can buildings be documents?

The question of what constitutes a document has sparked significant debate among academics and others. Indeed, the concept of ‘a document’ includes entities as diverse as animals (Briet, 1951), museum objects (Latham, 2012), land forms (Grenersen, 2012) and even religious icons (Walsh, 2011).

Buckland (2013) takes this further and highlights work by Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine and their founding of the International Institute for Bibliography in 1895 (Wright, 2014; Battles, 2004) and their work on the Mundaneum in early 20th Century Belgium. Buckland highlights that once one “accepts the notion of documents as objects from which one may learn, then there is no basis for limiting the scope to text recorded on two-dimensional, flat surfaces” (ibid., p. 5). Buckland continues to theorise that museum objects such as sculptures and specimens can be considered documents under one or more of his three classifications:

  • Conventional, material view
  • Functional view
  • Semiotic view

In the construction industry, the word “building” widely used to mean any built asset, such as houses and schools, libraries and hospitals, roads and railway lines or bridges and ports. Following work by Latham (Museum Object As Document [2012]) and the publication of Buckland’s Document Theory; An Introduction (2013) it stands to reason that buildings can also be considered documents.

Often before a building is constructed, a physical model is made to display the concept, with many clients and architects believing that a physical representation is the best way to showcase their design. London’s Victoria & Albert museum, for example, has a permanent architectural exhibition devoted to drawings, models, photographs and associated artefacts while organisations such as RIBA, Historic England (formerly English Heritage), the National Trust and a variety of local and national government bodies also manage substantial libraries of drawings, models and other items relating to the built environment.

For example, Balfron Tower in Poplar, east London is represented by a scale model in the V&A’s architecture gallery, original elevations and plan drawings in RIBA’s (Royal Institute of British Architecture) archive and a number of photographs.

Original architectural model showing Rowlett Street Housing Block A & Block B [later Balfron Tower & Carradale House respectively] (source: IanVisits/ V&A Museum)

The building’s story is also told through other associated documents such as Historic England’s (formerly English Heritage) listing summary and Tower Hamlets Council’s local conservation area report. And finally the building itself tells its own story – the lift shafts contain evidence of an earlier oil leak which rendered the lifts unusable for a number of weeks (Roberts, 2006); some of the pre-cast concrete balconies have been painted by previous tenants and rust from the metal windows and reinforcing steel rods in the concrete is evident on the concrete itself.

NW Corner Perspective: Block A [subsequently Balfron Tower] Service Tower (source: Goldfinger/ RIBA)

Balfron Tower is currently undergoing a comprehensive redevelopment which will see its mechanical and electrical services upgraded for the first time since the building was constructed in 1967, as well as replacement of windows and doors, and the upgrade of fire prevention and protection services. While it is anticipated that much of the character of the original building will be retained, questions remain about whether the building will be the same as the one designed by Ernö Goldfinger in the 1960s.

  • Battles, M., 2004. Library: An Unquiet History. New York, NY: WW Norton & Co.
  • Wright, A., 2014. Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age. New York, NY: Oxford University Press
  • Briet, S., 1951. Part I: A Technique of Intellectual Work. In: R. E. Day, L. Martinet & H. G. B. Anghelescu, eds. What is Documentation?: English Translation of the Classic French Text. Paris, France: Scarecrow Press, pp. 9-19
  • Buckland, M., 2013. Document Theory; An Introduction. Records, Archives and Memory: Selected Papers from the Conference and School on Records, Archives and Memory Studies, University of Zadar, Croatia, May 2013, 223-237
  • Grenersen, G., 2012. What is a document institution? A case study from the South Sámi Community. Journal of Documentation, 68(1), pp. 127-133
  • Latham, K. F., 2012. Museum object as document: using Buckland’s information concepts to understand museum experiences. Journal of Documentation, 68(1), pp. 45-71
  • Roberts, 2006. Balfron Tower: A Building Archive [Online] accessed 30 April 2018]
  • Walsh, J. A., 2011. “Images of God and friends of God”: The holy icon as document. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 63(1), pp. 185-194



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *