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Designing an Interactive Glimpse Into the Past

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Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by David Hill, an associate professor of architecture at NC State, about the unveiling of a digital humanities project to create three-dimensional visual and acoustic models of the courtyard of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 17th century London. The Virtual Paul’s Cross Project recreates the reading of a sermon by English poet and clergyman John Donne on Nov. 5, 1622. The project, now complete, is available online, and an overview can be found here. We wrote about the early stages of the project in 2011. Here, Hill weighs in on some of the interesting/challenging design aspects of the project.

There are several things that I find exciting, and perhaps even novel, about the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project.

First of all, it brings together a wide ranging cast of characters – experts in their respective fields – to illustrate something that no longer exists. With current digital technology, we can re-examine the past. The project team consists of an English professor and John Donne scholar, an architecture professor and digital media specialist, an archaeologist, a linguist, a Shakespearean actor, acoustical engineers, and several technicians at Hunt Library – a real motley crew of contributors who normally would not find themselves working together. Adding to the complexity, this is a transatlantic team with participants in Raleigh, Manchester (UK), London, and Boston, Mass.

From my perspective as an architect and someone who spends a lot of time building digital models of buildings, the project is intriguing in several ways. I (and architects in general) typically use digital modeling to imagine new structures and to illustrate how they will look. In fact, architects tend to give preference to “seeing” their designs take shape. We are visually-oriented people. This project asks for much more from a digital model; it asks the digital model to portray what the space of St. Paul’s courtyard would have sounded like. The project allows us not just to see the architecture, but to also hear the architecture. In short, we set out to capture a greater sensory experience of the space than could be achieved with typical models.

We actually constructed two separate models: one for visual representations, and one for audio representations. The visual model shows a greater amount of the architectural detail that is common to Gothic cathedrals. It illustrates the rose window, flying buttresses, stone coursing, and other material textures. The cathedral is known as “old” St. Paul’s because it burned to the ground in 1666. (The “new” St. Paul’s was not fully rebuilt until 1708 and now stands in its place in London.)

Because the old cathedral burned in the 17th century, we have a limited number of reliable resources for rebuilding the church. We have used a painting by John Gipkin from the early 1600s, engravings, and other illustrations, but no measured drawings from the period exist. The dimensional accuracy of the model was derived from archaeological surveys of the site and discussions with the current chief archaeologist of St. Paul’s, John Schofield.

The sound model is a reduced form of the visual model, because the fine-grain details don’t have a significant effect on the auralization. The sound model, however, has acoustical properties like reflectance and absorption assigned to the various materials (e.g., stone, glass, brick). These are things that aren’t necessarily apparent in the visual model, but they do contribute to an accurate portrayal of sounds within the space. That’s the cool part!

The context of the exhibition, the Teaching and Visualization (T+V) Lab at Hunt Library, has been a real challenge: the space is new, the audio-visual technology is complex, and we are one of the first groups to make full use of the space. That said, the room is incredible, and it has offered us an amazing opportunity to present our project in an immersive digital environment. This is well beyond our initial goals to present this work through a webpage. In the T+V lab, one can listen to the John Donne recordings while surrounded by an 80-foot-long, 270-degree wrap-around animation of the St. Paul’s Courtyard.

It’s been a wonderful challenge, and an honor to work on this project. We’re optimistic that it will be of use to history, literature and religion scholars for years to come.

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