The SPIRO Image Database: 1992-2016

Posted on by Christina Marino

The SPIRO website debuted in 1992. It was a computer-based approach to managing a large analog photograph collection: an online catalog of a 35mm slide library. Using a relatively new process of digitizing film, it allowed one to "preview" a slide's image on a computer screen, after querying the computer to return a set of images based on search terms.  It may now seem a quaint notion that this could have been revolutionary, but at the time nothing like it existed. Thoughts of teaching directly with digital images, or of pure digital photography were barely imaginable. Thus SPIRO trod an early path to searching for and receiving digital images over computer networks. 


Photo: SPIRO debut, 1992: Librarian Maryly Snow, who guided the creation of the SPIRO database, with: (r to l) Jean-Pierre Protzen (Architecture Chair), Steven Brooks (Photographer for Slide Library), CED Dean Roger Montgomery, as well as various Museum Informatics Project staff, administrators, and Provosts


Early search screens for the SPIRO database


Early search screens for the SPIRO database

In time, tools were developed to project digital images and to make digital photographs, and it became easier to teach with a PowerPoint file than with a carousel of 35mm slides. SPIRO adapted by becoming a catalog of digital teaching images that had 35mm counterparts, rather than a catalog of 35mm slides with digital reference images. 

Throughout the 2000s the Internet and World Wide Web grew at an unimaginable rate to become the enormous phenomenon that it is today. It is astounding to think that entire industries, social movements, and professions have arisen that revolve around these computer networks that we call the Internet.


Photo: Using SPIRO as an online guide to the physical slide collection, c. 2000

In it’s 26th year, it is with a bit of sadness that to announce that this summer, the SPIRO image database has been retired and taken offline. The core technologies that run SPIRO are still viable - a bundle of php scripts that direct input from a primitive HTML interface to an ancient bunch of sql database tables- but the software running the database (a Sybase product) is no longer supported. Likewise the departmental entity that maintains it here at UC Berkeley has changed so as to make a similar evolution in SPIRO a necessity.

Sybase has been superseded, and the Museum Informatics Project which built and ran SPIRO no longer exists as part of campus IST. The images and data in SPIRO will be migrated to two new systems: a UC-wide instance of ARTstor, where all the SPIRO content will be available to all UC campuses, and planning is in the works for a local, smaller, Omeka website, which will mirror our ARTstor data and display images that the University of California owns copyright to.

--Jason Miller, Director of the Visual Resources Center

Environmental Design Archives: A Teaching Collection

Posted on by Christina Marino

The archives in Wurster Hall following the move to Wurster Hall  ca. 1967

William W. Wurster founded the Environmental Design Archives (then the Architectural Archives) in 1953 as a teaching collection, in response to the recommendation of eminent architectural historian Henry Russell Hitchcock. Sixty-three years later the Archives holds true to its original mission by giving research assistance and instructional sessions to students from the College of Environmental Design, the University of California, and national and international centers of learning. 

Students use the Archives with classes that visit the EDA for instruction sessions, individually for term papers, and independently for inspiration.

Class instruction sessions usually last one hour and involve Archives staff and Faculty collaborating to identify targeted collection material for students to examine and discuss as a group in the EDA’s reading room. For example each year, instructor Dawn Kooyumjiam brings in her “Landscape Plants: Identification and Use” students to examine plant books and planting plans from the EDA’s vast collections. Studying the archival material helps students develop and hone their drawing techniques which can be seen in their end of semester pin-ups, featured below:


close up of final tree drawings from Landscape Plants students

For some courses such as the History of Art Department's ”American Architecture: The U.C. Berkeley Campus”, Department of Architecture graduate seminar “City of Memory”, and the History of Art Department's Mellon funded graduate seminar “Berkeley Collects” - students spend the entire semester conducting research using the EDA’s collections for writing papers, leading campus architectural tours, designing exhibitions, and giving presentations.


view of exhibition pamphlet featuring archival objects from the eda, from the "Berkeley collects' class who curated the "Papyrus in the Crocodile" exhibition

More than 300 students use the Archives each school year. To get a sense of what students are taking away from their experience at the EDA we have incorporated a survey component to instruction sessions. The survey project has been an extremely informative process, yielding valuable information about what students are taking away from one-time archival instruction sessions at the Environmental Design Archives. This information continues to inform the material that is pulled for class visits, and how information about the Archives’ resources is presented verbally and through handouts. For more information on the survey project, see the Students in the Archives blog post.


Student presenting her design at the chair COMPETITION

Students also use the Archives outside of course work. In the Fall of 2015, the Archives hosted the first annual student furniture competition that required student participants to use the Archives’ material for inspiration and precedent for their own chair designs.The students work will be included in the upcoming furniture exhibition Form Follows: Design at a Smaller Scale which will be on view in the Environmental Design Library opening June 1. For more information on the competition see the blog.

The Environmental Design Archives is open by appointment only Monday thru Friday. Reference inquiries can be directed to or 510.642.5124.

Notes from Havana

Posted on by Christina Marino

Photo: By Author

Hello I’m one of the student archives technicians at the Environmental Design Archives.  A second year undergraduate in the CED Architecture program, I am fascinated by design and its history, and consider it an honor to participate in the preservation, processing and exhibition of the many collections the Archives has in its vaults. 


Photo: By Author, Habana Libre Hotel

During Spring Break I was lucky to be invited to join my parents on a trip to Cuba. The trip was prompted by my father who completed a master’s degree in public health at the University of Havana in the late 1970s and had always wanted to return. 

Upon arrival, I was immediately struck by the fascinatingly eclectic mix of cultures, styles and influences which make up the island. The island’s undeniably Caribbean way of life contrasts with the stiff, Brutalist soviet architecture which fills much of Havana’s skyline. Its older American cars are at odds with the more modern soviet Lada’s and Moskovich’s; mufflers echoing the cold war tensions which caught Cuba in the crossfire. While the country is a fascinating collage of all of these forces, it always seems to find a way to make it distinctly Cuban. Havana’s crumbling historic Spanish-colonial center in many places has been appropriated by local residents and repainted to reflect the lively and vibrant local culture, similarly to the classic American cars which have been covered in bright paints with added Cuban flags and stickers.

This idea of appropriation took a more violent form during the Cuban revolution of 1953-59. Previously foreign owned assets like Texaco, Esso and Shell facilities in Cuba were nationalized under Fidel Castro’s leadership along with many hotel buildings in Havana, like the Havana Hilton which became the Habana Libre, or the Hotel Nacional, which was largely owned by American investors.

Despite the blockage of US visitors to the island, Cuba is a major tourist destination for the rest of the world. Touristic infrastructure does exist, but also has much room for improvement. Part of the reason for this is due to the embargo against Cuba which not only banned US investment in the island, but also mandated that any foreign companies that participated in Cuba’s economy then couldn’t participate in the US. This policy effectively suffocated Cuba’s development, although Cubans have been able to find ways around the embargo and progress significantly. With Obama’s recent visit to the island, and the relaxation of historic tensions, it is possible that the embargo will be lifted, prompting a rat-race for foreign development companies. Many in Cuba fear this, seeing it as a way for the US to re-establish economic control over the island in the form of large resorts, hotels, housing, and other infrastructure development. Local residents also fear that the well preserved ecological systems of the island, some of the healthiest in the entire Caribbean, will suffer if the embargo is lifted, due to increased economic exploration of the island. 


Photo: By Author, Taxi's lined up by Lennon Park

Apart from strolling around Havana, my parents and I also took a short day trip to the Viñales valley, a region where the majority of the tobacco for Cuban cigars is grown. The valley features large rock protrusion called mogotes which are what remains of a large mesa that had been slowly eroded by wind and water. This region is an example of the ecological struggle soon to occur, as it is already struggling to sustain its water and agricultural resources against the expanding forces of development, largely attracted by mining prospects and caving tours for tourists.


Photo: By Author, Viñales Valley


My week in Cuba was a truly eye-opening experience. In spite of my left-leaning tendencies, and the fact that my Father had told me stories about the island, I still unconsciously arrived to the island with all the preconceptions and baggage of the Cold war swirling around in my mind. The projected reality of US propaganda painted the island as an impoverished country, a hollow shell of the Soviet Union’s puppet it once was. A place where the only exportable commodities are sugar, tobacco, rum and baseball players. A haven for expat’s, hippies, revolutionaries and little else.

It was immediately clear to me that Cuba’s history is far more complex than these convenient, politicized interpretations. Now that tensions are cooling and change is fast approaching this island nation, the biggest question is, what will be its future?

-Miguel Nieto

form follows: First Student Furniture Design Competition Takes Place

Posted on by Emily Vigor

The Environmental Design Archives recently hosted form follows, our first furniture design competition. Announced December 1, 2015, the competition to design a chair was open to all students in the College of Environmental Design. Whether for interior or exterior use, the criteria included a precedent that required students to visit the Archives to look at selected collection materials from a variety of periods and styles to inspire their entry. Students were required to submit a small model (no larger than 7”x7”x7”) and two printed posters to communicate the intent of their design. The top three designs would receive a cash prize and a stipend to build their chairs to full scale in the CED Fabrication Shop.

Students visiting the Archives

The idea for this competition was born during a brainstorming session for our upcoming furniture design exhibition in the Environmental Design Library opening on June 1, 2016. Cailin and I were interested in exploring a new way to engage students with our collections. She had participated in a furniture design competition at Cal Poly as an undergraduate, and the idea to hold a similar competition based on interactions with our collection materials was an obvious conclusion. We asked members of faculty and staff with a background in furniture design to judge the competition, and were incredibly fortunate to have Richard Hindle (Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning), Galen Cranz (Professor of Architecture), Ronald Rael (Associate Professor of Architecture) and Paul Mirocha (Senior Fabrication Mechanician) participate.

Reception and judging

Students visited the Archives from December 2015-February 2016 to view selected collection materials as a starting point for their chair design. Their designs could include elements from multiple projects, and were judged on four criteria:  interpretation relationship to the body, its use-in-context, craft, and feasibility. Judging took place during a reception on February 18, 2016 in the Wurster Gallery after 12 students presented their designs to members of CED and the broader community.

Selected projects from the Archives and student submissions

The first, second, and third place winners Hannah Cao, Rex Crabb, and Micaela Bazo will have until April to construct their full-size chairs, which will be displayed during Cal Day in the Wurster Gallery on April 16, 2016.

This was a fruitful learning experience for the Archives. We were thrilled to have nearly 50 students visit to look at collection materials. Many of these students had never been to the Archives before, and this interaction was a great way to introduce them to what we do and reinforce that we are a resource that can assist them in their studies. It was fascinating to see the multitude of ways in which students interpreted these historic projects, and we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to host this competition again with a new subject and new archival materials to inspire innovative designs!

Students in the Archives

Posted on by Christina Marino

In the fall of 2014 I began to actively reach out to faculty and graduate student instructors (GSI) in an effort to increase use of the Environmental Design Archives by students. I read through course descriptions for undergraduate and graduate classes offered in the College of Environmental Design. For courses offered that directly related to material held by the Archives, I emailed or spoke in person with faculty members and GSIs and provided a list of relevant collection materials with links to digitized collection material on the Online Archive of California (OAC) when possible. 75% of faculty and GSIs contacted scheduled instruction sessions at the Archives. During the academic year 239 students toured the EDA from 13 different courses. As classes visited the Archives, I began to wonder what students were learning from these one-shot archival instruction sessions. 

Engaging faculty to bring their classes to use the EDA led to collaboration between Archives staff and faculty on curriculum, which led to teaching students with targeted collection material. To close the loop and to get a better sense of what students were taking away from one-shot Archival instructional sessions, surveys were administered.

To date I have surveyed 5 classes: CED’s American Architecture: The UCB Campus, Landscape Plants: Identification and Use, Landscape Graphics I, California Architecture, and Art History’s Berkeley Collects. Below are graphs and a summary analysis of the responses to 5 core questions: Experience with Primary Resources, Takeaways, Effectiveness, Likelihood of Returning, and Education Level/Field of Study.


For 52% of students, the instructional session at the EDA was their first exposure to an Archival repository. Therefore, it is essential that their first experience be a positive one that leads to an understanding of the value and importance of primary resources in relation to their current studies, their professional careers, and other future endeavors.


Students are taking away with them valuable information about how to access the resources available to them at the EDA (and other archives) as well as information contained in the archival records and drawings themselves, i.e. why and how they were created (drawing techniques) and the larger context of what information the drawings convey about the client, design aesthetic, program, function, and era in which they were created. 


More than half of the students who took the survey thought the tour was adequate and did not offer any suggestions on how to improve it. However, the majority of the remaining responses touched on specific concepts and content they would like addressed-- predominately studying design development and how to access digitized collection material. This feedback has been immensely helpful, and in response I have created a guide to hand to students, which Assistant Archivist Cailin Trimble designed, describing how to access information about our Collections - both physical and digital. I have also begun to include more examples of design development in the projects I pull for student instruction sessions.


The chart below shows the likeliness of returning on a scale of 1 to 10, the vertical axis illustrates the percent of people indicating a level of likeliness.

It is great to see that 88% of students are likely to return to the Archives.


54% of students who toured the Archives do not come from a design or architectural history background. Therefore, the EDA might be the first place where they are introduced to records of the built environment. 


The survey project has been an extremely informative process, one that has yielded invaluable information about what students are taking away from one-shot archival instruction sessions at the Environmental Design Archives. This information continues to inform the material that is pulled for class visits, and how information about the Archives’ resources is presented verbally and through print (handouts). I plan to continue to survey classes that visit the Archives in an effort to collect more viable data and improve both instruction and the student’s experience.

COMING SOON!! New exhibits website!

Posted on by Cailin Trimble
New Omeka home page

New homepage 

We are well on our way to updating our virtual exhibits website. We have installed a new version of Omeka, the software used to run the website, customized the theme for the site, and are in the final stages of testing before we transition all of our content.

Old exhibit website

Current website

New exhibit website

New website

You have an opportunity to help us out with this! The archives recently hosted a silent auction fund-raiser and many of the items remain unsold. As a way to test the new website, we are hosting an online sale of the remaining items.

Check out the sale here and let us know what you think of the new site and if you come across any bugs. Many of the changes are on the back end organization, but you will notice that the new site is organized more like the EDA website and navigating exhibits (the sale categories in this case) is slightly different.

EDA Sale

We want to make clear that we are not selling items from collections. All items are either prints from made from our collections or were donated expressly for sale. The sale will run from November 2 - December 10 and the virtual exhibits content will not be transferred to the new site until after that date, sometime in mid-January.

We have been putting off adding new exhibits to our current page until after we make the transition so look for new virtual exhibits in January!

American Archives Month

Posted on by Emily Vigor

Did you know that October is American Archives Month? Created by the Society of American Archivists in 2006, it gives archivists the chance to tell people that about the work we do. As you know, the Environmental Design Archives strives to raise awareness of the significant architectural and landscape heritage of Northern California and beyond through collecting, preserving, and providing access to the primary records of the built and landscaped environment for our region. Access is always our end goal since we want these important records to be used for school projects, scholarly research, or professional and personal study. Providing access is so important because it makes this history live on, saves landscapes and buildings, and educates future users. Sometimes all that remains of the designed environment are the photographs and drawings.  The EDA reaches out  through our website, physical and online exhibits, publications, programs, and reference and outreach services.

Collection before processing...
And after!

Throughout the month of October, we welcome you to participate in American Archives Month by asking us about our work in the EDA using #AskAnArchivist.  Have you ever wanted to know how we conserve historic drawings? Or wanted to hear about the time an archivist got to travel to a castle in Austria to pack up a collection? Or wondered how any of us ended up in this profession? We would love to hear from you! Send us questions through social media using #AskAnArchivist!

Robert Royston helps answer this horse's questions about his design!

Fairs to Remember

Posted on by Christina Marino

Photo: Archives staff hard at work

It’s Exposition mania in the Archives right now. The exhibit Exceptional Expositions is designed and everyone is busy mounting pieces of it and preparing text.  It will soon be hung in the cases with care in hopes that on opening viewers appear.  The Exhibit celebrating the centennial of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) and the publication of a new book, Into the Void Pacific, on the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE) opens on Tuesday September 8th. 

International expositions served as entertainment, education, mass media, and industrial marketing. The 1876 Centennial Exposition was followed by numerous fairs in the U.S. including Chicago’s Columbian Exposition (1893), Buffalo’s (1901), St. Louis’ (1904), and Seattle’s Alaska Yukon Pacific (1909); as well as the depression era Chicago Fair (1932) and New York’s World’s Fair in 1939. Ironically, both the New York and Chicago Fairs promoted themselves as a vision of the future, while the GGIE placed itself in a Pacific Region that, in fact, turned out to be the future.


Photo: Shanken's new book


The PPIE and GGIE promoted San Francisco as the hub of the Pacific encompassing both Latin America and Asia. The architecture of the PPIE presented a Beaux Arts confection while the buildings of the GGIE presented a sometimes uneasy transition from a Beaux Arts to a modern design aesthetic.

Come to the Fair and join us on September 17th for a program of presentations by Architectural Historian Dan Gregory and CED Assoc. Professor of Architectural History Andrew Shanken.


Ernest Born, Map of the GGIE, 1939


Aeroplane View Main Group of Exhibit Palaces, PPIE

PhotographPacific House, GGIE

Palace of Fine Arts, PPIE

Manufactures in Miniature: Booths of the PPIE

Posted on by Christina Marino
PhotographPalace of Food Products

The Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) of 1915 had 80,000 exhibition booths spread over 3,731,500 square feet--the equivalent of 85 acres or 64 football fields. In 1911 during the planning stages of the Exposition Dr. Frederick James Volney Skiff was hired as director-in-chief of domestic and foreign participation, the same year the exposition began accepting exhibitor applications. Skiff developed an exposition taxonomy organizing the exhibition halls and the exhibitions within them according to perceived patron interest. A team of exhibition division chiefs was assembled between 1912 and 1914, who would go on to create 11 main exhibition departments, 56 exhibition categories, and 800 exhibition subclasses. To advertise the exhibition space, brochure advertisements were mailed to industry, trade, and scientific organizations enticing them to purchase an exhibition space that included police and fire protection but more importantly would allow them to showcase their goods and wares to an international audience...remember this is before the internet!




The same year the PPIE opened also marked the infancy of the implementation of building codes in America. This is reflected in the regulations established by the Exposition regarding booth construction. Exhibitors were expected to erect booths in the fair grounds that conformed to the exposition-defined standards. These standards included proscribed heights for display cases, table tops, cornices, and railings, among others. Even signage had to be “moderate in size and neat design.” Behavior within the confines of each respective booth was also regulated--eating was off limits, promotional materials like brochures had to be approved by the chief of that exhibition department, and goods could only be ordered and not directly sold from each booth.



Remmington U.M.C.

The drawings of PPIE booths in our collection would have either been located in the Palace of Manufactures (housing “more refined goods”) or the Palace of Varied Industries. To see more of the PPIE booths and buildings as well as material from the Golden Gate International Exposition, another world’s fair held in the San Francisco Bay Area 24 years later, come see the Exceptional Expositions exhibition in the Environmental Design Library on view from September 8th to December 16th, 2015.


Interior Hardwood Co. Parquet Floors

It’s On My Desk: 12 Blotters That Tell a Story

Posted on by Christina Marino

During more than thirty years as an archivist and social historian I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of personal and professional papers and government and institutional records. Material ranging from gold-rush diaries to Farm Security camp newsletters and from Chinese immigrant’s coaching letters for Angel Island to designs for the Sea Ranch.  But none have given me the delight of perfectly and succinctly combining visual interest and social history as captured in twelve colorful blotters created by Allan Jacobs during his six year tenure as Director of the San Francisco Department of City Planning.

Jacobs started with two fresh blotters each year on which he “doodled” while on the phone.  They illustrate, both literally and figuratively, issues on the desk of the Planning Director and thoughts generated by these issues. That he preserved them is evidence of his recognition of their scholarly potential as well as clearly relishing their artistic expression.  These blotters serve as valuable documents of their time and place and as a visual diary of ideas, issues, and politics as well as of personal matters.  We are very pleased to add them to the holdings of the Environmental Design Archives and to share them as an exhibit on our website:

--Waverly Lowell, Curator