CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship - Summer 2008
CRM Journal

Book Review

Architectural Records: Managing Design and Construction Records

By Waverly Lowell and Tawny Ryan Nelb. Chicago, Illinois: The Society of American Archivists, 2006; 250 pp.; illustrations, appendices, index; cloth, $62.00.

Hidden within the 250 pages of essays, illustrations, color plates, appendices, and in-depth author biographies in Waverly Lowell and Tawny Ryan Nelb’s Architectural Records is the storyline of the next great American musical. The yet-to-be-written Broadway smash, “The Architect and the Archivist,” stars two young professionals (an architect and an archivist) whose eyes lock during—of all things—an architectural records conference, and their lives and professions are never quite the same again. Over the course of three days of intense workshops on archival arrangement and description and other topics, the two star-crossed lovers express their heartfelt desire to live in perfect interpersonal and professional harmony with each other in emotionally gripping male-female duets, their budding relationship a ray of hope for two established professions philosophically at odds with each other when it comes to records retention, their respective choruses (archivists for her, architects for him) reinforcing the traditional professional attitudes and stereotypes that would keep them apart.

The turning point in the story takes place midway through the conference in the hotel lounge, where the architect—starry-eyed, brilliant, and brimming with creative energy that only a budding design genius could possess—emotes over the Creative Moment as he leaps, with pen in hand, from barstool to banquette and beyond, feverishly sketching his design ideas on cocktail napkins and then carelessly tossing them, one after another, over his shoulder. All the while, the archivist struggles to pick up after him, her vocal part a probing piece about his emergent genius and whether to save all or just some of the soiled napkins, to respect original order, and whether and how to react to her paramour’s disregard for her predicament. The curtain closes with the chorus of archivists singing a round of “If only architects were more like archivists….”1

One of the last things anyone expects from a comprehensive and patently no-nonsense manual on managing design and construction records is a storyline worthy of the stage, but Lowell and Nelb have exposed, albeit unintentionally, the underlying tension that exists between humans who create things in the present and those who preserve things from the past. It is precisely that tension, in fact, that may help explain the desperate state of so many design records the world over, the push within the past couple decades to make things right, and the tremendous need for Architectural Records and similar publications explaining what design records are, why they are worth saving, and how to manage them for future use.

The horror stories are legendary: Scores of important design records relinquished by an architectural firm decades ago languish rolled up in janitor’s closet in the basement of [insert institution name here] because few understand them and most find them too unwieldy to handle. The sad truth of the matter is—or so say the authors—that design firms “do not, as a rule, consider the future uses of their records by historians, communities, preservationists, and future owners” and usually move on to the next project before the previous one is completed and its voluminous set of presentation and construction drawings are carefully culled and arranged for future reference. Considering the amount of emphasis the authors place on understanding the design and drawing process before cataloging design drawings or, far more seriously, rearranging or disposing of them altogether, they must be of the opinion that librarians, archivists, and curators will have to assume full responsibility when it comes to caring for records that are so “fundamental to understanding society and the world around us.” If archivists do not step up to the plate to preserve these bona fide cultural resources for the benefit of humanity, in other words, who will?

Of all the wordage in the manual, one sentence stands out. Midway through the book appears, in bold on purpose, presumably: “Project files [text records, photographs, drawings] are the fundamental unit for arrangement and description of design and construction records.” From the initial contact with a potential client about a specific project to the punch-lists, rare as-builts, and more common photographs documenting the completed building, the whole process of design and construction from soup to nuts revolves around the building project itself. The project is the generator of records in architectural offices, and archivists must respect the primacy of the project when organizing architectural records collections. If for no other reason than ease of access to the materials (since, the authors note, most research into architectural records is project-based), the project helps researchers make sense of a complicated and often nonlinear process. Sounds so obvious that it is almost not worth mentioning, but I imagine Lowell and Nelb have come across enough collections arranged exclusively by date, media, drawing dimension, or some other painfully non-project-based criterion that they felt compelled to emphasize the importance of project-based file arrangement here.

Throughout, the manual grapples with electronic project records and digital imaging—issues that are unavoidable in this day and age. Whereas the latter vis-à-vis paper and film records raises all sorts of copyright, privacy, metadata, and physical security (in the case of buildings) questions that are now commonplace concerns in libraries and archives, the former presents some significant management and preservation challenges of which every cultural resource professional should take notice. Since the invention of computer-aided design (CAD) in the late 1950s, the design and construction process has transmogrified to such an extent that the traditional phases of design, design development, and construction have lost their distinction. Lowell and Nelb note that design tools like AutoCAD span those phases and have, as a consequence, blurred the boundaries: The drawings and documents related to each phase can be produced on demand from a single master design file on an architect’s computer or an office network.

The stunning reversal of roles (the paper record which was once a final product is now, in an electronic environment, a by-product, and visa versa) has certainly facilitated the design and construction process and saved some trees if not dollars, but it has also added a whole host of new words to the architect’s vocabulary and new responsibilities to the architect’s repertoire. Mundane and at times, mind-numbing non-design related matters such as file version control, software and hardware obsolescence, and data file backup and recovery increasingly compete for human time and creativity, not to mention financial resources in an industry often operating at the margins. The benefits, though, of going digital in the architectural office must significantly outweigh the costs, including the loss of traditional hand drawing skills; otherwise, the estimated 83 percent of architectural firms in the United States that have embraced computer-aided design would be stockpiling cocktail napkins right about now.

With chapter titles like “Identification and Preservation Maintenance of Common Visual Media and Supports,” the manual is clearly intended for serious professional audiences and people facing really big architectural records issues. Other chapters in the manual address similarly serious topics, such as the appraisal of records, standards of preservation and maintenance, and research and use. Nelb’s essay, “A Brief History of Western Architectural Practice,” which races through the evolution of WAP from a 7th-millennium BCE floor plan painted on a wall at Catal Hoyuk in Asia Minor to a 21st-century 3-D building information modeling exercise in cyberspace, and Appendix A, “Doing Your Neighborhood History,” by Lowell will appeal to generalists and architectural enthusiasts alike: The authors and their publisher, the Society of American Archivists, may have even included the neighborhood history piece to extend the publication’s reach.

All readers will appreciate the sample project indices, series descriptions, and especially the drawings and photographs without which any discussion of architecture or architectural records would be pointless. Although the quality of some of the color images leaves something to be desired, they do not detract from what is, by all other accounts, a well produced book and an extremely important contribution to the architectural, archival, and associated professions.

Martin Perschler
National Park Service


Notes

1. The irony of the scene, as Lowell and Nelb would attest, is that preliminary design sketches—those precious and few records of that initial burst of design creativity that do, in fact, wind up on napkins from time to time—are among the most important yet the least likely of all architectural records to survive beyond the design and construction phase of a project.