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.


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 ist Ingenieur-Architekt und Associate Professor an der Fakultät für Architektur La Cambre Horta der Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), wo er das Forschungszentrum für Architekturgeschichte, -theorie und -kritik der ULB, hortence, mitleitet. Sein Forschungsschwerpunkt ist die Geschichte der Epistemologie und Ästhetik in der Architektur des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts und insbesondere das Problem der Wiederkehr und des späten Stils in der Postmoderne.

Die Veranstaltung war Teil der Ringvorlesung Gebaute Ordnung: Speicher des Wissens. Ein Mitschnitt des Vortrags ist hier verfügbar.