An Integrated Approach to the Procedural Modeling of Ancient Cities and Buildings

This paper, which received the Fortier Prize for best paper by a young scholar, was presented at the 2014 Digital Humanities Annual Conference in Lausanne, Switzerland. The full text of the talk is below. 

A expanded and revised version of this paper was published in Digital Scholarship in the Humanities and is available here.

For a technical, step-by-step overview of this workflow, see this tutorial.

This paper presents a suite of procedural rules for creating 3D models of Roman and Hellenistic architecture and urban environments. The term ‘rules’ in procedural modeling refers to the computer code that generates a 3D model. Unlike traditional 3D modeling software such as SketchUp or 3ds Max, which use polygons to simulate form, procedural modeling entails the use of computer programming languages in the textual semantic description of a building that then generates a polygonal model. This represents not only a technical, but also an epistemological difference, as the choice of modeling method can influence not merely the cost or aesthetic outcome of a project, but also how information is selected, processed, and indeed what is considered to be information instead of noise. Procedural modeling requires that each stage of the transmutation of data in the modeling process is rigorously thought out and documented, allowing 3D models to move beyond visualization to become robust research tools.

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Materiality and Simulacrum: The Case of Pantalica

From its role in Plato’s Allegory to its invocation in the acronym for Computer Aided Virtual Environments, the cave has been the site of the confrontation of nature, technology, and simulation in various contexts throughout history. Nowhere is this more evident than in the rock-cut settlements found throughout the Mediterranean provinces that were once part of the Byzantine empire. The anachronistic “otherness” of cave architecture invites its interpretation as a skeuomorph-in-reverse: architectural forms stripped of their structural function and used as ornament, albeit in a less technologically advanced medium. However, while the cave can claim to be even more architecturally primitive than Laugier’s archetypal “primitive hut”, the similarity and multiplicity of the Byzantine rock-cut settlements suggest a technological epistemology that bears further investigation. It has been shown that even in the provinces the Byzantines had the technological means to build structures comparable to those of the capital in Constantinople, and that this knowledge was dispersed through a surprisingly peripatetic network of monastic communities.[1] I propose that the repurposing and/or evocation of the cave as architecture in the Byzantine world is insufficiently understood in terms of pragmatism (that it was easier or safer than building) or symbolism (that caves simulated the ascetic desert condition appropriate for monastic life) – explanations typically relied upon by archaeologists and historians. Rather, the proliferation of rock-cut settlements was a deliberate cultural choice that represented a form of provincial resistance and self-determination, which operated though formal modes which I will define in terms of ideas derived from postmodern cultural theory: namely the  simulacrum and l’informe (“the formless”).

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