In the future, ambitious monographs will presumably continue to be published, bravely undeterred by the almost overwhelming competition through new formats of knowledge dissemination. The question of their relevance, however, is rarely discussed, despite the drastic changes to economic conditions and communication technology. For me, this is a fascinating issue, as it reveals parallels to the debate on how the “classic” format of the architecture exhibition should respond to new media, and what future it has at all. It’s against this backdrop that I’d like to offer a few thoughts.
The assessment of the relevance of contemporary monographs is, without doubt, strongly influenced by the generation of their recipients. For many of us, it was customary at the start of our career to invest a good part of our first pay in the acquisition of important monographic and critical theory books. The idea was to compile an extensive repository of knowledge in order to intellectually enrich our own work. When considered through this “biographical” lens, it’s hardly surprising that many colleagues readily assert that monographs will never go out of fashion. And yet: after our decades-long quest for universal validity and permanence, we know how quickly habits can change, and how the seemingly irrefutable suddenly becomes less meaningful. This is why I think it’s essential to include the opinions of those who grew up with new media – and for whom a monograph already represents a historical format.
For those of us who believe in the survival of the monograph, we must consider how their relevance can be ensured in a dynamic context, and whether this might necessitate certain modifications. In architecture, such scrutiny is an intrinsic part of the process and matter of course; for books, however, it’s hardly the case. For that reason alone, it cannot be appreciated enough that Sauerbruch Hutton are clearly questioning the relevance of their freshly printed work, even after all the effort they poured into it. Because according to general practice, there is now every reason to consider the monograph as something over and done with. But that wasn’t enough for these architects; they are reaching above and beyond the prominent spot their book might find on someone’s bookshelf. That’s why they conceived of it as something more than that – namely as an opportunity for intellectual exchange and reconsideration, which might be able to expand or reinterpret the next “archive.” (Such an extension could offer, for example, the chance to shrink the vast divide between real and represented architecture.) In doing so, they are fully aware that developing such mental work requires precious time, and also trust that the result is intellectually enriching and multifaceted.
Last but not least, in this context I especially appreciate the comparison made by Andreas Gehrke: , that “reading a well-made book is like listening to a vinyl record.” That the informational value of a book has lost its monopoly in the digital age is certainly a loss, but it also opens up new possibilities. Global digitization allows the book to focus more on what distinguishes it from other media: its physical presence, its multilayered quality, and its durability. Similar to the exhibition – a medium that is sometimes denounced as being outdated – it’s important to take advantage of the specific qualities, and to understand it as a continuation of architecture by other means. The same pertains to the content; the best monographs today exemplify how a message can be strengthened by its format: the title doesn’t just indicate a direction, but declares a manifesto. Such is the case with Sauerbruch Hutton’s “Archive 2”: it presents readers with the opportunity for independent reflection, almost challenging them to form an opinion.
As much as I like the comparison to the vinyl record, I don’t think it goes far enough. Because – building on this metaphor – no orchestra or band can survive from record sales alone. Likewise, it would be unfortunate if the only people to benefit from this special listening pleasure would be those in possession of a good turntable. In my opinion, it’s vital that good quality be reserved not only for the few – which brings us to the social relevance of good music (as well as good architecture). In questioning the relevance of the monograph, we must also seek to bridge the analogue and digital worlds. Only by synthesizing in some way the best of these apparent opposites, can the ideas of the avant-garde cast deep roots, and, possibly, make the world a better place.