One way to understand architecture’s development as discourse is to map the attempts to overcome its fixed form as building through more widespread distribution as media. An episode in this ongoing development is Pidgeon Digital, an online collection of “seminal ideas from the world’s greatest architects,” not to be confused with Digital Pigeon, a platform that provides “large file sharing for digital media producers & creatives.”1 But perhaps confusion is apropos. These two entities are united by digital economy, given that the similarity of their names means that they follow each other in a Google search; moreover, both are predicated on the need to move “content.” Of the two, however, only Pidgeon Digital, a repository of recorded talks on architecture, can be understood through an explication of the various media, digital and analog, that the site makes accessible. Even a cursory consideration of the site makes one aware of the wide range of origins, formats, collection and organization types, and methods of access that conspire in the processes of architecture’s mediation, of which digitization is only the latest manifestation.

Pidgeon Digital was established in 2006, but its origins go back much further, to the Pidgeon Audiovisual Collection, an archive created in 1979 by Monica Pidgeon upon her retirement as editor of the RIBA Journal, where she served after having most famously held the position of editor at Architectural Design from 1945 to 1975. In establishing the original collection, Pidgeon hoped to reach a global audience and had the ambition to “widen the horizons of students of architecture and design by giving them the opportunity to share the thinking of world leading members of the profession to whom they might not otherwise have access.”2 Under her editorship, AD experienced significant change, both in printing technology, moving from solid plate and metal type to photolithography, and in financing, shifting from reliance on advertising to a book model, in which the price covered the cost. The latter made for an audience-driven publication that was responsive to readers’ changing interests. In turn, the Pidgeon Audiovisual Collection similarly used the means at hand to facilitate distribution and, thus, audience reach; in related but distinct fashion, this is true of Pidgeon Digital today. The Pidgeon Audiovisual Collection consisted of recordings on audiocassette and correspondingly coded sets of color slides. As a means of improving architectural dissemination, the distribution of slide sets and audio recordings by parcel post marks a specific moment in the desire for accessing architectural knowledge across distance, between the possibilities of print, from Leon Battista Alberti’s On the Art of Building (1485) to Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York (1978), and the more immediate transactions of the Internet, from Great Buildings Online to Dezeen.

Pidgeon Digital retains the format of its earlier incarnation to a remarkable degree, in an almost unmediated fashion. The closest contemporary analogy would be a PowerPoint-type slide presentation. However, where in a slide presentation the viewer controls the range of images seen and the speed of the presentation, Pidgeon Digital talks retain the relatively linear model of the analog audio recordings and analog slide carrels of their original versions. The occasions of these talks seem specific to the recordings; the recordings are not bootlegs from live lectures but instead are purpose-made content averaging a half hour of playing time (even the famously longwinded Buckminster Fuller keeps to twenty-nine minutes). The images, although now digitized, retain traces of the original slides’ materiality, with scratches, dust, and even the occasional hair. Still, it is not the quality of the images that is most striking but rather the aurality of the recordings. Their auditory presence sustains one of Monica Pidgeon’s originating beliefs for the project: the importance of “hear[ing] the actual voices of the designers of buildings, and listen[ing] to their ideas in their own words.”3 In total, the auratic effects of the format—the particular intonation of the speakers’ voices, but also the traces of time and place that are not erased in digitization—are the best part of the collection. They are a glimpse into architecture’s oral history. Downloadable, illustrated transcripts of some of the presentations are available as PDFs, but much is lost in transcription.

As a collection, Pidgeon Digital closely maps onto the parallel editorial interest of Architectural Design. It reflects a predominantly, although not exclusively, British perspective, of outlook and empire, and features mostly architects (such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Cedric Price, Norman Foster, Charles Correa, and Will Alsop), along with the occasional historian, again usually British (John Summerson, Reyner Banham, and Charles Jencks), and the rare artist (Eduardo Paolozzi, whose talk is on working with architects). For the most part, the collection avoids the postmodern turn and focuses on the late twentieth-century genealogy of high modernism and its masters to high tech and its deviations, foregrounding issues such as technology and sustainability. The earliest talk is from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, titled “I Don’t Want to Be Interesting, I Want to Be Good” (1955), while the most recent is from Michael Pawlyn, titled “Biomimicry: Design to Heal the Planet” (2020). As respective end points of the trajectory, these two talks illustrate how much architecture has and has not changed in the intervening years. Together, they show the extent to which architecture is still understood through its most prominent representatives. Even as the meaning of what is represented by architecture changes, the field remains for the most part personified through the figure of the architect, and Pidgeon Digital’s collection, with its focus on the embodied utterances of singular individuals, certainly reinforces this perception.

The site itself lacks interactivity and exudes a blandly corporate Web 1.5 quality. It was designed by Spork Digital, whose self-described ethos of “Success is innovation” is not very evident here.4 The navigation bar offers the options “Home,” “About,” “Explore,” “Subscribe,” “FAQ,” and “Contact,” which seem to be and in fact are the default menu items for corporate websites. The functionality of the Pidgeon Digital database is limited; the only categories for searches are subject, architecture, location, and building. Simply listing the entries by year proves to be the most illuminating way to conduct a search. The range of the collection becomes evident once one starts to search by decade, and it becomes apparent that the 1980s constitute the collection’s apogee (in both the number of recordings and the influence of those recorded). The collection’s full extent is not made clear on the site, but having made a scrolling count of all entries, I can attest that the number, as of 3 March 2021, is 274. It is a nice collection, in both quality and quantity, but it is more a curated selection than a comprehensive archive. As when rummaging around in the stacks of a library, one is rewarded by accidental proximity in searching.

Access to the site is limited by a paywall. Aimed at academic institutions and architectural practices, Pidgeon Digital is a subscription site, a subsidiary of World Microfilms Publications Limited. The pricing offers a range of options for the institutional subscriber, depending on whether the institution contains an architecture school or not. Architecture schools pay almost double, although it is unclear whether this difference represents a premium for architectural initiates or a discount for the laity. The subscription prices for architectural practices are scale based as well. The site also has a connection to Continuing Professional Development Certification Service, a clearinghouse for continuing education materials for architecture and many other industries. Individuals may purchase talks from the site for the price of five pounds per talk, which is about what it costs to rent a recent feature-length movie or to purchase an older one through a download from Amazon.co.uk.

What of content? As, according to the website, “a collection of historical and recent talks by some of the world’s most important architectural professionals,” its value may be more nostalgic than historic. To experience the archaic format of these talks, so near and yet so far from current norms, would be of some interest to the media historian for the resonance of interfaces. However, although the devotee of prominent architects might relish the chance to “hear the master’s voice,” the site likely holds very little interest for the contemporary architectural historian, in that the collection models a project of design as authorial intentions around the nexus of a project. And even if one were still interested in such retrograde matters (and here this author will admit to such peccadillos), there are other resources with more selection, such as the SCI-Arc Media Archive (https://channel.sciarc.edu/media-archive), and more accessibility, such as YouTube (https://www.youtube.com).

Yet new content is still being created for Pidgeon Digital: Peter Murray, having initially worked under Pidgeon at AD and subsequently in architecture publications including Building Design and Blueprint, as well as at the London Festival of Architecture, continues to produce new talks for the site. Interestingly, in one of the collection’s more recent entries, “Communicating Architecture” (2018), Murray describes the changing conditions of architecture’s mediation throughout his career. He concludes the presentation with a description of contemporary architectural publishing, saying, “It is a much more interactive landscape than I think the digital world is; one, it allows lots of people to publish who would not have been able to get into publishing before through blogs, and all sorts of other sites; it also allows readers to interact much more with the content.” Murray’s comment inadvertently raises the question, what is Pidgeon Digital for now? Having existed in multiple iterations and in multiple formats, from a mail-based to a digital subscription service, it seems more quaint than necessary in the contemporary media landscape. In the genealogy of architectural mediation, Pidgeon Digital is an outdated artifact of earlier times. The Internet facilitates media exchange, and yet in its current iteration Pidgeon Digital has trapped a wealth of architectural information in outmoded formats behind a paywall, leaving it unconnected to the vast wealth of online information that could help activate and drive viewers to it. Just as Monica Pidgeon adapted the format technologies and funding model used at AD to enable the publication to survive in a changing media landscape, perhaps another iteration of Pidgeon Digital is forthcoming. At this point, its content (both architecture and media) wants to be free.

1.

Pidgeon Digital, https://www.pidgeondigital.com (accessed 29 June 2021); Digital Pigeon, https://www.digitalpigeon.com (accessed 20 Jan. 2020).

2.

“About,” Pidgeon Digital, https://www.digitalpigeon.com (accessed 29 June 2021).

3.

“About,” Pidgeon Digital.

4.

“Businesses,” Spork Digital, https://spork.digital/businesses (accessed 29 June 2021).