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Medieval Architecture: Coming Soon to a Screen Near You
Students measure the dimensions of the interior of this church; the numbers will be used to create 3-D images.

Two eras in art history and archaeology seem to collide in Professor Stephen Murray's office. He sits with a personal data assistant in his hand, surrounded by a dozen slides of medieval architecture, ready for instant contact with colleagues around the globe via the Web. Murray has a knack for combining his love of the old and new. He and his team at Columbia's Visual Media Center for Art History , Archaeology and Historic Preservation were recently awarded a $500,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to construct an interactive Web site of buildings they chronicled during the Summer Field School in Medieval Architecture.

"I am deeply grateful to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for encouraging us to pursue new ways of representing digital images available on the Web," says M urray . The Visual Media Center explores material culture, vision, media and pedagogy to connect faculty research and student learning through technology. According to its Web site (www.learn.columbia.edu), the center's goal is "to examine and extend the ways of interpreting images, objects, buildings, and sites and to reinforce Columbia's historic strengths in core education for undergraduate students, graduate student training, and faculty research."

For the past three summers, Murray has led a team of students to central France to study the Romanesque architecture of churches. They visit two to three churches a day, surveying the architecture and measuring, photographing and producing floor plans. The team gathers images; creates an inventory of devotional and liturgical objects and furniture; and collects data on the surrounding topography of each church.

"Professor Murray is a real scholar in the field," says Meredith Fluke, GSAS'08, who participated in the program in the summer of 2003. "Studying with him can't be duplicated elsewhere. I find the idea of documenting very interesting, but you can't read about it in a textbook. You have to learn how to look at buildings, to look at the masonry. This project will make these never-before-documented churches accessible to many."

Students return to the United States with dozens of CDs, which they turn over to a tech team made up of faculty from computer science, engineering and architecture. The team uses digital technology to analyze the data, relying on shape-recognition tools to discern underlying patterns that link spaces in various buildings.

The Mellon grant will allow Murray and a team, including computer science professors Kenneth Ross, Steven Feiner and Peter Allen, the Graduate School of Architecture's Rory O'Neill and MIT's John Ochsendorf, to create a Web site that includes video, QuickTime virtual reality (QTVR) nodes, high-resolution digital photographs and measured plans. Feiner is working to create a "play space," where users can superimpose plans and sections in order to examine different architectural aspects of the churches. O'Neill is working to produce three-dimensional images of the churches that can be animated to show the relationship between interior and exterior.

In addition, the team will employ a new method -- laser scanners, in which strobes beam up and down a building to construct a three-dimensional model. "Capturing buildings in this way allows them to retain their life, their spatial integrity, envelope, landscape and original setting in a way that slides can not," says Murray. "The formation of the database will extend the privilege enjoyed by our students in the field to a global audience on the Web." This summer Murray and Allen will laser scan the Great Abbey Church of Souvigny.

Published: Nov 16, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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