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Will You Be Remembered?

Posted By April Becerra CAE, Monday, June 1, 2015
by Steven M. Cox, AIA, NCARB


What if I did something in my practice of architecture that would cause others to say I had purposefully chosen not to be remembered?


I have a commercial architectural practice in the Silicon Valley area of California which I have managed for the past thirty years.  I also have an interest in local history which has afforded me the opportunity to work for the past twenty five years at the local history museum as a volunteer, a board member, and chairman of the board.  Recently I worked with a group of history museum archivists and curators as I wrote an architectural collection policy for History San Jose.  Throughout this process we had some wonderful conversations about collecting, preserving and conserving architectural documents.


One of the topics we eventually got into was the concept of a “paperless” office.   I indicated that over the last decade architectural firms, like other professions, have shifted to a more paperless filing system.  I know in our office our goal is to only make prints for the city approval process and the field but other than that we are pretty much paperless.  We have spent a lot of time purging our paper files.  We save design and construction documents electronically.  Other documents we scan for an electronic copy and recycle the originals.  At the end of the job we end up with a box of shop drawings and accounting files.  Other than that everything else is saved on a server.  In addition to the server, we have a backup system so I am comfortable we are not going to lose anything in the event of some catastrophic event.  From a legal, spatial, and environmental perspective I know we have done the right thing.


I asked the museum professionals from a historical perspective how they handled this shift in the way architects now save their work.  I will never forget the response; it has become the screen saver phrase scrolling across my computer screen.  “By going paperless you have chosen not to be remembered.”  What?  They went on to explain that in their world it is difficult if not impossible to keep a software copy with all of the various versions and releases of the different platforms we may choose to create documents and drawings over time (i.e. word, AutoCAD, Photoshop).  Yes, there are some standard forms of saving images such as tiff files and pdf files that are universal to the archival process.  But, for the most part the archivist would much prefer to have an original document or drawing.  From there they create a very high image tiff or pdf which can then be used in an online accessible collection.  For them the preferred starting point is always an original or “hard” copy.


The other fallout from our shift to the digital world is what constitutes an original.  In the old days when drawings were hand drawn there was always an original either on linen or vellum or some other medium.  In today’s world we can create multiple originals just by pushing the send key to the plotter.


Perhaps the bigger point with all of this is the “chosen not to be remembered” comment from the archivist.  As architects we create the written and graphic record of our built environment.   We produce “instruments of service,” as we have been schooled by our profession and attorneys to refer to our drawings and documents, to get our clients through the approval process, construction, and into the operation and occupancy of their buildings.  We have been advised by our insurance carriers as to how long we should retain our records and when to purge our files.  By doing this, have we overlooked the longer term record of our built environment, the record of how and why something was designed, built and occupied by the users?


As individual practitioners it is easy to overlook our responsibility to the communities where we live and work to record our history.  Our job is not to be the record keepers; that is the task of curators and archivists.  Our job is to make sure we do not destroy the documents that could become the record.  I believe as architects we have a responsibility to ourselves, our firms, and our communities to preserve the record of what we have created and at some point pass it into the hands of those who have the professional skill to make it last for future generations of designers and researchers. If you or your firm periodically purges files I urge you to add a step in the process.  Ask yourself, “Is there is anything here which might be of some value to future generations?”  The answer may be “Yes” more often than you realize.  I believe this is because we are too close to our work and may not have the long term objective view of an archivist or historian.


I realize it may not be easy to make the determination with your own work product because you are so familiar with it.  What determines if something is historically significant?  Here is a series of typical questions used by museum professionals who conduct the appraisal process to determine if the project in question has some historical significance:


  • Is the architect or the firm recognized at the local, regional, national or international level for a body of work, specialization, or design innovation?
  • Is the owner of the project recognized at the local, regional, national or international level for some accomplishment?
  • Is the builder of the project recognized at the local, regional, national, or international level for some accomplishment or specialization?
  • Does the building or project have local, state, or national landmark status?
  • Has the building or project been recognized with design awards?
  • Has the building or project been recognized for some design innovation?
  • Does the building or project represent a unique architectural style?
  • Does the building or project document local, regional, national, or international history for an architectural trend or style?
  • Are the design records originals or reproductions?
  • In what condition are the design records?
  • Are the design records complete?


Below you will find a Significance Chart showing how the above information can be prioritized:



Sign Significance Chart






Third Priority                          Architect / Builder / or the project is not as significant but the record is complete and/or quality is high 

First Priority Architect / Builder / or the project is significant and the record is complete and/or quality is high

Quality and Completeness

Fourth Priority Architect / Builder / or the project is not as significant and the record is not as complete and/or quality is low

Second Priority Architect / Builder / or the project is significant but the record is not as complete and/or quality is low



Low Designer / Builder / Project High



Once you have determined something may be worthy of saving, take steps to preserve it.  If you choose to store it or preserve it yourself, conduct some online research to make sure you are doing the most to protect your records.  It does no good to have the right intention and not take the proper steps to insure the long term preservation of your documents.


If you choose to pass the records along to others better trained to collect, preserve, and restore documents, consider donating the originals or copies to a local or regional museum with an archival facility and a professional staff.  At the end of this article you will find several institutions that collect architectural records.  They each have a slightly different focus; some take a local or regional perspective while others may specialize in a time period or a particular designers work.  The deciding factor in where you should start may come from your answers to the questions listed previously. 


I have begun reaching out to local architectural firms within Silicon Valley region of the San Francisco Bay Area.  I have encouraged them to think about preservation of their records and consider donating them to an institution so that our profession and our communities have collective documentation of how and why our built environment came to be.  The discussions have been interesting.  Some firms have given little or no thought to the community value of their records.  Unfortunately, others have acknowledged their records were deeply purged.  Many firms have done what we did in our office by keeping an electronic version not realizing it may not be enough of a historical record.  The crucial message is that we have a responsibility to our communities and future generations to insure that the visual and graphic record of our built environment is kept and protected.  Choose to be remembered.

Sampling of institutions collecting and preserving architectural records in the United States:

Architectural Archives

Fondren Library

Rice University

Houston, TX


Architectural and Planning Library

University of Texas

Austin, TX


Art, Design & Architecture Museum

Architecture and Design Collection

University of California

Santa Barbara, CA


Avery Library
Columbia University
New York, NY 10027


Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley

The Bancroft Library
University of California
Berkeley, CA


California Architectural Archive

Robert E. Kennedy Library
California Polytechnic State University
San Luis Obispo, CA


Environmental Design Archives
University of California
Berkeley, California

Harvey and Irwin Kroiz Gallery
The Architectural Archives

University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA


History San José
San José, CA


Huntington Library, Art Collections,

and Botanical Gardens

San Marino, CA


Indiana University - Purdue University

IUPUI University Library
Indianapolis, IN

J. Paul Getty Museum

Getty Research Center

Los Angeles, CA


National Archives

Website below lists 23 locations around the country with the National Archive


Ryerson & Burnham Libraries
Art Institute of Chicago
Chicago, IL


San Diego Historical Society

San Diego History Center

San Diego, CA


Southeastern Architectural Archive
Special Collections Division
Tulane University Libraries
New Orleans, LA


UCLA Library Special Collections

Charles E. Young Research Library

Los Angeles, CA

Other resources:


The Architectural Records Roundtable of the Society of American Archivists


Cooperative Preservation of Architectural Records (COPAR)


Library of Congress


Society of American Archivists



Steven M. Cox, AIA, NCARB, is a registered California architect practicing in Santa Clara, California in the heart of Silicon Valley.  Steve is a sixth generation Californian, Past President of the AIA Santa Clara Valley, Past Board Member of the AIA California Council, and Past Chairman of the Board of Directors of History San Jose.


Tags:  architectural history  architectural perservation 

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