Learning from “Documenting the Colonial Archive” with Felicity D Scott

The Berlage, Delft / 04-16.05.2019

Architects do not make buildings, they make documents. Blueprints, messy architectural sketches scribbled on paper with no thought given to their permanence or conversely sharp visual renders stamped in clients’ imagination; a building is first conceived on paper, in 3D computer space and even in lists breaking down its material costs. These are documents giving form to a building yet to be built. They are however not the only documents ‘written’ by the architect. In many ways the built object is in itself an immense document, written in stone and carried through by the many lives occupying the building. Just like the words on paper or lines in plans, buildings and space are physical traces of an applied logic, evidence of intention, documentaries of culture. What language does the facade speak? What do the spaces and their organisation reveal about the transferred logic of the architect? Who lived here and have they altered the building in any way?

How then is history distilled from these diverse documents? Perhaps this question is best addressed by understanding the mechanisms and responsibilities of the Archive’s inescapable role in scripting or constructing histories – a responsibility that it shares with researchers who study its documents. Whether through the screening process used to admit or refuse new collections or the epistemological ordering system of documents and collections or even through the archive’s policy on accessibility of documents, these institutional operations have already conditioned the documents and the histories they tell before any researcher accesses them. The documents are therefore products of knowledge at a specific point in history, but that may be mobilised under an alternative knowledge/power system to construct new histories. In other words, the same documents intended to record sovereign operations or benevolence in Colonial archives can be construed for alternative, marginal histories that offer new understanding of the past and, implicitly, of the present & future. Documents are given new trajectories, opening up new spaces for critical practice and possibilities of futures.

In this view the Archive is not a moratorium for the past, but a fierce cultural component for the production of knowledge. We must ask now, where is the Archive situated? Whilst institutional archives are obvious locations for documents, there remain many alternative living archives. The built environment is perhaps the most ubiquitous alternative archive, one that has always been unpacked by architectural figures in history (we need only mention Rossi, Koolhaas, Aureli, Venturi & Scott Brown, Nolli and Piranesi). Elsewhere, the Archive persists in:

  • The Landscape; the changing types of species of flora & fauna in a territory
  • The Earth; the stock of natural resources and their exchange
  • The population; collective memory and big data collected from human activity
  • The Market; the commercial ecosystem of companies, wealth and Politics.
  • The Everyday; objects, patterns of behaviour and individual lived experience.
  • The Internet

The Archive therefore is clearly not a singular definable space, but a tempo-spatial entity that moves and changes. By examining its messy tissues and tendons, the inner-workings of Culture are exposed, offering new insights on how Culture operates. What knowledge can be extracted from archives and how then can it be mobilised towards defining new critical positions and problems, and suggesting solutions?