The virtual reality plan to resurrect destroyed historical buildings

How do you bring a building back from the dead? That’s the question which HP and Nvidia want to answer with a new crowdsourced virtual reality project.

Neo-classical architect Sir John Soane’s best-known work, the Bank of England, was demolished in 1925 – replaced with a newer building to accommodate the widening needs of the bank. One historian described its destruction as “the greatest architectural crime, in the City of London, of the twentieth century.” Now, a project is aiming to resurrect Soane’s building, using the internet, digital rendering, and virtual reality.

Project Soane, led by HP with Nvidia, intends to bring back Soane’s Bank of England by creating models and renders based on archives held by The Soane Museum in London. To do this HP collaborated with Robert A.M. Stern Architects, analysing drawings made by Soane to identify sections of the building most open to Building Information Modeling (BIM).

“Once we had all the drawings curated we identified three areas of the building – two interior rooms and the exterior facade – that we felt could recreated with a high degree of accuracy,” Sean Young, worldwide segment manager of product development & AEC at HP, told me. “But how are we going to do it? It’s a massive project and nobody at RAMSA had the time to take responsibility for delivering all of that.”

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Instead of contracting a single architecture firm, HP turned to the community. The company tapped into a vast team of architects and designers dotted across the globe, encouraging collaboration through engineering software Autodesk A360 and offering awards to outstanding contributions.

They ended up with around 500 different architects working on the models, with one architect from the United Arab Emirates going so far as to fly to London to document the site in person.

“When we ended that modeling stage we ended up with very rich information,” Young explained. “As a matter of fact, we could now pass that information onto a construction firm and build these rooms and create these facades. The next obvious thing to do is render. We now have all the information we need to create these beautiful renderings. We have the bones, structure, geometry – but what we need to do now is take it to the next level.”

Bringing the past back to life

In phase two of Project Soane, HP is looking for digital renders made using the BIM models of phase one. The company is opening the project even wider, this time, offering over £21,000 worth of prizes across a handful of categories that include the best animation, best images, and best real-time submission. This last category would involve making a virtual reality version of Soane’s Bank of England.

HP and The Soane Museum aren’t the first institutions to use digital technology and crowdsourcing to recreate lost buildings. The British Museum has previously experimented with VR as a way to let visitors explore Bronze Age structures, and has also crowdsourced attempts to recreate the museum itself using Minecraft. I asked Young if he had plans to extend the project in the future, or to bring the method used on the Bank of England to entirely different buildings.

“We now have a platform for recreating lost works of architecture. Along the way there have been many suggestions of what’s next,” he said. “First of all, we’ve only just scratched the surface of the Bank of England. It’s a huge building. In the meantime, we’ve taken the geometry of the models for those three areas, and they are available for anyone to download and use.”

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While amassing 500 architects to create BIM models of a destroyed building is impressive, it will be interesting to see how participants paint on those blank canvases to create their environments. I’d be particularly interested to see what would happen if those assets were passed onto game developers, with Soane’s Bank of England becoming the architecture of a game.  

More details are available on the Project Soane website, along with a gallery of works-in-progress. The competition is open now and closes on 6 June 2016.

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