Reviewed August 2017
Kathy Edwards, Associate Librarian
Emery A. Gunnin Architecture Library, Clemson University
OnArchitecture is a unique online library of streaming video content, created to support architectural instruction by enhancing students’ “initiative, self-learning, critical thinking and global perspective.” The site serves up video interviews with ninety influential contemporary architects from around the world, alongside over 200 concise ‘film portraits’ of their signature buildings. The building videos are short—from 5 minutes to half an hour in length, suitable for viewing via mobile devices or incorporating into studio instruction. Interviews range from 15 minutes to over an hour. Most are in English; those not in English are subtitled (with one or two exceptions), and many have accompanying transcripts. Building videos capture ambient sound but contain no narration.
OnArchitecture is the brainchild of Chilean architects and documentary filmmakers Felipe De Ferrari and Diego Grass, partners in a video production company whose clients have included renowned art and architecture publishing house Editorial Gustavo Gil (Barcelona and Mexico City), the Vitra Design Museum (Germany), Chile’s National Monuments Council, TOTO Gallery MA (Tokyo), and La Caixa Foundation (Spain).
In 2010, De Ferrari and Grass began collaborating with the library of the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Urban Studies at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile to shape their growing video archive of architect interviews and buildings into a subscription-worthy institutional product. Santiago-based Leapfrog Digital Strategies constructed the web resource, employing the open-access Drupal CMS and enhancing the growing content with abstracts, indexing, URL-linked cross-referencing, and subject headings based on Getty Research Institute controlled vocabularies. The full and growing catalog has been available to academic institutions as either an annual subscription or one-time purchase since 2015, with the promise of a total of 250 building videos and 150 interviews by the end of 2017.
In concept, OnArchitecture’s presentation of buildings and places as in-the-moment audiovisual experiences is a fresh improvement over traditionally static modes of architectural representation (can virtual reality be far behind?), especially when presented in tandem with the immediacy of architects talking directly to the camera about their work, design processes, and personal takes on the societal role of architects and architecture. The product reality, however, undercuts the promise of the concept through static camera work that restricts subscribers to witnessing each building rather than experiencing it. Every video flips through the same progression of fixed point-of-view camera shots: up the street, down the street, across the street, approach, building facade, transition from exterior to interior, main rooms, passageways, interior rooms. Individual shots passively record only a few seconds, with no panning, tracking, or zoom, no camera movement, no interaction with objects or building occupants, and no apparent effort to orchestrate shots to communicate a building’s program. In each video, too, the choice to point a fixed video camera at active spaces has the unintended consequence of exaggerating ambient noise over other sensory perception experiences.
Other aspects of OnArchitecture also frustrate: all subject headings and other metadata presented as links on each page lead nowhere; “Country’ tags are as likely to indicate where an interview took place as the architect’s place of residence or citizenship; and there have been no new extras on the Extras page since 2013. Until site architecture, upkeep, and functionality catch up to the promise of the marketing literature, librarians would do well to consider a thorough trial before committing funds.
That said, the site interface is attractive and well organized, and the interviews and building videos constitute unique, high-quality, instruction-enhancing content. With careful attention to consistent metadata and site functionality going forward, the prospects for OnArchitecture’s success are excellent.