as adventurous as a paper archive. She doesn’t see any difference. First of all because it’s pretty chaotic, and also because the material is so wide-ranging, consisting as is does of scans, emails, film material, interviews and so on. Archives that are not strictly arranged are in any case the best, Mulder pointed out, because there’s more to discover.
Nostalgic yearning for the personal signature of the architect and coffee-stained drawings were parried with examples of finds in digital files. For instance, a researcher told about a CAD file from the archive of Cahen, in which he had come across hidden layers of small drawings that hadn’t made the final design drawing. Digital does not necessarily mean clean and clear, Dekker added. Rather, it is layered and can be read. Romantic discoveries can be made in digital files too.
The emergence of digital archives raises new questions about collecting, access, management and preservation. One of the conclusions of the evening was that researchers and archivists must work with architects to formulate answers. One thing was certainly beyond dispute: the MVRDV archive is a good test case.
Report by Lotte Haagsma
More on the subject
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New Archive Interpretations
Het Nieuwe Instituut invites artists, designers and researchers to reflect on the influence and impact of the digital archive in relation to its digital predecessor, the paper archive. Richard Vijgen, the Thursday Night guest on 17 September 2015, was the first in this series of New Archive Interpretations. He was followed by design duo Template, and recently artist and writer Erica Scourti recently started her research.
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