Future On The Past

From early 20th century architecture photography collection to database: digital humanities applied to investigate local seismic, flood, fire culture

Project financed by UEFISCDI following the PCE competition - Exploratory Research Projects 2021, through PNCDI III, sub-programme P4 Fundamental and frontier research, Grant agreement no. PN-III-P4-PCE-2021-0609.

Project Duration: 30 months: June 2nd, 2022 - December 31st, 2024

Principal Investigator: Maria Boștenaru-Dan, PhD Architect, Scientific Researcher

Executive Summary

The project proposes the transform the collection of photographs of early 20th century architecture (Art Nouveau and Modernism across Europe) gathered by the applicant over about 30 years of travel, into a database by answering the research question on how threats from the hazards of earthquake, flood and fire can be answered taking into account the local culture in the European countries covered, for buildings from a period when the architecture styles were global already that time. For this purpose digital humanities methods of image annotation (including architectural volumentric analysis) and mapping are employed. Apart of the mapping which takes also the form of story maps, being thus in dialogue with literature analysis methods of the relationship between traditional and modern in crisis times, also online exhibitions will be created. The subject is innovative as only recently the role of humanities in the fields of history and art history started to deal with the subject of catastrophes, following social sciences which entered this field of engineering and natural sciences. With this aim evaluation criteria will be developed considering the decisions which can be taken to prioritise the retrofit interventions depending on the geographic positions of the buildings. The analysis methods of philosophy of materials and technology history of these architecture objects are important, the theory of the shape from the time, but also phenomenology and the philosophy of Deleuze.

Research field and areas

Main Domain
SH5. Cultures and Cultural Production: Literature, philology, cultural studies, study of the arts, philosophy
Research Areas
SH5_12. Computational modelling and digitisation in the cultural sphere
SH5_6. History of art and architecture, arts-based research
SH5_8. Cultural studies, cultural identities and memories, cultural heritage

Project Team

  • Principal Investigator – Maria Boștenaru-Dan, Dipl.-ing. (architecture/TH), Scientific Researcher
  • Senior Researcher – Cerasella Craciun, PhD Architect, Professor
  • Postdoctoral Researcher – Mara Popescu, PhD Architect, Scientific Researcher
  • Postdoctoral Researcher – Adrian Ibric, PhD Architect, Scientific Researcher

Stages, Objectives and Activities

Stage 1 (2022)

Objective 1: Improvement of resilience to disasters, including climate change, by improving the understanding of the impact of the measures taken; by developing methods adequate for the geographical setting in which buildings of international currents, such as Art Nouveau and modernist buildings, might have adopted a similar architectural approach, thus disregarding their own context or needs.

Act 1.1 - Launch of the project and build and launch of the project site as milestones.

Act 1.2 - Documentation: Literature research on existing digital humanities databases in the field of natural hazards.

Act 1.3 - Field documentation

Act 1.4 - Documentation: infrastructure access (archives to investigate building plans when possible internationally)

Stage 2 (2023)

Objective 1 (continuation).Improvement of resilience to disasters, including climate change, by promoting 4 different retrofit measures for each type of disaster (earthquake, flood, fire) suitable for their respective geographical area.

Act 2.1 – Further Documentation + Outreach + Dissemination. Development of checklists for the systematization of knowledge.

Stage 3 (2023)

Objective 3. To develop a database on sustainable retrofit models which can be differently implemented in 23 countries/50 cities in Europe: AT (Vienna), BE (Antwerp/Brussels), BG (Baltchik), HR (Zagreb), CZ (Brno/Prague), DK (Copenhagen), EE (Tallinn), FIN (Helsinki), FR (Paris), DE (Berlin/Darmstadt/Dessau/Hamburg/ Karlsruhe/Postdam), GR (Athens), HU (Budapest), IR (Dublin), IT (Cernobbio/ Como/Genova/Milan/Naples/Rome/San Pellegrino Terme/Stresa), LV (Riga), NL (Amsterdam/Utrecht), PL(Warsaw/Wroclaw), PT (Faro/Lisbon/Porto), RO (Bucharest/ Cluj-Napoca/Corbeni/Oradea/Sf.Gheorghe/Sinaia/Suceava/Tg.Mureș), SI (Ljubljana), ES (Barcelona/Madrid/Sevilla), SE (Stockholm), UK (London).

Objective 4. To develop a prototype (incl. ontology, taxonomy) for a database regarding the early 20th century buildings (Art Nouveau and Modernism) across Europe, by incorporating photographic collections accumulated by the PI in over 20 years of research. This will be an instrument of comparison of the differences between the variations of these international styles, in the above-mentioned locations. The database will be suitable for digital humanities analysis methods as well, such as mapping and image annotation.

Act 3.1 - Connection between the humanities view and the technical view: how the philosophy translates in form in case of architecture. The Image annotation used for investigation of the architecture of the buildings: creation of a typical spatial model of the buildings of the time in various European locations. The buildings are subdivided into macro-elements according to the method of Lagomarsino and Giovinazzi (2006) to determine possible collapse mechanisms in earthquakes. Podestà and Romano (2014) continued my work which was previous done in the CA’REDIVIVUS project through their work on a doctorate by employing this method to the heritage subject of their paper. In early years vulnerability of buildings was assessed in Romania according to a score related to certain features. The spatial model can be translated in a simplified 3D model for digital representation (on the map) and annotation (ex. for Modernist buildings in Bucharest Marcel Iancu and his formal alphabet, see Ioan, 2012). Architecture photography used in this project is at most 30 years old and are not the historical type. For ancient collection items on slides support a scanner will be necessary. Image annotation and maps can be used in a combined way by using timelines (tools: ImagePlot, Netline, Palladio).

Act 3.2 - Ontology study: Analysis of the philosophical background (ontology) as a research method in architecture. Deleuze's (1988) philosophy on flat and striated place with reference to the street grid for disasters. "Pattern language" by Christopher Alexander (1977) on applying phenomenology to architecture and how this translates with its hyperlink organization in current digital humanities with the more sophisticated techniques such as ontology.

Act 3.3 - Defining the mapping structure for the database definition. Investigation of the maps developed by Nolli (18th century), Lynch (1960), psychogeography (Debord, 1955), Caniggia (1963) and Muratori (1960, 1963) (Cataldi, 2002) will be as prerequisite for maps to be developed in the project with digital means (zoom from landmarks to general plan of common buildings possible in different levels of detail).

Creation of maps: Story maps will be created in synergy with COST actions working groups on case studies (e.g. for arch. Marcel Iancu, see Bostenaru, 2020). But through this project, story maps will be created for all architects and/or cities to be part of the collection, far exceeding the frame of the COST action for selected case studies. However, the COST actions will contribute to international visibility.

The above-mentioned investigation methods are serving the way a story is told with a map. Network analysis (space syntax Hillier and Hanson, 1984) will be an adopted method in order to analyse the correct position of the buildings within the cities. ORA (A Toolkit for Dynamic Network Analysis and Visualization) (Carley, 2014) and Gephi will be used to connect influences between the architecture in different countries after performing a comparative analysis, since they allow network visualization independent of year as usually in historic social network analysis. But given the times in which the buildings were constructed, the timeline method will be explored as well.

Stage 4 (2024)

Objective 2. To diversify the application domains of digital humanities databases in art history by including reinforced concrete type of 20th century architecture, which is often neglected and lacks protection; by includingthis building typology, the contribution from a humanities’ perspective, including architectural history, would also act in synergy with the natural and engineering sciences, also with the recently involved social sciences.

Objective 5. Investigation of the applicability of the 4 retrofit measures selected to the specified locations in Europe, according to local culture of disaster resilience (ex. local seismic culture) and to vulnerability to earthquake, flood and fire hazards.

Act 4.1 - Image annotation will help generating online exhibits other than the arcGIS story maps classic such as neatline with Omeka online exhibition software. A prototype for the online exhibition is the work of architect Richard Bordenache, but also a glimpse in the larger content of the database. The photographs will be analyzed to identify characteristics of buildings similar to preparation of maps with Lynch (1960) method and psycho-geography and the results annotated with ImagePlot.

Act 4.2 - Database use methods: Computer based analysis according to digital humanities methods of the items in the database (mapping, image annotation etc.). For the database for each building the information will include at least location, architect, time of construction, life time of the architect. These will flow also in the metadata in XML. Training will be included in how to use XML. For location maps will be used, both location maps and arcGIS story maps. Both geographical location and the network of architects will be visualized with network methods (ORA and Gephy) generating various graphs to show interdependencies in the city where the buildings are as well as cross-city and cross country. For this the research question regarding disaster resilience is of help. For maps thoughts will be done on how to zoom between different scales from city, zone, and building in digital maps compared to the innovative maps of the 1960s (Lynch, psycho-geography, Muratori and Cannigia) and for this either Prezi presentations or arcGIS story maps new edition will be used.

Act 4.3 - Investigation of differences between requirements on retrofit methods in different countries based on former performance in disasters. Lessons from the resilient ones will lead to sustainable solutions for the vulnerable ones. The photographs will be analyzed to identify characteristics of buildings similar to preparation of maps with Lynch (1960) method and psycho-geography and the results annotated with ImagePlot. For this the identification of landmarks among the elements of the building, those which give the character in architecture language are important, such as detail. Detail is important in Art Deco and Art Nouveau, and the lack of ornament in Modernism. In Modernism however, proportions gain importance. These proportions are also important for the building resilience according to the research question and a quantitative survey will be carried out additionally to rapid visual screening in order to apply knowledge when not in field to gathered data.


2022-06-10 Art Nouveau Day Participation

2022-06-15 Project Launch – Online event

Assumed application results

  • international mobility report
  • at least 2 BDI indexed articles
  • at least 2 ISI indexed articles
  • SI ISI with preface
  • SI BDI with preface
  • Web site including online exhibition
  • European project application
  • at least a participation in a COST action
  • Sesions at the EGU conference/participations at related conferences
  • Researcher Night participation
  • Architecture annual/biennal participation
  • Art Nouveau day photo contest participation
  • Milan seismic conference participation or related