Metamorphosis of architecture on line
by Lloyd Marcus Andresen, founder of divisare
I began publishing because I wanted to do something else, with all my heart: I wanted to become a rich and famous architect. The idea was simple: to do something, anything, that would allow me to finance my own design studio. So I began publishing, though at the time I thought it was only temporary, during the wait for an imminent, inevitable and dazzling debut on the international architecture scene.
I had just returned to Rome after four years in Berlin, where I drank a lot, took part in some competitions and struggled to pick up a bit of German. The idea of putting my limited language skills to work on the web seemed brilliant: “I’ll gather information on competitions held in Europe, translate it into Italian, and sell it to architects via Internet… so I can fund my studio.” It was 1998, the Internet and Google had just begun, the euro was not yet a reality, but there was already a fresh European breeze that bore the scent of easy, immediate success. The fact that I knew nothing about the web didn’t bother me at all: “I’ll get help from my cousin Tommaso, who is a computer genius.”
That was the beginning of Europaconcorsi, as well as my partnership with my brilliant cousin. Together we began to work on the Internet, when the web was still a world of amateurs enjoying new online pursuits. No one really knew where we were going, so we proceeded by trial and error in a space where everything was in a state of rapid flux.
The newborn Europaconcorsi also began to radically change: from a tool created to transmit information to paying users, it became an application the users could rely on themselves to spread professional information about their work on the web. At first this simply meant posting some low-quality images of the projects with which Italian architects took part in competitions, sometimes with success. But then things got more complicated. In 2015 we had become a complex machine managing various interconnected databases, which together constituted the largest and more detailed archive of contemporary architecture existing online. A machine that produced enormous traffic, hundreds of thousands of images viewed every day, drawings, photographs, construction details. 18 years after the creation of Europaconcorsi only a small part of the overall traffic was generated by the competitions service. The rest was produced by the archives of projects.
In the meantime, our user base was also changing. Although Europaconcorsi was and all-Italian website, the number of foreign visits was quickly expanding. In 2015 foreign views had become one third of the total. We understood that we had to address an international market. This led to the founding of divisare, a brand new site but one that contained an archive created during 18 years of work. The name – an Italian verb used by Dante and Alberti meaning “to imagine” which then fell out of use – might not have been the best choice to convey international ambitions and the desire for innovation. In short, it is not a fresh, glistening and “modern” English name, but a very Italian and quite out of date Italian verb. Nevertheless, we thought it worked well, both due to its meaning and due to the possible echo and memory of something earlier, something from the past.
We got started, registering this lexical vestige as our URL, and forged on in the firm conviction of standing out from the usual “new sites on architecture” we had become accustomed to watching as they sprouted up like mushrooms all over the web: some had fleeting, almost seasonal lives, while others were better structured and longer lasting, but in any case they were all obsessed with the cool noisiness of the new at all costs, the compulsive need to pursue, gather and post the flotsam of the “latest” architecture as soon as it appeared. Our plan was to step aside from the sort of web that is condemned to exist in terms of vertical communication, always with the newest of the new architecture placed at the top, “on the front page,” “in the spotlight.” Content that was destined – like the oh-so-new architecture that preceded it, just a few hours earlier – to rapidly slide down lower, day after day, in a vertical free fall towards the oblivion of page 2. Therefore we built divisare horizontally, not vertically. Our model was the bookcase, on whose shelves we have gathered hundreds of publications by theme. Each publication narrates a particular story, a specific vantage point from which to observe the last 20 years of contemporary architecture. A lengthy, patient work of cataloguing, done by hand: image after image, project after project, publication after publication. This was based on the certainty that it is possible to do better than the speedy, distracted web we all know, where the prevailing business model is: “you make money only if you manage to distract your readers from the content of your site itself.” With divisare, on the other hand, we offered the possibility of exploring content without distractions. No "click me," "tweet me," "share me,” "like me." No advertising, banners, pop-ups or other noise that can disturb concentration. A different idea of the web, which we might call “slow web.”
With these premises, the return to the printed page was a natural move. In April 2016 we began to publish the divisare books. An initial, very small step outside the web. Simple booklets in A5 format, a few dozen pages each, digitally printed and held together by staples. The contents were varied, but mostly the same things we were posting on the web. The idea was simple: printed paper instead of pixels. We certainly didn’t expect to make money; we simply wanted to invite our readers to get away from the screens of their devices for a moment, to sit back in a favorite armchair and enjoy a good read, as happened in the past. We were not kidding ourselves; of course our divisare books would not be a smashing publishing success, but we didn’t care. We decided to do it anyway. But we were mistaken. The first divisare books sold out in just a few weeks. In one year we published 240 titles and sold thousands and thousands of copies.
But the atmosphere changed in 2018. We ran the risk of bankruptcy. The costs of managing a database with millions of images grew exponentially day by day, becoming unfeasible. We were suffocated by too much information and unable to handle it any longer. Apart from economic issues, we began to wonder if that supply of information that grew by hundreds of new projects each day actually made sense. It seemed useless, because after all the same projects we posted could easily be located elsewhere, especially on the social networks. We felt the need to take a break and think it over. In December 2018, with forewarning of only three weeks, we pulled the plug. After nearly 20 years of activity, our site was no longer on line.
At that point something unexpected happened. We began to get email messages from our readers, dozens every day, all expressing affection and nearly all including the same request: “come back.”
So we realized all our work had not been done in vain. Over the years we had constructed a unique tool that our users were accustomed to employing to organize their knowledge of contemporary architecture. They were not interested in the incessant flow of information on new projects; they were asking us to reactivate our archive, as the result of our work of selection and classification of architecture over the last 20 years.
In July 2019 we turned our servers back on, but only to publish a small part of our archive, while over 120,000 project remained off line. Resuming our activity, we decided to put aside the function that had made the biggest contribution to our initial success: self-publication. Our users can no longer independently post their projects on divisare. This was a painful but necessary choice. The information overload threatened to destroy our project. So divisare is back on line with a smaller archive and a new editorial philosophy: we publish only carefully selected projects.
And what about divisare books?
They too are back, but in a slightly different way. More like books than booklets, the new divisare books are bound with a stiff cover. They are less ephemeral, solid, made in an almost crafted way. Unlike the web that runs fast and vanishes faster, leaving no trace, they have the aim of lasting in time. We have started with 40 titles, but we are already working on the next 40. So let’s cross our fingers. After all, there is still time to become a rich and famous architect.