Constructing Communities: The benefits of BIM


 

Homs City Centre re-imagined by Ammar Azzouz and Ayla Shawish. Credit: Azzouz/Shawish

 

While projects such as Contested Memories: The Battle of Mount Street Bridge and Rome Reborn exemplify the fascinating perspective and useful applications of reverse engineering virtual worlds, and are certainly worth exploring, I would like to use this blog post to focus on how digital architecture is, or could, shape the cities we live in.

The aim of this blog post is to explore much more than the cost effectiveness of Building Information Modelling (BIM). Projects such as Digital Built Britain are more than willing to extol the financial virtues of the process for those interested. Instead I am more interested in the movement beyond the traditional scale model towards the digital city. According to Bernstein modern consensus suggests that the cost of renovation will ‘outstrip’ new building as constructed cities fill to the brim with apartments, offices and leisure zones (Bernstein). The result of this process will be a heightened emphasis on sustainability, reliability and higher levels of performance and it is digital architecture which is making this achievable. Rather than constructing singular models architects are utilizing BIM software to reproduce digital versions of growing cities. The digitisation of these physical landscapes allows the modern architect to move beyond the one dimensional approach of building design and facilitates the incorporation of a singular building design into a connected city network of combined infrastructure. This move will maximise the capabilities of buildings and increase their productivity as well as their lifespan.  

 

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The Shanghai Tower’s torqueing design based on urban wind flow simulations. Image courtesy of Shanghai Tower Construction and Development Co., Ltd. Rendering by Gensler.

 Taking this process one step further Ammar Azzouz is researching how BIM technology can be used to redesign cities destroyed by conflict. Azzouz’s aim is not to use the existing technology to recreate a lost city marred or lost to conflict, but to design a new one that respects the city’s past by incorporating destroyed sites as memorials within the surrounding multi-functional buildings for ‘Homsians to gather with a collective sense of belonging’ (Azzouz). Initially, after reading the title of Azzouz’s piece, ‘Digital architecture can help rebuild ancient Syrian cities’, I was skeptical of his intentions. Fearing his article would suggest replicating a pre-war version of Homs I had already conceived the idea that Azzouz was an advocate for bypassing the painful yet necessary redesign of a ravaged city. My assumptions led me to believe that he was simply trying to erase the country’s recent past through an uncontrolled expression of technological fetishism, following the Palmyra arch vein of thinking. However, I was delighted to find that Azzouz’s thesis is actually the antithesis of this “sweep it under the rug” assumption. Combining economic reasoning with utility Azzouz explores the multi-functional capacity of BIM. His proposed plans for the reconstruction of Homs which essentially incorporates the financial concerns of construction, particularly costly postwar reconstruction, and the desire for utility and memorialisation, which can facilitate a safe and equal space for all the residents of Homs, highlights the true advantages of BIM.

In conclusion, the true advantage of BIM is not its cost effectiveness or a progressive technological form of planning. While these are two great additional characteristics, in my opinion, the true advantage of BIM is the ability to incorporate the existing and surrounding landscape into architectural design. BIM  facilitates the construction of a community through building and reconstruction. It goes beyond the singular and sees the wider field. The resulting effect of this is to highlight that physical spaces are not just places of utility but significant spaces which have the ability to shape, impact and inform our lives. If Azzouz’s research shows us anything it is that BIM allows us in the present to respect the past while planning for our future.

 

Bibliography:

Rome Reborn. University of Virginia et al. 1997. Web. 10 December 2016.

Contested Memories: The Battle of Mount Street Bridge. Maynooth University. 2015. Web. 10 December 2016.

Azzouz, Amar, ‘Digital architecture can help rebuild ancient Syrian cities.’ PhysOrg. Web. 10 December 2016.

Bernstein, Phil, ‘Why Today’s Architects Build Digital Cities Instead of Scale Models.’ Gizmodo. Web. 10 December 2016.

Turner, Lauren, ‘Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph recreated in London’, BBC News. Web. 10 December 2016.

Authenticity and Aura: The Annotation of Replicas


 

Kirlian Photography: Hand
Kirlian Photography: Hand

In his paper on aura and democratisation Stuart Jeffrey addresses a number of concerns relating to digital visualisations and reproducing the authenticity of cultural objects (Jeffrey 144). While acknowledging that the application of aura to digital reproductions is possible in certain contexts, particularly in community engagement programmes, Jeffrey nonetheless argues that the ‘weirdness’ of the digital limits its potential (Jeffrey 151). While I agree with Jeffrey that the digital is not comparable to its analogue counterpart this post will seek to show that through creative curation, particularly with the aid of good annotation, digital replicas can adopt an aura of their own. This aura can not only stand on its own but can augment the aura of the existing original.

The Aura

Walter Benjamin defines the aura as an object’s ‘presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be’ (Benjamin, II). This definition expands to include what is termed the authenticity of an object, that is ‘the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced’ (Benjamin). Jeffrey’s adaption of ‘the aura’ is more closely associated with the people who handled an object. For Jeffrey, our connection with an object ‘ is simply the latest link in the chain and somehow connects us to every other person on the same chain’ (Jeffrey 147). While I agree that Jeffrey’s chain theory is one aspect of aura it is by no means the sole definition. Jeffrey uses the example of an uncovered crown to demonstrate aura and authenticity through its association with rulers. While monarchs usually have a reserved place in history as key figures, largely due to the importance we ourselves place on their symbolic presence rather than actual achievement, is a crown that was made but not worn by a monarch any less important or historically relevant than one that was?

Curation and Annotation

In an academic discussion relating to digital history Patrick Gallagher, a leader in the field of exhibit design, wrote about the immersion concept in museums. This concept refers to Gallagher’s attempts to create ‘real environments that tell stories, display artifacts, create emotion, and most particularly offer learning experiences.’ (The Promise of Digital History). If we consider that the feelings evoked in public exhibits are the result of thought out layout, structure and annotation, and that it is these features which enable objects to be contextualised, and therefore imbued with aura, then is it not possible to achieve the same through an online exhibit.

I would argue that the Smithsonian museum have done just this with their online tour of The Kéet S’aaxw (Killer Whale Hat) (Hollinger, SimthsonianX 3D). The application guides the user through a sixteen step tour detailing the origin of the hat, the creation of the 3D model and replica and a comparison of the original and replica. The tour is carried out in an annotation window next to the 3D digital model and each annotated step is accompanied by pictures. These pictures follow the same topics as their textual counterpart. Through this display the ‘visitor’ can compare both original and replica and understand the origins and context of each. In this way both artefacts have their own, unique, story and aura, which are both dependent on different contexts. Additionally, through the side by side comparison it is evident that the replica and original are not identical. The annotated notes explain that deterioration and colour fading has altered the original hat. While this, Jeffrey and Benjamin would argue, gives the original object its own, protected, aura, it also gives the replica a trait of its own as the visitor can see what the ‘authentic’ object looked like exactly when it was first created. To increase the authenticity of their replica the museum also record the interaction of the tribal community associated with the original in the creation and unveiling of the replica. Through this interface the visitor obtains an immersive experience, akin to that of a museum or heritage site, and this experience encourages and augments the aura of the digital.

Bibliography

Benjamin, Walter, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Web. 21 October 2016.

Cohen, Daniel  et al. “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.” The Journal of American History 95.2 (2008): 452-491. Web. 22 October 2016.

Hollinger, Eric, Smithsonian X3D. Smithsonian Institution. Web. 20 October 2016.

Jeffrey, Stuart, “Challenging Heritage Visualisation: Beauty, Aura and Democratisation” Open Archaeology  1:1 (2015): 144-152. Web. 18 October 2016.