Reformatting the Memory Palace: When Everything Exists to End in a Document
M.C. Heymans, Perspective of the Mundaneum (1935) © Mundaneum, Personal Papers Paul Otlet, Mons.
6:00-8:00 pm


Reformatting the Memory Palace: When Everything Exists to End in a Document

Wouter Van Acker

The institutions that we traditionally trust to manage our knowledge – the library, the museum and the university – are being forced in the digital age to redefine what belongs inside and outside their walls, both in a physical and virtual sense. To measure the historical impact of the reformatting of knowledge on these institutions, this lecture will return one century in time and revisit the “Mundaneum” or the institutional vision of the Belgian bibliographer and internationalist Paul Otlet (1868-1944). A library, university, laboratory, and interface to a ‘worldwide brain’ at the same time, the Mundaneum crystallized his belief in the universality of knowledge and science. In 1928 with Le Corbusier and in 1935 with Maurice Heymans, he gave architectural form to his cosmological and epistemological system in a series of detailed plans of a modernist memory palace with a spiralling museum at its core. Although these projects seem utterly utopian, they directly continued his practical endeavours to create a universal bibliographic repertory by means of 3-by-5 inch index cards and the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC) which he created with his colleague Henri La Fontaine. This lecture will discuss the ideal order he imagined in his visualizations to emerge out of the information society of the early 20th century, and how it contradicted the perceived disorder and emergent acceptance of a fundamental disunity at the different levels of science, culture and politics.

Wouter Van Acker is engineer-architect and associate professor at the Faculty of Architecture La Cambre Horta of the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) where he co-directs hortence, ULB’s research centre for architectural history, theory and criticism. His research focus is the history of epistemology and aesthetics in architecture in the twentieth century, and in particular the problem of returns and late style in postmodernism.

The lecture was part of the lecture series Built Order: Storing Knowledge and took place virtually and in English. A recording of the lecture is available here.