Greg Lynn's Embryological House: case study in the preservation of digital architecture

Introduction     Background     Animate Form     Digital Life     Technical Challenges     Other Challenges     Discoveries     Future Steps

The House partakes of a fundamental characteristic of digital works: the sense in which they "live," in which their continued access and use necessitates the nurturing of a continued "life." Digital files depend, if they are to be more than a string of mute ones and zeros, on a computing environment which can support their activity. They need a hardware infrastructure, an operating system, and a compiler or computer program to run them. Every time we open a digital file our experience of it depends on the file's interaction with these things. But this environment changes, and rapidly. New chips are designed, new operating systems developed, new software written. Because the environment for which they were designed no longer exists or is rare, files created only a few years ago may well be unusable by the lay person today. File types and formats quickly become obsolete.

The strategies adopted for digital preservation therefore differ qualitatively from those employed in traditional preservation. Traditional preservation is based on suspending the animation of objects to be preserved—so far as possible, stopping time for them. The preservation of digital objects, in contrast, focuses on finding ways to keep files active after the passage of (long periods of) time: learning how to regenerate them or, as it were, re-animate them.

This new condition has specific consequences for the relationship of curatorial and preservation decision-making. It becomes less and less accurate to consider the objects of preservation as "objects" at all. They instead need to be seen more and more as processes, with inherent changes of form; therefore curatorial input and value judgments about the appropriateness of these changes become necessary over the entire life cycle of the object. Again, in contrast to traditional preservation of objects in which every technical effort is made to maintain objects in an unchanged condition for later curatorial interpretation and exhibition, curatorial involvement now becomes necessary at key stages throughout the process of preservation. Only this way can continued access to the files over time be assured.