The might-have-beens of history include architectural masterpieces that never got off the ground. Now, thanks to computer graphics, we can get a glimpse what we’ve been missing.
In the 1930s, Stalin had ambitions to build a great hymn to himself and the Soviet Empire. The project would have gouged out a massive chunk of Moscow and assured his place in building history. It was never to be. His Palace of the Soviets, designed by Le Corbusier to be a towering centrepiece for the whole of Moscow, never made it off the drawing board. The site now contains a swimming pool.

But where Stalin might have failed, an ingenious use of software has brought the palace and other lost masterpieces to life, using nothing more than computer power. Advances in 3D imaging mean that such unrealised masterworks can at least be constructed in cyberspace.

Leading this particular field of virtual reality, which combines the art of the director, architect and archaeologist, is an award-winning team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Architecture professor Takehiko Nagakura founded the institute’s architecture, representation and computation group in 1996. Since then, he has completed six short computer graphics films modelling different unbuilt masterpieces.

Each film showcases an important modern building and takes the spectator on a five-minute detailed tour of the site and its environs. “We use basically the same software as Hollywood uses for its advanced animations,” says Nagakura.

The research that goes into each film allows Nagakura the exciting opportunity to merge two very different architectural processes. The first is archaeological. Each project starts with the team poring over every remaining scrap of information on a building, and includes the extensive and rigorous study of drawings, models and other documentation of the unbuilt design. “This leads to a basic understanding of the form and material,” explains Nagakura. “In most cases this is followed by the detective work of conjecturing the undocumented details and material specifications.”

The second process is representational. At the group’s computer centre, viewers can experience a virtual guided tour that points out each building’s design features.

The films are convincing thanks to the painstaking research that goes into them. Before attempting the recreation of Vladimir Tatlin’s constructivist Monument to the Third International (1919), a colossal tower celebrating the Russian Revolution, two of Nagakura’s students travelled to St Petersburg to film footage at the exact location for which the monument was designed. Then the team synthesised the rendered image of the monument with its site and added another missing dimension to the 3D images: time. The finished animation shows a weatherbeaten and rusting metal structure, with a stately grandeur undiminished after 80 “virtual” years.

The team creates the first 3D model from basic geometric shapes and then renders them into stunning animated sequences using an array of software including Autocad, Cinecad and Rhino – a new program designed for making models and 3D curves. Each film takes a year to complete.

The group’s films have been exhibited in many countries in magazines, on television and in museum displays and conferences. The Palace of the Soviets film was given an award at IMAGINA, an international film festival at Monaco last year.

Nagakura sees many more applications for this type of 3D imaging. “The costs of this technology are coming down all the time, so you even have real estate companies using virtual reality to sell to clients. I think the technology will become available to everybody soon.”

Mixed reality

Computer-animated simulations as part of the sales pitch for new developments are becoming increasingly common, but virtual reality technology promises much more. Just as the PC has changed the daily routine of office work, computer technology will, in the future, create even more dramatic changes in the construction and design industries. One of the more interesting applications fuses actual and virtual images to create “mixed reality”. Using a see-through head-mounted display, for example, it is possible to make computer-generated, ghost-like images appear before the viewer in a way that corresponds to what is seen beyond the visor. Computer-linked spectacles are now being developed that will make this kind of technology as familiar as the desktop PC. Contractors would benefit from the extra help augmented reality promises. For example, repairs to buildings or complex machinery could be made much simpler. If a wall’s innards are stored as a computerised blueprint, that blueprint can be superimposed on a repairman’s view of the wall to pinpoint where hidden ducts, beams and wiring are concealed. A contractor would then have no excuses if it wrecked plumbing or wiring. Equipped with a pair of darkened spectacles, a PC and the appropriate building details, he or she would have perfect X-ray vision.