Take Animated Virtual Reality Tours of Ancient Rome at Its Architectural Peak (Circa 320 AD)

Maybe you, too, were a Latin geek who loved sword and sandal flicks from the golden age of the Hollywood epic? Quo Vadis, The Fall of the Roman Empire, The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators, and, of course, Spartacus…. Never mind all the heavy religious pretext, context, subtext, or hammer over the head that suffused these films, or any pretense toward historical accuracy. What thrilled me was seeing ancient Rome come alive, bustling with togas and tunics, centurions and chariots. The center of the ancient world for hundreds of years, the city, naturally, retains only traces of what it once was—enormous monuments that might as well be tombs.

The incredibly detailed 3D animations here don’t quite have the same rousing effect, granted, as the “I am Spartacus!” scene. They don’t star Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren, or Kirk Douglas. They appeal to different sensibilities, it’s true. But if you love the idea of visiting Rome during one of its peak periods, you might find them as satisfying, in their way, as Peter Ustinov’s Nero speeches.

Dating not from the time of Mark Antony or even Jesus, the painstakingly-rendered tours of ancient Rome depict the city as it would have looked—sans humans and their activity—during its “architectural peak,” as Realm of History notes, under Constantine, “circa 320 AD.”

The VR trailer at the top from History in 3D, developed by Danila Loginov and Lasha Tskhondia, depicts, in Loginov’s words, “the Forums area, and also Palatine and Capitolium hills.” The two additional trailers for the project show the “baths of Trajan and Titus, the statue of Colossus Solis, arches of Titus and Constantine, Ludus Magnus, the temple of Divine Claudius. Our team spent some time and recreated this area along with all minor buildings as a complex and added it to the model which has been already done.” This means, he says, “we have now almost the entire center of ancient imperial Rome already recreated!”

We glide gently over the city with a low-flying-bird’s eye view, taking in its realistic skyline, tree-lined streets, and gurgling fountains. The lack of any human presence makes the experience a little chilly, but if you’re moved by classical architecture, it also presents a refreshing lack of distraction—an impossible request in a visit to modern Rome. Another project, Rome Reborn, which we’ve previously featured here, takes a different approach to the same imperial city of 320 AD. The trailers for their VR app don’t provide the seamless flight experience, but they do contain equally epic music. (They also have a few people in them, blockily-rendered gawking tourists rather than ancient Romans.)

Instead, these clips give us fascinating glimpses of the interiors of such splendid structures as the Basilica of Maxentius—tiled floors, domed ceilings, columned walls—from a number of different perspectives. We also get to fly above the city, drone-style, or hot air balloon-style, as it were. In the clip below, we cruise over Rome in that vehicle, with Bernard Frischer, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, serving as the app’s “virtual archaeologist” in an audio tour.

“The ambitious undertaking,” of the Rome Reborn app, writes Meilan Solly at Smithsonian, “painstakingly built by a team of 50 academics and computer experts over a 22-year period, recreates 7,000 buildings and monuments scattered across a 5.5 square mile stretch of the famed Italian city.” The three modules of the Rome Reborn app demoed here are all available at their website. Geeks—and historians of ancient Roman architecture and city planning—rejoice.

via Smithsonian

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

In 17th-Century Japan, Creaking Floors Functioned as Security Systems That Warned Palaces & Temples of Approaching Intruders and Assassins

Offer a cutting-edge security system, and you'll suffer no shortage of customers who want it installed. But before our age of concealed cameras, motion sensors, retinal scanners, and all the other advanced and often unsettling technologies known only to industry insiders, how did owners of large, expensive, and even royalty-housing properties buy peace of mind? We find one particularly ingenious answer by looking back about 400 years ago, to the wooden castles and temples of 17th-century Japan.

"For centuries, Japan has taken pride in the talents of its craftsmen, carpenters and woodworkers included," writes Sora News 24's Casey Baseel. "Because of that, you might be surprised to find that some Japanese castles have extremely creaky wooden floors that screech and groan with each step. How could such slipshod construction have been considered acceptable for some of the most powerful figures in Japanese history? The answer is that the sounds weren’t just tolerated, but desired, as the noise-producing floors functioned as Japan’s earliest automated intruder alarm."

In these specially engineered floors, "planks of wood are placed atop a framework of supporting beams, securely enough that they won’t dislodge, but still loosely enough that there’s a little bit of play when they’re stepped on." And when they are stepped on, "their clamps rub against nails attached to the beams, creating a shrill chirping noise," rendering stealthy movement nearly impossible and thus making for an effective "countermeasure against spies, thieves, and assassins."

According to Zen-Garden.org, you can still find — and walk on — four such uguisubari, or "nightingale floors," in Kyoto: at Daikaku-ji temple, Chio-in temple, Toji-in temple, and Ninomura Palace.

If you can't make it out to Kyoto any time soon, you can have a look and a listen to a couple of those nightingale floors in the short clips above. Then you'll understand just how difficult it would have been to cross one without alerting anyone to your presence. This sort of thing sends our imaginations straight to visions of highly trained ninjas skillfully outwitting palace guards, but in their day these deliberately squeaky floors floors also carried more pleasant associations than that of imminent assassination. As this poem on Zen-Garden.org's uguisubari page says says:






A welcome sound

To hear the birds sing

across the nightingale floor

via @12pt9/Sora News

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Sears Sold 75,000 DIY Mail Order Homes Between 1908 and 1939, and Transformed American Life

Two of the books that most shaped American culture both happened to bear the nickname “The Big Book.” While the second of these, the A.A. Manual, published in 1939, changed the country with 12-Step recovery groups, the first of these, the Sears Catalog, transformed America with mass consumption, offering customers in every part of the country access to modern conveniences and retail goods of all kinds at unheard of prices. Beginning in 1908, Sears started selling entire houses, in approximately 25-ton kits transported by railroad, consisting of 30,000 pre-cut parts, plumbing and electrical fixtures, and up to 750 pounds of nails.

“In an era before commercial aviation and long-haul trucking,” Curbed marvels, “Sears, Roebuck & Co. set up an operation that would package and ship more than 400 different types of homes and buildings to anybody who had the cash and access to a catalog.”

They started small, and just as they didn’t come up with the concept of the mail order catalog, Sears didn’t invent the kit house, though they suggest as much in their telling of the story. Instead they may have taken the idea from another company called Aladdin. Aladdin houses have been forgotten, however, and even Sears’ main competitor, Montgomery Ward, didn’t catch up until 1921 and only lasted ten years in the kit house business.

Sears houses, on the other hand, are celebrated and sought out as models of the early 20th century American home, and for good reason. Between 1908 and 1939, Sears sold 70-75,000 houses in 447 different styles all over the country. “From Craftsman to Cape Cods, they offered a custom home at budgets and sizes that could accommodate any size family,” writes Popular Mechanics.

These Sears homes weren't cheap low-end houses. Many of them were built using the finest quality building materials available during that time. It's not uncommon to find Sears homes today with oak floors, cypress siding, and cedar shingles.

What’s even more extraordinary is that 50% of these were built by the homeowners themselves, usually, as in a barn-raising, with the generous help of family, friends, and neighbors. The other half sold were built professionally. “Often,” writes Messy Nessy, “local builders and carpentry companies purchased homes from Sears to build as model homes and market their services to potential customers.”

These houses could have a significant effect on the character of a neighborhood. Not only could potential buyers see firsthand, and participate in, the construction. They could order the same or a similar model, customize it, and even—as the company tells us in its own short history of the “Sears Modern Home”—design their own homes and “submit the blueprints to Sears, which would then ship off the appropriate precut and fitted materials.”

Sears sounds modest about its impact. The company writes it was not “an innovative home designer” but instead “a very able follower of popular home designs but with the added advantage of modifying houses and hardware according to buyer tastes.” But Sears houses aren’t beloved for their architectural sexiness, but for their sturdiness and variety, as well as their impact on “the emotional lives of rural folk,” as Messy Nessy puts it.

“The Sears mail-order catalogues were sitting on kitchen countertops inside millions of American homes, allowing potential homeowners to both visualize their new home and purchase it as easily as they might have bought a new toaster.” Building a house required a little more investment than plugging in a toaster, and required a 75-page instruction book, but that’s another part of why Sears house hunters are such a dedicated bunch, awestruck at each still-standing model they’re able to photograph and match up with its catalog illustrations and floor plans.

In its first year of production, 1908, Sears sold only one model, number 125, an Eight-Room Bungalow Style House for $945, advertised as “the finest cottage ever constructed at a price less than $1500.” In 1918, the company moved from a numbering system to named models, most of which sound like the names of cozy small towns and bedroom communities: Adeline, Belmont, Maplewood, Avalon, Kilbourne, Del Ray, Stone Ridge…. (See a full list of these models at The Arts & Crafts Society website.)

In the years Sears sold houses, between 54 and 44 percent of Americans lived in rural areas, and these constituted Sears' most loyal customers, given that the catalog allowed them to purchase things they could buy nowhere else, including ten room colonial mansions like The Magnolia, available from 1913 to 1922 for $6,488, or roughly $88,000—a steal if you can put in the work. This was the largest and most expensive model the company offered, “a three-story, eight room neo-Georgian with a two-story columned portico, porte-cochere, and sleeping porches.” (Mint juleps and servants’ quarters not included.)

Sears eventually offered three build qualities, Honor Bilt, Standard Built, and Simplex Sectional. At the lowest end of the price and build spectrum, the company notes, “Simplex houses were frequently only a couple of rooms and were ideal for summer cottages.” Many of its low-end and early models did not include bathrooms, and the company sold outhouses separately. But due to innovative construction methods, even the least expensive houses held up well.

Because the company lost most of the records after its kit house business folded, it can be difficult to identify a Sears house. And because even the “youngest of Sears homes,” Popular Mechanics points out, is now going on eight decades old, they all require a significant amount of care.” The blog Kit House Hunters has found over 10,000 Sears Houses still standing across the country, most of them in the Northeast and Midwest, where they sold best. (One community in Elgin, IL has over 200 verified Sears homes.)

In the video at the top, you can see a few of those well-built Sears houses still lived in today. The brief How to Architect short video just above notes, “Sears had a massive impact on the business of home-building, and... the business of pre-fabrication, is alive and well today.” For a look at the variety and intricacy of the Sears Modern Home designs, see this Flickr gallery with over 80 images of catalog pages, illustrated homes, and floor plans. And if you think you might be living in one of these houses, many of which have been granted historic status, find out with this handy 9-step guide for identifying a Sears Kit Home.

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Buckminster Fuller Creates Striking Posters of His Own Inventions

In addition to his formidable body of work in architecture, design, and theory of the kind the world had never known before, Buckminster Fuller also knew how to promote himself. Sometimes this meant appearing on late-night new-age talk shows, but at its core it meant coming up with ideas that would immediately "read" as revolutionary to anyone who saw them in action. But how to put them before the eyes of someone who hasn't had the chance to see a geodesic dome, a Dymaxion House and Car, or even a Geodome 4 tent in real life?

The ascent of graphic design in the 20th century, a century Fuller saw begin and lived through most of, provided one promising answer: posters. The ones you see here show off "Fuller’s most famous inventions, with line drawings from his patents superimposed over a photograph of the thing itself," writes Fast Company's Katharine Schwab.

"While they look like something Fuller aficionados might have created after the man’s death to celebrate his work, Fuller actually created them in partnership with the gallerist Carl Solway near the end of his career."

These posters, "striking with their two-layer design, are Fuller’s visual homage to his own genius — and an attempt to bring what he believed were world-changing utopian concepts to the masses." They're also now on display at the Edward Cella Art + Architecture in Los Angeles, whose exhibition "R. Buckminster Fuller: Inventions and Models" runs until November 2nd. "Fuller’s objects and prints function not only as models of the mathematical and geometric properties underlying their construction but also as elegant works of art," says the gallery's site. "As such, the works represent the hybridity of Fuller’s practice, and his legacy across the fields of art, design, science, and engineering."

You can see more of Fuller's posters, which depict and visually explain the structures of such inventions as the geodesic dome and Dymaxion Car, of course, but also lesser-known creations like a "Fly's Eye" dome covered in bubble windows (individually swappable for solar panels), a submersible for offshore drilling, and a rowboat with a body reduced to two thin "needles," at Designboom. Edward Cella Art + Architecture has also made the posters available for purchase at $7,000 apiece. That price might seem in contradiction with Fuller's utopian ideals about universal accessibility through sheer low cost, but then, who could look at these and call them anything but works of art?

via Curbed

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

French Illustrator Revives the Byzantine Empire with Magnificently Detailed Drawings of Its Monuments & Buildings: Hagia Sophia, Great Palace & More

The Byzantine Empire fell in the mid-15th century, but something of its spirit still lives on. A great deal of it lives on in the work of the French illustrator Antoine Helbert. "This passion was kindled by a birthday gift from his mother," writes a blogger named Herve Risson in a post about it. "This gift was a book about Byzantium. Helbert was 7 years old." Like many an interest instilled early and deeply enough in childhood, Helbert's fascination turned into an obsession — or anyway, what looks like it must be an obsession, since it has motivated him to create such magnificently detailed recreations of Byzantium in its heyday.

"Attracted by the architecture," Risson writes of Helbert, "he has also a strong passion for the history of the Byzantine Empire, much maligned and despised, in comparison with the history of the 'real' Roman Empire."

That's not to say that the Byzantine Empire, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire, has received no attention, but undoubtedly it has received less than the Western Roman Empire it survived in the fifth century. Still, few historical empires of any kind receive such an exquisite degree of attention from any single living artist.

You can see some of Helbert's work on his site, which is divided into two sections: one for scenes of Byzantium, and one for the architecture of Byzantium. The latter category, images from which you see here, includes such world-famous landmarks as Hagia Sophia, Boukoleon Palace, and the Great Palace of Constantinople — the city now known as Istanbul, Turkey. The intact Hagia Sophia continues to attract tourists in huge numbers, but those who visit the Great Palace, or what remains of it, have to use their imagination to get a sense of what it must have looked like in the Byzantine Empire's heyday.

Helbert, who only made his first visit to Istanbul at the age of 35, has put in that amount of imaginative work and much more besides. "Since then," writes Risson, Helbert "has taken great care to resurrect the city of the emperors, with great attention to details and to the sources available. What he can’t find, he invents, but always with a great care for the historical accuracy." Indeed, many of Helbert's illustrations don't, at first glance, look like illustrations at all, but more like what you'd come up with if you traveled back to the Constantinople of fifteen or so centuries ago with a camera. "The project has no lucrative goal," Risson notes. "It’s a passion. A byzantine passion!"

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How the Radical Buildings of the Bauhaus Revolutionized Architecture: A Short Introduction

When Germany lost World War I, it also lost its monarchy. The constitution for the new postwar German state was written and adopted in the city of Weimar, giving it the unofficial name of the Weimar Republic. Free of monarchical censorship, the Weimar Republic saw, among other upheavals, the floodgates open for artistic experimentation in all areas of life. One of the most influential aesthetic movements of the era began in Weimar, where the Great Big Story short above opens. As the city gave birth to the Weimar Republic, it also gave birth to the Bauhaus.

The Bauhaus, literally "building house," was a school in two senses, both a movement and an actual institution. The style it advocated, according to the video's narrator, "looked to strip buildings from unnecessary ornament and build the foundation of what is called modern architecture." It was at Weimar University in 1919 that architect Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus, and his office still stands there as a testament to the power of "clean, simple designs fit for the everyday life." We also see the first official Bauhaus building, Georg Muche's Haus am Horn of 1923, and Gropius' Bauhaus Dessau of 1925, which "amazed the world with its steel-frame construction and asymmetrical plan."

You can learn more about the Bauhaus' principles in the video above, a chapter of an Open University series on design movements. As an educational institution, the Bauhaus "offered foundation training in many art and design disciplines," including mass production, seeking to "develop students who could unify art with craft while embracing new technology." Bauhaus thinkers believed that "good design required simplicity and geometric purity," which led to works of graphic design, furniture, and especially architecture that looked then like radical, sometimes heretical departures from tradition — but which to their creators represented the future.

"Nothing dates faster than people's fantasies about the future," art critic Robert Hughes once said, but somehow the fruits of the Bauhaus still look as modern as they ever did. That holds true even now that the influence of the Bauhaus manifests in countless ways in various realms of art and design, though it had already made itself globally felt when the school moved to Berlin in 1932. By that time, of course, Germany had another regime change coming, one that would denounce the Bauhaus as a branch of "degenerate art" spreading the disease of "cosmopolitan modernism." The Gestapo shut it down in 1933, but thanks to the efforts of emigrants like Gropius, Hannes Meyer, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, each of whom once led the school, the Bauhaus would live on.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Frank Lloyd Wright Creates a List of the 10 Traits Every Aspiring Artist Needs

No figure looms larger over American architecture than Frank Lloyd Wright. From the early 1890s to the early 1920s he established himself as the builder of dozens of striking, stylistically innovative private homes as well as public works like Chicago's Midway Gardens and Tokyo's Imperial Hotel. But by the end of that period his personal life had already turned chaotic and even tragic, and in his professional life he saw his commissions dry up. Just when it looked like he might not leave much of a legacy at all, an idea came to him: why not start a school?

"Wright founded what he called the Taliesin Fellowship in 1932, when his own financial prospects were dismal, as they had been throughout much of the 1920s," writes architecture critic Michael Kimmelman in the New York Review of Books. "Having seen the great Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, his former boss, die in poverty not many years earlier, Wright was forestalling his own prospective oblivion." Charging a tuition of $675 ("raised to $1,100 in 1933, more than at Yale or Harvard"), Wright designed a program "to indoctrinate aspiring architects in his gospel of organic architecture, for which they would do hours of daily chores, plant crops, wash Wright’s laundry, and entertain him and his guests as well as one another in the evenings with musicals and amateur theatricals."

There at Taliesin, his eponymous home-studio, located in the appropriately rural setting of Spring Green, Wisconsin, Wright sought to forge not just complete architects, and not just complete artists, but complete human beings. He proposed, in Kimmelman's words, "the creation of a small, independent society made better through his architecture." He also drew up a list, later included in his autobiography, of the qualities the builders of that society should possess:

I. An honest ego in a healthy body – good correlation
II. Love of truth and nature
III. Sincerity and courage
IV. Ability for action
V. The esthetic sense
VI. Appreciation of work as idea and idea as work
VII. Fertility of imagination
VIII. Capacity for faith and rebellion
IX. Disregard for commonplace (inorganic) elegance
X. Instinctive cooperation

This list reflects the kind of qualities Wright seemed to spend his life cultivating in himself, not to mention displaying to the public. Not that he showed much regard for the truth when it conflicted with his own mythmaking, nor an instinct for cooperation with those he considered less than his equals — and architecturally speaking, he didn't consider anyone his equal. As well as Wright's ego may have served him, not every artist needs one quite so colossal, but perhaps, per his list, they do need an honest one. "Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility," he once said. "I chose the former and have seen no reason to change."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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