SAH Blog

  • Notes on the SAH Roundtable, "The Built Environment: Resources for the Next 75 Years"

    By
    Patricia Searl, Editorial and Technical Specialist, ROTUNDA, The University of Virginia Press
     |
    May 4, 2015

    At the 2015 annual conference of the Society of Architectural Historians, members from across the globe could be seen taking notes on paper while juggling their tablets and smartphones—a typical mix of analog and digital practices in a world filled with print and digital media options. On Friday afternoon, a group joined a panel convened by SAH’s Digital Humanities Task Force to imagine and plan for how architects, students, and scholars will be working 75 years from now and in particular, how to prepare the source materials of today for the research environment of the future. 

    Panelists:

    • Dianne Harris, Director of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities (IPRH) and Professor of Landscape Architecture, Architecture, Art History, and History, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
    • William Whitaker, Curator and Collections Manager of the Architectural Archives   of the School of Design, University of Pennsylvania
    • Ann Baird Whiteside, Librarian and Assistant Dean for Information Services, Frances Loeb Library, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University
    • Tamar Zinguer, Associate Professor of Architecture, The Cooper Union  

    Chair: Abby Smith Rumsey, SAH Board Member, Chair of the Digital Humanities Task Force

    The panelists represented a range SAH members’ interests: pedagogy, libraries and archives, conservation and historic preservation, research and architectural practice.

    Panelists addressed three questions:

    • What is the full scope of resources we need to collect, both digital and analog, to study the built environment?
    • What tools and technologies, such as GIS or text mining, will lead to new understandings and innovative questions?
    • What skills will students, scholars, and practitioners need to work with the resources of the 21st century?

    The first question about the scope of future collections called for speculation about what scholars will be studying in the future. Acknowledging that we simply cannot predict what will interest our successors in 25, 50, let alone 75 years, Dianne Harris noted wryly that we should “keep everything.” But she also noted that the issue of scale will be the critical challenge in the coming decades. Tamar Zinguer and Bill Whitaker noted despite the existing wealth of documentation, we also should be creating some where none now exists—in particular, documenting architects’ practice and even how buildings are used. Creating documentation of a design studio’s working practices, for example, has become relatively easy, considering everyone carries a video camera on their smart phone these days. Graduate students and postdocs could be trained in video documentation and oral history to capture contemporary practices.

    The panel acknowledged the need to step up collecting born-digital sources, as that is the default mode of documentation now in text, image, sound, and also in the design process itself (CAD). The mention of proprietary software used by design firms prompted expressions of dismay about how to deal with rapidly changing software formats and complicated analytical and presentation packages, such as GIS. They are expensive to handle today and will be difficult to render in the future. This is not a problem that the field can solve on its own, but it is widely shared by other disciplines and in professional and for-profit sectors as well. We should look to those sectors for solutions to what is destined to be a universal access problem within a decade or two. That said, it will be very important that digital archives exist alongside complementary inventories of physical artifacts (such as rubber stamps and 35mm slides) for a more comprehensive view of architectural practice. The tools and media of the past will themselves become subjects of study.  

    Ann Whiteside noted that scale—the sheer size of the documentary record—is far from the only challenge the profession will face. Due to the overwhelming amount of data generated each day, the field will need to sort through what new genres, such as blogs and websites, have long-term scholarly value. Moreover, in the digital realm, there’s virtually nothing created that does not come entangled in a thicket of rights issues. These are primarily copyright issues, pertaining to the ownership of underlying legal rights for created works. At present, being able to consult such documents online is virtually impossible. The rights issues will be sorted out over time. But it is difficult to commit to collecting vast amounts of materials that are complicated to manage when their current accessibility to researchers is moot.

    The panels discuss the issues of which tools and technologies to use together with the skills necessary to do research in the digital age—again underscoring that “the digital age” will always be a hybrid environment a mix of analog and digital sources and skills. All panelists called for widening the field’s collaboration with people in other disciplines who are developing, using, and also having to archive suites of digital tools and technologies. Everyone anticipated the growth of scholarly teams to investigate and publish research topics, collaborations that will extend well beyond the field of architectural history to include archaeologists, programmers and software designers, IT professionals, materials scientists, other cultural historians, and so forth. Collaboration is both a resource to use as skill that needs to be cultivated.

    Whiteside and Harris suggested that collaborative partnerships and shared collections (such as SAHARA) are likely to be the only practical way to handle the exponential growth of data. Whitaker talked about the benefits of large data sets and current digital tools, such as analyzing the DNA of building materials, to inspire new scholarly and professional insights—yes, we will be working with geneticists as well!—but worried about the potentially prohibitive cost and complexity of their use. Zinguer alluded to the data visualizations used by surgeons and airline pilots, which are able to quickly and effectively communicate vast amounts of data. Humanists, she argued, should borrow from the perceptual learning technologies in those fields and engage in similar training so their work with data becomes second nature. Echoing Harris and Whiteside, she further encouraged those in architectural history to look outside their discipline and forge alliances with others in the social sciences, computer science, and other professions.  

    At present, the profession has difficulty acknowledging and appropriately rewarding collaborative work, no matter how significant the results of collaborations may be. As Harris noted, this obstacle is a remnant of the traditional nature of academic work, in which many have entered specifically due to the prospect of working independently. However, there does seem to be a cultural shift towards collaboration, which must be acknowledged in teaching practices and by the administration. To address this very issue, SAH is collaborating with the College Art Association (CAA) on developing criteria for assessing digital work, and Abby Rumsey noted that collaboration looms large on their agenda. Panelists were unanimous in agreeing that academics must teach themselves and their students to be effective collaborators, especially in dealing with those in very different disciplines, such as engineering and computer science. 

    Harris discussed the imperative of teaching students how to think critically about digital collections. While the current generation of professors have lived through a transition from an analog to an analog-and-digital world, their students have not, and may lack the perspective to distinguish the digital artifact from "the real thing." For that reason, she argues, students must learn how to digitize and curate collections themselves, so they can recognize and consider what is lost in translation, and how those omissions can be made transparent. Zinguer added that students must also learn the "mastery of language," (i.e., good reading, writing and peer-editing). Skills in reading and drafting plans, she argues, including those on created on older software and on paper, are fading and must not be lost. 

    From a librarian/archivist's perspective, Whiteside argued that learning the necessary technology is far less of a problem for libraries and scholars than a solid understanding of copyright law—to which the audience vocally concurred. To confront the scale of the problem, Harvard has implemented a copyright "First Responder" hotline as part of the services provided by their libraries. In addition to legal issues, Whiteside believes that librarians need a stronger understanding of metadata and data management skills (beyond bibliographic citations) and must think increasingly with a mindset towards collaboration and preservation. 

    The panel was in agreement that the role of scholars, archivists, and students is changing too quickly to master here and now. Each acknowledged their struggle with new roles and responsibilities, and the tug-of-war between excitement and apprehension over what the current generation will leave behind for their discipline. While there were many valuable suggestions offered to the questions posed, the session ultimately underscored the monumental nature of the task. Adjustment to new ways of working demands the attention and commitment of each generation as they not only make their careers, but shape the field as they do so. We should anticipate that each generation of students will arrive with a new set of technological skills but still lacking in the critical skills of architectural literacy that will become more important in undergraduate and graduate education, rather than less, in the next 75 years. The complicated processes of adaptation to and adoption of new information technologies will be one of trial and error, in which our students should be encouraged to experiment, even at the risk of failure, in order to learn and share own knowledge with others. The time to begin is now.

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