There is a myriad of ways to document architectural models; from the production of highly sophisticated, cutting-edge 3D scans, to photography, to film, to textual description using controlled vocabularies – or indeed combinations of such techniques. Equally diverse are the purposes for which such documentation takes place; it could be to record the materials and processes used within construction, so as to permit conservators to make informed judgements upon storage conditions and best practice, or to aid future repairs or conservation that might need to be carried out. It could be to enable curators to access data regarding the physical properties of the model and its suitability for transport or display in exhibitions. Equally important is documentation’s role in facilitating access to models by providing visual or textual representations, which can function as a substitute or provide an entry point for those who wish to consult the actual physical model. Access can extend from academic researchers using archival catalogues, to members of the public interested in museum collections, to team-members within an architectural practice wishing to consult their previous work.
As a result of such a multiplicity of documentation techniques and purposes there is a risk that the information produced can remain siloed. Within the Archives field, for instance, institutions often use different cataloguing standards, different software and even within their own holdings have ‘legacy cataloguing’, whereby individual collections were catalogued, in the past, to standards significantly different to those currently used. Consequently, the issue of how best to share documentation of models between institutions and to provide broader and easier access for the widest possible audience is of central concern.
This website represents a small-scale experiment in bringing together a variety of institutions to share examples of their model collections by using a modified version of the General International Standard for Archival Cataloguing (ISAD(G)).
Case Study: ‘Turntable Tactics: Filming models in the round’
One of the perennial issues facing archives is achieving a balance between providing researchers with adequate access to potentially vulnerable, fragile objects, whilst continuing to secure the very objects’ integrity and future preservation. Here at the Architectural Association Archives, we have a collection of around 140 architectural models and receive up to 20 new acquisitions each year, but our reading room and processing space are too small to store more than just a tiny proportion of our collections. As a result we rely on housing our model collection with the National Conservation Services ‘Collaborative Storage Scheme’ at Upper Heyford, Oxfordshire. There they are stored in re-purposed Cold War US Airforce hangers, which are not only bomb-proof (!) but also thermally stable and fully compliant with the latest British Standards for the conservation and care of archival, library collections and cultural heritage objects.
Whilst this is cost effective for us and ensures the models are preserved in the best possible conditions, it does mean that archival readers do not have ready access to the items and have to rely solely on catalogue descriptions. Such a situation can result in researchers or curators requesting the retrieval of models, only to discover, on closer examination in the Reading Room, that the model is not quite what they envisaged from the description, or that it does not suit a particular curatorial vision. Since the transportation of models puts them at a very high risk of damage, this is clearly a situation which we wish to avoid as much as possible. Equally, catalogue descriptions can also serve to ‘under sell’ an object – a bland textual description, accompanied by a poor photograph will not necessarily represent the true value or beauty of a model.
This summer, prior to the dispatch of a number of our models to Upper Heyford, the AA Archives decided to look again at ways in which we could provide decent access to our models, in absentia. Our initial thoughts lay with 3D scanning – if we could translate our physical models into digital data (including form and colour), then extremely high quality 3D models could be created and exported to a number of different formats, allowing researchers to explore the objects, turn them upside down or manipulate in any way they desired. 3D scanning works by collecting information from a scene or object by analysing surfaces with a laser, taking photographs and making multiple scans from different angles. Software can then be used to stitch together this information and construct an accurate, high resolution, digital model. Whilst 3D scanning does have its disadvantages – there can be issues with scanning dark, reflective or very rough objects – and perhaps the most obvious constraint is the cost and availability of equipment. The AA’s Digital Prototyping Lab holds a Next Engine Desktop 3D Scanner which works to a resolution of + / – 0.1mm, but it is unsuitable for the majority of our collection due to restrictions on the size of the objects it can comfortably scan. In addition, competition for scanning time at the AA is fierce as the equipment is primarily intended for use by students on their projects.
Instead, we opted to produce a set of films of our models rotating 360 degrees around an axis, shot from a variety of angles. These films could then be uploaded to our online catalogue and whilst not providing the flexibility of 3D scans, they could serve the purpose of providing workable surrogates for the items themselves. The key piece of equipment proved to be relatively cheap and easy to acquire – a ‘Lazy Susan’, an electronically powered rotating base such as is often used in shop displays. In our case we used a PrimeMatik base (c£100 from Amazon) with a diameter of 600mm and a maximum weight-bearing of 50kg. This proved ample to rotate most of our models but with a handful of the biggest we had to enlarge the base by placing a light plywood sheet over it. The base could turn in either a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction but the time for a full revolution was fixed at 120 seconds. Backdrop and lighting were also key concerns and following advice we employed 4 soft boxes, raised on tripods, with fluorescent lighting (each soft box housing four 70 watt bulbs with a 5500k measurement) to ensure a warm light with minimal shadow. For the backdrop we used a white cloth supported on a 2m x 3m frame. A Black Magic Studio Camera was positioned on a tripod between 3 – 5m away from the model and fitted with either 28mm, 35mm or 50mm Canon Prime lenses, dependent upon the size of the object. The camera was then set to capture in full HD format as RAW (.DNG) photographic files, using a time lapse function set at 1 frame per second over the duration of one complete rotation of each model.
Once the set up had been prepared and the equipment was in place, the actual ‘filming’ process was relatively trouble free, the only real issues were the need to constantly check lighting levels and to ensure that the models were positioned centrally upon the rotating base. Working as a team of two people, we managed to capture 140 models in six days.
A significant amount of data was produced during this process. Photographing each model resulted in around 635 .DNG files, which in total amounted to nearly 1.8gb, bringing the entire project to approximately 250gb. Our workflow consisted simply of downloading files from the camera every few hours onto an external hard drive and then backing up to our institutional servers. The editing stage required a powerful computer to handle the processing of such big files but the basic routine consisted of importing the Blackmagic .DNG sequence into Adobe Premiere Pro which treated them as RAW files, allowing the editing process to be contained in the same software. Next, we colour-corrected the RAW files in Premiere Pro using the Lumetri Colour effects panel to ensure the exposure and colour balance was correct. Finally we exported the video as H.264 in widescreen ratio at two different resolutions, one for lower quality usage on the web and a higher version for exhibition or research.
Editing and correcting the files is a lengthy process and we are currently employing a student assistant to carry out this process for 140 models, working at a rate of two hours per model, with a deadline of completion by June 2019. The movies will then be uploaded to our online catalogue, where they will sit alongside and enhance our textual descriptions.
With grateful thanks to Joel Newman, Peter Szots, Jane Ling and Claire Bottoms
- International Council on Archives, ISAD(G): General International Standard Archival Description, 2nd ed., 2000
ISAD(G) standard, 2000 –
Musée des Plans-reliefs –