Grey Room

Articulated Flatness: Document Culture and Modernism in the Mundaneum and Beyond

Michael Faciejew

Paul Otlet. “Recherche de la forme architecturale du Palais Mondial,” June 4, 1919. Personal note showing a three-dimensional classification table. Mundaneum Archives.


Years before collaborating with Le Corbusier on his controversial 1928 project for a Mundaneum, the Belgian internationalist Paul Otlet sought a new architecture for what today might be called a global “information society.” In 1919, Otlet was granted a parcel of land in Brussels’s Parc Woluwe to develop an organization that would supplement the recently formed League of Nations. For Otlet, whose heterogeneous career spanned the fields of bibliography, law, international relations, and beyond, this was an opportunity to expand the collection of institutions he had been developing since the turn of the century in the neoclassical Palais du Cinquantenaire: the International Institute of Bibliography, the Union of International Associations, and his International Museum. This time, he would develop a veritable headquarters for international intellectual cooperation: a “Palais Mondial,” or World Palace. Otlet’s basic architectural idea can be found in a series of personal notes and sketches wherein he claimed that the required combination of building programs (a museum, a laboratory, a parliament, and an assembly hall, among others) had never been addressed by architects. While he had only a vague idea of what the resulting architecture would look like, Otlet did describe this “function” by drawing a gridded cube—not the planned grid of point columns that could be extruded into a spatial system. Rather, his cube was based on a classification table. Otlet was motivated by the epistemic regime of a new “science of documentation,” a knowledge economy avant la lettre, where documents were to be medial units that could store the world’s information and circulate it without limits. Otlet’s matric grid and its associated cube, that is, were based on a documentary and informational principle that developed in parallel with the movement of universalization examined by Max Weber in his theorization of paperwork as the elementary force of modernization.

In this article, I propose to name this principle “articulated flatness.” It is a principle that can turn a grid into a three-dimensional operational space that grants objects multiple, virtual states of organization. My aim is to uncover the impact of early twentieth-century “document culture” (distinct from the “print culture”that preceded it) on modern architecture through an analysis of the architecture of the Palais Mondial and its eventual successor, the Mundaneum.