Architectural historian Diane Favro, discusses the use of Virtual Reality models in the chapter, “In the Eyes of the Beholder: Virtual Reality Re-Creations and Academia,” in Imaging Ancient Rome. Favro focuses on how historic sites were viewed, experienced, imagined, and held in memory. She identified two goals in the Cultural VR Laboratory at UCLA. The first, was to ensure that models would be created scientifically, and be architecturally accurate. The second, was to contextualize individual structures in broader urban and geographical settings.
Favro notes that the virtual reality models enable viewers to move through digital environments in real time. This is an intriguing idea. I’m curious to learn more about it. Does it mean we could “walk” through the streets of Ancient Rome or Greece? How does it work? Favro goes on to explain, that the vast possibilities offered by connecting Virtua Reality re-creations with sensorial simulations and complex metadata archives are forcing scholars to assess not only the symbiotic research relationship between different disciplines, but also the theorization of re-creations. So, in short, these virtual reality urban simulations cause scholars to work together collaboratively, as some of the research across disciplines overlaps, as well as to analyze the meaning of these re-creations.
She goes on to state that in the United States, academic advocacy for immersive historic urban re-creation is centered in fields such as preservation, museum studies, and cultural management programs, rather than in the academic fields of archaeology and architecture. Favro notes that these other fields embrace these visualizations as part of their education program. Why aren’t scholars in archeology and architecture embracing the re-creations of cityscapes? They believe they are too simplified and too hypothetical.
“Not infrequently, all historical urban re-creations are tainted by association with populist representations made for the entertainment industry. Immersive simulations of ancient cities, regardless of accuracy, have enduring sensationalistic appeal. The politicization and exploitation of popular images depicting ancient cities for formulating national identity have, in the eyes of many scholars, further debased the status of reconstructions.”Diane Favro
Favro then describes the “cloud of suspicion which hovers over all historical re-creations in academia.” This particularly related to those cityscapes whose scale of necessity requires a high percentage of conjectural representation. In addition, this “suspicion” also arises due to a scholarly discomfort with the visual representation of ideas. Favro asserts that once a visualization becomes part of the cultural memory, it gains a life and iconic power of its own, and is freed from academic constraints. These images forcefully shape our thinking. She asserts that images are potent bearers of meaning, as well as constituents of knowledge, and archaeologists, rather than confronting this fact, have ignored this role of images. From an art historical standpoint, the image, or object, is everything.
Favro addresses the scholarly challenges that historical cityscape re-creations face. She notes that while it is possible to reconstruct a single building with a fair degree of accuracy based on the physical remains and analogs, the same is not true for expansive urban cities. Any urban re-creation that aims to represent environments holistically must, of necessity, involve extensive reasoned approximation. By far the most common criticism of the virtual reality models is that they are too conjectural. It must be explicitly explained that the virtual reality models are based on extensive research, yet in order to show the buildings holistically, significant sections are based on reasoned conjecture. Scholars believe that the educated, or reasoned, guesses the recreations make devalue the overall authenticity of the project. I think it would be difficult to get a group of experts to agree on all points of a cityscape recreation, but that doesn’t mean that we should give up, or state that they don’t have any value. Speaking as a visual learner, these recreations have a tremendous educational value, regardless of whether they are one hundred percent accurate.
Favro adds that in these recreations, the ageing of materials is not depicted, and this can cause some confusion in the viewer. The viewer is asked to accept the omission of unverified aspects, such as color and sculpture, while simultaneously being asked to accept the inclusion of hypothetical components, such as floors and urban infill. She notes that the distinction between the two categories can become blurred in the mind of the viewer.
Scholars and the general public are polar opposites in their reception of these historical recreations. Lay observers tend to criticize the lack of painterly qualities in the digital recreations, while scholars the presentations are too aestheticized. Scholars maintain that the aesthetics of a color palette, rendered shadows, and textures, conveys unverifiable, and even biased interpretations of facts. I think there must be a way to meet somewhere in the middle. Perhaps scholars could agree on a certain amount of accuracy that would be acceptable for K-12 educational projects.
There are a host of benefits to this type of digital humanities project. The construction of virtual reality models has stimulated interdisciplinary exchange between scholars in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences. These projects are collaboration intensive, and require teams of experts working together to achieve accuracy and success. Virtual reality models create new avenues of research, interdisciplinary collaboration, and add to the educational resources of teachers. I would love to see one for myself, and am excited to work on our 3-D project. One of the aspects of the cityscape recreations that Favro mentioned really stuck out for me, and that was using these recreations to get the mood of an ancient city. That idea has captured my imagination. To explore an ancient city, in real time, and get a feel for its mood? To experience that, I would be happy to accept the “reasoned conjectures” of the team programming the cityscape.
Above is the 3-D model I built today in class using Agisoft and Sketchfab. This was a fun process, and not as complicated as I thought it might be. I’m looking forward to photographing objects at the Ackland museum next week, and building another model.
Diane Favro. “In the Eyes of the Beholder: Virtual Reality Re-Creations and Academia.” In Imaging Ancient Rome, edited by Haselberger, Lothar Williams Symposium on Classical Architecture and John H Humphrey, 321–34. Supplementary Series 61. Portsmouth, R.I.: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2006.