Archiving Architecture’s Legacies
The question is not readily answerable. While the archiving of all of the studies, sketches, drawings, and models leading up to the production of a building is often desirable – after all, these materials provide insight into the particular work of architecture’s reason for being – it is not practical to achieve without enormous difficulty and expense. And what the heck to do about digital files that become out dated every few decades or less? And should the institute that takes on the task necessarily be located in the home country? And is this a decision best left to the major museums or to the architects themselves?
If you aren’t that much involved with architecture, only rarely will you come across debates about the fate of archival materials belonging to architects who are still alive and kicking. When it comes to architecture gossip, though, media and the public alike will be the first to hit at the latest building that a starchitect has churned out somewhere around the globe. But things do change, and the recent polemics surrounding the destination of a famous European architect’s archive prompts us to pay more attention to a realm that is only supposed to nourish our growing vaults of ‘dead media’. As an exception to the rule of silence that surrounds architecture archives, you may actually have read the news on the merry acquisition of the Frank Lloyd Wright archives by the Museum of Modern Art and the Avery Library at Columbia University, in New York. Once it became apparent that the Foundation previously in charge of the legendary architect’s materials could no longer preserve them properly for future generations, higher interests came into play. After all, when a national hero’s legacy is at risk, local institutions – even private ones – will hopefully come forward with some solution to prevent major losses.
MoMA boasts one of the most important modern architecture collections in the world, and the addition of Wright’s archive was certainly irresistible. But it also constituted a major challenge for the museum. It is not by chance that there is only one other architectural archive in MoMA’s collection – that of the other great 20th century master builder who cast an enormous influence on North American architecture, German-born Mies van der Rohe. Architectural archives are huge, difficult beasts to tame.
The thing with architectural heirlooms is that they consist of tens of thousands of objects, both physical and virtual, which have to be sorted out, organised, filed, cleaned, digitised, and kept in pristine condition for ever after – if indeed they are to fulfil their role in future research, in new readings of artist’s ideas, and in upcoming presentations of their work to the public. The values involved in the acquisition of such immense quantities of material pale in comparison with the cost of their maintenance ad aeternum.
And if common sense suggests that the digital turn would eliminate part of the problems associated with the conservation of such archives, think twice. That the architect’s archives are now partially digital has only complicated things. Unlike with paper, digital platforms associated with the by-now prevalence of computer-aided design face rapid obsolescence. They have to be constantly migrated to new support systems before they become totally inaccessible. And this presents entirely new challenges regarding future study. Just ponder that in 20 years’ time nobody will grasp how the outmoded software is operated.
On the other hand, traditional offices living off the creative output of a singular architect have given place to sizeable companies in which, every day, tens or hundreds of architects deliver innumerable documents on a single project. While this dilutes authorship based on unique, signature pieces like hand-drawn sketches or a one-off presentation model of past glory, digital tools prompt a startling proliferation of new objects. With 3D printing, for example, a building is now preceded by hundreds of study models. Just imagine the space these takeup, particularly if you want to preserve them for future scientific interest on how great designs were bred.
This is why prolific, self-conscious practices such as Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, are currently building their own archival sites. The thinking goes that if you are to create storage space, you might as well conceive it as a museum. Going back to the roots of modern collecting, the materials and trivia related to architecture’s creative process become the stuff of novel, abundant ‘cabinets of curiosities’. While HdM’s museum is on the make, another Pritzker-awarded architect, Richard Meier, already displays his architectural models in a large New Jersey gallery. His so-called Model Museum opened to the public in early 2014. In taking-in these materials, museums must invest heavily in keeping huge amounts of stuff that may never see the light of a gallery room. Even if made accessible to researchers, most pieces will probably never be viewed by the public. The first exhibition organised after the death of one of Austria’s major post-war architects, Hans Hollein, currently on view at the MAK (Museum of Applied Arts and Contemporary Arts) in Vienna – fully illustrates this dilemma. Although vast and bursting with surprises, the show features but a fraction of the more than 1000 projects that define Hollein’s extensive, fertile career.
Even with such challenges, institutions and architects still believe there is an incredible worth in safeguarding these archives as a crucial part of our cultural heritage. This belief is not fed on nostalgia. These materials may help explain a lot about important sections of our built environment tomorrow. Yet, as in the case of writers’ archives, materials leading to artworks are mostly desirable because they illuminate how cultural advancements are effectively generated. As such, when the destiny of a key architect is at stake anywhere, it is only natural that even national interests rise to the fore.
The last time an architect’s documental legacy was displaced from his home country happened almost 20 years ago, when the integral works of Luis Barragan – certainly the most relevant architect in Mexico during the 20th century – were acquired by the Vitra Museum in Germany. Today, if you want to study this architect’s oeuvre, and thus compare his built achievements with the more than 30,000 drawings, plans, and documents that inform the architect’s intentions, you should make sure you are prepared to travel.
Now, the archive of another famous architect is again fuelling a heated debate. Portugal’s best known and most important living architect, Álvaro Siza, has had to take some tough decisions regarding his own legacy. Back in 2007, he had already conceived an architecture museum for his hometown in Northern Portugal, which would have been the destination for his highly valuable estate.
Yet, the economic crisis stalled the project, and no comparable institution in Portugal came forward to guarantee that his archives would be preserved and displayed for coming generations. He eventually decided that his prized materials were to join the holdings of other international architects at the highly respected Center for Canadian Architecture in Montreal.
The debate on this decision ranged from whether the archive of the Pritzker-prize laureate should be deemed a national treasure – which would prevent it from leaving the country – to the right of the individual to dispose of his own production. It also raised questions about how ready institutions are to take-on the onerous task of preservation, and about when the Portuguese State will face up to its responsibilities vis-à-vis one of the most internationally- acclaimed architectural productions of our day.
Álvaro Siza stipulated a donation agreement that involves the prestigious Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon and the Serralves National Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto, which he himself designed for the city. In doing so, he opened the way for local institutions to learn from a highstatus international player. Nonetheless, in future other relevant architectural archives will be made available in the country. Portugal, as well as other nations with a relevant architecture scene, should better prepare for those archives. The only question is whether or not they want to retain a major slice of history in a most relevant cultural endeavour. ‹