Archive Fever

[Image: Photo by James DiLoreto/Smithsonian Institution, via the New York Times].

There was an interesting article in The Atlantic several months ago, written by Ed Yong, about the remains of as-yet undiscovered new species hiding away in the collections of natural history museums.

Fish2[Image: Behind the scenes of the American Museum of Natural History, New York; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Those species are, Yong suggests, just some of “the many secrets that are still locked within their drawers and dioramas,” secrets that will only be revealed and studied if we increase our attention on museum archives and stockrooms not as known quantities, but as potential resources of the altogether new and undocumented.

[Image: Amongst the fish of the American Museum of Natural History, New York; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

I was reminded of this by a short piece in the New York Times last week, about the skull of “a previously unknown species of extinct dolphin” found “sitting in a drawer at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.” It is from a descendent of a South Asian river dolphin, and was found in Alaska in 1951.

“One of the great things about the Smithsonian,” researcher Alexandra T. Boersma explained to the New York Times, as if taking a cue from Yong’s article, “is that the collections are so vast. We were just walking around to see if anything was interesting. And then, wow!”

[Image: Piscine preservation at the American Museum of Natural History, New York; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Briefly, recall the instigating event in A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession. There, a researcher uncovers previously unknown letters written by a Victorian poet, folded up and stashed inside a book that “had been undisturbed for a very long time,” we read, “perhaps even since it had been laid to rest.”

Never before published—perhaps never before read by anyone other than their original author—these handwritten notes set off a long sequence of investigations and discoveries and, in the novel’s fictional world, help to partially rewrite British literary history.

Byatt’s archival fantasy—of unknown but magnificent things lying hidden in museums and libraries, in the very places that promised tidiness and knowledge, coherence and totality—is at least equally stimulating when applied to collections of all sorts, from Yong’s and Boersma’s natural history cabinets stuffed full of potential new species, even evidence of forgotten ecosystems, to collections of minerals, antiquities, architectural fragments, or street photographs.

Just one insufficiently described historic artifact, one misattributed drawing, one unpolished gemstone accidentally dropped into the wrong drawer, and off you go, struck by the fever of weaving the threads of the world back together again, one loose detail forcing the entire structure of everything you know to rearrange.

“A medieval cathedral was a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV program”

notredame1[Image: Notre Dame, Paris, courtesy of the Library of Congress].

I’ve always loved Umberto Eco’s observation, from a text he delivered for the opening of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina back in 2003, that “a medieval cathedral was a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV program that was supposed to tell people everything indispensable for their everyday life, as well as for their eternal salvation.”

The carved statuary, the stone ornament, the careful placement of scenes: it was all part of an edited visual narrative that you could return to again and again, like a 3-dimensional comic book or a collection of film stills in the center of your city, a body of symbolic storylines and characters given architectural form.

At the time of these cathedrals’ construction, Eco explained, “manuscripts were reserved to a restricted elite of literate persons, and the only thing to teach the masses about the stories of the Bible, the life of Christ and of the Saints, the moral principles, even the deeds of national history or the most elementary notions of geography and natural sciences (the nature of unknown peoples and the virtues of herbs or stones), was provided by the images of a cathedral.” Then, the sentence I quote above: “A medieval cathedral was a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV program that was supposed to tell people everything indispensable for their everyday life, as well as for their eternal salvation.”

notredame2[Image: Notre Dame, Paris, courtesy of the Library of Congress].

I’ve long been a fan of Eco’s writing, even as a kid growing up in a variety of houses where we seemed to always have a copy of The Name of the Rose stored somewhere in the family-room bookshelves. Well before I could even conceivably read such a thing in full, yet captivated by its original cover art, I’d flip through the book to find descriptions of imposing monastery walls or hidden courtyards, of mirrored libraries concealed inside stone towers. I even memorized, for no particular reason, the monastic hours that Eco enumerates at the book’s beginning.

It’s also a novel, I’d eventually see, full of superb lines: “As I lay on my pallet,” Eco’s monastic narrator at one point writes, “I concluded that my father should not have sent me out in the world, which was more complicated than I had thought. I was learning too many things.” Or: “How beautiful the world would be if there were a procedure for moving through labyrinths.”

notredame3[Image: Notre Dame, Paris, courtesy of the Library of Congress].

But Foucault’s Pendulum—way too quickly dismissed today as a kind of hipster Da Vinci Code—is a novel I’ve read so many times I am embarrassed to admit the number. It’s a book I’ve obsessively traveled with, having read it now in Greece, Berlin, Warsaw, County Donegal, even Beijing. A mere ten days ago, I picked it up again here in New York City, for a variety of reasons, to give it one more spin.

So the news that Umberto Eco died yesterday was both sad and, for me, oddly timed; it’s also news I feel compelled to mention here, for both personal and architectural reasons.

In fact, I was thinking explicitly of Eco when I wrote a piece recently for Cabinet Magazine about rare-book thefts at a French monastery near the border with Germany.

Let’s start with the obvious: the fractal library in The Name of the Rose, a fictional architectural construct that belongs up there with other mythical buildings, from Kafka’s Castle to Daedalus’s Labyrinth or the Tower of Babel. The library, Eco explains, is a fortified architectural complex doubly protected by a weird system of mirrors and winds:

“The library must, of course, have a ventilation system,” William [the book’s non-narrating protagonist] said. “Otherwise the atmosphere would be stifling, especially in the summer. Moreover, those slits provide the right amount of humidity, so the parchments will not dry out. But the cleverness of the founders did not stop there. Placing the slits at certain angles, they made sure that on windy nights the gusts penetrating from those openings would encounter other gusts, and swirl inside the sequence of rooms, producing the sounds we have heard. Which, along with the mirrors and the herbs, increase the fear of the foolhardy who come in here, as we have, without knowing the place well. And we ourselves for a moment thought ghosts were breathing on our faces.”

What we would now call the building’s HVAC system was deliberately engineered to induce the aeolian illusion of other humans. It was a kind of super-sensory burglar alarm for spooking uninvited guests—spatial hauntings in surroundsound.

libraryrose[Image: The fractal stairs of the breeze-haunted library in The Name of the Rose; courtesy Twentieth-Century Fox/Columbia Pictures].

Or take the building that isn’t really a building in Foucault’s Pendulum.

One of that book’s minor characters mentions a house in Paris that is simultaneously more and less than it appears. Parisians “walk by” this house every day, Eco writes, but “they don’t know the truth. That the house is a fake. It’s a facade, an enclosure with no room, no interior. It is really a chimney, a ventilation flue that serves to release the vapors of the regional Métro. And once you know this you feel you are standing at the mouth of the underworld…”

Or consider Eco’s honeycomb of artificial caves beneath the French town of Provins, also in Foucault’s Pendulum and something I have also written about before.

There, an over-excited former colonel explains that “something” has been in Provins “since prehistoric times: tunnels. A network of tunnels—real catacombs—extends beneath the hill.”

Some tunnels lead from building to building. You can enter a granary or a warehouse and come out in a church. Some tunnels are constructed with columns and vaulted ceilings. Even today, every house in the upper city still has a cellar with ogival vaults—there must be more than a hundred of them. And every cellar has an entrance to a tunnel.

In 1894, the colonel continues, two Chevaliers came to the village and asked to be taken down into the tunnels beneath a granary:

Accompanied by the caretaker, they went down into one of the subterranean rooms, on the second level belowground. When the caretaker, trying to show that there were other levels even farther down, stamped on the earth, they heard echoes and reverberations. [The Chevaliers] promptly fetched lanterns and ropes and went into the unknown tunnels like boys down a mine, pulling themselves forward on their elbows, crawling through mysterious passages. [They soon] came to a great hall with a fine fireplace and a dry well in the center. They tied a stone to a rope, lowered it, and found that the well was eleven meters deep. They went back a week later with stronger ropes, and two companions lowered [one of the Chevaliers] into the well, where he discovered a big room with stone walls, ten meters square and five meters high. The others then followed him down.

Eco excelled at these sorts of allegorical details: rooms that served to mask the presence of other rooms, a town built atop a subterranean twin of itself, a library that conceals a parallel, clandestine collection of books, another library somehow tucked inside its very walls, even an island lost on the precise border between today and yesterday.

[Image: Mont-Sainte-Odile; photo via Wikipedia, related to a marginal note, above].

Among many other reasons, Foucault’s Pendulum remains an amazing novel for revealing the seemingly endless extent of one’s own gullibility—that is, the often overwhelming need to believe in or to pursue something, to connect together things you think are signs or clues in fits of irrationality and inspiration, to give your life, your cause, your project, your movement its larger emotional meaning or narrative gravity; only to realize, in retrospect, that these were all just neutral facts of the world you temporarily and needlessly seized upon. They were there when you needed them—or it all made sense at the time.

In fact, the novel contains its own fantastic distillation of this argument in an early scene, set in a Milanese bar. The world, we read, consists of only four types of people: “cretins, fools, morons, and lunatics.” “And that covers everybody?” the book’s narrator asks. “Oh, yes, including us.” I’d risk copying the entire book if I continue on like this in any detail, but I particularly love Eco’s description of “lunatics.” It is an excellent cautionary tale.

A lunatic, he writes, is “a moron who doesn’t know the ropes. The moron proves his [own] thesis; he has a logic, however twisted it may be. The lunatic, on the other hand, doesn’t concern himself at all with logic; he works by short circuits. For him, everything proves everything else. The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration…”

In any case, as my own tendency to over-re-read Foucault’s Pendulum undoubtedly shows, Eco’s books are perfect for people who are too willing to believe that truth can be found in reading—even if the stories they return to again and again are published not with words at all, but on the façade of a cathedral, in a theological sci-fi of intertwined saints, symbols, and landscapes.

Even if found in the narrative ornament of “a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV program,” as Eco once wrote, these stories we tell ourselves promise a truth it is always wiser to question.

(If you are an American fan of Umberto Eco, there’s a good chance you read his work through the translations of William Weaver, who also passed away recently. Meanwhile, the quotation about cathedrals as TV programs was originally published on Al-Ahram, but is no longer on their site; Nettime has an archived version).

Landscapes of Data Infection

seeds[Image: An otherwise unrelated seed x-ray from the Bulkley Valley Research Centre].

There’s a fascinating Q&A in a recent issue of New Scientist with doctor and genetic researcher Karin Ljubic Fister.

Fister studies “plant-based data storage,” which relies on a combination of artificially modified genes, bacteria, and “infected” tobacco plants.

Comparing genetic programming with binary code, Fister explains that, “First you need a coding system. A computer program is basically a sequence of 0s and 1s, so we transformed this into the four DNA ‘letters’—A, G, C and T—by turning 00 into A, 10 into C, 01 into G and 11 into T. Then we synthesised the resulting DNA sequence. We transferred this artificial DNA into a bacterium and infected the leaf of a tobacco plant with it. The bacterium transfers this artificial DNA into the plant.”

Even better, the resulting “infection” is heritable: “We took a cutting of the infected leaf, planted it, and grew a full tobacco plant from it. This is essentially cloning, so all the leaves of this new plant, and its seeds, contained the ‘Hello World’ program encoded in their DNA.” The plants thus constitute an archive of data.

In fact, Fister points out that “all of the archives in the world could be stored in one box of seeds.” Now put that box of seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, she suggests, and you could store all the world’s information for thousands of years. Seed drives, not hard drives.

It’s worth reading the Q&A in full, but she really goes for it at the end, pointing out at least two things worth highlighting here.

saguaros[Image: “Higashiyama III” (1989) by Kozo Miyoshi, courtesy University of Arizona Center for Creative Photography; via but does it float].

One is that specialized botanical equipment could be used as a technical interface to “read” the data stored in plants. The design possibilities here are mind-boggling—and, in fact, are reminiscent of the Landscape Futures exhibition—and they lead directly to Fister’s final, amazing point, which is that this would, of course, have landscape-scale implications.

After all, you could still actually sow these seeds, populating an entire ecosystem with data plants: archives in the form of forests.

“Imagine walking through a park that is actually a library,” she says, “every plant, flower and shrub full of archived information. You sit down on a bench, touch your handheld DNA reader to a leaf and listen to the Rolling Stones directly from it, or choose a novel or watch a documentary amid the greenery.” Information ecosystems, hiding in plain sight.

The Criminal Reawakening of Dormant Architectural Interiors

[Image: The monastery of Mont-Sainte-Odile; photo via Wikipedia].

I’ve got an article in the (apparently very delayed) “Summer 2015” issue of Cabinet Magazine, that only came out earlier this week, looking at rare-book theft and the architecture of burglary. The article is also a nice introduction to many of the themes in A Burglar’s Guide to the City, due out in April.

Called “Inside Jobs,” the essay looks at two rare-book thieves. One was an almost Jules Verne-like guy who broke into the monastery of Mont-Sainte-Odile in the mountains of eastern France after discovering an old floor plan of the place in an archive.

That document—and this sounds like something straight out of an Umberto Eco novel—revealed a secret passageway that twisted down from an attic to the monks’ library through the back of a cabinet, which, of course, became his preferred method of entry.

The other guy was one of the most prolific book thieves in U.S. history, whose escapades in the rare book collection of the University of Southern California occurred by means of the library’s old dumbwaiter system. Although the dumbwaiter itself was no longer in use, the shafts were still there, hidden inside the wall, connecting floor to floor. By crawling through the dumbwaiter, he basically brought those dead spaces back into use.

In both cases, I suggest, these men’s respective crimes were “made possible by the reawakening of a dormant interior, one disguised by and simultaneous with the buildings’ visible rooms. There was another building inside each building, we might say, a deeper interior within the interior. Their burglaries thus both depended on and operated through an act of spatial revelation: bringing to light illicit connections between two internal points previously seen as separate.”

Indeed, in both cases the actual theft of books seems strangely anti-climactic, even boring, merely a graduated form of shoplifting. Rather, it is the way these crimes were committed that bears such sustained consideration. The burglars’ rehabilitation of a quiescent architectural space brings with it a much broader and more troubling implication that we ourselves do not fully understand the extent of the rooms and corridors around us, that the walls we rely on for solidity might in fact be hollow, and that there are ways of moving through any building, passing from one floor to another, that are so architecturally unexpected as to bear comparison to animal life or even the supernatural. In the end, burglars—dark figures burrowing along the periphery of the world—need not steal a thing to accomplish their most unsettling revelation.

Check it out, if you get the chance, and consider pre-ordering a copy of A Burglar’s Guide to the City, if these sorts of things are of interest.