Immersive Experiences, Photogrammetry and the History of Religious Architecture

Dr. Neta Bodner, The Open University of Israel  

Beni Zaks, The Learning Innovations Studio, The Open University of Israel

Mazi Kuzi, PhD Candidate, Tel Aviv University

This project aims to combine architectural reconstruction of historic buildings with layers of reconstructed action using different technological platforms. We are taking a spectrum of different analysis and representation methods that currently exist in isolation: plans, sections, elevations, movement schemes, sound distribution, sources describing actual ceremonies and people's experiences, and documents about building phases. Our single model will hold information found in each of these traditional methods for study and representation. The model will reflect the different aspects of a building itself, from multiple perspectives facilitated by the use of a multi-layer model. To capture the essence of the experience of “being there" the models are not something to be looked at in a book or screen. The final aim of the models is to allow immersive experiences of multiple participants within the model. Therefore, by putting the traditional methods together we reconfigure the whole out of the fragments, through the opportunities of new technologies. 

The first stage is creating a photogrammetry model, standard today for archaeology. At a second stage we plan to augment the virtual models with layers of sound, movement, light, and other elements of human embodied perspectives. The post-production layers will bring to life the current written descriptions in primary sources and analysis of the structure vis-à-vis use. Preliminary work of Bodner and Zaks, funded by an Israel Science Foundation project led by Bodner in collaboration with Dr. Tanja Potthoff, Dr. Christiane Twiehaus, Dr. Tzafrir Barzilay and archaeologist Michael Wiehen, has allowed them to already collect the necessary documentation for one of two chosen case studies and to begin collaborating with archaeologists in Köln on a model and its post-production. This work has led to questions of methodology and choice of tools at the heart of the suggested meta-project:


1. mapping the extant modes of architectural representation and analysing their benefits and pitfalls

2. testing out the new plethora of VR technological platforms in search of distinct use cases and applications for crafting spatial experiences, towards a preliminary protocol for modelling

3. applying the protocol to two case studies and refining it based on the results

4. publication of the results


The core project team comprises Dr. Neta Bodner, technologies expert Beni Zaks, and PhD candidate Mazi Kuzir, trained in medieval art history. We set out to answer some of the following questions: which technologies can support the augmentation of static space and historical documentation with  interactive and embodied layers for changing spatial research questions? How will the nature of analysis change when we use different modelling methods for 3D immersive representations of historic buildings? What can layers of phenomenological data and human animation add to analysis of building design? We collaborate with a consortium of researchers, tech professionals, and students from various fields, including architectural history, environmental history, archaeology, folklore and ritual studies, history of religions, photogrammetry documentation (trained as an archaeologist), VR experience (trained in product design and computers & digital humanities), to document the two chosen medieval buildings: one in Germany's Nordrhine-Westphalia region and one in Israel, adapt the photogrammetry, 360-degree photos and sound and light data from the field into a platform that can be used for design of an immersive experience. Then we shall manipulate the model through the addition of videos, infographics, different illumination, and sound filters and use primary sources for creating relevant avatars  to accompany future researchers as visitors, re-think the functioning of the spaces and their design in light of the function-reconstructions.

The aims are divided along two major axes that inform the design of the whole project: 1. research of buildings, and 2. technological methods for aiding and expressing it. The first aim is analysis of the existing representations in scholarship in the four fields and analysis of the different tools available to change representation norms. The second is re-visiting the conclusions of two case studies, in light of the new research method, publishing results, and refining the suggested work protocol. Each phase depends on both legs of the project: the historical research and the representation through new technologies. Neither leg is independent and therefore the proposers come from two fields - architectural history and Virtual Media arts.

The two legs are reflected in the work program and research design, divided into four operative steps:

1. The first step is collecting and analysing the different methods currently used to describe historical-architectural phenomena. Here we will work in parallel on the four knowledge domains 1. archaeology; 2. history of architecture; 3. social history; 4. liturgy and religious practice. 

2. The second step is to map the current state-of-the-art technologies (especially extended-reality or virtual-reality technologies) that are currently used to artificially position people within represented three-dimensional spaces (real or imagined). Here will be a major part of the project: making clear and concise analysis of the characteristics of each platform in order to select the different configurations and combinations of technological tools for our models and post-production.

3. The third step of the process will be to create two models to test our conclusions. One will be post-production of a photogrammetry model of the Cologne Mikveh in cooperation with LVR Köln and MiQua. This model has already been made in collaboration with our German colleagues as part of the ISF project led by Bodner and supported by Zaks. We have begun testing post-production interventions on this model as a first step to writing a protocol for "wholistic" work on architectural models. The second case study will be chosen from the corpus of medieval crusader sites in Israel.

4. The final step will be to publish both the research on the two sites and a meta-article about the work process, analysis of different technological possibilities and the ramifications of using each one, the results of work on the test cases, and the ensuing suggested protocol.

We believe that architecture is an essential component in any social-historian's endeavour to reconstruct the past. At the same time architecture was meant for use, spaces come alive with action and were designed for activity. This social aspect of public architecture is missing in scholarship on historic buildings and in the modes of visually representing buildings in scholarly publications. It is our contention that visual representations of buildings should encompass their three dimensional qualities and different aspects of human action and experiential potential, and we aim therefore to introduce these features in study, representation and reconstruction of historic buildings using new technological tools and defining new work-protocols and methods.