Digital Disappointments

I’m sitting in a hotel room in Montreal dreaming about Sir Banister Fletcher. After an hour of fumbling with the hotel’s Web TV and its wireless keyboard, I’m remembering how easy it was to simply pick up his dusty old tome, A History of Architecture, look in the index and turn the page to a plan of the Temple of Poseidon at Paestum (p. 209) or a section through St. George’s Chapel at Windsor (p. 629). Instead I’m pawing across tiny keys trying to look at an axonometric of a stone anchor that’s too big for the screen but still too fuzzy to understand.

Of necessity, architects build life rafts of information that they use on an almost daily basis–rules of thumb for sizing a heating system; factors to convert from metric to imperial; standard details stuck in a file; checklists; code books; and colour swatches. From the notebooks of Villard d’Honnecourt in the 13th Century to the pattern books of the 19th, we like our data neatly arranged in graphic form. The fact is we’re data pack rats. My shelves are filled with old notebooks and back issues of magazines I never look at. The Information Revolution suggests that all that is about to change. Architects are now presented with a barrage of electronic resources from Web sites to CD-ROM’s.

Given my preference for Banister Fletcher and his ilk, why not stick with books? The problem is I’ve also heard the siren call of new media and I’m a sucker for its vision of a New Jerusalem of architectural information. Imagine being able to find details, wall sections, tables and specifications and simply plunk them into your design no matter what CAD package you are using. I cut my teeth on the “kit of parts” approach to building–the idea that you should be able to quickly assemble an extremely efficient (and elegant and economical) design from standardized pieces. Architects must come to understand that the Web offers an unprecedented opportunity to share information and collectively build a resource that could be available to all designers–anywhere and anytime.

Unfortunately the state of the art is still far removed from my utopian delusions. For example, one of the other books I’ve had on my shelves for a long time is the sixth edition of Architectural Graphic Standards, which I bought in 1980 for $62.00. With its thin, hatched black and white line drawings, Architectural Graphic Standards was, and is, the bible of the profession. Today Architectural Graphic Standards is available on CD-ROM (version 3.0) for $625.00. The book itself (now in its tenth edition) retails for about $284.75 with a demonstration version of the CD. What do you get 20 years later for 10 times the money? The answer is disheartening.

The CD does contain the 10,000 drawings found in the book (plus a number of new ones) and some 85% of those drawings can be exported into popular CAD programs such as AutoCAD and Microstation. More importantly, those drawings can also be edited in those CAD programs. While the CD only works under Windows 95, 98 or NT, I successfully transferred .dxf files to my Macintosh and opened and edited them in formZ. Unfortunately the drawings themselves lose something in the translation. The Gothic Arch that I downloaded was a mere shadow of its former sixth edition self: smooth curves have become faceted; lines that once ended in crisp corners now overlap; line weights have disappeared; and notes now point to the wrong location. I was equally disappointed by the non-CAD drawings. Furniture such as the Allen Table by Frank Lloyd Wright appears to have been badly scanned from the printed edition.

To its credit the CD-ROM does include a whole new section on Building Systems that allows you to click on elements in a perspective drawing and investigate the various components of the system. It also features both word and keyword search engines to help you find exactly the materials you want. But in the end, it really feels as if they scanned the book and squeezed it onto a CD.

Part of the problem is that many publishers simply try to recycle old text-based information into new media. Generally this doesn’t work. “Repurposed” content often has the look and feel of warmed up leftovers. They tasted great yesterday but they don’t look so good today. Electronic media gives us the opportunity to work interactively, in colour and even in 3D and anything less defeats the purpose of going digital.

Sometimes a simpler approach yields more compelling results. Judy Juracek’s book Surfaces: Visual Research for Artists, Architects and Designers (W.W. Norton and Company, $110.95) is a compilation of 1,200 photographs of materials such as wood, brick and stone. More to the point, it includes a CD-ROM (compatible with both Mac and Windows computers) of the same photographs in TIFF format which can be used as texture maps in 3D modeling programs. I was able to wrap brick and marble textures around cubes and cylinders with little trouble. On the CD the digital photos are arranged in folders by materials, such as wood and metal. Inside the folders the textures are identified by such illuminating names as W149.tif which can make it difficult to find what you’re looking for without referring back to the book itself.

Finding things is really what it’s all about. Whatever you need is probably out there somewhere but our rudimentary approach to structuring and searching for information means that you may never find it. We really need a standardized way of organizing information about architecture.

One of the more ambitious attempts in this direction is The Great Buildings Collection by Kevin Matthews (Artifice Inc., US$149.95) which also comes on a CD compatible with both Mac and Windows 95/NT operating systems. Around since 1994, this collection is a grizzled veteran of the multimedia wars. The comprehensive nature of this work is impressive. From Peter Behrens’ AEG Factory to Golosov’s Zuyev Club, the CD includes entries on some 750 buildings. It covers over 300 architects and includes 2,200 photographs and 2,500 architectural drawings. Each entry resembles a series of index cards that describe the building. The first, the Summary Card, lists the building name, architect, location, date and building type and also has a half-dozen buttons that allow you to access images, drawings, notes on the architect, commentaries on the building, bibliographical resources and in some cases even videos, animations and 3D models. You can search this database in a wide variety of ways–you can progressively zoom in on maps and timelines, browse through photographs organized by architectural elements or simply type in what you’re looking for.

Matthews has done a tremendous job of organizing this material, but the sad fact remains that the photographs, drawings and models are of poor quality. The animations and models that were impressive in 1994 now seem very primitive. The plans, elevations and sections are only scans of other drawings and as such they can’t be loaded into, or edited by, a CAD program, nor can the photographs be pasted into other documents. The Great Buildings Collection is a first class interface built on second rate materials. For those who would like to explore it themselves, a scaled-down, Web-based version of the collection is available on-line at

Nevertheless a variety of important resources continue to move to CD-ROM. The National Building Code is available on CD for Macintosh and Windows computers for $149 for a single user version. More details can be found at

All of these CD’s help to illustrate the ground rules for creating effective digital content for any profession. First and foremost, the content must be accurate and of high quality. Secondly it must be easy to find and use. And thirdly, if you’re going to pay through the nose for it, it had better save you time and add value to your design process. This last rule is of particular importance–you must be able to export the data to CAD programs, reports and Web sites. If you can’t do this, the
n books remain a much better investment.

For the most part the World Wide Web violates all of these principles. No information is to be trusted. You’re lured into blind alleys of advertising by promises of a CAD detail. Web sites are conjured up and vanish in the blink of a modem. Everything appears to be free and right at your fingertips but so much of it is garbled, wrapped in ads and simply inaccurate. For example, in the course of researching this article, I became obsessed with Banister Fletcher and pathetically began searching the Web for any mention of him. One site informed me he was born in 1833, another in 1866. One site showed me his grave, most agreed that he was dead, but one did maintain that he was a championship Labrador Retriever. Then I realized that I had been spelling Banister with two Ns instead of one. With the correct spelling I was able to find the Sir Banister Fletcher Society, formerly the Sir Banister Fletcher Fan Club, whose motto is “We Only Read it for the Pictures.” About the only new information they had about Fletcher was that he was a Freemason. This emphasizes that the Web can be very unforgiving in terms of how it looks up materials.

Chastened, I began to search out more practical sites such as The venerable catalogue producer promised me 53,700 products from 10,100 manufacturers. On previous visits I had found the site difficult to use and prone to crashing but this time when I re-registered as the president of a multinational construction company with millions of employees, everything seemed to go smoothly. Visitors to the site type in what they are looking for, and Sweets provides a list of links to relevant manufacturers’ Web sites. I typed in “door knobs” and soon I was looking at Web pages from a wide variety of manufacturers. Unfortunately most of these pages proved to be little more than brochure copy and while I searched long and hard for promised CAD details and drawing files, there were very few to be found.

Bricsnet (, which bills itself as “the e-marketplace of the global building industry,” proved to have better organized catalogues and resources. Rather than link directly to manufacturers’ Web sites, it maintains content on its own site. For example, searching for “stone anchors” does produce a list of companies but it also uses a table to tell you what brochures, specifications, CAD details, photos and Web sites (if any) are available for all the companies that produce stone anchors. These items are incorporated directly into the Bricsnet site making it much quicker to find the requested materials. Not that they’re necessarily the right ones. Searching for “insulated prefab panels,” for example, got me details of hollow metal doors.

The 20th edition of Banister Fletcher’s A History of Architecture (Digital Press, 1996, $239.50) weighs in at 1,840 pages and around 2,000 drawings, making it a lightweight compared to some of the resources described here. Yet those small but legible, carefully drawn black and white plans, sections and elevations are immediately useful to anyone who cracks open this book. Almost every drawing has a scale and a north arrow and each is properly titled and annotated. The number of drawings doesn’t matter nearly as much as their quality. We must learn from Banister Fletcher because we desperately need to rethink and redesign the way we create electronic resources if they are be effective.

There is no doubt that CD-ROMs and Web sites have enormous potential to save time and money for architects, but not in their present chaotic form. We need an underlying “architecture” for architectural information; we need better user interfaces; we need better search engines; and we need better content that is designed for interactivity. The profession has given little thought to its place, and its needs, in this new world of instant information, and until it does, I’ll stick with Sir Banister Fletcher. By the way, there are no plans to produce a digital version of A History of Architecture.

Douglas MacLeod is director of projects for NetEra Alliance for Advanced Computing and Networking in Alberta and a contributing editor to Canadian Architect.