Historicizing Digital Work

Last week I attended the 2008 annual meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians in Cincinnati. One of the best talks I heard was by Olivia Horsfall Turner, a graduate student at University College, London, on late-17th-century antiquarian depictions of architecture.

The central figure of her discussion was Willim Somner, who broke with earlier, terse conventions of architectural description to provide wealth of analysis and detail about ancient monuments of Canterbury. Somner sought to understand buildings by looking closely at them, treating them as objects of historical analysis, in ways that clearly parallel modern methods. Like many early modern scholars, his approach was wide-ranging, and it drew, in particular (according to Olivia Turner) on contemporary conventions of scientific illustration, newly enlivened by widespread use of the microscope.

This talk provided a useful (to me) reminder of the ways in which modern architectural representation is rooted in some very old conventions and assumptions. The means we have relied upon for a long time–textual description and two-dimensional images–are artifacts of the printing press. They are only two means among many to describe a building and surely not always the best. This is not to say that there is no value in the scholarly convention of crafting a careful argement through an extended illustrated narrative but that those conventions are historically situated and far from self-evident.

As we develop new representations–computer models, digital photographs, databases, and who-knows-what else–it is useful to be reminded how earlier students of architecture developed new methods.

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