Ar­chi­ves of ar­chi­tec­tu­re: on the ro­le of ar­chi­ves and their ab­sen­ce

English Article

Fifteen years after a first paper on the role and function of architectural archives, has ventured out to encounter international institutions devoted to this mission. This editorial project coincides with one of our own goals for 2021: to highlight the archival material of the espazium publishing group.

Data di pubblicazione

In this age of digitalisation and mass “googlization”, architectural archives are resurfacing. With the recent creation of two new institutions – first of all in Bern with the association Architektur Archive and then in Geneva with the opening of l’Architrave, part of HES-GE – the network of organisations devoted to cataloguing architecture and engineering is growing, thus strengthening Switzerland’s role as leading reference on the matter. Even though these new centres of memory seem to have the wind in their sails, one realises that their appeal to a wider audience other than just researchers is not on the cards.

The archives’ absence and lack of outreach within the very contemporary issue of architectural culture is not a new phenomenon. 15 years ago, TRACÉS (2006/12) already highlighted the problem in an issue whose title left no room for ambiguity as to its content: Les archives aux oubliettes ? (the archives for the shelves?). For whom are these research centres conceived? What is their purpose or influence on the understanding of the built environment? What do these institutions offer in this time of intangible data and nice images? As the historian and professor Pierre Frey declared at the end of his honorary lecture at the EPFL in 2015: “Now that the stages of setting up and managing the institution are behind you, the real challenge will be to understand with whom to build a research network capable of testing the resource to the limits of the answers it can provide”. He was talking, in this case, of the Archives de la construction moderne (Acm) of the EPFL and was inciting his successors to unashamedly question these centres’ inherent issues in order to guarantee the institution’s dynamism and expansion.

Between mass digitalisation and content outreach

In order to delve deeper and re-examine, 15 years on, the purpose of archives, explored what is done abroad. From Los Angeles to Rotterdam via Paris and Montreal, this new digital report looks at the methods and know-how of a selection of renowned international institutions.

For some of them, globalisation is the opportunity to start mass purchase monographic archives, whatever their origin or history. For others, the aim is to move away from the idea of an “investigative centre” by vulgarising their content in order to make them more accessible to a less specialised audience. Others promote themselves as experimentation centres or public museums. Whatever their specificities, these centres pursue a common goal: to adapt to the new habits of “cultural consumption” and make their documentary funds more accessible. And digitalisation is one of the possible reorientations.

Through a series of illustrated interviews, this collection of articles attempts to revive the national debate, in both the academic and cultural context. By talking to the directors of these centres, we intend to widen the range of possibilities, present different strategies and take part in the development of organisations dedicated to the promotion of architecture and engineering, that for the most part, as is the case in Bern and Geneva, struggle to find their place in the intellectual and practical workings of the disciplines they promote. a public tool

This series of articles brought us to question our relationship to our own archives. Because in our own manner, that of journalistic research, the gradual digitalisation of content produced in the three main national languages by the different editorial offices of espazium – the publishers for the culture of the built environment – enabled us to collect and build a thinking specifically rooted in the Swiss cultural landscape and its multiple variations.

In order to adapt to our society’s digital transition and promote the extraordinary archival material in our possession (dating back to 1874, with the creation of TEC21’s ancestor), we have decided to launch in 2021 the project of moving our archives on-line. The goal we have set ourselves is to become more than just an ordinary data-base and provide a truly powerful work tool.

With its seven national institutions and the oldest specialised journals in Europe, Switzerland has one of the widest networks of architectural archives in the world. Their survival, physical and digital, depends greatly on their capacity to adapt to the cultural upheavals of our time. To this effect, intends to gradually become a platform of documentary resources supporting all those involved with the built environment, while giving a greater resonance to archival material within the practical and theoretical development of contemporary architecture and engineering.

Dossier: «Archives of architecture»


> Interviews series


# Het Nieuwe Instituut (HNI), Rotterdam (The Netherlands) - English / French


# Getty Research Institute (GRI), Los Angeles (USA) - English / French


# Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM), Frankfurt (Germany) - English / French


# Cité de l'architecture et du patrimoine (CAP), Paris (France) - English / French


# Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), Montreal (Canada) - English / French