Magazine article Humanities

A New Look at Old Buildings

Magazine article Humanities

A New Look at Old Buildings

Article excerpt

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 criss-cross 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 (www.mcah.columbia. edu/ha). 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. …

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