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A New Look at Old Buildings

By Victor Wishna | HUMANITIES, March/April 2005 | Volume 26, Number 2

From the nave floor of the Amiens Cathedral in northern France, Stephen Murray's gaze sweeps upward to the vault high above. "This really is my favorite view inside the cathedral," he says, pointing out the diagonal and transverse ribs that crisscross the ceiling of this Gothic structure completed in 1269, a mere forty-nine years after construction began. "It was really quite quick," he says.

Click. Now he is in Turkey, soaring over the rooftops and zipping through the streets of historic Istanbul. "Ooh, look at that!" Murray exclaims, pointing to the intricate stonework in the courtyard of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, built in 1616. "I've not seen that before."

Click. A building looks familiar . . . the Parthenon? "This is the treasury," he says. "Let's go into the main hall." Suddenly he is standing before the statue of Athena, her golden veneer shimmering in the light rays reflecting off the pool at her feet.

Of course, he's not really in the Parthenon; it's a reproduction in Nashville, Tennessee. And he's not exactly in Nashville, either-nor was he in Amiens or Istanbul, but in Room 605 of Schermerhorn Hall, Murray's comfortable but architecturally less impressive office at Columbia University.

Murray, a professor in the Department of Art History and Archaeology and founder of its Visual Media Center, conducts his whirlwind tour across continents entirely on the small screen of his PowerBook. Each tap on the touch pad reveals another lifelike panorama offering 360-degree views in every direction.

These "nodes"--image modules rendered in QuickTime Virtual Reality (QTVR)--are all part of the Visual Media Center's new History of Architecture web project supported by NEH ( When the site officially launches this spring it will contain more than six hundred such nodes encompassing dozens of buildings, from temples in Greece to the great churches of Europe and shrines of Yemen and Iran, to Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater house in Pennsylvania. Even in its nascent stages, the site is revolutionizing the teaching of architecture and changing the way professors and their students see and think about buildings that have stood for centuries.

"There are a lot of new issues being raised-and that's part of what technology does," says Robert Carlucci, who took over as director of the Visual Media Center in 1999 and has overseen the rapid growth of the History of Architecture project. "It's a lot more information. The psychology of the classroom is really changing."

"What the media has done is not just unleash all these wonderful images, but it allows you to ask questions that otherwise wouldn't have occurred to you," Murray says, such as "'How does it feel? What do you hear?'"

The new technology, says Murray, allows for the dispersal of old assumptions and for discussions that go beyond structural design. For example, by enabling students to peer up into the corners, to see where the vaulting shafts had been reinforced with chains and the flying buttresses refortified and replaced, the node reveals that Amiens was not the sturdy feat of engineering that stood the test of time.

"There's this old-fashioned view that Gothic architecture was driven bit by bit, that it was so technical," Murray says, when in fact, it was the result of a series of creative leaps. "It was the ideological that drove the thing, not the empirical." He acknowledges that George Lucas of Star Wars fame makes for a good analogy to a Gothic planner: "Both projected a dream where the technology didn't yet exist, but that dream had an amazing effect."

The lesson, he says, is that "scientific revolutions often come with a paradigm shift," that is, through grand visions rather than incremental advancements. In the case of Gothic architecture, such plans brought together great theologians, planners, and masons, who otherwise wouldn't interact.

An up-close look at the pilier columns and vault ribs reveals that the magnificent concave and convex shapes of the cathedral were created through the relatively low-tech methods of printing and stamping, similar to how Jell-o retains the shape of a mold. For this reason, Murray says, cathedrals were viewed as repositories of memory; in medieval times, stamping-to stamp an image on the brain-was the metaphor for memory. "Today, of course, that metaphor is the computer," he says.

The new technology has already been incorporated into the undergraduate core curriculum at Columbia, one of the few universities to include structural design in its required courses. "The idea is that any educated person should have something to say about a piece of architecture," Murray says. Some of the nodes have been used to teach at colleges and private high schools on an experimental basis, and the goal of the site is to make them accessible to teachers everywhere.

"More and more schools have electronic classrooms," Carlucci says. "That's especially true at community colleges and state schools-more than in the Ivy League in a lot of ways."

While the project has blossomed in the last few years, its seeds were planted nearly a decade ago, at the dawn of userfriendly virtual-reality technology. Murray had been interested in "animating architecture" ever since, as an undergraduate at Oxford more than thirty years ago, he was part of an expedition to film an eleventh-century cathedral in Armenia.

By the time he arrived at Columbia to teach medieval architecture in 1986, he had grown frustrated with the visual resources available, especially because most great cathedrals stood on the other side of the ocean. "There's only so many times I could take my students to St. John the Divine, which is a beautiful building, and we're lucky to have it," he says of the nineteenth-century church that rises a few blocks from Columbia's campus. "Otherwise, I had to rely on pictures. I can't bring Amiens Cathedral into my classroom."

With the help of colleagues in the architecture school and a grant from NEH, he created a three-part film series entitled The Amiens Project to recreate the geometric conception and construction of the cathedral. The experience gave Murray the idea to animate the medieval segment of Columbia's core curriculum. This initiative led to the founding of the Visual Media Center, which has since been folded into the Department of Art History and Archaeology.

Student response to the medieval component was so positive that it seemed shortsighted to stop there. "That's when the idea arose that we could create a general resource for the history of world architecture," says James Conlon, a staff research associate who has worked on the site since 1999, collecting much of the imagery from Turkey and Yemen. "Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Byzantine, Islamic, even modern--we kept expanding."

Today, the site contains all those categories, and a few more. In many cases, the nodes are paired with interactive floor plans of the building, enabling users to click on a "hot spot" to see the perspective from that point. Some views are from dramatic locations-thirty feet up on the triforium, on the roof, even inside the massive spire-where normal tourists never go.

There is almost no text on the site, which is by design. Carlucci says the idea is to make the site as user-friendly as possible, a place to explore and discover rather than read. "The kind of intellectual excitement one gets from a building-it dies on the page with all this boring prose," Murray says. "The whole idea that we don't have to kill the work of art in order to study it is a fabulous thing."

Most of the photography from Amiens and other medieval sites--particularly the precarious shots from the parapets--is the work of Andrew Tallon, a doctoral student in early Gothic architecture.

As Tallon explains it, the technology is, conceptually at least, rather simple. A highresolution digital camera is attached to a special tripod and carefully calibrated to take several dozen photos around a central point. These photos are then stitched together using virtual-reality software. It's a little like the tourist who takes several overlapping pictures, and then, after developing them, cuts and pastes them together to create his own 360-degree panorama. Only the site's panoramic nodes are perfectly seamless spheres and can be downloaded from the Internet.

On the site, most nodes are rendered at low resolution so they can be accessed with low-speed connections. For classroom use, the nodes can be rendered at high resolution for a teaching demonstration that's light years beyond blurry slides. "I was able to zoom into individual, sculptural details and move around without ever having to change photographs," says Tallon, who taught an introductory art history class at Columbia last year. "This is an extraordinary advance in terms of teaching medieval sculpture. The node is able to preserve an entire view of a space in a way that no other photographic technology can."

Beyond the classroom, the most beneficial aspect of the site may be in how it lets anyone explore the great buildings of the world at their own pace, in their own homes, without the interference of tour guides "charging ahead with their brightly colored umbrellas," Murray says.

Murray says he had two objectives when he began the project: first, that it should provide students access to the same resources their professors use, and second, that it should bring together faculty from different institutions to form new collaborative relationships.

The first mission has been a success. Rather than sending students home with only their notes and memories of the slides they saw in class, "now I can say, 'Go study Amiens Cathedral,' and they can. It's changed me as a teacher," Murray says. "I'm a much better teacher than I was just a few years ago."

While Murray and Carlucci have recruited colleagues at MIT, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, and other institutions to contribute to the site--Murray envisions a single great online course called Medieval Architecture with each expert adding a segment-getting them to actually use it has proven more challenging.

For some, the technology--and what it offers-may be intimidating. "Say you're a faculty member who's been teaching the same image since the beginning of time because that's the only one that had been published," Carlucci explains. "And maybe that image was a view down the center of the building. Well, now suddenly students can look up and see something going on in the ceiling. Before you know it, you've got questions being thrown at you that you were never prepared for."

But Murray believes teachers will learn to welcome those uncertainties. "I was amazed at how my students, on their own, grasped the subtleties," Tallon says from Paris, where he is continuing to shoot for the site while completing his thesis on flying buttresses. "They managed to understand spatial aspects of Gothic architecture that would have taken an actual trip to the building to communicate otherwise."

And even then, says Murray, they may not get quite as good a look. "The only way to get that perspective is to lie on your back in the middle of the floor," he says, studying his favorite view of Amiens. "In reality, that's not something you're likely to do."

Victor Wishna is a writer in New York City.

Columbia University received $575,000 from NEH to create the History of Architecture web project. Stephen Murray received an NEH fellowship and grant of $138,000 to create a multimedia education tool on Amiens Cathedral. Murray has conducted four NEH summer seminars for college teachers on the Gothic in the Ile-de-France.