© Friedrich Schmidgall, Henrike Rabe (2013)
© Friedrich Schmidgall, Henrike Rabe (2013)
Modell im Maßstab 1:50 des Clusters von Henrike Rabe und Catherine Slusher
Project ((completed))
Architectures of Knowledge

Architectures of Knowledge

Research topic

The project Virtual and Real Architectures of Knowledge is based in Research Area D, which is concerned with the design and observation of interdisciplinarity. It assumes the existence of a parallelism between virtual and physical spaces, which are equally essential in enabling scientific collaborations. Designing space in this sense of the term means opening up spaces, but also providing orientation and setting boundaries to establish structures.    

On the one hand, we use the term »architecture« in its original, literal sense of »the art of building«, with reference to physical buildings. But we also use it to describe the construction of virtual forms of organisation. Although the two meanings of the term »architecture« appear very different, they give rise to productive parallels and intersections. The stimulating linking of virtual and real architectures, examining how two different worlds learn from each other and integrating this knowledge into a coherent overall architectural concept are the main focus of our project. The project is researched, planned and executed by an interdisciplinary team, formed of representatives from design, information science, linguistics, architecture, the history of knowledge and art history.


The project’s objective is to plan a virtual and a physical infrastructure that will be implemented and used in the Cluster. This is primarily directed towards enabling, observing and continually enhancing interdisciplinarity. It is especially important not to construct rigid structures that are difficult to change. Short cycles of observation and adaptation will enable iterative, dynamic redesigns.

Specifically, our objective is to design the Cluster’s possible future building so that the space reflects and fosters the heterogeneous, interdisciplinary research constellations within the Cluster. We aim to create an immense diversity of widely differing work situations: from large rooms for meetings and communication through to spaces where the researchers can retreat into their respective disciplines. The physical spaces must be integrated into an internally coherent whole so that disciplinary requirements and interdisciplinary communication, as well as visibility and the option to retreat, can be combined with the existing framework of the building.

The virtual architecture for its part must integrate logically into the physical architecture and complement it. Our work will initially focus on constructing knowledge management systems, research data management systems, exchange platforms, communications channels and software services. But one of our key priorities is also to construct an infrastructure for self-observation to record and analyse the interdisciplinary processes in the Cluster and in physical and virtual space. Our two central activities are deeply integrated in the physical architecture and directed towards crossing the threshold between the digital and the analogue, questioning not just the role of the file, the book and the digital image, but also the physical object – and not just typed documents but quick notes as well – in the interdisciplinary research process. We will collect our data in a semantic network that can then be used to study the correlations, tendencies, changes and constants in scientific work, and can be presented in visual form to the Cluster. In this way, the physical architecture will open up an inviting space of possibilities, recorded in real conditions and complemented by the virtual architecture and observed through it. The findings gained through observation will in turn be manifested in the physical architecture. Alongside the practical implementation, we will reflect on our combined thinking on both forms of architectures on a theoretical level in order to remove a barrier to thinking about infrastructure imposed by academic disciplines and one that has not reflected everyday experience for some time. We will reflect on a theory of space that views space per se as physical/virtual or virtual/physical, and seeks to explore its interfaces and transitions rather than its boundaries and barriers.  


Executing the project will involve alternating, iterative phases of mutual exchanges and disciplinary work. We will discuss results and interim findings, questions, problems and ideas within the project and with other members of the Cluster, continually adapting them.

We will then redesign and expand the Cluster’s real infrastructure in collaboration with the Technical Division of the Humboldt-Universität. The redesign will focus on the following aspects: realising interdisciplinarity and disciplinarity in space, creating diverse work situations for numerous requirements and personal working styles, and the ongoing experimental situation – in other words, simultaneously researching, testing, developing and changing the infrastructure. Recording and analysing movements/interactions, knowledge flows and time aspects are particularly important for the investigation. We will use both design tools – plans, sketches, diagrams, physical models, 3D models, model photos, perspective views and films – and scientific tools – observing, questioning, recording, documenting, managing and writing.

Our plan is to construct a comprehensive research ontology for the virtual infrastructure. To this end, we will begin by equipping the server procured for the Cluster with the triplestore OWLIM and configuring it appropriately. In close collaboration with the other projects and the Cluster’s IT manager, we will plan and implement additional server software for data exchange (OwnCloud), data management (DAM system), metadata management (Zotero), text indexing (SOLR), project management (Redmine), collaborative working (Etherpad), along with several others. Conceptually, we will develop a top-level ontology capable of modelling very different scientific activities and rendering them interpretable as an ontology. We will populate this ontology with the aid of a self-monitoring tool (Diary) that logs research activities on members’ individual computers. The data collected in this way will then be analysed (R), visualised (D3) and presented to the users (Drupal) so as to reach a better and more realistic understanding of interdisciplinary research activities.    

The connection between the virtual and physical architectures will emerge from the design of the user interfaces and services that will provide the researchers with seamless access to the virtual and physical laboratory: digitalising the analogue and materialising the digital. To this end, we will first use a range of sensors to record movement profiles and communication in the physical space all the way through to digitalising analogue sketches or notes of any kind. The visualisation will help the Cluster to understand itself better. In the final stage, virtual objects will be materialised in the design laboratory and thus brought back into the physical world.

Securing the results

Our stated methodological objective is not to only be in a position to present and discuss the results at the end of the project but to continually and iteratively put forward interim results and steps for discussion and to use this to guide the next stages of our work. Instead of defining rigid architectural objectives at the outset that cannot be changed should the need arise, we will provide a flexible structure that will be refined step by step based on the results.

With this objective in mind, there are only a few overriding objectives that must be achieved by the end of the project. These include a relevant and actively lived architecture in the Cluster’s building and a functional ontology and server infrastructure. Various interfaces, services, visualisations and materialisations will mediate between the two architectures.

The project as whole will primarily be measured in terms of the level of activity in the infrastructure and the degree of innovation in the approaches. The extent to which the infrastructure is accepted and filled with life is at once a criterion for observation, correction and maximisation. In addition to the described architectures, we will therefore also develop meta-architectures that capture the functioning or non-functioning of architectures, and measure and visualise them.     

The relationships between these architectures and with respect to a revised concept of space forms the object of enquiry for the theoretical side of the project, which seeks to represent experiences and describe the project process itself. Various publications will appear by interdisciplinary teams of authors.