Virtually Reconstructed

Here’s an interesting project from the University of Cincinnati.  The university’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning along with the Center for the Electronic Reconstruction of Historical and Archaeological Sites is in the process of virtually reconstructing the Whitewater Shaker Village.  I call it interesting because of my stance on reconstruction.

The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties defines reconstruction as:

“the act or process of depicting, by means of new construction, the form, features, and detailing of a non-surviving site, landscape, building, structure, or object for the purpose of replicating its appearance at a specific period of time and in its historic location.”

And in doing so the following standards apply.

  • documentary and physical evidence is available to permit accurate reconstruction where the reconstruction is necessary for public understanding of the property
  • an archaeological investigation will determine essential artifacts and features
  • any historic fabric remaining will be preserved
  • clearly identified as contemporary re-creation
  • designs not executed historically will not be constructed

So as you can see there are very stringent standards to follow when undertaking a reconstruction.  Very few reconstruction projects take place and most often they are for educational purposes, like Colonial Williamsburg.  Still, I’ve yet to determine a single instance when I believe reconstruction is the appropriate solution.  There are contemporary means in which to reflect on lost architecture and buildings without making a replica.  While it may be identified as a contemporary re-creation, its still a forgery.

That’s what makes this UC project so promising.  The buildings and architecture of the Shaker’s Whitewater Village are important, should be studied, and shouldn’t be forgotten.  If reconstructions are only for educational purposes than nothing is lost by reconstructing and studying these buildings in a virtual setting (since there can’t be a “hands-on” investigation anyway).  I’d even argue that more can be gained by studying them virtually than through re-creating them in a contemporary setting where they have no basis whatsoever.

Besides the “moral” (architecturally speaking) objections I have towards reconstruction, there are often economic, political, and social obstacles to reconstruction.  That is not the case in a virtual setting.  There is no end in sight to the number of reconstructions that can be undertaken if we follow this model presented by the University of Cincinnati.

Save what’s worth saving (what makes it worth saving is a debate for another day) but once its lost lets avoid the mistake of creating a forgery.


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