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Stephen Murray
Director of the Amiens Project

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Murray predicts that students will find the Web an increasingly fast and efficient source of information.

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The Amiens Project


by Brett Forman

Amiens Cathedral, one of the world's largest, has dominated the town of Amiens since it was built in the 13th century.

Lightweight masonry and flying buttresses may not seem like utting-edge technological innovations, but in the thirteenth century, that's exactly what they were. By allowing for lighter building materials, they made possible the construction of Amiens Cathedral, one of the world's largest Gothic structures, built north of Paris between 1220 and 1270. Ultimately, these innovations meant that medieval designers could envision and construct larger and more spectacular cathedrals than ever before.

   Almost 800 years later, the Amiens Project at Columbia has taken the process one step further, turning the Cathedral's mass into weightless digital streams. The project, which is led by Stephen Murray, professor of Art History and Archaeology, consists of a variety of multimedia materials that attempt to re-create the impact of an authentic medieval cathedral space. A prototype of what may be regularly produced by a newly proposed Media Center for the Arts, the Amiens Project is the first multimedia production to supplement the Art Humanities program in the College.

   The most prominent Amiens Project production is a thirteen-minute video of computer animation that is designed for in-class use. The video helps the viewer time-travel to another era and another world. It begins by soaring into the heavens, as the Cathedral was to do, and then places the structure in the context of medieval Amiens, a city of compact wooden houses.

   The designers of Amiens aspired to nothing less than the re-creation of heaven on earth, Murray says. The film's computer graphics illustrate how the Cathedral's architects used an interacting matrix of lines to form the specific geometric and theological forms that are embedded in the Cathedral itself. to the biblical width of Noah's Ark.

Amiens Cathedral's dimensions "physically encode transcendent ideas," Murray says.

   "We used dynamic geometry for the first time on video to show how the Cathedral's design was based upon 'golden sections' whose measurements were derived from biblical references," Murray says. "For example, heaven, according to the Book of Revelation, is a 'square,' and much of the Cathedral's foundation unfolds from this geometric form." In the computer-animated video that was produced at Columbia, the Cathedral's foundation literally unfolds from these animated platonic forms into a house of worship. Murray was the first to point out that Amiens Cathedral is 144 Roman feet high, and that heaven, as described in the Book of Revelation, is 144 cubits high. Similarly, he found that the Cathedral's width corresponds

The cathedral is 144 roman feet high; Heaven, according to the Book of Revelations, is 144 cubits high.

   "In this manner, transcendent ideas are encoded in the physical structure of the Cathedral," he says. "The viewers of the video are made aware of the relationship between theology, geometry, and architecture as these geometrical shapes 'morph' into the actual cathedral, simulating its fifty-year construction in a matter of minutes."

Bits of Gothic architecture

   Virtually every student in the College studies Amiens Cathedral as part of the Art Humanities curriculum. The project is the result of Murray's scrutiny of the Cathedral's structural fabric and manuscript archives, and was created with seed money provided by the University's Virtual Information Initiative.

   Murray based his design of the "virtual" cathedral on an analysis of the real thing. After testing both stone and wood samples to establish a radically new understanding of the sequence in which Amiens Cathedral was built under the guidance of three medieval architects, Murray wrote Notre-Dame, Cathedral of Amiens: The Power of Change in Gothic, a book published earlier this year by Cambridge University Press.

Top view of Cathedral.
The cathedral's width corresponds to the biblical width of Noah's Ark.

   In its current form, the Amiens Project incorporates much of the book's information into the Internet and the World Wide Web. Once on the Web, a few clicks of a mouse lead to a menu that includes computer-generated images of Amiens Cathedral, drawings that illustrate its construction sequence, a slide gallery of photographs showing the Cathedral, and scenes from computer-generated videos. From the same menu, one can choose to listen to the sounds of the medieval composer Perotin, or read the actual texts of the Cathedral's medieval documents, either in the Latin or French in which they were written or in English translation.

A comparison of the actual hallway and a computer-generated model.
The Amiens project helps viewers become aware of the relationship between theology, geometry, and architecture.

Funding the virtual cathedral

   The Amiens Project is funded by Columbia's Strategic Initiative Program and a major core-curriculum grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. When NEH panel members saw the computer-animated video, they were so impressed that they invited Murray to submit a challenge grant to establish the Media Center for the Arts. The goal of this project is to connect Columbia's scholarship in the arts with new audiences using the full range of multi-media resources.

   "We especially want to concentrate on the Art Humanities curriculum," says Murray. "We hope the next projects will encompass, among others, the Parthenon, Rembrandt, and Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum--all based on the original vision of Columbia's faculty." Educational institutions as diverse as a school system in the Appalachian region of Virginia and the San Francisco Exploratorium have expressed an interest in using the materials that Columbia develops online.

A new way of seeing

   Murray is interested in more than just bringing the study of medieval architecture up to date. He believes that it will be faster and more efficient for students to obtain information from the Web than from the College Reserves in Butler Library or from photocopied packets of text.

   However, Maurice Luker, a doctoral candidate and executive producer and managing director of the Amiens Project, claims that the Web can go beyond simply delivering conventional information.

   "We're not just trying to do old things like showing slides with the online technology," he says. "That is not the most effective use of the technology. We are trying to put things on the Web that are not available through other media, like Apple's QuickTime Virtual Reality software, which will allow students to see three-dimensional simulations of works of art, including the interior space of a cathedral, on their computer screens. Artists and educators have long manipulated new imaging technology to change fundamentally how we envision and understand our world. New technology makes possible a new way of seeing."

The Amiens Project enables students to examine every aspect of Amiens Cathedral.

Technological parallels

   Amiens was home to perhaps the [Image] world's most famous futurist, Jules Verne. While it may never be known if the space within the walls of Amiens Cathedral inspired Verne to stretch his imagination into the future, it did inspire Murray to attempt to digitally recreate the transcendent affects of the medieval cathedral.

   "The cathedral space creates a reality that allows you to escape from the mundane world," he says. "The high-tech resonates with the medieval cathedral. In the Middle Ages, instead of dark, crowded homes and cluttered, twisting streets, the cathedral offered a transcendent, unified space that was the exact opposite--and this is what the media do for us today. "For example, just as the clergy made Latin and the Benedictine Rule the single international discourse during the Middle Ages, today the single discourse that is emerging throughout the world is Hypertext, the language of the World Wide Web. And just as the architecture of Amiens Cathedral became the medium to augment the affects of religion, technology has offered us the proper media to recreate the physical affects of the cathedral."

   Alumni are welcome to visit the Amiens Project Web page at http://www.learn.columbia.edu

From Columbia Magazine, Summer 1996