Reanimating An Archive

In April 2011, Assistant Professor Spyros Papapetros, Visual Resources Curator Dan Claro, and School of Architecture Librarian Hannah Bennett received a grant from the David A. Gardner '69 Fund in the Humanities Council to transform faculty and student access to the SoA Student Work Archive.

The generous grant provided the resources necessary to process and rehouse archival materials, to create an online catalog/finding aid, and to begin digitization.  Central to the project was a redesign of the space itself to prioritize and facilitate scholarly research.  


REPORT, February 2, 2012

Reanimating An Archive: Preserving and Exhibiting Student Work in the Princeton School of Architecture, 1932-1981

One year ago we described the School of Architecture’s historic student work archive as “buried treasure, dormant and in danger.”  Flat file drawers were filled in chronological order, but overflowing: a third of the drawings were stacked on open shelves and atop cabinets, fully exposed to damaging gravity, dust, and fire prevention sprinklers.  There was no photographic record and the collection database could not guide scholars to what was there or where it might be. 

The David A. Gardner '69 Fund in the Humanities Council’s generous grant to the Architecture School prompted a truly collaborative effort to transform the SoA Archive.  The first and second stages of the project, involving physical reorganization, cataloging, and photography, happened concurrently.  Dan Claro had been meeting informally with Axel Kilian, Assistant Professor of Computational Design, for months about the idea of redesigning the space as both efficient storage and classroom.  As the conversation developed, Axel and Dan measured the room and its contents, and then Axel drew up a series of new floor plans that would situate the new cabinets in a space that enabled classes to meet, and researchers to study.  After Spyros Papapetros looked at the planned intervention and voiced his support, Dan and Axel met with Dean Stan Allen and School Administrator Cynthia Nelson.  Because the shelving units contained student work and administrative files, the new floor plan required that Cynthia assess what records needed to stay and what could go.  With Stan’s approval of the new floor plan, Dan began to purchase archival equipment: 15 new flat file cabinets with 30x40” drawers, archival sheet separators, folders and rolls, stop-step ladder with rails, and a heavy-duty cart.  Dan started physically moving filing cabinets, metal shelves, banker boxes, drawings, and existing flat files to make room for the new cabinets.

Two Archive Assistants – Leslie Geddes, PhD Candidate in Art and Archaeology, and Jessica Myers, undergraduate major in Architecture – began the first week of July for a seven-week project.  The goal was to transport every drawing to the Visual Resources Collection (VRC) for cataloging and photography.  We borrowed sheets of wood and sawhorses from the Architecture Lab to fashion huge tables for sorting through the large drawings.  We reconfigured Dan’s copy stand into a photo studio with a ladder and two soft boxes.  On any given day, Dan and Leslie would stack student work drawings on an AV cart and roll them back to the VRC where Leslie would sort each drawing by author and year before cataloging each work into the database.  Her process involved not only cross-referencing and correcting factual detail but also noting size, condition, materials, and keywords, and assigning accession numbers where needed.  Spyros provided advice and suggestions for developing a meaningful keyword structure.  Jessica photographed each drawing using the RAW format, enabling adjustment of white balance, exposure, and lens distortion after the shot is taken.  Matching accession number and image number on a photography sheet, she worked in batches of about 100 images at a time.

Dan designed the Filemaker Pro database to make it easier for Leslie and Jessica to find, view and tag records.  FileMaker has no “Google Search” option built in, so we needed to recreate that kind of discovery tool.  To make it easier for users to type in keywords to find student projects (and images), Trudy Jacobi (Director of Visual Resources, Art & Archaeology) suggested an “AgentDisplay” field containing common search fields.  This combined field streamlined search. The second and even more exciting development involved the inclusion of images.  Dan wanted this tool to be a visual database, with images receiving top priority.  However, bringing large images into FileMaker quickly weighs down the program.  Dan utilized javascript code to enable FileMaker’s web-viewer functionality to display images that reside on a server not within the database.  So, after Jessica edited the images, Dan would review them, make jpegs, then load the photos on to the server.  As she updated the existing record with image number, the jpeg image would suddenly appear!  For full screen viewing, Dan added a “tiff” button that opens the image at full resolution.  By the end of the 7 weeks, we had photographed and catalogued about 3,000 objects: almost the entire collection of historical student work. 

As surprises and discoveries lengthened the first two stages of this project, collaborations enriched it.  Repeated shipping errors, damages and claims paperwork delayed the order of flat file cabinets until late August, when Jessica and Leslie were finishing up.  Meanwhile, we had piles of student work drawings stacked up in many places.  Once the cabinets arrived, the University Movers helped position new and old cabinets according to the new floor plan. To maximize space Axel designed heavy-duty pedestals to raise three oversized filing cabinets up over heating vents and against the wall.  John Hunter and Bill Tansley, the craftsman who run the Architecture Lab, built these very quickly for us.  While moving filing cabinets, Dan found hundreds of student administrative files from c. 1940-60s.  These files often contain written components to an MFA’s presented thesis, so the addition of that text into the database will enrich our understanding of the drawings. 

In early September, Dan discovered a few hundred large format drawings (c. 1930-40s) stored offsite in the old Architecture Laboratory.  Dan boxed those up and had the movers bring them to the School for cataloging, but these drawings were too large for the new cabinets.  Axel saw this as an intriguing challenge, and designed a table frame mountable atop two oversized flat-file cabinets back to back (with wheels).  This viewing table would be large enough to accommodate a class, and it would offer the equivalent of 5 drawers of oversize storage underneath.  To allow for one side of the table to serve as temporary storage when shifting drawings around, one half of the tabletop slides out of the way and the other lifts straight up using a hinge mounted to the frame at a geometrically precise position. Since funding for this table was not initially part of the Humanities grant, the Architecture School contributed funds to support that effort.  Dean Stan Allen also provided funding to hire Leslie Geddes for one day per week during fall and spring semesters, which enabled the cataloging process to continue.

In September, Spyros used the new image database to identify around 100 objects to show to his “Introduction to the Senior Thesis” course. Each senior picked one set of project photos to study before their seminar. When the class came for a tour of the redesigned Archive space, these students then presented their analysis to the group using the actual drawings. One student, Ruth Chang, was inspired to write her Senior Thesis on Charles Moore’s PhD dissertation, “Water and Architecture” (1957).


In spring 2012, PhD students Anna-Maria Meister, Britt Eversole, Esther Choi, Federica Vannucchi, Ignacio Gonzalez Galan, and Joseph Bedford designed and curated an exhibit for the SoA gallery entitled "Thesis Matters."   The exhibition focused [mostly] on the pre-Geddes years to give a sense of the longer history of the Thesis at Princeton's Architecture School, showing 30 thesis projects from 1940 through to 1966. They presented these projects in three clusters (1940s, 1950s, & 1960s), on three video monitors surrounded with a graphic and text-based display.

As part of this SoA Archive project, Dan also found an unpublished transcription of the first Kassler Lecture by Buckminster Fuller in 1966. Given the importance of such a document to the broader field of Architecture, Dean Allen decided to publish this Fuller transcript as the first volume in a series about the Kassler Lecture at Princeton. The book, Buckminster Fuller: World Man (2013), has been edited by Daniel López-Pérez and also includes photos from the SoA Archive. Some of the new archive photographs were also included in Joan Ockman, Architecture School: Three Centuries of Educating Architects in North America (MIT Press, 2012).