How Digital Scans of Notre Dame Can Help Architects Rebuild the Burned Cathedral

“Every­one help­less­ly watch­ing some­thing beau­ti­ful burn is 2019 in a nut­shell,” wrote TV crit­ic Ryan McGee on Twit­ter the day a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of Notre Dame burned to the ground. He might have includ­ed 2018 in his metaphor, when Brazil’s Nation­al Muse­um was total­ly destroyed by fire. Before the Parisian mon­u­ment caught flame, peo­ple watched help­less­ly as his­toric black church­es burned in the U.S., and while the muse­um and cathe­dral fire were not the direct result of evil intent, in all of these events we wit­nessed the loss of sanc­tu­ar­ies, a word with both a reli­gious mean­ing and a sec­u­lar one, as colum­nist Jarvis DeBer­ry points out.

Sanc­tu­ar­ies are places where peo­ple, price­less arti­facts, and knowl­edge should be “safe and pro­tect­ed,” sup­pos­ed­ly insti­tu­tion­al bul­warks against dis­or­der and vio­lence. They are both havens and potent symbols—and they are also phys­i­cal spaces that can be rebuilt, if not replaced.

And 21st-cen­tu­ry tech­nol­o­gy has made their rebuild­ing a far more col­lab­o­ra­tive and more pre­cise affair. The recon­struc­tion of church­es in Louisiana can be fund­ed through social media. The con­tents of the Nation­al Muse­um of Brazil can be rec­ol­lect­ed, vir­tu­al­ly at least, through crowd­sourc­ing and dig­i­tal archives.

And the rav­aged wood frame, roof, and spire of Notre Dame can be rebuilt, though nev­er replaced, not only with mil­lions in fund­ing from Apple and fashion’s biggest hous­es, but with an exact 3D dig­i­tal scan of the cathe­dral made in 2015 by Vas­sar art his­to­ri­an Andrew Tal­lon, who passed away last year from brain can­cer. In the video at the top, see Tal­lon, then a pro­fes­sor at Vas­sar, describe his process, one dri­ven by a life­long pas­sion for Goth­ic archi­tec­ture, and espe­cial­ly for Notre Dame. A “for­mer com­pos­er, would-be monk, and self-described gear­head,” wrote Nation­al Geo­graph­ic in a 2015 pro­file of his work, Tal­lon brought a unique sen­si­bil­i­ty to the project.

His fas­ci­na­tion with the spaces of Goth­ic cathe­drals began with an inves­ti­ga­tion into their acoustic prop­er­ties. He devel­oped the idea of using laser scan­ners to cre­ate a dig­i­tal repli­ca of Notre Dame after study­ing at Colum­bia under art his­to­ri­an Stephen Mur­ray, who tried and failed in 2001 to make a laser scan of a cathe­dral north of Paris. Four­teen years lat­er, the tech­nol­o­gy final­ly caught up with the idea, which Tal­lon also improved on by attempt­ing to recon­struct not only the struc­ture, but also the meth­ods the builders used to build it yet did not record in writ­ing.

By exam­in­ing how the cathe­dral moved when its foun­da­tions shift­ed or how it heat­ed up or cooled down, Tal­lon could reveal “its orig­i­nal design and the choic­es that the mas­ter builder had to make when con­struc­tion did­n’t go as planned.” He took scans from “more than 50 loca­tions around the cathedral—collecting more than one bil­lion points of data.” All of the scans were knit togeth­er “to make them man­age­able and beau­ti­ful.” They are accu­rate to the mil­lime­ter, and as Wired reports, “archi­tects now hope that Tallon’s scans may pro­vide a map for keep­ing on track what­ev­er rebuild­ing will have to take place.”

To learn even more about Tallon’s metic­u­lous process than he reveals in the Nation­al Geo­graph­ic video at the top, read his paper “Divin­ing Pro­por­tions in the Infor­ma­tion Age” in the open access jour­nal Archi­tec­tur­al His­to­ries. We may not typ­i­cal­ly think of the dig­i­tal world as much of a sanc­tu­ary, and maybe for good rea­son, but Tallon’s mas­ter­work poignant­ly shows the impor­tance of using its tools to record, doc­u­ment, and, if nec­es­sary, recon­struct the real-life spaces that meet our def­i­n­i­tions of the term.

via the MIT Tech­nol­o­gy Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Notre Dame Cap­tured in an Ear­ly Pho­to­graph, 1838

A Vir­tu­al Time-Lapse Recre­ation of the Build­ing of Notre Dame (1160)

Wikipedia Leads Effort to Cre­ate a Dig­i­tal Archive of 20 Mil­lion Arti­facts Lost in the Brazil­ian Muse­um Fire

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Brazil’s Nation­al Muse­um & Its Arti­facts: Google Dig­i­tized the Museum’s Col­lec­tion Before the Fate­ful Fire

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

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