SAH Blog


  • Digital research tools--another take by Gabrielle Esperdy

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    Mar 7, 2011

    Just over a decade ago, my professional trajectory in architectural education took me from an art school (Pratt) to a tech school (NJIT), from a place that still privileged the pencil to a place that had eagerly embraced the mouse. Back in Y2K, architecture schools were so abuzz with a brave new world vibe that it mattered little whether CAD induced hype or hysteria within one’s NAAB accredited program. It seemed inevitable that the academy was about to boldly go, and if we were uncertain of the destination, Moore’s law guaranteed that we were going to get there fast. Still, as a professor of history and a practicing historian, I had not yet reckoned with what all of this meant for the future of studying and teaching architecture’s past.

    Even as the digital revolution was transforming practice and pedagogy in the studio, things were surprisingly status quo in the lecture hall and seminar room. Slide projectors did give way to XGAs, but the move from Kodachrome to jpeg, like the transition from glass lantern plates to 35 mm celluloid a half a century before, simply substituted one form of reproduction for another. In fact, given the preponderance of slide scanning in the early days of the oughts, in many cases we were just reproducing the reproductions. Although many academics were creatively exploiting the new presentation software, for most professors, the format was little more than a twenty-first century version of a carousel tray. It was true that you could show more images, or the same image repeatedly and you could add text, video, and sound, but the average PowerPoint presentation of the early 2000s barely departed from the side-by-side display of images that had been standard since the early 1900s.

    Today, image databases organize building plans, sections, interiors, and exteriors; screen capture software records lectures and converts them to MP4s that are downloaded to iPods and laptops; course web sites and virtual learning environments provide a convenient place to park all this information for the duration of the semester. Students now have 24/7 access to an astonishing array of history-related material via computers sitting on their increasingly obsolete drafting tables. But instantaneous access to course content is not all that different from a  Kostof  or  Trachtenberg  survey book sitting on a desk.

    In teaching architecture’s history, even with the most immersive, interactive, and collaborative learning platforms, we have used technology mainly to transform modes of presentation through and with new tools of representation. Our colleagues teaching architecture’s design, meanwhile, have used technology to transform methods of practice as well, from parametric modeling to CNC fabrication. Within the academy, this difference has produced a digital divide between history and design that is as pernicious as it is subtle. Dazzled by high-res and big gigs, we did not even realize this divide existed much less that it was reinforcing the tired master/servant design/history paradigm, to the detriment of architectural education as a whole. Unless architectural historians who are also architectural educators work to bridge this divide, history and design will move further apart as curricular concerns and as disciplinary correlates.

    During the 1990s, critical theory pointed towards new synergies between design and history and during the 2000s it seemed as if a generation of architecture academics, both designers and historians, spoke the same language and worked toward the same goal—using critical theory to analyze architecture as a form of cultural production. Today, digital technologies seem to offer comparable synergistic possibilities within the academy. But practice precedes pedagogy and historians must, therefore, make technology as much a part of their professional practice as designers have.

    We must master advanced visualization techniques to use 3-D rendering and even BIM to develop new ways of compiling and analyzing the buildings of the past. We must explore data mining, geographic information system, and computation for quantitative analysis of historic architecture. We must embrace new forms of collaboration, exploiting crowd sourcing, wikis, and the cloud to identify and utilize archival and ephemeral information. Such digital tools could provide us with more comprehensive data-based methods for tracing the diffusion of architectural ideas, materials, and motifs across media, time, and place. They could enable us to build information models of individual structures or landscapes to examine how they have evolved since they were completed or occupied. These digital tools could lead us to interpretive revelations we cannot even imagine. At the very least, they will enable designers and historians within the academy to move forward together to transform architectural education in the information age.

    --Gabrielle Esperdy

    This post first appeared as an "Op Arch" feature in Journal of Architectural Education 64:2, March 2011.

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  • Tahrir Square through Two Transitions by Khaled Adham

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    Feb 24, 2011

    “Massive demonstrations were organized,” writesFatemah Farag, “which included students marching from Giza to the center of Cairo. However, when the demonstrators reached the Square…four armed vehicles moved towards them and a barrage of machine-gun fire opened up. According to the most reliable estimate, 23 demonstrators were killed and some 120 injured. The government disclaimed all responsibility and blamed students for allowing their peaceful demonstrations to degenerate into violence because of infiltration by the riffraff.”

    No, this is not Tahrir Square in February 2011, the epicenter of the revolution that toppled the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s regime earlier this month. It is Ismailia Square in February 1946, just a few years before it was renamed Tahrir Square. The demonstrators proclaimed it Evacuation Day, anticipating the departure of British forces occupying Egypt. According to a leaflet issued at the time, “the day was to make it clear to the British imperialism and to the world that Egyptian people have completed their preparation for active combat until the nightmare of imperialism that has crushed our hearts for 64 years has vanished.” Anti-Mubarak protesters evoked this history when they declared Friday 3 February the Day of Departure for the long-ruling president.

    Future urban historians will perhaps mark these two Februaries as signposts of transitions among three significant periods in the history of modern Egypt: Colonial, Postcolonial, and Post-Postcolonial periods. The square has witnessed more than a century-and-a-half of urban, cultural, and political history, and the transitions between these three eras played out within its bounds. Here are some scenes from this dense, intricate history.

    Early in the 19th century, during the colonial era, the area that would become Tahrir Square consisted of rough ground interspersed with marshes and ponds that were replenished with each summer flood. Toward the middle of the century, the scene began to change. Several royal palaces were constructed along the River Nile, with much of the land around them drained, filled, and planted. One of these was Qasr al-Nil. First used as a palace for the ruler, it was then retrofitted to serve as the Ministry of War. Eventually it came to serve as barracks housing the Egyptian army.

    The palaces set the pattern for further development in 1867 by Khedive Ismail, Egypt’s modernizing ruler during the 1860s and ’70s. Between 1867 and the turn of the 20th century, the square took much of its current urban form. In his love of urban embellishments, and in preparation for the opening of the Suez Canal, Ismail began to expand the city by building an entire new district on the medieval city’s western edge. This area, Ismailia, became Cairo’s European Quarter, now downtown Cairo.

    In order to carve out a large square that would function as a link, through Qasr al-Nil bridge, between the new district and the west bank of the Nile, or to Ismail’s palace in Giza and the newly constructed road to the pyramids, Ismail gave one of his palace gardens to the government. At that point, the new square, Ismailia Square, was nearly surrounded from all sides by military barracks, palaces, and villas. One new palace worth mentioning here is that of Ahmed Khairy Pasha, a complex that later became the Genaclis Cigarette factory, then Cairo University, and finally in 1919 the American University of Cairo.

    Although it was the largest square in Cairo, Ismailia Square was never considered the center of the city. This honor was reserved to ’Abdeen and Opera squares, one mile to the east and northeast of Ismailia, respectively. Indeed, Ismailia Square was associated with hated occupation and colonization, since the British troops had taken over Qasr al-Nil barracks as part of their conquest of the whole country in 1882.

    A new century brought new buildings. Designed by a French architect in a neo-classical style and marked as the first building in Egypt built with reinforced concrete, the Egyptian Museumopened its doors in 1902. This was followed by a series of apartment buildings replacing the villas that previously had flanked the square’s northern and eastern sides. The middle of the 20th century witnessed a few significant alterations. First, the Qasr al-Nil barracks were evacuated in 1947 and torn down in 1951 to make way for modern developments. Second, construction of Mogamma, a large administrative building designed by the Egyptian architect Kamal Ismail and given as a gift by the Soviet Union, was initiated in 1950.

    The year 1952 ushered in a new post-colonial era to Egypt. As if answering Henri Lefebvre’s prophetic observation that any revolution that has not produced new spaces “has not changed life itself but has merely changed ideological superstructures, institutions or political apparatus,” the revolutionary officers reinvented the square as the center for postcolonial Cairo, and they renamed it Tahrir, or Liberation, Square. Three buildings represented this new era: the Nile Hilton, designed by an American firm in 1958; the Arab League Headquarters, designed by the Egyptian architect Mahmoud Riad in 1964, and the Socialist Union Headquarters, which later housed the National Democratic Party (the party of Mubarak), and which burned during the recent uprising.  

    In the five ensuing decades, View Larger Map" target="_blank">Tahrir Square was a transportation hub, a governmental center, and a place for tourists. It also became a space for public expression, a place where demonstrations and funerals took place throughout the years. Physical alterations were limited to changes in landscape and the construction of underground garages and Metro station and tunnels. A recent visionary master plan for Cairo, however, revealed the intention of the Mubarak government to introduce changes that might have deprived the square of its centrality: relocating the Egyptian Museum to the Giza plateau and moving most of the governmental agencies to New Cairo.

    It is not clear whether any of these plans will unfold in the next few years, but recent events pose questions, among them: how will Cairenes reinvent Tahrir Square in the emerging post-postcolonial era? What new spaces of civic representation and civil society will emerge from the transition now underway?

    -- Khaled Adham

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  • Digital research tools by Morgan Ng

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    Feb 18, 2011

    I still distinctly remember a moment from my sophomore year of college when, peering through the university's library stacks, I was suddenly overcome by a sense of hopelessness. Each of the stacks' countless books, most now gathering dust, represented decades of scholarly labor. Reading them all would require many, many lifetimes to achieve. Even as historians continue to break into forgotten archives, leading technological innovators of our time have sought not only to add to this seemingly insurmountable glut of data, but also to equip us with tools for sorting through and making sense of it.

    The December 2010 issue of JSAH addresses this issue as it pertains to our discipline. Mario Carpo and Kazys Varnelis summarize the uses of Google Books, Google Images and Flickr for scholarly research. These discussions reflect a larger trend dubbed "digital humanities." What are some of the possible future developments in this field?

    Although proponents of digital humanities have long called for new ways of accessing texts, architectural historians also work with very different kinds of information: buildings, images, and objects. Google's text-based search functions, then, pose considerable limits to our object-based research. Nevertheless, the company has made efforts at refining the parameters of image searches. As Varnelis notes, searching "Villa Savoye" and setting the image type to "line drawing" yields not building photos but axonometric drawings, sketches and diagrams. Algorithms that detect images according to conventions of visual representation immediately turn up different--and potentially more useful--classes of images from those based on textual search terms alone.

    What if we bypassed text-based searches altogether? Typing ‘Mona Lisa' into a search box yields images of the painting. But what if someone found a picture file of the painting and wanted to identify it? What if a search engine allowed someone to upload the image and instead search "backward" for the painting's title, artist and production date? Such software is already available, just not yet in wide use.

    Flat objects like paintings are the easy part. Buildings, however, are dynamic spatial experiences, and every snapshot of these objects is different from another. Backward searches of this type are far more difficult. This difficulty extends to any object with multiple instantiations. If a biologist, for instance, uploads an image of a rare bird, can programmers develop software that identifies the species? (Think of the uses, for art historians with no training in botany, to identify painted flora!) Although, as Carpo points out, Google has eliminated text searches based on keywords (as found in conventional bibliographies), for now there seems no equivalent development for image databases. "Tagging" images by conventional or arbitrary categories remains the standard.

    Finally, I'd like to suggest that we need better digital architectural databases. While SAHARA is a step toward collecting digital information on buildings, the number of available images (10,000 at the outset, culled from powerhouse institutions) has a long way to go before it becomes useful for scholars working on specialized topics. That many historians, including myself, are far more likely to look through Google, Flickr and Wikipedia suggests that SAHARA's "members only" policy is ultimately a liability.

    This isn't just a utopian plea for democratic knowledge. It's a selfish proposal. In an age when every design student can whip up 3D models of buildings or GIS analyses in a matter of hours, SAHARA's collection is not just too small--it's outdated. How many students in their introductory digital drawing classes, I wonder, have built the same model of Villa Rotunda? And for each studio trip to Shanghai, Dubai and New York, the classes' careful photo documentation and digital site reconstructions become potentially powerful scholarly resources.

    What if our own databases included such objects as well? What if historians in architecture departments collaborated regularly with digital media instructors, so that each year of incoming students could learn the required software while constructing digital models useful for our research? On the other hand, scholars would use their expertise to vet such objects and help with matters of identification, and so forth.

    Almost fifteen years ago, Columbia University's art history department began a high-profile collaboration with the engineering school to launch public digital renderings of Amiens Cathedral, on the premise that digital modeling would offer fresh ways of analyzing a canonical structure. These are now everyday tools of the design student. If we pool join forces with architectural designers and enthusiasts--not just scholars--they might become equally commonplace for the historian.

     --Morgan Ng 

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