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Archviz and cultural heritage: preservation of heritage in danger
Archviz and cultural heritage: preservation of heritage in danger
What is heritage in danger?

The term “heritage in danger” was introduced by UNESCO in Article 11.4 of the 1972 World Heritage Convention. The original definition concerns sites from the World Heritage List which are threatened “by serious and specific dangers, such as the threat of disappearance.” A heritage site may also lose the properties which secured its status as a World Heritage. But this definition applies to any cultural or natural monument of national or regional importance under threat of partial or total destruction.


The war in Ukraine has emphasized the imminent risks that armed conflict poses to the integrity of architectural monuments. But natural disasters like earthquakes, fires, floods, unsustainable land development and construction projects, predatory urbanism, overtourism, and inadequate preservation efforts pose just as many risks to heritage sites. Monuments can deteriorate, be destroyed, or be reconstructed so that authentic elements are damaged or lost.

Digital technology in endangered heritage preservation

So, how does digital technology help preserve cultural heritage? First and foremost, by making 3D scans of endangered sites. There are two primary ways in which such scans are used. Scans get converted into digital models that preserve the memory of the lost monuments. Data on damaged and destroyed monuments may also facilitate future renovation and repair. However, it is worth noting that though renovation and recreation of the lost sites are allowed under the current UNESCO guidelines, it remains an extremely controversial approach. The creation of digital models and physical copies from 3D scans is a more widespread and generally accepted practice.


A good example of such an initiative is “Backup Ukraine”. The program is provided by the smartphone application Polycam with support from UNESCO, the National Museum of the History of Ukraine, and Ukraine’s Heritage Emergency Rescue Initiative. A volunteer can freely download the application in Ukraine and use the smartphone camera to scan culturally valuable buildings, monuments, and sites in the area. The application automatically turns those scans into 3D models, which are later stored on the Polycam website for future use in renovation or memory preservation.


A similar digital preservation project “Syrian Heritage” was conducted by the French company Iconem. Like Polycam, Iconem focused on making 3D models based on digital scans created models. In 2016 Iconem with Syrian archaeologists used drones with laser scanners and high-resolution photography to create digital copies of important Syrian historical sites and artifacts. The start-up created models of objects in Aleppo, Mosul, Damascus, Palmyra, and Leptis Magna in Libya. The models were later displayed online and via 1:1 projection installations and exhibitions that utilized AR and VR technology. 


Illustration: a screenshot of the Iconem model of Umayyad Mosque in Damascus

The Institute for Digital Archaeology has gathered its 3d scans and high-resolution photographs of sites in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia into a “Million image database” online library. Unlike the initiatives by Iconem and Polycam, this one is crowd-sourced. Institute for Digital Archaeology recreated the lost arch of Baal in Palmyra (32 AD) by printing a 3D model based on the remaining photos of a monument uploaded to the database.


Illustration: projection of high-resolution 3D scan of Palmyra by Iconem at an exhibition Sites Éternels in Louvre, Paris

What can digital archviz contribute to endangered heritage preservation efforts?

Companies that work on heritage digitization have more experience with gathering information – the scanning and the modeling – than with displaying it. Digital scans are object- and site-centric rather than focused on the feel of the original. When we look at the digital copies of heritage sites, we often feel that much information about the scenery and the atmosphere of the original got lost. It is often hard to appreciate the artistic value of the monument via a projection or a VR experience of a digital scan. For that reason, the VR experience itself is far less immersive than it could have been.


This is where digital visualization may improve cultural heritage models. Arhviz has developed a variety of methods to create artistic atmospheric images with quasi-multisensory qualities. Hyperreal renderings recreate not just the look but the feel of a structure and underline its outstanding elements. But, most importantly, they may transmit a glimpse of the ethereal aura of the original monument which made it special and unique.


Header illustration: a screenshot of the Iconem model of Umayyad Mosque in Damascus