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Archives. On The Genesis of Architectural Design


Margitta Buchert


This essay highlights the ‘archive’ as a productive and inspiring factor in architectural design. As one can observe in publications, interviews, and lectures of some contemporary architects as Sauerbruch Hutton, Brandlhuber I Kniess, Valerio Olgiati, John Pawson or EM2N for example, different kinds of archival operations might form triggers for the generic processes of basic conceptions as well as for project-oriented design actions and last but not least for the attitude and stabilization of the architects’ work and profile. With the lens of interpretations of the archive initiated by Michel Foucault and other French theorists of science and historians since the 1960s up to contemporary discourses, it is possible to show via analogies of acting and reflecting the powerful qualities of the ‘archive’ and of archival operations in the dynamic processes of architectural design.

This essay was first published in German, in: Fakultät für Architektur und Landschaft/Leibniz Universität Hannover (ed.), Hochweit 12, Hannover Internationalismus 2012, 9-15

This essay addresses the ‘archive’ as a productive and inspiring factor in the context of architectural design. As one can observe, for example, in publications and lectures of contemporary architects such as Sauerbruch Hutton, Brandlhuber I Kniess, Valerio Olgiati, John Pawson or EM2N, various archival activities create initiating impulses for the genesis of foundational concepts of architectural design, for project-oriented design actions and finally for the stabilization of attitude and profile. The term ‘archive’ first of all reminds one of the passed, of the previous and especially of an institution that collects, registers, categorizes, and seems to be very far away from innovative, creative thinking. New potentials for understanding design activity open up against the background of analogies of certain design-related ways of thinking and acting to the much-discussed understandings of archives linked with new activating dimensions, as they have been developed since the 1960s starting from Michel Foucault and other French philosophers and theorists of science (cf. Ebeling/Günzel 2009). By some, for example, the term ‘archive’ is closely associated in etymology and content with the Greek root ‘arché’, also included in the term ‘architecture’, which points to a generating beginning, an initial stage (cf. Derrida 2009: 31 and 44). But for what, when, and through what properties can an ‘archive’ be a beginning or a relevant part in design processes? Focusing on some instances of the medially conveyed insights of contemporary architectural practitioners into their individual design backgrounds, the term ‘archive’ is first used as a figure of thought and as a navigation device to trace a potential segment of architectural design competence and to learn to recognize and differentiate it a bit more clearly, despite all its vagueness. The occasion, character and potential usefulness of such individual ‘archives’ published and developed by architectural practitioners are shown.


‘Archive’ is the title of a monograph of works by Matthias Sauerbruch and Louisa Hutton published in 2006. With project presentations and various original texts, for example on color and space, museum construction or sustainability, they chronologically unfold their architectural work in theory and practice. They differentiate and at the same time connect heterogeneous areas of their own activity (Hutton/Sauerbruch 2006). In keeping with the character of work monographs, this publication contributes to self-understanding internally and to communication and profiling externally. Interesting in connection with the title ‘Archives’ is the attitude described in the text ‘Die wenigen Dinge, die wir über Architektur wissen’ (‘The few things we know about architecture’) ­ to explicitly pursue working on certain basic themes in the context of individual projects as well as in reflexive thought spaces as an essential and important part of one’s own architectural work (Matthias Sauerbruch, in: Hutton/Sauerbruch 2003: 228). This activity is connected with processes of ordering, which of course are not exhausted in chronology. It reduces complexity, structures experiences, and contours potential goals for further creative activity. Another version of such ordering processes is shown in a monograph published in 2003 by the architects Arno Brandlhuber and Bernd Kniess, which was produced in cooperation with the theorist Bart Lootsma and the photographer Markus Raeder (Lootsma/Raeder 2003). The title ‘Index’ is reminiscent of locating systems in books or archives. Diagrams, models, drawings and views of the office’s projects have been arranged for orientation purposes and commented on by the theoretician Bart Lootsma with structuring remarks on guiding themes of the architectural work as well as on principles and methods of b&k+’s design action. The texts and graphics on, for example, the topoi of landscape, material, structure or instruments and principles are presented in a manner comparable to a guide to thinking and/or acting. From the almost infinite reference fields in architecture, in such configured monographs of works, selectively and weighting content deemed relevant is highlighted, stabilizing the basic concept of the architects as well as revealing and condensing guiding themes and approaches. These archival configurations contain transferable design-relevant cores that can also be of effect beyond the individual office in the sense of impulses and starting points for something new. Michel Foucault described archives as conditions under which statements emerge in a culture (Foucault 1988: 187-­190 as well as Gehring 2004, 63 – ­66). With reference to knowledge-generating and historiographic practices, he saw archives not only as repositories of documents of various kinds. Future-oriented in their potential, he interpreted them as initiatively activating impulses that contain hints of what is yet to come and emphasized their performative quality.


In contrast to an arbitrary or dispersed collection or hodgepodge of life, what is meant here by ‘archive’ refers to an intentionally ordered context. ‘Archive’ relates to a whole that is at least partially systematized, indicating in some way possibilities and impossibilities of architectural design, but without determining specific configurations. The Graubünden architect Valerio Olgiati describes that he generates his designs and the development of the resulting buildings on the basis of ideas that conceptually grasp the architectural intention, which are guided by rules and formed by an inner logic (Olgiati in: Breitschmid/Olgiati 2008: 44 and 46). In various media, Olgiati also presented an attempt to explain his architecture through a selection of images that do not show his own projects, but rather cultural products of different provenance as a field of reference: Prints and paintings with various themes, floor plans and sections of buildings, as well as photographs of architecture, gardens, and landscapes, or even of a wooden joint, a lamp, a covered dining table (Olgiati 2006: 133­ -141; Olgiati 2011).(fig.1) According to Olgiati, the 55 references, filtered out of a much larger number through various processes of reflection and selection, influence his architectural work as motif, composition or content and are always present. Olgiati called this personal ‘archive’ ‘Iconographic Autobiography’ (Olgiati 2011: n.pag.). The title recalls the architectural design philosophy of Italian architect Aldo Rossi, which was highly influential for decades, particularly in Switzerland, and his ‘Scientific Autobiography, published in 1972 and referring back in its title to a paper of the same name by quantum theorist Max Planck. In the composition Rossi saw the autonomy of the architect, whose generic field he wanted to show in a biographically descriptive way. Rossi’s thought formations, which are only very vaguely contoured, form offerings for perception that approach a design-relevant reality, but only partially decipher it (cf. Bosshard/Luchsinger 2011: esp. 168 and 179).

In contrast to Rossi’s more poetic narratives, Olgiati’s work is dominated, at least in its present state, by the ‘faster’ cognitive medium of the image, as already indicated in the reference to the iconographic. The illustrative presentation via images is combined with the attempt to describe the qualities relevant for the imagination of one’s own designs, at least to some extent, also by language. In the additive presentation and sequence of the illustrations, overarching themes can be perceived in parts and in others they remain hidden. With regard to the understanding of intentions and concrete design decisions of his own work, for Olgiati himself the knowledge is so far still incomplete, in an unfinished process (Olgiati 2006: 134). Thus, in addition to the provenance of the illustration, in some places he also names phenomena of architectural design that are represented for him by these examples. He associates properties of precision, for example, with a side wall of the Inca temple at Machu Picchu or a simple wooden joint from the Japanese craft tradition. In a majority of the floor plans presented, for example, of the 2000-year-old pre-Columbian temple at Mitla, a typical 17th-century Patrician house from Graubünden, or Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Feilnerhaus in Berlin from 1829, it is the ambivalences of external clarity and internal complexity that account for Olgiati’s interest. Here, the explicit observation and thematization of design-relevant references led to a certain degree of orientation through archival action. A kind of intermediate level emerged that contains potentials for the formation and transformation of design configurations (cf. Foucault 1988: 188).

Fig. 2: John Pawson, Cover Minimum, New York: Phaidon Press 1996, Photo: a_ku

Fig. 3: John Pawson, Inside Minimum: 172-173, New York: Phaidon Press 1996, Photo: a_ku

In publications on design backgrounds, which, like Olgiati’s tableaus, focus more on one’s own reservoir in their content, detached from specific individual projects, the researching creative side of the activity of ‘archiving’ emerges in significant facets. The English architect John Pawson repeatedly names this intention in his books such as ‘Minimum’ or ‘Visual Inventory’, which are also published specifically alongside the monographs of works. With ‘Minimum’ he attempted to go into the depths of the phenomenon of reductive design that transcends cultures and times and which also strongly guides his own work on different scales (Pawson 2002)(fig.2 and fig.3). Through analytical and analogizing observations, with photographs of objects, people, artworks, architectures, and landscapes, he accumulates and presents the principle of reduction in the qualities he considers essential, accompanied by a foundational text on the relevance of minimal design in contemporary culture and brief pictorial explanations at the end of the book (ibid., 7­21 and 284 – 313). The conglomerate is structured by subheadings focusing on various properties of the phenomenon in terms of content. The idea of the ‘minimum’, in connection with order and clarity, not only takes on a guiding function in his thinking and work, but also has an impulse-giving and influencing effect on other creative people in design professions through these publications. The ‘archive’ of the architect with basic elements of perception and design on the phenomenon of the minimal precedes the individual design case with its specific conditions. It emerged through order and structuring and marks the field of a basic conception for designing.

Fig. 4: John Pawson, Cover Visual Inventory, New York: Phaidon Press 2012, Photo: a_ku

Fig. 5: John Pawson, Inside Visual Inventory: 20-21, New York: Phaidon Press 2012, Photo: a_ku

John Pawson’s publication ‘A Visual Inventory’, the title of which is again reminiscent of archival practices, also offers a potential for design in the sense of a diverse and at the same time limited reservoir that holds something ready, available, that can be updated in different situations. (fig.4) From an immense number of digital photographs on design phenomena such as light, material, proportion, rhythm, or spatial depth, Pawson filtered out 272 photographs. These are presented in groups of two with short narrative explanatory texts and without further thematic structuring in a sequence that is loosely linked. (fig.5) Pawson himself refers to this segment of his body of collections as an ‘archive’ (Pawson 2011: 9). He describes photographing and photographs in the introductory text as important instruments of his own design work. In the ‘archive’ they act as an impulse for thinking, for imagination, for ‘designing’ spaces. Drawing, according to Pawson, then only serves to record the results of a process that has already taken place (Pawson 2002: 17; Pawson 2012: 5).

This is partly reminiscent of Gerhard Richter’s ‘Atlas’ project, which the German artist began in the 1960s and still carries on. It consists of his own photographs as well as collected images from various print media. The diverse motifs are thereby archivally accumulated and arranged into thematic groups in ordering processes. The ‘Atlas’ tableaus are created in parallel and in interaction with Richter’s painterly and installation works. They form an integrative part of the genesis of the work (Buchloh 1999: esp. 118). In contrast to this, and perhaps due to the more complex origin situations and genesis conditions of architectures, John Pawson’s (picture) archives remain rather prerequisites of the possibility for respectively specific articulations of design qualities. In Pawson’s work, photography functions as a segment of architectural design activity, comparable to sketching, which for other architects such as Santiago Calatrava or Álvaro Siza, for example, forms the sensitization for overarching design themes of spatial organization. Both ways of forming contexts in the genesis of architectural design can be described as widespread and relevant parts of design activity in architecture. With the particular possibilities of digital technologies, the quantity of photographic records is increasing, and in design processes the possibilities of overlapping photography and drawing can also be used in a more versatile way. Yet even in these contexts, it is processes of archiving such as the selection, the editorial process, the active organizing, and the thematizing that lead to the acquisition of knowledge and can act as catalysts (cf. also Ernst 2002, 136-­137; Pawson 2012: 9).


There is more than one answer to the question of how these often highly subjective processes can be incorporated into collaborative design in the context of concrete projects. An internal office reference catalog, as fostered by Mathias Müller and Daniel Niggli, who have been working as the architectural firm EM2N in Zurich since 1997, forms one variant of this. In the 2009 published work monograph ‘Sowohl als auch (engl.Both And)’, whose conception as well as content orientations the architects devised together with the architectural theorists Ilka and Andreas Ruby, provides some references to this (Ruby 2009). (fig.6) For EM2N, the work on the monograph of works should assertively contribute to the recognition of priorities in future work (ibid.: 5). The architects titled a text integrated in dialogue form, developed from interviews with the theorists, ‘How we became what we are. A professional biography of EM2N’ (Müller/Niggli 2009). Therein it becomes clear how contours of their design attitude evolved, of which the basic theme is the multifaceted thematization of the relations of inside and outside (cf. ibid.: 23 and 33). The biographical narratives are not only interwoven with reflexions on their own basic stance. They also describe the processes of individual project conceptions with numerous references to other architects and architectures.

Fig. 6: EM2N, Cover Sowohl als auch, Zürich: gta Verlag 2009, Photo: a_ku

In addition to the verbal articulation, a presentation of image tableaus was also provided. (fig.6) These reinforce the conveyed content through a ‘visual’ discourse that extends the range of references far beyond what is said. The combination of words and images illustrates, differentiates, and structures through a taxonomic organization. Gathered on one page each, the up to ten illustrations show elevations, sections, and views of architectures as well as landscape and urban open spaces, assigned to groups on design qualities such as ‘Deep Surfaces,’ ‘Spongy Structures,’ ‘Hybrid Houses,’ or ‘Transformations.’ At the same time, the archive is detached from the heaviness of the tradition (cf. also Foucault 1988: 188­ – 189). Theorists Andreas and Ilka Ruby compare this way of organizing references to the art scholar Aby Warburg’s unfinished Mnemosyne Atlas, which was created in 1925­ – 29 (Ruby 2009: 6). With the picture atlas, Aby Warburg wanted to show the afterlife of ancient patterns of representation of movement forms in the humanistic European tradition up to his own present in tableaus with significant illustrations (Warnke 2003). The tableaus have synoptic qualities that can generate insights that go beyond the individual representation. Not only does a comprehensible framework emerge via the structuring selection. Through the combination and correlation of several different images, what is not obvious becomes perceptible as something overarching and constant. Design knowledge and imaginations can emerge. For EM2N, these actively organized example synopses represent an operative resource for the further development of their design action (cf. Bideau 2009: 214).

Fig. 7: EM2N, Cover Sowohl als auch: 32-33, Zürich: gta Verlag 2009, Photo: a_ku

Archiving Activating

In the multiplicity of practices in architectural design and in connection with the diversity of all simultaneous influences and factors in the concrete project-related design process, ‘archives’ can be equipped with the widest range of inventories. Regardless of the specific content from which they are generated, archiving with the activities exemplified here incorporates spaces of design reality and opens up spaces of design possibilities.

Intuition and creativity are recurrent descriptive models for architectural design processes or moments with which other approaches and ways of reflexion seem to be excluded (cf. Cross 1999: 29). However: creative agents are characterized in particular by flexible and skillful decision-making, by attention to novelty and gaps in knowledge, and especially by the use of knowledge as a basis for new ideas (Cf. Buchert 2011: 78­ – 79). Creativity springs from knowledge repositories. ‘Archives’ can function as intermediate levels where elementary processes of knowledge production for designing are located. Archiving describes specified practices of reductive ordering, selective organizing and weighting structuring, which produce conditions that would not have emerged without the archival actions. Starting from these ‘archives’, a multitude of variants can emerge as well as new things can be generated. The conscious or unconscious knowledge of what connects is added as an imaginative capacity (cf. Valéry 1998: 15). Archiving in this way corresponds neither to a purely logical procedure, nor to a procedure determined only intuitively by chance. In contrast to parametric design processes, in which there are geometrically exactly determinable algorithmic parameters that logically define relations between elements in a model, the archival processes described here are reference fields in design developments that are characterized by areas of fuzziness. Precisely with this imperfection, they also generate a surplus that opens up a high potential for development (cf. Ernst 2002, 129; Rheinberger 2006: 226; Sennett 2008: 260). Thus, ‘archives’ appear as instruments that can play a coordinating and a generative role in the creative context of architectural design.

© Margitta Buchert 2012


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