Curating, Conserving + Preserving – Talk @ Cornell

I just returned from a lovely two-day visit to Cornell University, where I was invited by Mary Woods, Oya Rieger, and Mickey Casad to share my work with both Mary and Oya’s “Design and Visual Research in the Digital Era” class in Architecture, Art and Planning, and with the library’s Conversations in Digital Humanities series. Mary and one of her students (who’s doing a fabulous thesis project on high-density trading) gave me a tour of the Johnson Museum, with its Leo Villareal installation (Villareal also has a great project on the Bay Bridge in SF/Oakland right now); and Koolhaas/OMA’s Milstein Hall, which, as Mary rightly put it, is much like a single “unquaked” platform from Koolhaas’s Seattle Public Library.

Embedded video from Cornell UniversityEmbedded video from Cornell University

 Leo Villareal, “Cosmos” @ Cornell’s Johnson Museum of Art (for full video)

The theme for that day’s session of the Design/Research class was “Curating, Conserving, and Preserving” — so I took it as my challenge to suss out the relationships between these three terms, and to tie them not only to my own work, but also to the students’ projects. What follows are the slides and semi-formal notes I used for my class presentation:

[SLIDE 1] Conservation is to spend or use sparingly. Preservation is to keep and maintain what you have.

  • Conserve from Latin conversare, to keep, preserve, keep intact, guard (“with” + “keep watch”)
  • Preserve from Latin praeservare, to guard beforehand (to before “keep safe”)
  • What types of objects or resources – particularly those that you’re addressing in your class this semester – do we typically associate conservation and preservation with? Where do we conserve something, and where do we preserve.
    • We conserve energy and art objects, but we preserve architecture.
  • What does this say about our conceptions of these resources?
    • Resource is in limited supply
    • Object is in perfect, fixed form; need to keep as-is for posterity
  • And what’s the relation between curation (from Latin, curare, to take care of) and these activities?
    • There’s a value system underlying these conservation and preservation efforts, and curation often helps to make those values manifest. Curation serves a rhetorical purpose – to convince others of the value of those values.

[SLIDE 2] Much of my work for the past 15 years has focused on media and architecture: spaces where people access and make media – spaces like libraries, archives, museums, media production facilities.

These are spaces with different approaches to preservation or conservation: In archives, for instance, preservation – not only of the archival object, but also of the context of its acquisition – is paramount. In a media production facilities, much media is often erased and reused.

[SLIDE 3] In some of these spaces, we’re concerned not only with the preservation of its collection, but also of the institution itself – and of its architectural containers. Consider the recent debate over the proposed renovation of the NYPL.

Design projects as an ideal opportunity to reflect on core values — how intellectual infrastructure is manifested and supported materially

Some of the projects I’ve worked on have been historical – involved debates over preservation. I’ll read a bit from a paper I published a few years ago:

[SLIDE 4] The Woodberry Poetry Room boasts a marvelous collection of 20th- and 21st-century poetry books, including many small press editions, pamphlets, magazines, broadsides, and manuscripts “from the entire English-speaking world,” and serves as home to readings from some of the worlds most renowned poets, was designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and opened in 1949 in Harvard University’s Lamont Library, the country’s first undergrad library. The room had originated in 1931, a more formal incarnation, in keeping with the New Criticism then in vogue, in Widener Library. It was dedicated to “bringing alive the poet’s voice and creating a place at Harvard…for the enduring delight and significance of poetry”…

[SLIDE 5] But by 2006, the furniture was worn out, the asbestos in the ceiling had raised concern, and the room’s technical capabilities had become solely apparent – so the libraries planned a renovation. Granted, the renovation was rather hush-hush, and rushed, but the design and preservation communities’ reactions to the project revealed dramatic differences in the way the design community, the library community, and the poetry community regarded the form and materiality of the poetic text and the room that housed them. [SLIDE 6] Critics regarded the renovation as “vandalism”: the “reading room,” the press said, was a “jewel” of a design that should be kept in its perfect, complete form. [SLIDE 7] All those “amenities,” like computers, could simply be placed in an adjacent location. Besides, “reading and listening to poetry are not activities that have changed much in centuries.” The problems are that technology cannot be set aside – even the manuscript is technology – …and reading and listening to poetry have changed dramatically as a result of technological and cultural change….

[SLIDE 8] The room had always been technologically advanced: Aalto – who had a history of experimenting with new forms, and designing spaces that recognized the integration of sensory perception and intellectual cognition in people’s appropriation of architecture – designed these eight “listening stations,” which were the “high tech” of 1949. While preservationists regarded the poetic medium as something static, and the precious “masterwork” that contained those media as something similarly perfect and complete, George E. Woodberry, who bequeathed the gift that established the room, and a long line of the room’s curators, [SLIDE 9] as well as the faculty and students who used it, valued its ability to offer up, in the words of Seamus Heaney, the “living history of modern poetry.” Poetry is a dynamic thing, which can exist as a printed text on a page, a handwritten manuscript, an audiorecording (the room was a pioneer in creating poetry recordings), or a live performance. The poetic “medium” was something multiple – it was Barthes’ “text” – whereas the preservationists wanted poetry, and the room that housed it, to be crystallized as a masterwork

[SLIDE 10] Aalto’s approach to design, one concerned primarily with the user’s embodied experience of both architecture and media, proved consistent with the pedagogical approach implied in the room’s founding mission—an approach that recognizes the integration of affect and cognition, of delight and critical engagement—and the curators’ appreciation of the fluidity and dynamism of poetry’s forms. The controversy over the renovation, it seemed to me, reflected disagreement regarding the fluidity or fixity—the ontology—of the architectural “object” and the poetic text and how users (readers, listeners, writers, inhabitants) engage with those texts.”

[SLIDE 11] I’ve also studied Louis Kahn’s Philips Exeter Academy Library: basic geometric shapes – connection to Platonic ideals; featuring and framing the book; magnificent light – metaphor of illumination

It, like Woodberry, represented an embodied, multisensory engagement with media materials and architectural spaces

[SLIDE 12] Recently celebrated its 40th birthday and has struggled to incorporate new networked media into its very classically geometric codex-inspired design

[SLIDES 13-15] SPL – negotiating shift from analog to digital; a city renowned for reading culture, yet built on Microsoft money

[SLIDE 16] Spaces of Media Production – CCTV, another OMA design – “this steel and glass structure embodies tensions currently gripping the institution — tensions between official ideologies and the market, between the Party and the people, between propaganda and commerce. As the medium of television grows increasingly decentralized through digitization and mobilization, and as China’s state media faces increasing competition from other media in other forms and from other places, the symbolic significance of a huge, monolithic structure will become ever more important in signaling the continuing power of this state institution.”

[SLIDE 17] IAC: fluid exterior hides a highly fragmented, hierarchized interior – Gehry’s attempts to blur the edges between outside and inside, old and new media, materiality and immateriality, instead reveal the awkward tension between old and new political economies (the old-school film studio model, which Barry Diller grew up in; and the supposedly more flexible, democratic new media model)


[SLIDE 18] Gehry’s IAC makes visible the seams [CLICK]: Value in Seemliness

Value of curating “seams,” making people pay attention to hinges, transitions where old/new, physical/analog come together, often creating friction

We don’t want a transparent interface

[SLIDE 19] Timo Arnall, “No to NoUI” – think of a built space as an interface to the “knowledge work” that’s taking place inside

  1. “Invisible design propagates the myth of immateriality: “Intentionally hiding the phenomena and materiality of interfaces, smoothing over the natural edges, seams and transitions that constitute all technical systems, entails a loss of understanding and agency for both designers and users of computing. Lack of understanding leads to uncertainty and folk-theories that hinder our ability to use technical systems, and clouds the critique of technological developments”
  2. “Invisible design falls into the natural/intuitive trap: “The movement tells us to ‘embrace natural processes’ and talks about the ‘incredibly intuitive’ interface. This language is a trap that doesn’t give us any insight into how complex products might actually become simple or familiar.”

Foreground Infrastructure + [SLIDE 20] Promote Infrastructural Literacy

  • Like Aalto and Kahn – and Labrouste, many existing I.L. projects acknowledge the value of hands-on, embodied forms of experience
    • Touching, tasting, smelling
    • Even data-centers have distinctive climatic and sonic conditions
  • [SLIDE 21] Showing the invisible – trace-route
  • [SLIDE 22] Where digital space intersects with, and has real material implications for how we engage with, physical space – mapping WiFi networks
  • [SLIDE 23] Putting behind-the-scenes labor – like conservation in archives – on display – perhaps also show the man- and tech-power that’s necessary to run all the library databases that you access from your dorm rooms and apartments
  • Buildings that display their energy usage, etc.
  • Even small-scale design projects, like those that some of you are undertaking in this class, can incorporate elements that promote infrastructural literacy
    • We can talk in a few minutes about what that would look like

[SLIDE 24] Little Libraries reside on another of those seams

  • One motivation is to preserve book culture + public space in midst of increasing digitization, dematerialization, privatization, atomization, etc.
  • Its incongruity calls attention to the need for us to reassess our values and preserve what’s worth preserving

[SLIDE 25] LFL NY Competition

  • Note misconceptions in proposals – defense of the dying book and anemic libraries

[SLIDE 26] BookCity – preserve print culture, yet provide conditions for analog and digital publishing to co-exist


[SLIDE 27] Labrouste exhibition @ MoMA – keynote Wed night, conference Thursday

Addressing issues of preservation, through curation: I recently wrote on my blog:

Michael Kimmelman, who reviewed the show this past Thursday for the Times, notes that “the exhibition’s arrival seems almost uncanny in the midst of the debate over the renovation of Carrère and Hastings’ New York Public Library building at 42nd Street, whose iron book stacks derive from Labrouste’s.”

Library officials have proposed removing those historic stacks, which support the main reading room, and replacing them with a circulating branch to be designed by Norman Foster. The stacks, they say, are too dilapidated and unsuited to be modernized. But Labrouste’s even-older stacks at the Bibliothèque Nationale have recently been outfitted with modern climate controls and fireproofing and will be opened to the reading public. The exhibition’s last room greets visitors with a large photomural of that space — a pointed rebuke to those New York library officials who haven’t adequately justified their scheme and might now want to investigate more closely what Paris is doing…

[SLIDE 28] Conference this Thursday: Revisiting Labrouste in the Digital Age

[SLIDE 29] Keynote Wednesday night: Alberto Kalach of Taller de Arquitectura X on his firm’s Biblioteca Vasconcelos in Mexico City

[SLIDE 30] Preservation again on the agenda in regard to Brooklyn Public Library’s proposal to sell poorly-performing branch buildings and build new ones as part of private development projects – highly controversial

  • What’s being preserved or conserved here?
  • Value – and trickiness – of involving the public in these debates; helping them understand the infrastructural and political economic variables that drive decisions
  • How to incorporate this democratic dimension not only in the design process, but also in the designed space or object?

What are the seams in your own projects? What are the different forces that are in tension? What’s worth con/pre-serving, and how might you curate that activity? Who are your audiences / collaborators, and how might they be brought into the process?

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