In 1979, the same year Phyllis Lambert founded the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, the Buggles signed a deal in London to release and promote their debut single, “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Rejecting live performance in favor of a video aired on the BBC, the band captured the zeitgeist of the late 1970s with the song, embracing new technology while at the same time questioning its negative effects on traditional media and modes of production. This familiar anxiety, much like that felt widely with the emergence of print, radio, and television—the worry that “this will kill that”—has been rekindled with the rise of digital media in the past two decades as many historical materials have been digitized and the archive has increasingly been experienced as a database.
From its foundation, the CCA recognized the importance of media. As an institution born without a building, it established its presence in the 1980s through a steady stream of publications, touring exhibitions, and collaborations with other institutions—an approach consistent with the media culture that had already permeated architecture throughout the 1970s. In the United Kingdom, for example, the Open University (itself a topic of a recent CCA exhibition) broadcast a series of architectural history courses on BBC2, while in the United States self-proclaimed “TV native” architects Chad Floyd and Charles Moore were producing “Design-A-Thons” on live television to solicit public participation in the design process.1 Even after the opening of its building in 1989, the CCA continued to rely on various media to extend its reach beyond the gray limestone walls and maple floors of 1920 Rue Baile. The CCA's website (which serves as its “second building”), its YouTube channel, and its social media accounts are today critical components of that media infrastructure.2
Launched in November 2007, a little more than two years after the founding of YouTube, the CCA's YouTube channel, CCAchannel, now has more than 5,000 subscribers with over half a million total views. While not as large as the user bases of similar forums, this base will certainly continue to grow, since YouTube already attracts about a third of all Internet users, and video streaming is predicted to dominate online traffic in the coming years.3 This auxiliary online presence has enabled the CCA—in its virtual and material totality—to function both as a cultural database and as a disciplinary interface. It reflects the CCA's fundamental conviction that “architecture is a public concern” and demonstrates that it has gone beyond its role as a traditional museum or research library serving a small community of scholars to become a global, multifaceted institution that actively engages with disciplinary and cultural issues.
The CCA's extensive public programming, along with its programs for scholars and experts in the field, provides the institution with a rich body of both primary and secondary materials that it has put to work as content in the digital public realm. On CCAchannel, this content can be classified into three main categories: documentation of CCA's past events, such as exhibitions, public lectures, discussions, and conferences; audiovisual archival materials, digitized and uploaded for public access; and content produced specifically for the channel, including interviews, documentaries, and programs. Consistent with the norms of the platform, videos are grouped sequentially into collections called playlists, each of which is identified by a title and sometimes a short description. CCAchannel currently publishes twenty-seven playlists, each containing anywhere from two to sixty videos, for a total of 573 individual uploads. Some notable playlists include “Find and Tell,” which contains videos of invited experts discussing their readings and interpretations of archival materials; “Besides, History,” which offers a closer look at the eponymous 2017 CCA exhibition through gallery talks; and the more recently created “Come and Forget,” a lecture series in which invited guests, including Johannes Grenzfurthner, Craig Hodgetts, and Evgeny Morozov, propose acts of mass amnesia.
Thanks to CCAchannel, a growing number of the CCA's collections of historical audiovisual materials are no longer confined to two floors of vaults. While some historians consider the digitization of archival materials to be a radical break with the past—the loss of the medium in favor of the message—others argue that digital media converge with the old and foster historical continuity through recovery and recirculation of text, artifacts, images, and videos.4 The popularity of some of the historical materials on CCAchannel reflects that convergence paradigm, most notably Le Corbusier and Pierre Chenal's documentary short film L'architecture d'aujourd'hui (1930)—the most popular video on CCAchannel, with more than 28,000 views—and the broadcasts from the Open University's course module A305, History of Architecture and Design, 1890–1939 (featured in the CCA exhibition mentioned above). Apart from providing the general public with access to rare historical materials, the digital archives as such can offer researchers and scholars access to materials that demand new methods of research and scholarship. For example, the CCA's acquisition of the archives of contemporary architects and historians as well as those associated with the Archaeology of the Digital research program draws attention to the problem of the archiving and dissemination of born-digital material.
Twenty years ago, observers of digital media were focusing on the epistemic shift implicit in the database, and in particular its rejection of narrative expression.5 Little has changed since then. Most social media platforms today present content in a stream ordered by the date and time of its creation or by the workings of an invisible recommender algorithm. YouTube playlists, however, allow publishers to organize videos into fixed narrative sequences, whether as recordings of particular events divided into segments, where each video picks up where the last left off, or as programs conceived as collections of episodes. Such serial organization, however, cannot be applied to the playlists themselves since YouTube lacks the tools to organize collections into higher-level arrangements. Playlists function as autonomous folders or albums without any larger sequence, hierarchy, or metanarrative, where every item has the same significance as any other. This limitation may in fact be the strength of the platform, for it could allow the database and narrative to function as complementary forms—what N. Katherine Hayles has called “natural symbionts”—and offer new ways to make sense of or use the data.6 The drawback, however, is that the playlist is a rudimentary container offering no finer-grained curatorial tools. Only half of the videos on CCAchannel are assigned to a playlist. The rest fall into the data abyss: if not shared or linked, they are retrievable only through the search engine, or they may be located through painstaking browsing of the long list of uploads in the “Videos” navigation tab. Without prior knowledge of their existence, one might visit CCAchannel and miss entirely RGB/XYZ's wonderful video Umberto Riva, Casa Insinga, Milan, Sylvia Lavin's gallery tour of her 2010 exhibition Take Note, or Rem Koolhaas and Peter Eisenman's duet at the CCA's “Urgency 2007” event.
The most interesting content on CCAchannel, of course, embraces the specificity of the medium. The Greg Lynn Show, for example, parodies the format of a late-night talk show. In each episode, the host interviews architects of seminal digital projects included in his 2016 exhibition Archaeology of the Digital: Complexity and Convention. Lynn's guests include a lineup of “stars from the nineties,” including “stand-up comedian and special effects guru Neil Denari” and “Nordic magicians Johan Bettum and Kivi Sotamaa.” While this conceit grows overelaborate at times, the show's success stems from its clever use of this anachronism as a platform for discussing the architecture of a period whose distance from the present falls awkwardly between the historical and the contemporary.
The creators of the show 311 et demi take a less ironic approach with their popular program aimed at YouTube's native inhabitants. Based on the simple premise that children sometimes see possibilities that adults cannot, each episode asks a group of children—equipped with safety vests, hard hats, and elaborate and colorful models—to propose solutions to various design problems submitted by Montreal residents. The recording technique and the editing style consciously borrow an idiom popular among younger YouTube users—members of what Google has called “Gen C.”7 As with all videos on YouTube, users are invited to like, dislike, share, and comment. Yet public participation using these by now universal social media tools is surprisingly low; indeed, one finds little user interaction anywhere on the channel. Instead, CCAchannel shifts the problem of an expanded public from the apparatus of social media to the content of the videos themselves. Among these, 311 et demi seems most at home on YouTube by embracing its format and its visual rhetoric, and while the show, in its deference to the popular, may seem to run counter to the intellectual rigor of the other materials on CCAchannel, it comes closest to suggesting how architecture might be made a public concern in the eyes of Gen C architects, designers, and scholars.