Jhe 2,000-year-old city of Palmyra was once Syria’s most popular tourist attraction. As you walk through the Great Roman Colonnade to the Temple of Bel, with the sun setting and the stones turning golden and pink in the desert light, you felt a deep connection through the centuries to the city’s heyday.
When the fighters of Isis stormed Palmyra and destroyed some of the most precious parts of this ancient city, the world was appalled.
Then came the surprise, now on display in Trafalgar Square: a faithful 3D-printed replica of the Temple of Bel’s Arc de Triomphe, which Isis had reduced to rubble.
It turns out that while Isis was advancing on the city, the Institute of Digital Archeology (IDA) had, with Unesco, distributed 3D cameras to volunteers in Palmyra. They knew that just as the Taliban blew up the 6th century Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan in 2001, Isis was very likely to destroy much of Palmyra’s ancient heritage.
Boris Johnson has called it “giving Daesh two fingers”, but this remarkable new ability – to reconstruct exact copies of urban structures – goes much further. From Palmyra to the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Nepalese capital Kathmandu, new digital copying and 3D construction technologies allow us to raise not just monuments, but entire cities from the rubble.
Technology raises difficult questions. What does it mean to copy a monument or an ancient building? Can a reproduction ever be as good as the original? Or is “authenticity” less important than symbolism for people who have survived death and destruction?
There is, in fact, a long history of copying urban structures. You can get a good feel for it inside the V&A’s Cast Courts – sprawling rooms full of plaster and electrotyped replicas of arches, gates, statues and ironwork. The main room is dominated by a massive reproduction of Trajan’s Column, which is so large it had to be cut in half to fit inside the building.
“The Victorians were more concerned with showing the wider public the widest scope of art and architecture from around the world,” says Brendan Cormier, who curates the special V&A pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. . A World in Fragile Parts explores how copying can mitigate the threats – from terrorism to natural disasters – facing heritage cities like Palmyra. “If you wanted to communicate to the average 19th century British citizen the grandeur of Trajan’s Column, you had to find a way to represent Trajan’s Column.”
However, the most famous attempt to rebuild an entire city identically is undoubtedly that of Warsaw after the Second World War. By 1945, over 90% of the city had been damaged or destroyed. City authorities set out to rebuild the Old Town – not as new, or even as it looked on the eve of the war, but as Warsaw stood during its late 18th century “golden age”. To do this, they relied not only on historical plans but also on a series of paintings by the Venetian painter Bernardo Bellotto, nephew and pupil of Canaletto.
Bellotto did not hesitate to improve the reality: here a remodeled church, there a remodeled facade. These idealized views have been used as inspiration for the reconstruction of Warsaw – and the results have been so successful that many visitors don’t realize they are walking through a version of the city that makes the 20th century feel like it was n never happened.
What was important to the survivors was the symbolism, however, and Warsaw’s resurrection remains a point of national pride. “Part of the wonder of the historic center of Warsaw is to know that it has been rebuilt and to think of the incredible talent it took, and the resilience and strength of the people who built it. rebuilt,” says Emma Cunliffe of Blue Shield, a charity. working to protect archaeological sites from conflict and natural disasters.
The slow rebuilding of Palmyra will not rely on paintings, but on the Million Image Database, a photographic resource created by IDA with funding from Oxford’s Department of Physics. Based on photographs taken by volunteers equipped with special cameras, IDA is able to construct a digital model of a building. From there, a rough structure is printed in artificial stone (or even natural stone for small objects). Surface details are added through a 3D sculpting technique.
The availability of open source 3D software to simplify what was once extremely difficult has also enabled threatened communities to play a crucial role themselves, without waiting for help from international organizations. The NewPalmyra is one such initiative. Inspired by Bassel Khartabil – a Palestinian-Syrian software developer who had played a key role in the development of open data in Syria – this grassroots project creates 3D models based on crowdsourcing and open data.
Khartabil received an Index on Censorship Digital Freedom Award for his efforts to promote a free internet in the country. He has been detained by the Syrian regime for four years. His current location and condition remain unknown.
“Sharing and creating derivative works is core to our mission,” says Barry Threw, who serves as the project’s acting director until Khartabil’s release. “Instead of spending resources building the ruins of Trafalgar Square, we’re making our 3D models downloadable, so anyone can print them.”
Similarly, when an earthquake destroyed central Kathmandu in April 2015, $4.1 billion was pledged by international donors for reconstruction, and an organization called Rekrei stepped in. Previously involved with the Mosul Project, which creates 3D models of objects at the Mosul museum in Iraq – some of which will also be featured in the V&A pavilion at the Venice Biennale – Rekrei has begun attempting digital reconstructions of Durbar Square , a World Heritage Site, in the middle of Kathmandu.
Unlike Warsaw or Palmyra, however, there were very few plans to rebuild Kathmandu. Much of the information did not exist before the disaster; Nepal’s archeology department had few plans for the approximately 220 monuments destroyed in the earthquake.
Instead, they relied on crowdsourced images, which were sorted by volunteers and fed into the photogrammetric modeling program Sketchfab to reconstruct the geometry of the lost buildings. Meanwhile, in a bid to “sustain” Nepal’s heritage, a new organization called the Digital Archeology Foundation is using 3D cameras to collect data on damaged and surviving temples and stupas, to create a digital resource in free access that could be counted on the next time a disaster strikes. The first structure that could actually be rebuilt is Ranipokhari, a 17th-century royal temple complex, which is expected to take six months to rebuild and cost 120 million Nepalese rupees (£776,000).
The sky, it seems, is the limit. The Last Whistle is a proposal by Richard Cameron and James Grimes of Atelier & Co to rebuild New York’s lost Beaux-Arts Penn Station, destroyed in 1963, by combining the original plans with 3D printing technology. As the technology becomes more mainstream, the IDA is hosting a conference at Harvard in September with Unesco to try to reach consensus on global guidelines for reconstruction, and the V&A has similar plans next year to coordinate a convention on the copying of artifacts.
As for the Palmyra arc, it will tour New York and Dubai, and by fall it should be set up in Palmyra itself, now that Isis has been ejected. The head of Syrian antiquities has boldly claimed that everything Isis destroyed in Palmyra could be rebuilt in as little as five years.
“Our hope and expectation is that the military situation in Syria will continue to resolve over the coming months, producing ever greater security and safety for the people who live and work there,” the director of the IDA, Roger Michel.
That’s a big if. Reconstruction will certainly struggle to move forward during a civil war and humanitarian crisis, and rebuilding Syria as a whole will take much longer – if at all possible. When peace finally comes, however, some hope that new digital technologies can play a small but important role in preserving some elements of a country whose heritage has been destroyed along with its people.
For a 2,000-year-old city like Palmyra, its recent suffering under Isis will be just a scar in a much longer story, but one that environmentalists say is important to display. “If we reconstruct something, we can also integrate what happened to this site and how it affected people, remembering those who died and who lost something,” says Cunliffe. “These stories become equally important in the history of the site.”
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