The Life of Buildings

Lead Research Organisation: Manchester Metropolitan University
Department Name: The Manchester School of Architecture


This idea centres on the digital preservation of the walls and rooms of our cities. Cities change, they have to, it's what they do. Without development cities are petrified, stultified and can become thematised versions of themselves. Development is not without its sensitivities and often involves passionate protest about preservation of buildings, vistas and space. The statutory listing process is frequently invoked in an attempt to prevent development. In some senses this may be construed as a misuse of legislation designed to preserve the best of our built heritage. Last minute attempts to save buildings under threat of demolition through listing often falter and a usual outcome is a clause in the planning approval that an archaeological record is made. This record may include a measured survey, a photographic survey and cursory written reports of the cultural history of the site. Three-dimensional surveys are frequently used only to produce two-dimensional records. Such records are hard to access and, in technological terms, are a limited means of representing lost artefacts. These records also fail to represent the cultural heritage value to the people and communities that experienced the buildings. Traditional archaeological reports are a poor vehicle for accessing the intangible heritage of place-based memories, stories and personal histories.
Imagine being able to encounter a building on a street where the building no longer exists, but once stood. Imagine being able to enter that building and to walk through its spaces and hear the stories hidden in its walls. A 3D virtual model could contain surviving architectural drawings of the buildings, digitised from archive sources - a viewer could walk at a scale of 1:1 through the architectural drawings;. It could host still images embedded within the model; it could carry oral histories literally within its walls. This project imagines the creation of a model that can recreate a rich and layered version of a building and bring it to life through the collation of social, cultural, technical and visual archival sources. A building that becomes more than the sum of its parts and has more to impart than it ever did when it was 'alive'.
The digital reproduction of three-dimensional space takes many characters and can be produced through a multitude of methods. Buildings can be modelled in detail exclusively in CAD software and rendered to produce highly realistic images; images of buildings can be mapped onto simple virtual 3D forms; multiple two-dimensional images can be interpreted by software to create 3D versions; laser scanning can produce materially rich representations of both exterior and interior environments. In this research we aim to investigate the range of methods to ascertain which might be the best in pursuit of our broader aim to produce virtual models of buildings that are also a repository for other cultural histories, such as oral testimony and memories. We are interested in the design, aesthetics and usability of such an interface and, as such, will carefully assess each existing method and its suitability for the onward development of mixed-reality experiences that are geo-located and can host other forms of media.
As well as investigating a range of methods for the recording and reproduction of space the project seeks to draw together and represent existing archival records in a rich, contextualised and accessible format. With our project partners, The Modernist Society and Archives+ at Manchester Central Reference Library, we aim to realise proof of concept through the virtual reproduction of a synagogue currently scheduled for demolition as part of a new development in central Manchester. We will collate existing archival images, recordings and drawings as well as inviting new contributions from the public to share their memories and and artefacts related to the site.

Planned Impact

This work aims to impact in five major areas: the planning and development sector, in built environment heritage, in digital humanities, in archive services and in heritage collections.
We will influence new policy in the planning system to enable the recording of intangible place-based heritage. The existing planning system and the conditions attached to development often include a demand to survey and record the site or building to be developed or demolished. This project aims to create a new method for this often statutory undertaking and to enliven the outcomes to ensure that the surveys act as a lively and accessible version of the past.
We will create a market for a new professional service that combines archaeology, history and urbanism through mixed-reality digital means. Our project partners, Oxford Archaeology, recognise the lack of imaginative applications attached to the sophisticated 3-D records they currently generate. Traditional archaeological services in the planning system will be enhanced and developed to include the production of VR models with the capacity to host digitised archive holdings usually confined to references in reports.
We will forge new academic approaches to cross-disciplinary working through digital platforms. In order to realise this research we have drawn on the fields of archaeology, architecture, geography and computer science and will be working with a Community Interest Company, a public body and a charity. The proposed output will combine the input and expertise of all of the project partners in a new model for public and private sector collaboration.
We will provide new opportunities for the public dissemination of museum collections. This project allows for the digital curation and live experience of archive holdings in image, audio and film, to become part of an accessible virtual experience and to allow new audiences to engage with historical material in exciting ways.
We will engender new community relations in the act of remembering. The act of collecting the oral histories attached to the building case study will bring together users of the synagogue with Archives+, the Modernist Society and the Jewish Museum and forge new relations from the memory of the synagogue.


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