Prof. Zeynep Çelik Alexander uses the card ledger invented by Darwin D. Martin, the Corporate Secretary of the Larkin Company, as a starting point to offer a new history of a well-known modernist building: the Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo by Frank Lloyd Wright. Founded in 1875 as a company manufacturing soap, the Larkin Company grew dramatically at the turn of the twentieth century in large part because of innovative marketing strategies made possible by ingenious information processing techniques. But it was also thanks to Wright’s design for office equipment—informed by principles of modularity and interchangeability—that armies of “human computers” were able to maintain this information regime. The essay argues that the bureaucracy that the architecture of the Larkin Administration Building made possible has been a blind spot in historiography. It also hopes to offer an architectural account of the history of the epistemic regime of data by contending that the Larkin’s proto-database was, first and foremost, a moral technology that was predicated on managing networks of trust.
Prof. Zeynep Çelik Alexander is an architectural historian whose work focuses on the history of architectural modernism since the Enlightenment. After being trained as an architect at Istanbul Technical University and Harvard Graduate School of Design, she received her Ph.D. from the History, Theory, and Criticism Program at M.I.T. Alexander is the author of Kinaesthetic Knowing: Aesthetics, Epistemology, Modern Design (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2017) and has published in journals including New German Critique, Harvard Design Magazine, Log, e-flux, Grey Room, Journal of Design History, and Centropa. A second research project, co-directed with John J. May and funded by SSHRC and exploring the histories of technologies that have come to dominate contemporary design disciplines, is forthcoming as an edited volume from University of Minnesota Press. Her current research project explores architectures of bureaucracy from the Kew Herbarium to the Larkin Administration Building. Alexander is a member of Aggregate Architectural History Collaborative.