Vol. IX, No. 4

February, 1997

The Rome Reborn Project

Diane Favro, Architecture and Urban Design, UCLA

The ancient author Horace wrote in his Satire: "He who takes it upon himself to look after ... the city [of Rome], ... compels all the world to take an interest." (1.6.34-37). This statement still holds true today. A team from the Department of Architecture and Urban Design (AUD), the Department of Classics, and the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA has been exploring the possibility of developing a virtual reality model of Rome. The model will be of Rome in the ancient period, and it will be used for diverse research and educational purposes.

Technologies available today are especially well-suited for the study of historical environments. At UCLA, the Computer Lab under the directorship of Bill Jepson has created the Urban Simulator (uSim) system based upon technologies developed for military flight simulation. This system allows relatively simple (from a traditional CAD standpoint) 3-dimensional models to be combined with aerial photographs and street level video to create a realistic model of urban neighborhoods. The model is then used for interactive fly-, drive- and walk-through demonstrations. The uSim project is more than just simulation software. It is a methodology that integrates existing systems such as CAD and GIS with real-time visual simulation to facilitate the modeling, display, and evaluation of alternative proposed environments. It can be used to visualize neighborhoods as they currently exist or as they might appear after new construction. The system understands time, so one can watch trees grow or cities evolve. As part of the Virtual Los Angeles and the Virtual World Data Server projects, the Lab is building a real-time simulation model of the entire Los Angeles basin. The Los Angeles model will cover an area well in excess of 10,000 square miles and will elegantly scale from satellite views of the Los Angeles basin to street level views accurate enough to allow easy reading of signs in shop windows and on walls. Links to web pages will allow model viewers to access data on individual buildings or businesses.

The model will be maintained on a large multi-client server that will allow multiple simulation clients to fly, drive and/or walk through the virtual Los Angeles model. The Architecture and Urban Design Computing Lab is currently developing a host-server configuration to allow multiple users to access the model simultaneously and is exploring various improvements, including ways to integrate sound, virtual actors, and avatars within the modeled urban environments. The Smithsonian acknowledged the sophistication of the uSim system in 1994, awarding Director Jepson the prestigious Computerworld Smithsonian award in the education and academia category.

State-of-the-art computer systems like uSim offer great potential for research and teaching about lost historical urban environments. Accurately modeled past cities promote architectural and urban design research by allowing for fully three-dimensional recreations with real-time kinetic capabilities. In addition, such virtual reality models assist detailed cultural studies by locating events, literature, and artworks in actual environments.

One of the most exciting characteristics of a virtual reality model is its capability to show time. Temporality enhances the understanding of building and urban scales, since buildings' relationships to their surroundings change as the urban structures around them evolve. Virtual reality models will provide the opportunity to evaluate experiential impact of ancient environments at specific periods. In addition, virtual reality models will allow viewers to see urban environments evolve over time, promoting analysis of the evolution of the cityscape.

The UCLA team selected ancient Rome as the subject of our first historical virtual reality urban simulation for several reasons. Significantly, the city on the Tiber is acknowledged as a well-spring of western culture. Furthermore, there were close, multidimensional connections between culture and place in ancient Rome, and they can best be appreciated and evaluated in full-bodied, interactive reconstructions. In addition, Rome offers an unparalleled combination of archaeological and cultural information. The ancient city can be recreated with far more fact than fancy (something not the case, for example, with Classical Athens) due in large part to the prolific data available on Roman culture, including literary and historical records. As a result, it is possible to reproduce public and private places with a fidelity that is unfortunately not possible at sites such as Ostia and Pompeii, whose remains are more substantial than those of Rome, but whose textual documentation is significantly less complete. In addition, new data on the archaeological remains of Rome continue to add to our knowledge. The last few years have seen the publication of two comprehensive reference works on the buildings and topography of ancient Rome, among other specialized publications on the city. Thus, our challenge today is not so much to gather the primary and secondary sources needed for a virtual reality model of the ancient city as to represent the existing data accurately and faithfully in a comprehensive manner.

We have named our project Rome Reborn after Roma Instaurata, a book by the Renaissance humanist Flavio Biondo. Written between 1444 and 1446, this extremely influential work was the first systematic topographical study of ancient Rome and reflects the still unfulfilled humanist dream of reconstructing the ancient city, which in its size, population, and wealth was unequaled in human history before the nineteenth century. Capital of a world-wide empire and home to a rich, polyglot culture of peoples from around the Mediterranean, ancient Rome was a vibrant place and a harbinger of today's multicultural urban metropolis. It is the excitement, complexity, and richness of the urban culture of ancient Rome that we hope to convey to students of the twenty-first century through the technical virtuosity of high-end virtual reality.

The ultimate goal of the Rome Reborn Project is an interactive virtual reality model of the entire ancient urban fabric of Rome, from the primitive Iron Age village (ninth century B.C.) to the Christian center of late antiquity (fifth century A.D.). We plan to model the city within the walls and outside the walls to a distance of one mile. Thus, the viewer will ultimately be given a sense of the interrelationship between city and country through fourteen centuries of history. This ambitious project will begin with the modeling of the city at a specific historical period. The Rome Reborn team is investigating various alternatives. Our current thinking is to begin modeling Rome in the late antique period as a virtual corollary to the famous plastico of Constantinian Rome. While in progress, completed portions of the model will be made available to students and scholars for various educational and research projects through the Internet or some other client server system.

Rome was not built in one day by one person, nor will virtual Rome be built in one day or one year by a single institution. Our intention is to create a structure whereby participation of scholars around the world is welcome and indeed encouraged. Our challenge is to create an environment in which the world's most qualified subject-experts will be eager to work collaboratively to recreate their visions of ancient Rome. By developing standards and conventions of representing the various elements of the model (plant materials, building materials, etc.), and by providing editorial control over material submitted for inclusion into the overall model, we hope to ensure both quality control and intellectual and aesthetic consistency. We also hope to serve an archival function, seeing to it that, as parts of the overall model are created, they are stored and maintained in a single center.

On December 2, 1996, we held our first meeting of the Rome Reborn advisory committee and interested parties at UCLA sponsored by the School of Arts and Architecture, the School of Humanities, the Vice Chancellor of Research at UCLA, and the Creative Kids Educational Foundation. Notable American scholars of ancient studies, education, history, film, and computers; respected experts from major museums; and representatives from the computer and entertainment industries were joined by distinguished guests from Rome. Those attending this event explored strategies for modeling, data acquisition and vetting, educational applications, period selection, and various technologies, among a wide range of topics. Through similar meetings in Rome and Washington D.C. in 1997, we hope to ensure that work on a virtual reality model of Rome goes forward with the greatest possible speed and efficiency. As the second millennium draws to a close, the Rome Reborn team welcomes all interested parties to join us in making Flavio Biondo's great dream a reality. To paraphrase Horace, whose words also opened this article, it will be a monument for our generation "more lasting than bronze."

For more information, consult the Web, www.aud.ucla.edu/~favro/rome-reborn/.

If you are interested in discussing research, educational applications, sponsorship, contracts, or grants with us, please contact a member of the Rome Reborn team:

Bernard Frischer (frischer@ucla.edu)
Diane Favro (dfavro@ucla.edu)
William Jepson (bill@ucla.edu)
Aimee Dorr (dorr@gse.ucla.edu)

For other Newsletter articles concerning the use of electronic media in the humanities, consult the subject index.

Next Article: Workshop at AIA Meetings

Table of Contents for the Feb, 1997 issue of the CSA Newsletter (Vol. 9, no. 4)

Master Index Table of Contents for all CSA Newsletter issues on the Web

Return to CSA Home Page