A filing system is a repository of an office’s ideas, so how do you organize it? The question is fundamentally historical if you ask: by what means have offices organized their output in order to have easy access to specific pieces of their past work? But it can also be asked more theoretically, touching on the way that well organized ideas begin to give an identity to offices over time. If SOM is to some extent identified with curtain walls and office buildings, then the office building as a typology and the curtain wall as a piece of architectural engineering, in their various iterations over time, should be accessible within the files and understandable as comprehensible ideas from within that database. Gaining and storing this sort of embedded identity is important for passing office knowledge from one generation of employees to the next, and for codifying an office’s capabilities and disciplinary expertise in ways that produce a clear image for potential clients. The device through which an identity is established and propagated through an ever-changing staff of designers can take many forms but it needs to be accessible, open source, more of a public gallery than a sealed container
The development of filing systems, as universal tools of organization, is crucial to the emergence of larger and more geographically disparate offices. Like the growth of a firm’s files over time, the importance of storing and filing increases proportionally with an office’s complexity and output. As an office grows, management becomes more necessary, hierarchies increase, and the organization of information becomes trickier. Having more employees means that office knowledge needs to be distributed more broadly and that there is more potential knowledge to organize. Filing systems sit at the center of this input-output cycle. As architects store drawings, sketches, models, project manuals, material samples, product literature, communications, and other paraphernalia, the artifacts add up to form a picture of the office over time.
Recently I had the chance to rifle through a portion of Vito Acconci’s files. The evolution of the artistic and architectural work was present in the chronologically arranged documents. The big shift between a first career as a solo artist and the establishment of the design office Acconci Studio is there embedded in the ephemera, as is the growth and development of the latter. The natural inconsistency of this unedited filing system (successful projects next to unsuccessful ones, computer prints beside hand sketches, presentation material mixed among drafts) is somewhat smoothed out by the basic consistency of the ideas. Acconci’s instinctive working maneuvers and fundamental preoccupations are evident everywhere in this gradually accruing selection of work. Modes of production and materials change, but over time Acconci becomes more Acconci as the filed material gangs together to form a ‘professional’ identity.
Eventually Acconci Studio will face the same question faced by every office after a period of time: can the entity outlive the individual? For every SOM, outlasting its namesakes and carrying their ideas forward as a new entity, there are a dozen McKim, Mead, and Whites, that don’t make the transformation to MMW. While some offices have no intention of life beyond their founders, for those that do, establishing a viable corporate brand requires two independent attributes: a successful operating structure and a successful identity. Like a combination litmus test and catalyst, the humble filing system – the record of an office’s ideas and the bookkeeper of its identity – is very much the result of the former and a necessity for the latter.