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From the Archives

A Sea of Conference Papers and a Look Back

Sarah Rovang

Happy New Year from a Santa Fe of crisp snow and vivid color. While I am still conquering my winter break work goals, here's a nostalgic look back at my very first archive trip as a graduate student. 

From The Dark and Roving Eye, originally published July 27, 2011

"Delirious, Sweaty New York" 

After a sidewalk-melting weekend in NYC, I'm back in my tree house of an apartment, 40 degrees happier and laden with a cornucopia of new primary material. 

My first big archive trip as a grad student now under my belt (time to take off the training wheels!), I'm left with 4,000 words of notes to synthesize, analyze, and weave into the existing draft of my qualifying paper. The archives room at NYPL is a haven of chilled air and old book smell, though camera-clutching tourists frequently hurl themselves at the locked glass door to great comical effect. Archival research is exhilarating and exhausting - a sort of needle-in-haystack mission of sporadic and intense fulfillment amid a seemingly endless sea of futility. The term "paper architecture" is canonically used to describe unbuilt, hypothetical design projects, but this trip was a reminder to me that all architecture generates astonishing amounts of paper. That, and the fact that everyone involved in the building process is convinced that everyone else are slobbering, incoherent idiots. I ran into letters of this variety dozens of times for the project I'm researching:


Dear (Name of Architect),

Thank you for returning the building permit to us. I see that Mr. (Firm Partner) has now signed on the correct line. Please note, however, that the permit also needs to be notarized. I am herewith returning the permit to you such that you may have it re-signed by Mr. (Firm Partner) and duly notarized at your soonest possible convenience.

Yours Very Truly,
(Name of Client/Design Board)


This is the subtext of that same letter:

Hey Knucklehead,

Didn't they teach you to read at the Ecole des Beaux Arts? This is the third time I have sent you this form. Get your act together NOW, you lousy excuse for a human being. 

Shove off,
Someone who will never every hire your firm again


Clients are not the only offenders, architects can be just as bad:

Dear (Name of Client),

I have enclosed the plans and elevations with the newest revisions you requested. These should be self-explanatory. Please acknowledge receipt of these documents at your soonest possible convenience.

Yours Sincerely,
(Name of Architect)


This one should read:

Dear Hellspawn,

I haven't slept in 3 nights and have been working unpaid overtime to finish these drawings. Your constant vacillation and fickleness regarding this project is costing me my health and my family. I hope you die a slow painful death. If you cannot decipher my meticulously crafted drawings, you are even more cretinous than I had imagined. You may consider this documents to be drawn with my very blood, so you had better let me know that you received them. 

Your Slave Labor

Reading these sort of correspondences for hours at a time does start to become grating because the frustration is so blatantly evident, but never voiced. 

Fortunately, besides the triplicate copies of architect hate-mail, I also managed to unearth some genuinely helpful construction documents, press releases, and (correctly notarized) building permits. 

On Sunday, the heat began to dissipate and I ran 11.7 miles through Manhattan. The realer-than-real nature of Central Park is particularly striking before 7 am, as hills crest in symphonic waves, curling into boulders and frothing up with ferns on the still shores of ponds. Ascendant flocks of bicyclists rose like tropical Spandex-clad birds. Down to Battery Park we ran, through Chinatown and SoHo and most of the way across the Brooklyn Bridge and back. Our ankles caked in 120+ blocks of soot, we wobbled before the WWII monument on the island's southern tip, adrenaline-guzzling pilgrims looking out towards the Statue of Liberty as we massaged our calves. We then turned, got on the subway, and hauled our huddled masses back up to Morningside Heights.