Order of Multitudes

Let the Bits Describe Themselves: Martien de Vletter on Born-Digital Archiving

Martien de Vletter is the Associate Director of Collection at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montréal. An architectural historian by training with expertise in twentieth-century modernism, de Vletter has spearheaded a number of initiatives in born-digital archiving at the CCA. In this conversation, we discussed how the shift away from traditional “paper” archives has opened new questions about architectural history, curating, and the relationship between technology and culture at large.

Michael Faciejew: Tell us about your trajectory as an archivist. How have your interests and training shaped your approach to architectural culture and archives?

Martien de Vletter: I am an architectural historian, and as a student I was particularly interested in the architectural history of former European colonies. It was not necessarily the colonial history that interested me but the migration of ideas and identities. While many scholars were looking for the “typical Dutch identity” of early 20th century buildings in Indonesia, for me there was much more complexity in the architecture of that time in cities like Jakarta and Bandung. My thesis on one of the architects, F.J.L. Ghijsels, a publication and an exhibition in Jakarta on his work, led me to the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI), where I started to work in the collection, processing the archive of J.J.P. Oud that covered a similar period (1910-1960), and was a part of the work that led to a publication and an exhibition on Oud. As an architectural historian, working with an archive always involved a curatorial or editorial objective. From that moment on I worked as a curator on other exhibitions and publications, both thematic (such as on architecture and urbanism in the 1970s, or on architecture in Indonesia) and monographic, historical and contemporary, often based on archival research.

This experience shaped my expertise and work at the CCA, where we want to be good custodians of donations and the collection but also challenge ourselves in finding new ways of investigating the Collection (which is not only referring to archives alone, but also library holdings, a prints & drawings collection, and a photography collection).

Michael Faciejew: How did the problem of the “born-digital” enter your work? How does that relate to the broader history of born-digital archiving?

Martien de Vletter: The problem of born-digital archives was already on the table when I worked at the NAI. I remember the 8-inch floppy disks in the OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) archive at the NAI that were inaccessible at the time. There were a lot of conferences and discussions going on; the GAU:DI program for example, that addressed the problem of preserving born-digital archives in the early 2000s. Institutions like the CCA, NAI, and others were concerned about the deterioration of relevant digital archival material. But in the 1980s and 1990s, exactly when architects shifted from manual to digital production, collecting institutions were still in the dark about how to address it.

The CCA started to receive born-digital material in the late 1990s. Not knowing what to do with it, only the physical appearance was typically described in the finding aid at the time.

The CCA was never very interested in how to overcome the technocratic question of how to preserve and give access to born digital material per se, but wanted to understand instead how digital technology has changed and shaped architecture. An important moment that illustrates this approach was in 2004, when the CCA organized the seminar Devices of Design: Architecture and Variable Media in conjunction with the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, also based in Montreal. We wanted to address what the use of digital tools means for architecture. Experts from various disciplines were invited to the symposium. The purpose was twofold: to examine the increasingly widespread use of digital media and software and the impact on architectural history and theory. The discussion was also meant to assess implications for the long-term management and maintenance of digital architecture archives. It took eight years of further investigation before the CCA seriously started to look into its born-digital collections. Around 2012 we started to acquire material for a project that came to be known as Archaeology of the Digital.

It began with a historical reading of the trajectory of digital architecture through 25 key projects from early experiments in the 1980s to work done in the 2000s. These projects, selected by architect Greg Lynn, were developed by key protagonists of the debate on digital technology in architecture, and each has influenced recent architecture history in a particular way while also creating distinct future problems for preservation. The research program as a whole resulted in an acquisition strategy for born-digital material (leading to the formation of a digital archive), three exhibitions, two print publications, and a series of electronic publications on each of the projects, which incorporated screenshots, videos, and original born-digital files from the archives alongside transcripts of interviews between Greg Lynn and the participating architects. The acquisitions could not have happened without these curatorial projects, and vice versa.

Michael Faciejew: How would you describe the changing role of the archivist in institutions such as the CCA, with the “digital” increasingly touching all aspects of cultural production? How does the conceptualization of preservation change when we think about the transition from traditional “paper” archives?

Martien de Vletter: When preserving and giving access to born-digital archives the CCA basically followed the same processes and guidelines as for paper archives. In both cases the archivist has to have an understanding of the design process out of which the archives are created. It is the task of the (digital) archivist to arrange, so a researcher can discover key moments in the design process. However, we found over time that some of our practices diverged significantly due to the challenging nature of digital design records (see the article by Tessa Walsh).

Owing to the large volume of files, as well as the wide range of formats represented, the CCA digital archivist had to build a number of tools to automate processing. This includes programs like Brunnhilde, a Python tool that generates a series of reports using Siegfried. Among other things, it flags problems (such as corrupted date stamps, unidentified file types, and other errors), which helps direct the processing archivists to specific problem areas in larger collections. In comparison with paper archives the issue for digital archives is not necessarily the volume or the scale but the fact that to access the wide variety of file formats in the project archives, it is often necessary to have a range of softwares. This requires digital archivists to know about software architects use, like CAD (computer-aided design) tools, from AutoCAD to Form-Z. Being a digital archivist in architectural archives therefore requires specific expertise.  

Description of the material follows guidelines that include: “Choose to guide, not to map”, “Let the bits describe themselves”, “Born-digital records may not reflect traditional architectural terminology/practice—don’t force terminology where it doesn’t fit”, and “Don’t spend excessive time at the file level”.

Michael Faciejew: What makes architecture unique when we consider born-digital archiving?

Martien de Vletter: The CCA is interested in the moment that the computer came into the design process, which was a moment of experimentation and exploration; not yet a moment of standardization. The born-digital archives at the CCA are therefore very specific in the sense that they include material designed with softwares that have become obsolete. The designs may not be spectacular, but the process is unique and often a hybrid between physical and digital material. Over time digital design processes are standardized. In general, this means the volume of digital material has increased compared with the 1980s and 1990s, and collaboration, especially in larger projects, has become more complex, but supporting software typically has become normalized.

Architects and designers did not start to work with digital tools in isolation. Other design industries like the airline industry started to use digital design tools earlier and in a more methodical way (though archiving of born-digital designs was as complicated for them as it would become for collecting institutions or architectural offices). As architects started to experiment with digital tools, collecting institutions, libraries, and archives moved from their original card index systems to the first basic databases, an improvement initially for internal management then for external search capability. So, as institutions like the CCA received their first born-digital material, these same institutions were implementing standard descriptions for physical archives while migrating written or typed cards to the first databases – hence a parallel problem. I should mention that the idea of standardized descriptions is relatively new: it was not until 1994 that the International Council on Archives (ICA) published its first standard, the General International Standard Archival Description (ISAD(G)). No standard descriptions were suggested for born-digital material at the time.

The parallel problem continues to be an interesting challenge for research and access, especially for born-digital material. Basic databases developed into more complex – still institution-specific – databases meant not only for management purposes but for research access to linked (open) data across different institutions. And this happened over a period of two decades, while digital collections kept growing.

It is not as if collecting institutions did not anticipate these developments. Phyllis Lambert, founder and first director of the CCA, wrote in the first CCA Policy Paper in 1982: Access to the collection will be through computer software and hardware. In a way, being a relatively young institution the CCA had the advantage of starting off quick with the first databases, and the idea behind this very brief statement was to be able to cross search the entire collection. However, it took the CCA at least thirty years to enable and, even further, to stimulate this way of searching. The significance of arrival of the google search box should not be underestimated as it has totally influenced our search behaviour.

Michael Faciejew: Can you discuss the three Archaeology of the Digital exhibitions and tell us about what they say the increasing digitalization of labor and culture?

Martien de Vletter: Though not planned at first, the three Archaeology of the Digital exhibitions followed a chronology. The first show, in 2013, consisted of records and artifacts in numerous forms: Computer-Aided Design (CAD) files in digital and printed form, physical models, textual records, and some computing hardware contemporary to the projects being investigated. For a show on digital practice, this exhibition was a heavily analogue show, reflecting the early stage of the technologies utilized, the fact that many files had been lost and only existed as printouts, and the hybrid processes of the architects.

The second exhibition, Archaeology of the Digital: Media and Machines, which opened in 2014, continued the first show’s investigation of computation as a design medium, while shifting focus slightly to explore the practices made possible by experimentation and new technologies, such as interactive media and algorithmic design – often carried out with many collaborators. This shift can be seen in the design of the exhibition itself: although Media and Machines contained several large and complex physical pieces, it also featured many more screens than were in the first show. Still, digital materials were shown not on modern, high-definition displays, but in forms that conveyed an archaeological approach to the projects.

Archaeology of the Digital: Complexity and Convention, the third show in the series, opened in 2016. Through the presentation of fifteen projects, it demonstrated various applications of technologies, such as sophisticated CAD software, high-fidelity visualizations, and three-dimensional (3D) printing in the design process. Whereas the curatorial method of the first two exhibitions emphasized individual projects based on their distinct and clearly defined digital approaches, the third exhibition was more synthetic: instead of singular practices, aspects of multiple projects were presented together. Through themes such as High Fidelity 3D, Structure/Cladding, Data, Photorealism, and Topography/Topology, archival material was dissected and reassembled to show how innovative design strategies from the recent past have now become convention. 

Michael Faciejew: How do concerns about data privacy and security impact digital archives?

Martien de Vletter: Issues of access and privacy are always a consideration and to some degree a concern for archives. Due to their size and volume born-digital archives bring their own specific concerns. As an institution the CCA provides access in a secure environment, but it also asks from its researchers to be prudent and careful when browsing the born-digital archives, for which the CCA developed an open-source digital archives access interface tool with Artefactual, called Objenic, streamlining access to born-digital archives preserved in Archivematica. The paradox is that, due to security restrictions and intellectual property considerations, born-digital archival material can only be consulted in the CCA Study Room, on locked workstations. In that sense, it is not so different from consulting a drawing by Scamozzi or the (physical) archive of Álvaro Siza at the CCA.

Michael Faciejew: What unexpected research opportunities have emerged through the CCA’s engagement with the history of digital culture?

Martien de Vletter: While our curatorial staff is most interested to see all digital files of one project, or of all projects by one architect (the top-down method dictated typically by finding aids, starting at the collection-level description and moving downwards until the appropriate material is found), we have seen a shift in users and searching in born-digital files. Now, researchers from the digital humanities or media studies (rather than architectural historians) consult our born-digital collection, and their research seems to have a more quantitative focus, with questions and intentions such as “How has 3D modeling software evolved over time?”, or “I want to see all Maya files produced between 1992 and 1995 across different archives”. The access interface tool in fact allows for scalable cross searches.

We did not really know what collecting born-digital archives would entail at the CCA when starting the project in 2013 (see for an overview our 2018 seminar). We were afraid it would be an extremely complex task, overly expensive, and with unclear outcomes from a research perspective. All reasons not to begin at all. At the same time not investing in this matter would neglect a very important subdiscipline of and period in architectural history. The CCA is interested in this highly particular and important moment in time and has thus articulated a specific curatorial approach. However, by doing so it allows for other unexpected kinds of research questions: into metadata at large, the history of technology and tools, the expectations and myths of the digital, and the intersectionality of the digital – a direction that CCA recently decided to explore with a new research project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities Initiativethat I hope will stimulate more and new research on and with the actual digital files.