In spring of 2021, MIT Press announced the open-access release of several previously out-of-print architectural and urban studies texts on the digital platform MIT Press Direct. Taken together, these thirty-four titles, dating from 1964 to 1998, represent a snapshot of the first decades of MIT Press’s publications in architecture, design, and urbanism and attest to the publisher’s profound influence on the development of these disciplines throughout the middle of the twentieth century in the United States and beyond. The rerelease of these works also provides a window onto the current situation regarding digital and open-access publishing in these disciplines, revealing it to be full of both considerable challenges and opportunities.

The texts included in MIT Press Open Architecture and Urban Studies address a number of different sites in both the United States and Europe across a wide range of periods, from temples in ancient Greece to Topkapı Palace in Istanbul to the Royal Palace at Caserta to a history of U.S. industrial design. They encompass an expansive variety of methodologies and subject matter, including examinations of architectural institutions and bureaucracies (e.g., Martha Pollak, ed., The Education of the Architect, 1997; David Van Zanten, Designing Paris, 1987), theoretical accounts and analyses (e.g., Mark Jarzombek, On Leon Baptista Alberti: His Literary and Aesthetic Theories, 1989; Nicholas Negroponte, The Architecture Machine, 1970, and Soft Architecture Machines, 1976), and studies of urban planning, critical geography, and landscape design (e.g., Jean Gottmann, Megalopolis, 1964; N. A. Miliutin, Sotsgorod: The Problem of Building Socialist Cities, 1975; Galen Cranz, The Politics of Park Design, 1982; Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, Rebuilding Central Park, 1987), as well as assessments of individual critics and designers (including Gottfried Semper, Le Corbusier, Erik Gunnar Asplund, and Frank Lloyd Wright), technical studies (e.g., John Templer, The Staircase, vols. 1 and 2, 1992; Cecil D. Elliott, Technics and Architecture, 1992), and even an anthropological account of architects’ practice (Edward Robbins, Why Architects Draw, 1994).

Many of these books are difficult to assign to a single genre because they employ intertwining methodological approaches. For example, Peter G. Rowe’s Making a Middle Landscape (1991), an account of the suburb in the United States, offers both a discussion of pastoralism and an analysis of economic and demographic shifts through two case studies (Framingham, Massachusetts, and Sharpstown, Texas). George Hersey and Richard Freedman’s Possible Palladian Villas (Plus a Few Instructively Impossible Ones) (1992) evaluates Palladio’s designs using computational analysis of his rules of proportion and style. In a 1998 JSAH review of The Education of the Architect, edited by Martha Pollak, Gülsüm Baydar Nalbantoǧlu observed that “all the essays in the book engage, at some level, with the relationship between history, theory, and criticism,” but despite that commonality, “the approaches and methods of the authors are as diverse as their topics.”1 Nalbantoǧlu’s assessment applies quite readily to the entire selection of titles included in the Open Architecture and Urban Studies release.

The full list of titles appears on MIT Press’s web page for the collection (http://mitpress.mit.edu/MIT-Press-Open-Architecture-and-Urban-Studies), which provides links to dedicated pages for the books available. The contents of each book are divided into individual sections (e.g., introduction, chapters, appendixes), which are available as PDFs, each with its own Digital Object Identifier, or DOI. Both the MIT Direct Press page and the PDFs include licensing and copyright information; the PDFs also include corresponding URLs and download dates.

Given that the three-year Open Architecture and Urban Studies project amounts to a rather technologically modest accumulation of web pages and PDFs documenting thirty-four out-of-print architecture and urbanism titles, readers may be surprised to learn that executing the project involved considerable complexity and expense. As I learned from Justin Kehoe, acquisitions editor at MIT Press, the selection, digitization, and production of these open-access titles took place in multiple stages and required plentiful resources. A 2018 grant from the Humanities Open Book Program, cosponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, provided key funding for the project. Beginning with three hundred titles, the team at MIT Press sought guidance regarding the selection of texts meriting rerelease from longtime architecture editor Roger Conover (retired in 2018), as well as from MIT faculty. However, not just scholarly merit but also the acquisition of copyright permissions proved to be critical to the selection process. Critical determining factors included whether MIT Press still had the rights to a given publication and, if so, whether it could then negotiate the rights for the book’s images.

The problem of translating specific physical attributes into digital format also presented a central concern. For example, as Kehoe noted, one of his own favorite books from the initial three hundred volumes, Richard Saul Wurman, Alan Levy, and Joel Katz’s The Nature of Recreation: A Handbook in Honor of Frederick Law Olmsted (1972), “contained pages of park elements, perforated so that they could be removed from the book and you could arrange and rearrange them on your own.”2 The book did not make it into the final thirty-four because the team decided that the translation to PDF would fail to represent the work’s original design concept accurately.

As the experiences of the MIT Press in producing the Open Architecture and Urban Studies release suggest, the creation of viable approaches for digital, open-access publication presents not only technological challenges but also cultural problems that may be even more difficult to resolve. In other words, while the conversations around these topics tend to be framed in terms of the digital versus the physical—typically conceived as almost adversarial opposites—the challenges that arise in both digital publication and open access are often related to how and why we use particular publication technologies, rather than simply whether digital technologies are used. Publication itself is already a hybrid process: the work flows and procedures that go into producing print books are already thoroughly digitized, as publishers rely on the production and exchange of digital files created through the use of software applications like Microsoft Word and InDesign. Significantly, however, these particular applications are designed to produce print. For example, Microsoft Word includes a host of functions intended to facilitate the production of a folio text, allowing the author to add page numbers, section headings, and footnotes or endnotes.

As the difficulty of creating a digital version of The Nature of Recreation suggests, problems arise when publishers, authors, editors, and/or publishing company production staff seek to use a particular work flow or format to produce something other than what it was intended to produce. For example, it is far more straightforward to acquire image permissions for new digital and print publications than it is to acquire permissions to reproduce the images from now out-of-print books in new, digital, open-access rerelease versions of those books. Adjusting print-oriented work flows to produce digital outputs or to integrate these with digital dissemination channels requires considerable translation: print work flows must be re- and back-formulated to generate digital outputs, and digital outputs must be manipulated or customized to meet the requirements in place for print.

These translation processes may also generate astonishing amounts of repetitive and redundant work, such as the painstaking copying and pasting of text, paragraph by paragraph, from one application to another, or the generation of print forms of digital files that enable the editor to insert comments by hand that must then be reapplied to the digital version. Such laborious, time-consuming efforts are necessary in part because consistent standards and infrastructures do not yet exist for the production, dissemination, and maintenance of digital publications. This in turn means that there are few fixed or agreed-upon parameters around which production processes or output formats can be designed.

As a result, production processes differ markedly across publishers and online publishing platforms. Arguably, MIT Press employs the best existing system, which leverages low-tech but sustainable PDFs and DOIs. The creation of more sophisticated approaches that might leverage the potential of digital technologies for architectural history, such as 3-D imaging, remains a more distant and elusive goal. Moreover, the complicated current state of digital scholarly publishing helps explain why even the creation of humble PDFs from physical books required MIT Press to seek special funding to unknot the complex tangle of practical and conceptual issues involved. It also explains why open access to publication, while an admirable and in many ways desirable goal, remains extremely difficult to achieve.

For historians of architecture and urbanism, the digital production of Open Architecture and Urban Studies by MIT Press raises several issues. Digital outputs and open access represent the future of publishing, despite the considerable challenges they entail. According to Kehoe, “Our long-term goal is for the bulk of our professional book program to be published as funded open access titles.” He also acknowledges, however, that architecture publications “don’t fit as neatly into this picture.” While the complications related to design and image rights are by no means unique to our field, they may affect us more adversely than they do scholars in other fields. For example, as Kehoe noted, e-book formats that isolate text from layout design and images (known as “reflowable” text), such as that used by Amazon’s Kindle, make it difficult to publish volumes on architecture, design, and urban studies in widely accessible forms. Accessibility raises another pressing issue for a technical and competitive field that tends to favor those with independent access to resources, financial or otherwise. If the only publishers who can produce open-access titles are well-endowed North American and European presses, what are the implications for engaging broader and more diverse audiences in the study of architectural and urban history, or for disseminating more global and inclusive histories of architecture?

With the status of digital publishing and open access still in flux, our discipline has considerable opportunity to discuss and critique all aspects of designing, conceptualizing, and creating a variety of publications on architectural and urban history for a variety of audiences. MIT Press, for example, is now experimenting with a born-digital publication application, PubPub, and plans to release nine of the thirty-four titles in Open Architecture and Urban Studies via this platform.3 As this suggests, we still have ample time to shape the future of digital publishing, to ensure that we carry forward those specific aspects of print publication that we value even as we develop innovative new formats to share knowledge with new audiences. We can facilitate this process by moving away from our reliance on processes of translation. As Nicholas Negroponte argues in The Architecture Machine, “In order to have a cooperative interaction between a designer of a certain expertise and a machine of some scholarship, the two must be congenial and must share the labor of establishing a common language.”4

1.

Güsüm Baydar Nalbantoǧlu, review of The Education of the Architect: Historiography, Urbanism, and the Growth of Architectural Knowledge, edited by Martha Pollak, JSAH 57, no. 2 (June 1998), 208.

2.

Justin Kehoe, email correspondence with author, 6 May 2021.

3.

See “MIT Press Open Access Titles and Experiments on the PubPub Platform from the Knowledge Futures Group,” MIT Press Open, https://mitpressonpubpub.mitpress.mit.edu (accessed 21 June 2021).

4.

Nicholas Negroponte, “Prelude to an Architect–Machine Dialogue,” in The Architecture Machine (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2021), https://mitp-arch.mitpress.mit.edu/pub/571l8kae/release/1#n8s4fb94uf4 (accessed 18 June 2021).