Vol. XII, No. 1

Spring, 1999

Seeing Buildings that Were Never Built

Harrison Eiteljorg, II

A new architecture exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania is a superb example of the way architecture should be presented to specialists and the general public alike. The exhibit was prepared by Kent Larson, MIT professor and New York architect, for his exhibition entitled "Unbuilt Ruins: Digital Interpretations of Eight Projects by Louis I. Kahn." The exhibition features Mr. Larsonís work on buildings that were designed by Louis Kahn but never constructed; he has completed CAD models of them, based on the original sketches, correspondence about the projects, study of other Kahn buildings, and the like. The exhibit will be on display in the F isher Fine Arts Library (a building designed by Frank Furness and recently brought back to l ife by an excellent and expensive refurbishing) at the University of Pennsylvania until May 19. (Unfortunately, hours are limited to 9 am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday.) It will be on display in the Palladio Center, Vicenza, Italy, in the fall of this year. In addition, a Web page concerning the exhibit has been mounted for access at http://architecture.mit.edu/~kll/www_compton/exhibit.html.

Collaborating with Mr. Larson were Lawrence Sass, MIT Department of Architecture; Ron MacNeil, MIT Media Laboratory & MIT Department of Architecture; and Flavia Sparacino, MIT Media Laboratory.

Mr. Larson has built computer models of various Kahn structures, but one of the virtues of the exhibit is that he does not present the museum-goer with computers or computer-like space. Instead, the visitor sees a simple table with the plan of one of the Kahn buildings or complexes on the top of the table. There is room around the table for four or five people on each side, but behind the people are rear-projection slide screens, making a kind of exhibit room of the space within the screens, with the table in the center. On the screens are projected images of the building or complex, the plan of which is shown o n the table. The four images show views ninety degrees apart; they are not wide-angle lens views; so the result is not a complete 360-degree view.

There are several places marked on the plan with red crosses, and the slides show four views of the building or complex taken from one of those spots. Thus, one looks at the plan on the table to orient oneself, then looks around the "room" created by the projection screens to see images taken from the marked location. Taken together, the four images provide a panorama of the space from the marked location.

The images are the key to the exhibit, because, quite simply, they are the best computer-generated images of architectural models that I have ever seen - by far. Mr. Larson used photographs of the materials common to Kahnís structures as well as photographs of the surroundings of the buildings to help create the images, but he also manipulated the lighting to provide a sense of verisimilitude that is startling. (He even included an image of his daughter, then four years old, in one of the views to provide human scale.)

The images are not on computer screens; they are projected slides derived from computer images. The advantage is not merely size; projectors can enlarge computer images in the same way. The slides are much better than computer-screen images. Having no tell-tale jagged edges, they provide better smooth surfaces, and they do not have the appearance of being computer-generated in any way. In short, they are spectacular. (The images on the Web page listed above are similar but display the aliasing problem - jagged diagonal lines - common to computer images. The slides are much better.)

The exhibit uses computer technology in important ways, but the visitor is not aware of computers or computing.

The plan of the building or complex shown on the table is actually produced by a projector shining onto the table from directly above. The plan shown is therefore adjustable; the projected image can be changed. Museum-goers can do that for themselves. On the table are blocks, one for each of the unbuilt projects, and a visitor simply places the appropriate block in a receptacle in the center of the table to change the visible plan to that of another project. The slides change then as well. Thus, all the projects can be seen in a single "room."

Once the correct plan is on display, one sees the red crosses on the plan that indicate points from which the "photographs" were made. (Calling them images suggests the wrong idea; these seem to be photographs.) A cylinder sitting on the table can be moved to any of the red crosses, and its position will be sensed; once the cylinder is in the proper place, a new set of slides is projected on the screens. At the same time, the plan on the table is adjusted to indicate what part of the building or project falls within the view of the "camera lens." The visitor can understand precisely the views presented.

These are not virtual reality models. Viewers cannot metaphorically wander about the models and look in any direction from any point. Images are available only for the points marked and in the directions selected in advance. Mr. Larson wanted better images than could be obtained from a VR system; so all the images had to be generated in advance. Others might prefer a VR model with lower-quality images in return for the ability to experience views from any position within the model. For me, though, the quality of these images is such that I much prefer this exhibit to a VR model. These seem to be, as I have already said, photographs. In addition, the use of selected points and prepared images means that a museum-goer must use the plans carefully to figure out locations and vantage points; the visitor is obliged to think about what he or she does, as the exhibit planners intended. Of course, there is also no computer-game aspect to this, as there might be with a VR system.

The use of computers to provide the models and the "photographs" but not to be the core of the exhibit is an excellent choice. The power of the technology has been harnessed to provide effective images, and appropriate ways of presenting the information have been used. This is an exhibit to be seen and cherished.

[Mr. Larsonís work on Louis Kahnís unbuilt works was mentioned in a CSA Newsletter previously, "Photographs of a Building Never Built," vol. VI, no. 3, Nov., 1993, p.10. This issue is not available on the web -- ed.]

-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II

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For other Newsletter articles concerning the use of electronic media or CAD in the humanities, consult the Subject index. For other reviews of the use of the use of electronic media in museum exhibitions, consult the index of reviews.

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