A few months ago I came across an interesting project by Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG. He did a post entitled “Bloggers in the Archive”. The concept is so simple and obvious, but it struck a chord with me. The best ideas are like this. He spent a couple months rummaging through the collection at the Canadian Center for Architecture as part of their visiting scholars program. His goal was to expose many of the artifacts that are hidden away in the collection. More after the break.
As he noted, there are astonishing things in architecture collections throughout the world that remain unexplored. In most cases, the drawings, manuscripts, models, and photographs in these special collections remain in their protective vaults year upon year until architectural historians or other specialized scholars request them for research.Even the curators who administer these collections do not know the full depth of the material they possess. Things are acquired, cataloged, placed in acid-free boxes and folios and put on shelves, like the evidence from past unsolved crimes.
Since Mr. Manaugh’s foray into the vaults was a test case, I decided to follow up and open the vaults of another fortress, The Getty Research Institute. Many years ago I had the distinct honor of being a research associate and gaining unlimited access to the collection. One of my jobs was to process new acquisitions and write up detailed descriptions for the catalog. There wasn’t time to do extensive research. I would contextualize them historically and geographically, make some notes about provenance, and then move on to the next thing. I was constantly in awe at the things I was allowed to handle. In a clean, dust-free environment, I would place these rare and sometimes fragile things on dense foam mats and then pencil notes in my notebook, making sure to keep my pencil a good distance from what I was describing. If I had a cold I wore a facemask so my nose wouldn’t drip. I never once made an accidental mark on anything. I was much too careful. In fact, most of the time, I was so terrified of damaging something I would commit things to memory and compose my notes in the safety of my cubicle where I could breathe again. Yesterday, I took the long, winding tram ride back up to the Getty to visit with Wim de Wit, senior curator for Architecture and Design. I was like penetrating a fortress. Now that I don’t work there, it took a number of emails and arrangements before I could be escorted in. Finally, though, I was cleared. At some point I will even be able to get a Reader’s pass to have unlimited access to the collection.
I had asked him to pull out objects he personally considered to be extraordinary and vital to the history of architecture. I did this in part because I wanted to be surprised and because I wanted to learn more about his take on the collection he watches over and guides. In the coming weeks I will be presenting stories of things he removed from the vaults. I will also be making future visits to examine other important possessions. I had forgotten the pencil rule. When I pulled out my pen, both he and his assistant gasped and raised their hands to stop me. The assistant then ran out to fetch a pencil for me. The Indicator, a weekly column focusing on the culture, business and economics of architecture, is written by Guy Horton. The opinions expressed in The Indicator are Guy Horton’s alone and do not represent those of ArchDaily and it’s affiliates. Based in Los Angeles, he is a frequent contributor to Architectural Record, The Architect’s Newspaper and other publications. He also writes on architecture for The Huffington Post. Follow Guy on Twitter.