Hero Image
Birkhauser “Building Types Online” Database
Terrance Goode

The Birkhauser “Building Types Online” database grew out of the twelve books in this German publisher’s Design Manual series, published between 2002 and 2016. This series addresses the history and spatial and technical requirements of individual program types, and each book provides a collection of short case studies of completed buildings, illustrated with drawings and photographs. Generally, theoretical issues raised by these different building types as well as the theoretical positions of the architects of the individual case study buildings are not emphasized. The database launched in 2016 with “5000 architectural drawings and 2000 photos” as well as “more than 850 case studies and more than 120 thematic articles,” according to the publisher.

While Birkhauser suggests that the database will be continuously updated—an essential tactic if it is to remain optimally useful—it is not clear whether recently added database entries will be selected or written by the authors of the original Design Manual volumes, the database editor, Professor Oliver Heckmann, or others, leaving open the question of what criteria will determine inclusion and what editorial position the database might embody that would distinguish it from other online resources such as the Avery Index.

In Birkhauser’s online description of the “aims and scope” of this database, the publisher stakes out its territory fairly clearly: “Using a systematic and analytical search and browse structure that allows all kinds of combinations, the database provides solutions for numerous design tasks in study and practice. This tool will facilitate research on building typology and architectural design assignments. Thematic articles provide background information on individual building types or explain specific aspects such as lighting, acoustics, urban considerations, access types or planning processes. The users, be they in academia, architectural practice or students, will be offered a comprehensive online resource on building types based on seminal buildings of the past 30 years. Housing as one of the most frequent design tasks forms a large focus of the database.”

Search/Advanced Search/Browse/Sort Operations
At the beginning of a search, the interface is clear and straightforward. There is a conventional collapsible “Search” dialog box in which terms can be manually entered, with an “Advanced Search” option available. Below the “Search” box is a collapsible “Filter” menu that, when expanded, reveals filters labeled “Browse,” “Content Type,” and “Author.”

Clicking on the “Search” checkbox has the same effect as directly selecting the “Advanced Search” option: a dialog box appears, containing a drop-down menu of search categories and either a secondary drop-down menu of predetermined subcategory terms or a text box for entering user-determined terms. Below this initial search term appear two additional terms to be related to the initial term by the Boolean operators “And,” “Or,” and “Not.” Usefully, an apparently unlimited number of these additional Boolean-related terms can be added to the search, but unfortunately, this act is not selectively reversible; there is only a “Clear” button that removes all selected terms.

Of the three terms in the “Filter” menu, the “Browse” filter offers the most options; “Content Type” yields “Project” or individual building case study and “Article.” “Author” is self-explanatory. The “Browse” filter begins with a degree of clarity: expanding the menu title yields three categories of “Building Type”—which could be more correctly identified as “Program Type”—“Urban Context” and “Morphological Type.” These categories also appear in the “Advanced Search” menu, and they do seem well-suited for a quick, broad inquiry suggested by the filter name, although it would also be helpful to browse by the name of a building’s architect. When one of these three categories is selected, the same list of subcategories that appears in the “Advanced Search” menu also appears, although unlike the “Advanced Search,” this list is not expandable and appears without Boolean operators. Also unlike the “Advanced Search,” search terms can be individually cleared, which seems beneficial to the nonlinear, exploratory mode of inquiry characteristic of “browsing.”

The subcategory terms of the “Browse” filter are a mixed bag. While those appearing under “Building Type” are conventional and innocuous—“Housing,” “Museums,” and so forth—some of these terms in the “Urban Context” and “Morphological Type” are either obscure or idiosyncratic. In the former case, along with “Central Business District/City Center,” there is “Peri-urban Region”; in the latter, “Solitary Building” identifies nothing about form but implies a condition of site and context, while “Stepped Building” stands out for its specificity against other, more generic subcategory terms such as “Slab/Superblock,” itself a peculiar and not inevitable combination.

When multiple articles or project case studies are selected, they can be sorted by “Title,” “Architect,” (these two in descending alphabetical order only), “Date,” and the puzzling “Relevance”; relevance to what is nowhere specified. This sorting function can be used in conjunction with either of the “Searches” or the three filters to organize the results of a search; it is a shame that the sort function is not more robust. More sorting terms and even the ability to sort by user-determined terms would be helpful.

The content of the articles does indeed seem authoritative across the different program types addressed. The specific topics are central to the individual building program types discussed, so there is not necessarily consistent coverage of topics across types. While this is a minor limitation, it does make it harder to compare issues across types.
Similarly, some articles are well-illustrated with drawings and photos while some are text only. Of even greater concern is the inconsistent inclusion of source citations for images and text as well as bibliographies. This significantly weakens the status of the database as an authoritative source for researchers and architecture students, two constituencies specifically cited by Birkhauser.

Direct searches of these articles are performed by using the subcategory “Articles” within the “Content Type” filter category. To refine article searches (there are no sub-subcategories past “Articles”), the subcategory and sub-subcategory search terms within the “Browse” filter are used. This yields a reasonably precise means of defining searches, although as previously noted, there is no way for the user to self-identify search terms at any categorical level using the filters. Another limitation of the “Articles” subcategory filter is that thematic articles are only searchable through the “Building Types” filter category; the checkbox for “Article” disappears if “Urban Context” or “Morphological Form” is selected.

As of July 2017, there are 838 individual project case studies in the database. These are consistently introduced by a shared table of information. The individual subjects of this table correspond to an “Advanced Search” or “Browse” filter search term, which helps to relate the project case studies to the search protocol of the database. In this connection, it would have been even more helpful if the tabular subjects were themselves searchable links so that a user could move from an individual case study directly to a larger group of them without having to leave the case study and perform a new search.

Following this initial tabular overview, each project case study is introduced by a text of roughly 500 words. From a random sampling of these from across a range of building types, these descriptions are fairly complete, if not theoretically substantive, and they make no attempt at any kind of critical assessment. Perhaps the most serious weakness of this component of the database is unfortunately shared with the thematic articles: source citations for images and textual material as well as bibliographies appear inconsistently. As with the articles, this significantly weakens the status of the database as an authoritative source for researchers and architecture students, two constituencies specifically cited by Birkhauser.

These limitations aside, the case study projects reflect a commendably global scope of geographic distribution, although a certain degree of Eurocentrism is present. This probably reflects the nationalities of the original Design Manual authors, the vast majority of whom seem to be from Western Europe. Hopefully, as the database grows beyond this specific condition of origin, the geographic and cultural diversity reflected in the project case studies and their authors will continue to expand.

The architects of the project buildings are also commendably diverse in terms of their stature within the profession. The usual suspects of global stars are represented, but so are much lesser-known individuals and firms. Some of the projects in the database are canonical works dating from the late twentieth century onward; others are relatively unknown. It would be useful to researchers of the profession if more precise searches by architects could be performed—for instance, searching by gender, nationality, size of firm, and so forth.

The drawings that accompany the project case studies and many of the articles are disappointing. Some of this probably reflects their origins in individual books that, despite belonging to Birkhauser’s Design Manual series, were themselves designed and published as independent volumes.

Most of these drawings appear without graphic scales (numerical identification, such as “1:500,” is effectively useless), and in general, the text accompanying the drawings is minimally descriptive. Because the drawings are downloadable in PDF format, it is possible to convert them into vector format drawing files such as DWG or AI to make them available for the production of analytical diagrams, 3-D modeling, and other activities particularly applicable to architecture students. However, if these drawings were downloadable as scalable vector format files with graphic scales as additional backup, they would be even more broadly useful.

There is no consistency in the types of drawings that document each case study: some appear without site plans; some are represented three-dimensionally in perspectives, axonometrics, or isometrics; and some are explained conceptually in diagrams. There is a similar lack of consistency in the graphic language of the drawings; in some cases, elements seen in section are identified by a heavy profile line, in other cases through black poché.

More problematic, though, is the fact that the drawings cannot be used directly as the basis of searches; in this sense, they are relegated to a secondary role as supplements to the text-based search engine of the database. It would have been a distinct contribution if typological conditions of plan, section, massing, or design concepts could have been consistently documented and made available as tools of investigation.

In summary, Birkhauser’s “Building Types Online” database does not fully achieve all the goals its publisher and editor state on its behalf. While the breadth and in large part the depth of its content come closest to this, the awkward search protocols and mostly generic search categories (when not oddly specific) are impediments. Finally, the database is also something of a missed opportunity to distinguish itself from other such products through innovation in the ways that building types, individual buildings, and the functional and technical requirements of these could be compared or contrasted either synchronically or diachronically. Such flexibility in constructing a search—in constructing knowledge about architecture—could encourage the production of new knowledge perhaps not available from the examination of individual buildings or programmatic types alone.

How to Cite this Article: Goode, Terrance. Review of Building Types Online database, Birkauser. JAE Online. September 21, 2017. http://www.jaeonline.org/articles/reviews-software/birkhauser-%E2%80%9Cbuilding-types-online%E2%80%9D-database#/.