Building “Worldwide Society”:
The Architecture of Documentation, 1895-1939 (2020)
Between nineteenth-century print culture and the post-World War II era of information, an alliance was forged between modern architecture and the discourse of documentation, a forerunner of today’s information science. European proponents of documentation science forecasted the imminent substitution of the book by a comprehensive set of informational media that would create a new, ostensibly international public sphere. Taking as a starting point the work of the Belgian internationalist and founder of documentation science Paul Otlet, including his collaboration in the 1920s with Le Corbusier on the iconic Mundaneum project, the dissertation examines the modernization of early twentieth-century “memory institutions” (libraries, museums, archives, and administrative offices) to uncover how a technical understanding of information in francophone Europe reconfigured the assumed relationship between the order of knowledge and the order of society. It examines institutions such as the International Institute of Bibliography, the Solvay Institute of Sociology, the Union Internationale des Villes, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, where designers such as Constant Bosmans and Henri Vandeveld, Louis Van der Swaelmen, and Michel Roux-Spitz crafted a modernization agenda rooted in the rationalization of intellectual labor. Tracing an interdisciplinary group of architects, planners, documentalists, librarians, politicians, sociologists, and scientists, the dissertation identifies an alternate genealogy for the principles of architectural modernism, locating its roots not in an industrial paradigm but an informational one.
Although French and Belgian proponents of documentation leveraged the discourses of neutrality and internationalism in their pursuit of a “worldwide society,” the networked conception of documents they promoted inherited the ideologies of empire and expansionism that shaped the long nineteenth century. The chapters analyze the transformation of four spatial notions that underlie the historiography of modern architecture (network, city, museum, and library) to show how the bureaucratic apparatus of documentation science validated the imperializing self-evidence that to organize information is to organize the world. At multiple scales, this architecture of “Big Data” veiled nationalistic and colonial agendas which thrust a problematic dimension of the European project of civilization into a proto-informational era.