How to Use the Metaverse to Preserve Historic Buildings

NOV 11, 2022

Imagine that you have scheduled a visit to an important building for the history of architecture, a reference work for all enthusiasts. Probably you would equip yourself with a camera or a good cell phone, take a pencil, notebook and even a measuring tape to record all its aspects.

However, this is not the only way to “visit” a building of historical importance nowadays or, at least, that is what some researchers are trying to show. The metaverse is being explored for its role in architecture and culture preservation, embracing different generations.

Some important historic buildings have been recreated in the metaverse. The replicas, known as “digital twins”, are developed through a careful survey of the building, using technologies such as laser scanners and telescopic tripods. The result is a highly detailed 3D image, a “cloud of points” that – when well-crafted – differs by just a few millimeters from actual dimensions.

The benefits of this technology are undeniable. By ignoring geographic barriers, they make places and buildings more accessible to people around the world. In recent years, many initiatives have emerged to digitize museums and historic buildings, stimulated by the Covid-19 pandemic, and their main goal was to raise funds for the preservation of such physical spaces. By receiving visitors or hosting virtual events and meetings, castles and museums are entering what is now called metaverse tourism experiences. These virtual appropriations go beyond what would be possible in the physical world, generating unusual experiences such as, for example, watching a tennis match in one of the ballrooms of the Palace of Versailles.

Speaking of surrealism, imagine visiting Toyo Ito's White U house or the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in the United States. It may not be possible to recreate these structures in the real world, but venturing through them in the digital space is another big gamble of the metaverse in terms of architectural and cultural preservation. Numerous initiatives have emerged that virtually recreate important buildings for the history of architecture that were demolished or, at least, de-characterized over the years, such as the virtual mapping and the future exhibition of the famous Nakagin Capsule Tower in the metaverse, in Japan. By combining laser survey data and photographs taken by SLR cameras and drones before starting its demolition, the whole building was scanned in three dimensions. Renovations made by residents and the appearance of capsules over time were also recorded. The Nakagin Capsule Tower digital archive aims to generate a building based on detailed measurement data and build a place where people can come together again through the metaverse.

However, using the metaverse as a preserving tool for the history of buildings generates discussions related to the intangible aspect of architecture. The experiences of feeling the sunlight that enters discreetly through the small gap in the roof of the White U house and warms the skin during winter, or touching the aseptic surface of the bathrooms of the Nakagin Tower capsules, cannot be reproduced in the virtual space. The "eyes of the skin" that Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa has postulated so much over the years would not apply to these virtual replicas. It is important to understand the metaverse as a new tool for preservation and, mainly, for the study of architectural culture. Nevertheless, it is far from replacing the real. In the metaverse, other parameters to experience architecture are created, and stimuli are limited to visual and sound impulses.

The idea has its merits, as it translates important buildings for the history of architecture into an easy and accessible language for the new generations, and allows a better understanding of the architectural culture and its origins. Even if they are replicas, these buildings inserted in other contexts allow new narratives marked by playfulness, cinematography and a certain surrealism characteristic of digital culture. The challenge is not to compare them with their concrete versions, but to understand them as a possibility for analysis and appropriation under a new perspective.

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