Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners


Aymée Thorne Clarke - Archivist

Aymée Thorne Clarke in her current role of Archivist at renowned architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners enjoys being able to employ her previous knowledge and experience of art and architecture.

Aymée talks about the challenges of managing archival material in an active, international company, and her concerns that the archive should continue to represent not only the landmark projects from the practice's history but also the more contemporary projects. Exciting projects being undertaken to develop the archive include the current relocation of the archive material and reviewing processes to try and best catalog newer 'born digital' projects.

Please Note: This is an automated, machine-generated transcription. We have presented this 'as is' and have not undertaken any editing.

Hello and welcome to Max Communications 2021 podcast, a series of podcasts where we explore various archives and collections. My name is Faith Williams and I'm joined today by Aymée Thorn Clarke, archivist for Rogers Stirk Harbor and Partners. Hello, Aymée, would you like to introduce yourself and talk about a bit about what you do in the company? Hello. So I work as the only archivist at Rogers Stock Carver and Partners at the moment, and we're an international architectural practice. I've been in my current position for four years, although I've been at the practice since around 2014 in a different capacity. My background is that I studied architecture and then arts and architectural history, which whilst also working in construction. So this, combined with subsequent archival studies, has given me quite a rich understanding and passion for the types of material I know what with some fantastic. So how did you spend an average day in your role? I don't think I have an average day. I'm sure that's what a lot of archivists tell you. That's every archive is different, but my work largely depends on what requests I have to deal with at that time and trying to balance that with cataloging project material so architectural material. And just before lockdown, I had been recast flogging material for season four, which was quite a rare opportunity to focus on one collection. I also have to keep an eye on recent competitions and capture material assets sources is quite a fast moving environment. The last time I had the opportunity to focus on one project was cataloging the Macallan Distillery, which is the whiskey distillery, which was the first digitally born project to be cataloged in our archive database. That was a great learning experience to inform how we could capture digital projects going forward. But for the last two months, I've been relocating our archive and that will continue for another two months. So digitally foreign materials, and it's quite exciting, but what other type of material is in the archive? So our archive captures and holds all material produced by the different functions and departments within the practice space under its current name and previous incarnations in terms of content. You can probably divide the material into two or three categories. The architectural design work created by the practice be more business focused functions such as accounts, personal contractual records and then material about the process by outside sources such as journals and the press. Although there is quite lots of overlap between and particularly when it comes to how researchers use the archive. As an active company, a lot of the material we receive in the archive is subject to retention schedules. So the architectural materials six years on a simple contract and twelve on stage, I think and other time periods exist for other documentation types which correspond with the legislation that governs them. So information is initially kept for evidential purposes before being appraised. However, for some items, particularly the architectural material, it's often easier to immediately identify items that will be permanently preserved in the archive. But in fact, we have two disciplines running simultaneously archives and record management. And in terms of physical formats, we have quite a variety. Most of our current work is digital, but people still scratch by hand, and the projects of the eighties and nineties were almost entirely drawn by hand. Both technical drawings and freehand sketches and we have almost 4000 chiefs of large scale drawings in the archive and as well as all the correspondence, reports, documents from all the architectural projects, from conception to beyond completion. And we also have a lot of architectural models which are made by our in-house model shop. We keep bespoke building samples. We have a lot of photographic material journals, magazines, books, and we also have quite a bit of paraphernalia from exhibitions and shows. Like I said, we're just starting to critically review our digital work and define how that can be preserved. So here accesses your archives and what what purposes is that for? So few people access it physically, but we do get quite lots of requests for items and information from the archive, mostly both internally and externally. The main requests that come from the office are usually for research, press or sometimes remedial works, as there are quite lots of very distinct architectural elements that have been repeated and evolved over the course of the practice history. There are often requests for drawings or images to be used in upcoming or new projects or competition. Quite a few requests come from our communications department for images, though. Recent projects are all digitally photographed, a lot of the older projects are in all manner of photographic media. We have slides, bromides, negatives, prints and transparencies and actually even some glass slides, I think. So these often need to be digitized to be used, and this is an ongoing process, with items sometimes requiring re scanning to ensure suitable image quality. Before we started digitizing all the drone material. Large hand drawings and documents were converted into photographic medium. I I guess it made it easier to handle them. They occupied less space and it was easier to copy and distribute. So I often come across sets of fresh drawings or projects documentation that as a photographic print or as microfiche, tape or large transparencies ready to be sent out for publication. And we also get requests from within the office for materials that can assist with remedial works on existing buildings, as even if they're beyond their life liability period . We still try to help any of these types of requests from very particular parts of a building that we. May not necessarily have designs, but certainly would have proved them during the construction of the project as the architects. For example, we had a detail on the 10th floor of one of our buildings last year that was requested. Even though the project finished almost 20 years ago. So such things are very particular and therefore make it very difficult to make appraisal decisions. I think there's an assumption that value is only in the sort of canonical architectural drawing, but there are many types of value in archives and architecture is very much a collaborative effort. So a status workshop drawing by a trade contractor or a technical construction drawing may in some cases be as informative or valuable as an architect's concept sketch. I would say that external researchers that do make it to the archive are slightly less frequent. We do receive requests, but because of resources, we tend to only allow researchers who are working on doctoral material. And although I try to answer any other requests, even if it's just referring someone to publish material as we're in the process of relocating the archive off sites, accessibility will be limited. So you've mentioned a bit. How you curate your items and how some things might not necessarily be. And so they might not have come into being directly from the practice. What other types of challenges do you have with managing this archive? I think the biggest challenge is the quantity of information and material, which is quite overwhelming. We have almost 11,000 boxes and tubes of material created over 50 years by hundreds of people. So those there are also quite a lot of different preservation needs for the variety of materials we have. And because of the quantity, it can be quite easy to get lost in one project or collection of work and not really think about the bigger picture and how that particular project might fit into the evolution of the practice as a whole. And on top of that, we've, as I mentioned, have been using computers for a good 20 odd years. But we're still in the early stages of digital preservation and developing a strategy for it. I find it something quite difficult to convince people about, perhaps as we're an active company base, creating the work they see further than when they may want to access it again. But as the archive, you have to think about how and why someone may want to use it or research this information quite far into the future. And these fractions of digital material make it very difficult to maintain natural relationships and groupings of records in their original context, which is so important for archives as nothing should really be seen in isolation. I'd also say maintaining a consistent language is quite difficult, and sometimes that comes from the fact it's an active archive for an active company. So how employees or depositors may label something or describe the records is often to allow them to find it again. Whereas as an archive, that may not be very helpful for someone external to the practice, being able to then access that material. That makes sense. What are your hopes for the future of their? I really hope the collection becomes more accessible in whatever form that may be. I think it's really an amazing body of work that really captures a particular age of British architecture. And one of the senior partners who's head of the archive. His aspiration was to have a space where visitors could engage with the work physically by having exhibitions or computers, with the digitized collection easily accessible that they would be able to look through. And that would be fantastic if we could do that one day and allow as broad an audience as possible to explore the work that we have produced. I'd also love to see the archival material use more internally to critically reflect on what the practice has created and continues to create and see this knowledge applied and become part of the design feedback loop as we move forwards. We have a number of older buildings that have become quite celebrated and are regularly referenced as produced by the practice. And while these noteworthy and they certainly hark back to the formative years, I am aware there's also a wide variety of fantastic contemporary work that warrants investigation in the same terms as the practice moves forwards. I think more. I also find in the archive the more requests we get for those older projects and the more focus there is on them, the more resource gets devoted to them, and that results in quite a. A bias representation of the practice as a whole. That's a really interesting point. I think some other collections like art and things like that also have that same problem. You don't want to over represent a certain thing, dear. Yeah. So you mentioned that you're relocating. Will that affect your archiving process? Yeah, I think it's going to be quite a big change. It's a decision that has involved a lot of compromise. And as I said, it will limit accessibility, but it will also provide conditions that ensure the preservation of material. But as an active business, it's. I guess quite a difference in institutional archive, where you're at the receiving end of a collection that's already been through several hands, arranging it or removing things. And in an active business, your well, certainly, I feel. The archivist is more participants in the creation of the archive. And you're in a strange position of archiving the past, the present and thinking about the future, which I guess to some extent you're doing and. My stock price, but you're also mediating your loyalty to an employer and the integrity of the archives themselves. So I hope by moving the tasks of the archives to the office, it will make the archiving process a natural continuation of the architectural project. And it will also enable. The creators or architects to input into how projects or collection is described and attributed and arranged, and the place to source this can happen, the more informed decisions of value and significance are further down the line. I think I mentioned the fast pace at which things move in an architectural office and due to the speed and quantity of material is, I think, vital that the sooner those kind of descriptive processes take place, the better. And as you say, that will help you kind of document more recent projects and not have that just the bulk of older material you'll be able to keep on top of the progress that the practice is making. Yeah, definitely. So currently in your collection, what in your opinion is the most interesting item you have? For me, it is the unpublished drawings those that have been sitting rolled up in tubes for years and years. And even though they have usually quite a strong smell of ammonia, there's nothing quite like sifting through a roll of ink drawings on tracing paper and trying to figure out their purpose where they fit in the project timeline, whether they're from the concept design or construction, and how they relate to other material and other projects in the archive. And because architecture is an architectural. Work is so digitally driven now, and drawings are quite revered. Which can be a loose sketch or a technical drawing, and they symbolize the kind of creativity of the architects because they don't participate in the actual construction of the thing they design. So I also enjoy the intense level of detail of construction drawings so you can see how much consideration has gone just into the arrangements of a sheet of drawings and how items are placed and how they relate to each other, which can be by an architect or contractor. We have some really beautiful examples. And. Interesting drawings to me, also, the designs before a final design for a building has been decided so early competition sketches and the comparison with the work of architecture. It's sometimes quite a conflicted relationship that the built with the built products and so often the designs that don't get built that are the most interesting. And sometimes you see those on ideas or approaches evolve into another project. So it forms its own story outside the initial concept or initial conception, which is why it's so important to maintain those relationships between items in that lineage and. Yeah, evolution of design beyond drawing, there's also a lot of risks and work in the archive, which not only deals with buildings by our HP, but also much broader issues in architecture, be that social or political or environmental. And personally, I'm I'm really interested in this because of my backgrounds, but I think the theory and practice of architecture work hand in hands. And the more you think and look and understand both historic and contemporary architecture and the broader conditions or needs or precedents, the more informed design can be going forwards. And I think writing is definitely a part of that. You really so well summed up like the the purpose of your archive, the context of it and why it's so important to keep even the things that other people might not think important because they do come in useful for other projects or they just provide context for architectural progress, really? Yeah. Yeah, I hope so. I think it's a fantastic collection. I think a lot of archivists probably feel that way about their own collections. They become quite attached to them and proud of them and just want other people to understand them. Well, no, it sounds like your role is really interesting. Such a practice is it's got that creative element, but also it's highly technical and skilled. And then obviously it's a work in practice, so you have to adhere to certain regulations and things like that. So, yeah, it sounds like you do a lot as the sole archivist. I'd really like like an intern. I think it's much, much to be loved. Thank you so much for joining us today. It's been a real delight to hear about the collection that is not seen by so many people, but it sounds like it's definitely worthwhile . Thank you. Cheers. Thanks.