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Archviz and cultural heritage: digital models for the lost heritage sites
Archviz and cultural heritage: digital models for the lost heritage sites
Why do we need to recreate the lost heritage in digital form?

In the article “Archviz and cultural heritage: preservation of heritage in danger ”, we have pointed out that archviz is an essential tool for the preservation of cultural heritage that is in danger of destruction. Precise renderings enhance digital models of endangered heritage. But just as important is the ability of archviz to bring back to life the long-lost monuments that cannot be restored. Lost heritage sites are recreated digitally from drawings, photographs, and paintings.


Physical reconstruction is often impossible because many such sites have been gone for too long. Often there is not enough data to make a precise copy. The UNESCO-approved International Charter For The Conservation And Restoration Of Monuments And Sites(“The Venice Charter”) strictly advises against the reconstruction of lost monuments, because it views reconstructed copies as fundamentally inferior to the lost originals.


Lost sites often hide under many layers of newer development, some of which are cultural heritage in their own right. It was partially the case of the famous model “Roma Imperiale” that recreated the Constantin-era Rome at a 1:250 scale. This clay model is a good starting point to speak about the advantages of digital 3D scans. Italian architect Italo Gismondi spent two decades making “Roma Imperiale”. Digital models are a lot less time-consuming. Unlike their physical counterparts, digital models can also be updated when new data emerges. They allow us to experiment with various hypotheses about the monument’s layout. Vector models can be made on a 1:1 scale and contain almost unlimited data on architectural details, colors, materials, and textures.

Illustration: Roma Imperiale” clay model by Italo Gismondi, currently at Museo della Civiltà Romana

Digital models in heritage popularization

Just as ubiquitous as digital models used for research are the 3D visualizations made for education and the popularization of heritage. Visualizations get integrated into movies and online and offline installations that combine modeling, animation, VR, and AR experiences.


China is probably the biggest producer of digital documentaries with precise scientifically-based reconstructions of heritage sites. Among such documentaries are: "Yuan ming yuan" with a reconstruction of the royal gardens, and "The Forbidden City", which reproduces the construction process of the Forbidden City and the grand ceremonies. "The New Silk Road" recreates the now abandoned and ruined city of Gaochang, which used to be a major Silk Road trading center. The digital documentary "Ancient Chinese Architecture" represents a total of 101 recreations of lost ancient Chinese buildings and sites.


French startup Iconem juxtaposed digital 3D scans of the original Mont-Saint-Michel monastery and its 17th-century maquette commissioned by King Louis XIV for an exhibition at the Musée des Plans-Reliefs. Both scans were superimposed in a single model displayed via an augmented reality experience. It allowed comparing the look of the monastery during the 17th century to its current state.

Quality of visualization matters: an art theory perspective

The biggest problem with 3D scans of cultural heritage is they often look oversimplistic and artificial similar to a computer game setting. The low artistic quality of visualization detracts from the immersive experience of the model. It underlines a famous observation of art historian Walter Benjamins from his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”: a copy of an artwork is always deficient because it lacks a special "aura" that makes the original unique and authentic:


its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership.

Hyperreal archviz is the solution for high-quality immersive cultural heritage 3D models

The first of them, “Multisensory UNESCO. Following the senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste”, aims to digitally recreate several outstanding Polish heritage sites with special attention brought to their multisensory experience in digital. The project authors point out that digital models cannot transmit the smells, sounds, and tactile perception associated with the real-life experience of the original monument. However, the resulting models that should have recreated some aftertaste of the real-life experience are uncannily blurry and alienating. They do not live up to the claim of multisensory perception.


Illustration: Saint Szymon’s church model from Multisensory UNESCO. Following the senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste


On the other hand, the digital model of Marcel Breuer’s Saint John’s Abbey Church by Iddqd Studio creates an experience that is more stimulating to the senses than a photo or a video of the original. The effect is achieved due to the purposefully intensified lights, colors, and textures – all characteristic of hyperreal visualization.


Illustration: Marcel Breuer’s Saint John’s Abbey Church by Iddqd Studio


Counterintuitively, we may conclude that a hyperreal visualization made from scratch can provide a better multisensory experience than a 3D scan.


Header illustration: Marcel Breuer’s Saint John’s Abbey Church by Iddqd Studio