How Did The Archive Happen?


A decade after the VHS-transfer effort of the Nineties, it became obvious that a more radical approach was needed to keep the video collection accessible into the 21st century. The tapes were in good condition, and stored off-site in environmentally controlled media storage, but they were thirty years old, and not getting any younger. They were approaching the limit of their useable lifespan, and playback equipment, once ubiquitous, was becoming scarce. Having nice VHS transfers of the oldest material was no longer useful to most researchers.


An initial attempt to fundraise and strategize in 2004 yielded nothing. But by 2009 there was a media manager (Reza Monahan) with hands-on experience in video archiving in the entertainment industry, a library manager (Kevin McMahon) getting a M.A. degree in Moving Image Archive Studies at UCLA, a web designer with extensive architecture experience (Aaron Bocanegra), and a development office (Bill Kramer and Dawn Mori) energized about finding funding. Eric Owen Moss and Ming Fung made the project a priority. By the end of the year, Monahan had outlined a strategy for getting the video collection online, and making it searchable through subclipping and descriptive logs, which was to become, with refinements, the plan for SMA.


SCI-Arc’s development office coordinated the campaign for financial support 2010-11. It’s important to stress how engaged foundations like the Getty and the NEA contribute to a project like SMA. From the questions and feedback we got during 2010-11 it was obvious that the SMA plans were being reviewed by a range of archivists, web designers, IT and other experts.  It was like getting expert consultation for free. It helped make the plan more effective.


The funding was in place in May 2011 and  the end of June, 792 videos were sent to World of Video & Audio for digitization. The majority (651) were VHS, but seven other video formats were included. One of the decisions made early in the planning stage was to take advantage of the VHS transfers made in the Nineties, and digitize only VHS material. While in principle it’s optimal to digitize from original elements, in the case of SCI-Arc’s video collection would mean presenting digitizing services with dozens of antique videotape formats—which slow the work and inflate the cost. However it quickly became clear that not everything had been transferred to VHS. Then the boxes retrieved from storage yielded not only the sought-for videotapes, but previously unknown discoveries, such as a 1976 symposium with the “L.A. 12” architects, and lectures by Aldo van Eyck and Christian Norberg-Schulz in 1985.


While the—relatively—mechanical stage of the project was underway, the archive crew worked on preparing for the interpretive stage: creating “Back Stage” interface to permit the review crew to analyze, describe, and subclip the videos. Ten recent SCI-Arc graduates were hired as temporary employees—the review crew. Recent students were ideal for this—a task less technical than interpretive. The crucial skill was familiarity with architectural discourse.


In the middle of October WOVA delivered MPEG-2 and Quicktime versions of the videos. Uploading the files to the new designated server—along with the more recent born digital videos—took 50 days, and brought the total number of videos to 840.


The review process extended from the end of October through the end of January 2012. Through the “Back Stage” online interface, reviewers analyzed one video at a time, taking notes keyed with time-code references—especially noting changes of topic or transitions. Then they divided each video into subclips, making breaks at moments appropriate to the content. In the three- to four-sentence descriptions written for each complete (“parent”) video and subclip, reviewers were asked to emphasize nouns—people, places, buildings—because these texts would be included in keyword searches. Reviewers also created three to five one-word descriptive tags for each parent video and subclip.


One goal of the review stage was to identify everyone with a significant “speaking part”—not only the lecturer, but the introducer—often more than one. The introducers provided an unexpected challenge. It’s amazing how rarely introducers bother to introduce themselves. Ray and Shelly Kappe were very generous with their time, assisting the crew with dozens of identifications.


As fresh eyes viewing these tapes, the reviewers were also asked to consider the videos cinematically, and identify any especially striking scenes—such as the end of Konrad Wachsmann’s memorial lecture on Charles Eames, in which he ends by asking Elizabeth Bruns plays Bach’s Arioso on the violin, or Mitchell Dejarnett’s introduction to Alan Sondheim, which the reviewer described as a “bizarre experiment with personal boundaries.”


Reviewers above all had to determine whether or not a video was watchable—not in terms of content, but in terms of the quality of the audio and image. But what are the criteria? What defines acceptable production values? None of the SMA material, even the best, was broadcast television quality. It was only after watching and discussing many videos, the archive team collectively developed a working rule.


One aspect of this was that audio had priority over image: videos with clear audio that were easy to follow, were acceptable even if the image was murky. As one reviewer commented, “Who cares if Zaha’s slides aren’t crisp? You can find those images anywhere. What’s important is hearing her speak, in her own voice, at a specific place and time.”


The other criterion was the relative ease or strain of the viewing experience—which is subjective, but unavoidable. If part of SMA’s mission was to encourage a wide audience to explore and use these videos, it seemed counterproductive to load the site with videos that would defeat viewers who tried to watch them. If a video wasn’t watchable to a person being paid to watch it, what chance would it have with the average Internet surfer?


This position was a gamble because at the start of the review process, no one had any sense of how many videos might have “quality issues.” Half? Three-quarters? 90%? In the end it turned out to be 28%. Bad audio or image quality is not, of course, inevitably the end of the story. It’s possible that better quality versions of “unacceptable” videos can be found among the older original video elements. Or, alternately, given sufficient resources, technical fixes might be found for many of the problems.


After the review crew had completed their task, the archive team copy-edited and revised all the descriptive texts.  One of the goals of this stage was to minimize the jargon and make the content a bit less opaque to non-architects. Sometimes this meant eliminating some details to enhance legibility, other times it meant fleshing out and additional details.


During spring and summer 2012, the archive team continued adding videos, posters, and supplemental texts. They also began inviting a number of architects, alumni, journalists, scholars, archivists, and web designers to test the site, and provide feedback on content and functionality.


For most of the summer, and exhibit at the MAK Center provided a provocative teaser preview of the material SMA would be making available in September. Kimberli Meyer gave four curators—Anthony F., Marcelyn Gow, Roger Sherman, Paulette Singley—each a room in the Schindler House on Kings Road, in which they used videos from SMA as source material for their installations.


The public launch of SMA on September 19, 2012—to coincide with the beginning of SCI-Arc’s 40th anniversary—begins the real history of the site. The archive team looks forward to engaging with visitors to continually improve and expand the presentation of documents of the personalities that propel design into the future.