Contemporary art has an intense interest in the archive, both in a literal and a metaphorical sense. This ‘archival impulse’ as Hal Foster called it, raises questions regarding the powerful (mal)functions of the archive in our project of modernity and go beyond any narrow disciplinary interest, addressing questions regarding the possibilities of truth, testimony and mourning through the archive. Amongst the many celebrated artists engaging with the notion of the archive are Gerhard Richter, Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, Tacita Dean, Susan Hiller, Christian Boltanski, Anselm Kiefer (as well as photographers such as Benrdt and Hilla Becker, and curators such as Hans Ulrich Olbricht). The archival work of these artists, photographers, etc, often yields a critique of the archive; addressing the archive as medium, these artists could be said to be ‘at work in the archive’. Projects such as Richter’s ‘Atlas’ or Kabakov’s ‘The Palace of Projects’, illustrate the powerful potential of the archival form as a witness of the artist’s research and creative process (Richter’s ‘Atlas’), or as a depository for both realised, unrealised and unrealiseable (utopian) projects (Kabakov’s ‘The Palace of Projects’). The very notion of the archive embodies a sense of nostalgia, a certain yearning for the past and all that has been iretrievably altered or lost (as witnessed by another of Kabakov’s collections of projects, entitled ‘Momument to a Lost Civilization’). The book form of these ‘collected works’ is in itself a form of archive, arguably also as art-works rather than a mere documentation of past art projects.
Architecture is a reiterative practice, often involving a long design process with several versions of each project, with endless alterations, refinements, adjustments and redrawing, before a final project is defined, let alone approved and finally constructed. Often, during the construction process, additional and often unforeseen changes are made, again rendering the built project different from the initially imagined, drawn and approved project. In other (most) cases, projects remain unbuilt, with embedded ideas awaiting the opportunity for a renewed life in a new project and another context, time and place. Such is the nature of the profession. Most of the thought process and work remains invisible, some of it translated within subsequent projects, however, much of it lost forever. Competitions, again, are another situation and form of design practice in which one has no guarantee of winning (and even the winning projects often remain unrealised, or adapted and altered beyond recognition). Yet we have all learned, as students and as ppracticing architects, form the unbuilt projects of the master architects, the un-won competition projects, and their developmental, process sketches.
Unlike unrealized architectural projects, which are frequently exhibited and circulated, unrealized artworks tend to remain unnoticed or little known. The ‘Agency of Unrealized Projects (AUP)’, believing that there is another form of artistic agency in the partial expression, the incomplete idea, the projection of a mere intention, has sought to document and display these works. (Whether censored, forgotten, postponed, impossible, or rejected, unrealized projects form a unique testament to the speculative power of non-action). The Agency of Unrealized Projects was launched with an open call for unrealized projects for its first public exhibition at Art- Basel in 2011. As part of that project, the curators decided that their open call would continue ‘until all unrealized art projects are compiled’….
The Venice Art Biennale 2013, was to a large extent similarly inspired by the notion of collecting and archiving, guided by the personal interests and obsessions of not only artists and architects, but also sociologists, anthropologists, and psychiatrists (including books with Carl Jung’s drawings of visions from his dreams – many of them with an urban character). As part of the Berlin Art Biennial of 2010, the artist-curator Artur Zmiewski, decided to create an artwork consisting of all the project proposals sent in response to the Biennial’s Open Call. A room with shelves was created within the main exhibition venue, exhibiting/archiving a total of 700 proposals (as a testimony to the unrealised creative energy/potential of so many artists, in response to the unrewarded energy invested in the Open Call format.
Sir John Soane’s House in London, which was both a home, a museum, as well as the architect’s atelier and a place of learning for his students (and, after his death, also for the general public), has the sense of a place frozen in time. Within it are not only Soane’s eccentric and eclectic collections of paintings and sculptures, architectural fragments, models and drawings, but also the archive of his own projects – both built and unbuilt architectural works. In addition, the drawings and paintings of his own collected works and projects, executed by the master draftsman Joseph Gandy, reveal yet another dimension of the architects world, his Piranesian sense of scale and space, merging the real with the imagined. The house itself, developed over a forty year period, is an archive of his work, his imagination and in reality, represents his true life project.
One could say that a city – any city – is also an archive. The city is a testimony to the shared endeavor of its citizens, a true collective work of art, The city is an embodiment of a society’s collective memory and a witness to the historical and socio-political context within which it has developed. It is not frozen in time, it is a living organism, constantly changing in response to both local and global changes in society and the world at large. The city is a multi-layered living archive of the art and architecture of its people, its culture. As such, it deserves to be researched, studied, written about and documented. The city could be considered to be a form of ‘open archive’.