Tracy Staedter

Aug 19th 2019

How Architectural Conservation Technology Is Saving Landmarks


For some, the future comes too fast. Technologies of tomorrow seem to quickly usurp yesterday’s trends. But luckily advances in restoration architecture have come together to save parts of history from total obliteration. Lasers, virtual reality and 3D printing are recent additions to the conservation technology toolbox, giving historians new ways to preserve cultural landmarks that may have been lost — or are at risk of being lost — to time, neglect, wars or disaster.

Lasers 3D-Mapped Notre Dame

At 6:20 p.m. local time on Monday, April 15, 2019, an alarm rang out at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. A fire had started in the building’s iconic spire and spread through the roof, nicknamed “The Forest” for its framework of beams hewn from 12th century oaks. Nine hours later, firefighters extinguished the flames, reports CNN, and the world looked with shock upon the ruins of a historical landmark.

But all was not lost. Ten years prior to the fire, the late Andrew Tallon, an architectural historian at Vassar College, and computer scientist Paul Blaer of Columbia University laser-scanned every inch of Notre Dame, inside and out, according to The Atlantic. It took them five days to place markers around the structure and then point a Leica scanner, mounted on a tripod, at 50 different locations. They collected more than 1 billion data points, according to Leica, and computer software converted the scanned data into three-dimensional forms. As part of this architectural conservation project, Tallon also used a digital camera to collect high-resolution panoramic photos of the interior and exterior, and overlaid them onto the 3D scans to map the details.

There was only one problem, reports The Atlantic. No one is quite sure where the files are. Roughly a terabyte in size, Blaer estimates, the files are small enough to fit on a single hard drive and, since they were collected 10 years ago, are unlikely to have been uploaded to the cloud. A colleague of Tallon’s, John Ochsendorf, of MIT, told The Atlantic he thought they might be with Tallon’s widow. If found, these details would offer invaluable resources to those rebuilding the Gothic cathedral.

Remote Sensing Uncovers a Lost Mayan City

High-resolution aerial images are creating breakthroughs in archaeology and technology. Using an aerial mapping technology, called LiDAR, scientists are able to see archaeological sites hidden beneath soil, sand, vegetation or even man-made structures.

Last year, Marcello Canuto of Tulane University and his team published an unprecedented study in the journal Science, detailing the dozens of ancient cities in northern Guatemala that they found using this laser-based technology. It’s similar to radar in that it emits a signal that is analyzed with a sensor when it reflects off a distant object and returns. The difference is that radar uses radio waves and Lidar uses light waves. Onboard sensors are able to measure the precise elevation and geospatial location of features on Earth’s surface to create a 3D topological map.

According to a press statement from Tulane University, Canuto and his team conducted aerial surveys of 810 square miles and found 61,480 ancient structures, 362 square kilometers of terraces, 952 square kilometers of farmland and 106 square kilometers of causeways. Based on the ruins, the scientists estimate that 7 to 11 million people lived in the area between the years 650 and 800.

Virtual Reality and 3D Printing Preserve a Trove of Heritage Sites

Arguably one of the most ambitious projects to use conservation technology to save landmarks is the Open Heritage Project, started by San Francisco-based Ben Kacyra, an engineer and founder of a company that developed a portable scanning technology. The idea for the project came to Kacyra in 2001 as he watched television footage of the Taliban, a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist group, destroying the Buddhas of Bamiyan — monuments in Afghanistan that date back to the 4th and 5th centuries, reports Smithsonian.

Well-versed in scanning technology, Kacyra decided he could use it to create 3D experiences of heritage sites, even ones that had already been destroyed. He founded the nonprofit CyArk in 2003 to use 3D scanning technology, digital imagery, drones and virtual reality to compile open-source data and share visual representations of culturally significant sites.

CyArk teamed up with Google to create an online library, which contains some 27 sites from 18 countries. Visitors to the Open Heritage Project can view the Maya ruins of Chichén Itzá in Mexico, the ancient city of Bagan in Myanmar, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and more using a laptop or virtual reality goggles. This past January, CyArk and Google partnered with the 3D printing company Stratasys to make some of the world’s heritage sites available as 3D-printed models.

In a press statement, Chance Coughenour, a digital archaeologist and program manager with the Google Arts and Culture division, said, “These detailed scans can also be used to identify areas of damage and assist restoration efforts.”

For all that has been saved, plenty has been lost. In 1900, a hurricane nearly wiped away the city of Gavelston, Texas, according to History. In 2018, a fire ravaged Brazil’s 200-year-old Rio de Janeiro National Treasure Museum. But advances in restoration architecture and conservation technology are making it possible to digitally record and preserve the world’s cultural heritages for future generations.