Rethinking the Archive; Memories for the Future
Since modernism, architects have been praising the idea of the Tabula Rasa (latin for blank slate), the erasure of the past and detachment from past forms and ideas. Avant-garde artists saw it as a way to free art from religion and hegemonic oppression, by prioritising colour and pure forms.
Every year we see a similar approach by students of architecture schools expecting to create a project that will sit far away from everything done before. My own such attempt showed me that trying to break free from the past with a tabula rasa is impossible. Logically, ideas are built on previous ones and thus every new breakthrough project is a step further than an older one. Even avant-garde forms couldn’t escape the past. Who cannot relate abstract grids to a Christian cross?
So, Tabula Rasa can erase a figural past but not a cultural one. So instead of a tabula rasa, we end up with a tabula plena (full slate). Our drawing board can never return to blank, and it rather becomes an accumulation of other people’s ideas. By recognising that, architects should seize looking for uniqueness and see their contribution to the field of architecture, as part of a larger network. We surround ourselves with inspiration. We look at other people’s work, we imprint them in our head and reinterpret them within our own work. That process which consciously or unconsciously happens, is the archival process.
Archives are seen as repositories of inert meaning. Places where ideas that seem irrelevant to the contemporary world go to die. Archives are misunderstood. They shouldn’t be seen as places that record the past to describe it but as places to create the future. To explain that I would like to borrow an example from neurology. Patients that lose the ability to create new log-term memory (*Anterograde Amnesia) are unable to respond to questions concerning planning the future. Therefore, one can understand that to imagine the future requires the past as a departure point. The brain constantly stores memories and in a continuous cycle performs actions by confirming the past. In that sense, our self is a composite of our memories. In the same way, the archive needs to work like a brain in the production process of architecture.
Design production and archiving become two parallel processes. The archival process goes through the stages of discovering, documenting, cataloguing and labelling. Cataloguing and labelling are important for the retrieval of information from the archival database. Documenting is important in transforming discovered artefacts to building material. All the accumulated material found on our drawing board, our notebooks and our brains are the architect’s building material in the design production. They are building material because they are stripped of their ability to describe the past, but they become a tool to create the future.
Archives are misunderstood probably because of their conventional organisation of corridors, shelves and boxes. They appear very similar to cemeteries. However, their understanding has already started to change through the use of digital technology. Websites and blogs are places that transcend geographical locations and physical arrangement. Information is easily accessible. The retrieval process has changed because the stage of labelling is not static anymore. Metadata, such as tags, comments, links etc. in tandem with search engines have created a dynamic form of retrieval which continuously shapes connections between ideas within the network. In this, the visitor of a website is an active participator that can even shape the information that he reads. Information that is more popular sometimes appears more relevant than something that might appear more alike. A google search of Rio will find equal amount of information on the city as on the Olympic Games currently that recently were hosted there. The online realm gives an end to the passive storing of memory.
As architects, we should understand our position in the discipline and position ourselves alongside others. Our own contribution to the discipline has the form of a landscape that is composed by all the fragments that we consciously or unconsciously put together. Archiving is the process of composing. Let us grasp this opportunity of creating the future appearing in the process of discovering the past, being either in boxes or in websites.
Article by Anatolios Stathiou