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Computers Are Transforming the Study of Buildings, Past and Future

Columbia's 3-D Robotics Lab in the Department of Computer Science is involved in a number of multidisciplinary initiatives aimed at applying lab advances to real-world architectural and historical challenges. Using advanced computational tools for modeling, visualizing and analyzing the world's historic structures, scholars from architecture, historic preservation, art history and archaeology have been able to obtain new insights about why certain structures have collapsed as well as clues about the best ways to preserve and catalogue historic buildings.

Computer tools also have transformed the nature of teaching and learning about architecture. It is now possible to recreate, in virtual reality, the experience of being in a city, or a great work of architecture. Teachers can combine, layer and compare visual, textual and scientific data in ways undreamt of but a few years back. As a result, students have a more precise understanding of the techniques used by artists, past and present, as well as a deeper appreciation of their creativity.

Here is a shortlist of problems currently being tackled under Columbia's roof (so to speak), as well as their proposed solutions:

PROBLEM : One night in 1284, one of the world's greatest architectural achievements, St. Jean's Cathedral in Beauvais, France, collapsed. To this day, no one knows why. Though completely rebuilt, the cathedral is still plagued by original design flaws and may not be secure.

SOLUTION : Led by Peter Allen of Columbia's Robotics Lab, a team circled the cathedral using 3-D laser scanning, amassing huge amounts of detailed digital data and imagery of its interior, exterior and even sub-structural details. The work made possible the creation of a 3-D computer model, which gave engineers and architects the chance to test various theories as to the likely causes of the collapse. The models also suggested potential repairs as well as clues into the cathedral's original design.

As Allen puts it: "We have a digital blueprint, if you will, so that if something did happen to this cathedral, we could try to preserve it. And we can now begin to understand it from a historical standpoint." GSAPP professor Stephen Murray agrees, noting that the "3-D imaging also presents an entirely new way of teaching art history or architecture."

PROBLEM : At the turn of the last century, some 40 percent of Yemenese worked abroad in European colonies in Asia and even East Africa.

Returning, they forever changed local architecture in cities like Tarim, where craftsmen blended neoclassicism, rococo, Mughal, art nouveau and art deco into local traditions of earthen construction. Today, these structural wonders are at risk.

SOLUTION : In the Yemeni project, orchestrated by James Conlon, the project manager for Columbia's Visual Media Center and Interdisciplinary Project, computer-aided design, 3-D scanning technology and Geographic Information Systems are being used, along with virtual reality software, to stitch imagery and data together in the creation of a 3-D view of any interior, exterior or even sub-structural view of these buildings.

Says Conlon, "Students can choose a city, a building or a room and experience full, moving panoramic perspectives, manipulating space as they desire." The technology also allows students to zoom in on the intricate details of a wall mural, for example.

PROBLEM : For a long time, it was believed that the hundreds of churches built in Bourbonnais, France, during the 12th century were all based on a single architectural style; it turns out, however, that no two are identical. If enough data could be gathered about construction techniques and methods, the architecture and history of the region could be reinterpreted. But the problem is, no building records remain.

SOLUTION : GSAPP professor Stephen Murray obtained a $500,000 Mellon grant to take the work he was doing with students on Bourbonnais churches to a new level. During summers, student teams had been visiting 2-3 churches a day to do surveys by measuring, photographing and producing floor plans. Now, with the help of the grant, they can turn over the collected images and data to a team back home made up of computer science, engineering and architecture faculty. The tech team uses shape-recognition tools to discern underlying patterns that link spaces in the various buildings. It also employs laser scanners to construct 3-D models.

Of late, computer scientist Steven Feiner has been experimenting with creating a "play space" where users can superimpose plans and sections in order to compare and contrast architectural aspects of the various churches. And Rory O'Neill of GSAPP is working to produce 3-D images of the churches that can be animated to show the relationship between interior and exterior. For an idea of the work completed thus far and for more information on the discovery tools developed by Murray's team, go to http://www.mcah.columbia.edu/bourbonnais/ .


Published: Dec 21, 2005
Last modified: Dec 21, 2005

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