In this fifth episode of GSAPP Conversations, Jorge Otero-Pailos, Director of Columbia GSAPP’s Historic Preservation Program, speaks with Carlos Bayod Lucini and Adam Lowe (Factum Arte). Based between Madrid, London and Milan, the practice was founded by Lowe and has become internationally renowned for setting new standards in digital documentation and redefining the relationship between originality and authenticity. Here they discuss Factum Arte’s work, including the creation of the first high resolution digital record of the Tomb of Seti I in Luxor, Egypt, the importance of teaching students not only practical skills but also a conceptual understanding of how new technologies can be applied, and the importance of recording of artefacts during times of peace.
GSAPP Conversations is a podcast series designed to offer a window onto the expanding field of contemporary architectural practice. Each episode pivots around discussions on current projects, research, and obsessions of a diverse group of invited guests at Columbia, from both emerging and well-established practices. Usually hosted by the Dean of the GSAPP, Amale Andraos, the conversations also feature the school’s influential faculty and alumni and give students the opportunity to engage architects on issues of concern to the next generation.
GSAPP Conversations #5: Carlos Bayod Lucini & Adam Lowe with Jorge Otero-Pailos
Jorge Otero-Pailos: I wanted to talk to you both about the work in the studio in relationship to your work. You went out with the students and documented the Church of San Baudelio de Berlanga. Can you tell us a little bit about why you chose to do a high resolution, digital recording of this particular building?
Adam Lowe: From the time that you asked us to come and teach, Carlos and I started thinking about what would be a project that would bring together all of the different skill sets that are emerging in this field of digital preservation and digital recording, with the intention of increasing the level at which it's studied, the number of levels on which it's studied and the number of ways in which it's studied.
So the idea of taking the hermitage of San Baudelio, which is an absolutely extraordinary story – it plays with how cultural heritage management changes over time, how values change over time. It's partly a detective story, it's partly a conservation story. it's partly a story about technologies and techniques that change.
Otero-Pailos: Some of our listeners might not know where San Baudelio is, so maybe we should start there.
Lowe: The Hermitage of San Baudelio is a Mozarabic hermitage in the province of Soria, so about 100 kilometers away from Madrid on the River Duero. So for many, many years during the Caliphate in Spain, this area was on the front line constantly changing hands, and is probably best known from things like El Cid and other Hollywood movies where there's an awareness and a realization that politics and history are not black-and-white and simple, and are always much, much, much more complicated than we imagine.
The Mozarabs were the Arabic-speaking Christians that effectively ran the civil service in Spain, and the Christian hermitage was built some time in the 11th or early 12th century. So that's about as much as we know of the very early years of the hermitage itself.
But what we do know is from an expert of Arabic Spain, Heather Ecker – one of the people that Carlos and I brought into the course – who has done a lot of work when she was within Factum on the history of the removal of the paintings that filled the hermitage and their dispersal around America and then their partial return back to Madrid.
Otero-Pailos: Is that what made this church interesting to you, the fact that parts of it were in other places?
Lowe: Well, what made it really interesting is that Columbia is up on 116th Street, and The Met Cloisters is up just a little bit further. And the Cloisters still has three of the panels. So as Carlos and I wanted to run a really practical course that was teaching the students a lot of new skills - so again, we had no idea when we started what skill level we were going to encounter, what intellectual level we were going to encounter, what level of curiosity we were going to encounter.
But what seemed to be great was to take a practical start, going into the hermitage recording using the Lucida Laser Scanner, which is a high resolution laser scanner, recording using photogrammetry and recording using composite photography. So we could teach them very, very quickly three emerging technologies, which still aren't totally stabilized. The whole protocol and practice and use of these technologies is still deeply misunderstood.
So what we really wanted to do was to use this as an absolutely practical working exercise where they could understand that they're both being taught practical physical and concrete things, but they're also being taught to think about how those things can be applied, how those technologies can be applied, how such a framework and points of access around those technologies both limit their use, but also give them enormous potential.
So what I wanted to do when Carlos and I first talked was to throw the students in the deep end and let all the pedagogical levels come up through the course. I did a number of sessions throughout the semester, but Carlos was the person who really held it together and structured a very remarkable I think series of practical, intellectual, and philosophical ways of looking at the same subject, and brought together a very diverse group of specialists who came in and worked alongside us, so from Griffith Mann at the Cloisters, to Ron Street at the Met, to Heather Ecker, who was previously at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto and then came to Factum, to Alexander Nagel who was there yesterday. You've got a great group of people who could help the students, could nurture them.
And I think if we did one thing that's important over the last semester, it's to motivate a group of students, to get them excited, and to get them to realize that they are the future who are going to be applying this technology and shaping these discourses. So basically the end point was the students actually get to be shaping the discourse in the future.
So we weren't just teaching them absolutely concrete facts. We were teaching them a whole framework that can be used to think about how technologies can be applied, how technologies have been applied, and what can come from them.
Otero-Pailos: There was a really interesting dimension of the first idea of the studio, which was: Here's this medieval church, parts of which are at the Met, parts of which are in Boston. How do you use technology to bring these together somehow? And I know that you've been working on this in other projects. A lot of the projects you've been involved with, like for example the scanning of the different pieces of the tomb of Seti I, have to do with this attempt to almost bring together the dispersal of a monument. How did that come to you?
Lowe: Well, it came because effectively the 19th century saw the formation of the British Museum and many of the great collections - next year is the 200th anniversary of the discovery of the Tomb of Seti I – but it's about the time that the Valley of the Kings was being discovered, and whether it's Champollion, whether it's Belzoni, whether it's Rosellini, whether it's any of the great first generation of Egyptologists, they went in and they saw these amazing things. And the kneejerk reaction was to remove them and take them back to show them to the people from the countries they came from, which is why there are so many great Egyptian things in England, in France, in Italy, and to some extent in the States (but that's slightly later).
And for me, the question is now we're in an age of mass tourism, when people go to the sites. And actually Egypt needs visitors on site, on the ground to support the local economy. But the Valley of the Kings was designed to last forever, but never to be visited. So Howard Carter, many people noticed very early on that the presence of visitors were destroying these tombs. And if you go to Tarquinia, if you go to other tomb sites around Europe, this is a well-known fact. I mean, they can't take large visitor numbers.
So what started to become apparent was that in making a facsimile, we could not only show the whole biography of the tombs, why they look like they do now, but we could also show that the fragments from Seti's tomb that were removed - and taken to Paris or taken to the archeological museum in Florence or taken to the British Museum or taken to Boston or taken to any of the other big repositories - have all had an independent biography since their removal.
So particularly the image of Hathor and Seti that's in the Louvre, which was a matching door frame to the one that's in Florence, those two fragments now look nothing like each other. They look vaguely like each other, but in details they look very different from each other. And they also look very different from the original tomb.
So if you can start to get people to look at the history of an object, to look at its movement, its trajectory, what it's been subject to, how it's been valued, how it's been cared for, how it's been conserved, then you can actually start to show different attitudes at different times to what's important about that object. And so it's not just trying to present objects as fixed things in museums, where they're revered for their aesthetic value that may be a part of them.
But it's actually trying to look at them as complex subjects that reveal many things about us – as many things about us as it does about the original object itself. Our perspective is very local, limited, and framed within our understanding, and that understanding is constantly changing. So the idea that we could make a facsimile that in some way is more complete than the original tomb because we can bring back elements that were removed and show the biography of all those elements and why they look like they do was the beginning of the project.
Otero-Pailos: This idea of completeness is really interesting. I'm curious to what degree your training as an artist influenced your ideas about what a complete object is. You were trained as a painter. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Lowe: Yes - my training as a painter and my work as a painter up until the mid-'90s was very much concerned with making objects that reveal the process of how they're made, as well as the subjects that are contained within them. And I remember sitting in the Genius of Venice exhibition in 1984 looking at Titian's Flaying of Marsyas. And it was a painting that you could almost always find many different artists from Frank Auerbach to Craigie Aitchison to Leonard McComb, so a wide variety of different artists were always in front of that painting.
And it was quite an interesting moment because of course there were probably 150 – I can't remember the exact number of paintings in the exhibition – so there were many great paintings on show, but why was it that everyone was attracted to this one painting? Every painter was attracted to it. It was quite an important point. It wasn't just the public. It was people who apply paint, who use it, who know the language, who know what they're trying to do, who know the subtleties.
And the answer became quite obvious with a little bit of research – it was the only painting in the show without an extensive restoration history. So what you were actually looking at is the way the oil paint had aged over time, but not with a large number of interferences or interventions, which change the nature of the surface. So you were actually able to see to some degree the way the fluid dynamics of the paint were reflected in the way the paint had aged.
And whether you were reading this consciously or unconsciously, there's a number of things about the speed of a mark, so again to me it's a fascinating thing. A mark made fast and gesturely is very different from a mark made with a double-0 brush spotting in, even if what you're trying to do is a kind of Glenn Brown to make this thing look like a Frank Auerbach. So there are different levels of language, and that was when my obsession with recording surface began.
But what I think is incredibly important about what is happening within Factum Arte and Factum Foundation is really this skill, these skills – of recording, of looking, of using different technologies, of developing different technologies, of applying different technologies – are dependent on a large number of different skills. So I trained as a painter, but Carlos trained as an architect.
Otero-Pailos: How was your training as an architect influential in your work at Factum?
Bayod: In a way – and this is something that we are also trying to develop with the students – it’s this approach to objects and buildings as complex trajectories, not just trying to simplify what is in fact a composition of layers and that are per se very complex. So in the case of the Church of San Baudelio, that's the case study we used for this semester, that is very obvious because it's a monument that exists in fragments.
So what we were trying to develop with the students is this approach towards preservation, analysis, and active proposal to a complex building through the use of digital technology. So it is not the same if you are trying to analyze what is still remaining in the structure in the building in Spain. You would use different technology to analyze it, to understand it. It's different than if you are going to analyze the paintings that are in the museums. For example in the Cloisters in the Met or in the other museums in which the paintings are scattered.
We were really trying to not simplify the subject, but on the contrary trying to make the students aware of how technology can help them to understand complex trajectories.
Lowe: And in the crit yesterday, it's very, very interesting. As Carlos says, it's a building in fragments. So a lot of the wall paintings that can be seen in the Cloisters or in the Prada or in Cincinnati or in Boston or in blah, blah, blah, were clearly ripped off the wall, have been remounted, have been presented as pictures. But what came up in the crit yesterday is the next layer. So all the things that are on the wall of the hermitage as it is now were also removed and taken to Madrid and restored by Patrimonio Nacional and put back on the wall.
So the layers that seem obvious, like one lot's been stripped off and one lot's still there, is actually a much more complex issue than even I imagined when we began the research into the church. And if I start questioning it as a painter, you know, I used to use strappato techniques within my own paintings to go back to reveal what was on previous layers and to actually demonstrate that painting was never purely lamina.
And yet you go into San Baudelio and they've ripped the top off, but you've still got the residue of all the paint underneath, so you have a ghost of it, a pentinente of what is now here, visible in the church. But on a normal strappato method, you have to break the underlayer, so you wouldn't normally see it like you see it in the church.
And so there was one or two interesting moments when I thought we were going to have a very good conversation with the guest critics - with Michelle and the other conservators who were here who were picking up marks that are clearly anomalous. So why are there hack marks as if the wall was going to be refrescoed, recovered? And yet you can see this underdrawing, which wasn't underdrawing. It's the latent trace of something that was painted on top. Or is it an underpainting? And why is it so coherent? And can you really see the bits of strappato that were ripped off and are now here that didn't come away and are still on the wall? And the answer is yes. So can you actually walk into that building and look at these things and start reading the biography of the building?
And, yes, like every object it gives up its secrets in many, many different ways, and often it's very surprising. So there are bits, like the little – I don't know what you'd call it – arcs or the little curved bay on the raised floor on the landing area, on the balcony area, is actually in remarkably good condition on two sides, but in disastrous condition on the third. Why?
The paintings on the wall which haven't been strappatoed tend to be in very bad condition. Then when you start looking back at the historical photos – and I loved it where the students had done the properly with the Calvary photos that Heather started showing them. And there's a great image, and when you look it's easy to see.
So you go to the church and you can see the figure of the man with the hawk on his arm riding a horse, and on the wall of the church it's completely disfigured. You look at the strappato bit, and it's completely right. You look at the photo of what it looked like in the '20s, and it's completely disfigured. So what we know is that horse and rider, the rider and his hawk is painted in the 20th century in London. The bit of the puzzle we haven't been able to put together is who painted it.
But what fascinates me is, you know, everyone says they read the pictures. And this is a 20th century painting mimicking a 12th century or 11th century depiction. So is it actually showing us what was there, or is it a falsification of what was there done by a restorer in London so that the paintings could be sold to the client we now know through research was probably Archer Huntington, but to be sold here in America.
So they spent a lot of money getting these paintings out, and the paintings were at Patrimonio Nacional, so they were bought off the villagers who of course sold them. If you go to villages in poor, rural Spain where the hermitage is being used as a goat shed or a sheep shed, you offer them the equivalent of 60,000 euros – which is several years' money for the whole village - and do they say yes? Exactly the same things go on now all over the world.
What I love in the diversity of Factum's projects is - or Factum Foundation's projects is what you were saying about bringing things back together. On one hand we've got Seti's tomb. On the other hand we're doing all the work with the Polittico Griffoni, which is one of the great 15th-century altarpieces from Bologna.
But we were in the Cross River State in Nigeria recording monoliths last week - or last month - and what we actually found was during the Biafran War, which is the late '60s, many of these were sold. Late '60s, early '70s. Many of these stones were being stolen and sold to pay for the civil war. And there's half of one of these stones in the Met. So while I was here, I was talking to the Department of African Art at the Met, who have agreed in principle that we can record the top half of this stone and bring it back to raise an awareness in the Cross River State working with Calabar University about how important it is to document these objects in case they get stolen.
Otero-Pailos: You're making me think of André Malraux's photographic museum and this idea of bringing the world together in pictures for people's education. And there is a part of what you're saying that has this encyclopedic dimension where every bit of every museum is connected somehow to every other museum and somehow it is now a little bit by the kind of connections that you're personally making being connected.
You're producing digital data. You're thinking about this. You're thinking about the afterlife of this data. Do you envision it as a type of museum of its own, like the Cast Courts would have been a type of museum?
Lowe: Well, I was about to say - you cite Malraux and Les Voix du Silence is clearly the reference at the Museum Without Walls. But the Museum Without Walls is not really a Malraux idea specifically. It grew out of Henry Cole and the Viennaise. I'm very glad you brought the debate back to the Cast Courts. So these are ideas that are of that time. Henry Cole is half a century or a little more earlier than Malraux - or a century.
So you have ideas that are really made possible by technology. So the Victoria and Albert Museum if you read Henry Cole's Convention – and it's the 150th anniversary of the Convention next year. So if you read that Convention, his big claim is that it's the technologies of the time that make possible the recording. And the technologies he cites are casting, photography, and electroforming. And he makes the claim that all of these are totally safe and harmless.
Well, we know now that's not true. I mean, casting is absolutely not harmless. But we can also be very grateful that they did cast so many things because now we have evidence of things that have changed since in the plaster casts. And, you know, I think the work that people like Ian Jenkins are doing is incredibly important, who knows and can study copies of let's say the Pantheon from antiquity to plaster casts done in the 18th century to plaster casts done in the 19th century to plaster casts done in the British Museum after the Restoration, when the only models had been cleaned.
But cleaning at that time meant reworking the surface with effectively a hammer drill, which removes the dirt mechanically. So there what you're not looking at are the original anymore and is the original surface. You're looking at a surface that's been chipped off. So which layer does the originality lie on? And of course is something that's aged over time less original than something that once was pristine?
Well, all we know by looking at ourselves in the mirror is we change every single day. If you've had a bad day, if you drink too much, if you smoke too much, you look terrible the following morning. So we know we're original, and we know we're dynamic. So at what point do we interfere with it?
Well of course any cleaning treatment or any consolidation treatment or any restoration treatment or any repainting treatment are collectively made decisions that will in some degree change the object. But they're decisions made socially. They're decisions made collectively. What I think we're trying to do is to say, "Please, let's have documentary evidence."
So Malraux had photographs because he was working in a time of photographs. Malraux could easily have had photo sculptures because he was also in a time of photo sculptures. So there were photo sculpture, commercial photo sculpture practices in Regent Street in London in the 1930s doing good quality, photogrammetric portraiture.
But everything is of its time. And the use of x-ray, the use of infrared, the ability to read under the surface is something that's been part of conservation practice for so many years that nobody questions it.
Bayod: I think it's important to mention as well that all these stories are possible and we can discover new things about the objects because we are talking about high resolution recording. So some of the technology we have been using in the semester, for example 3D scanners, are meant to obtain information not just of the general shape of an object, but also of the details of the relief, of the texture. And this is what is allowing us to discover more and more layers of histories inside the objects.
Otero-Pailos: It was really amazing the contrast that you – you made two scans of the building, one with a FARO scanner, and the other one with a Lucida scanner. And it was so stark, the difference between the level of resolution.
Lowe: But we actually made three. The FARO scanner records the internal volume at millimetric accuracy. And it's a remarkable long – medium-to-long-range scanner that can do incredible things. So it's used in architecture all the time. It's used in reverse engineering, and so it's a very clever system. And we use it on almost every project that we work on.
But it's not something that's recording surface. It's something that's recording shape. And in most cases, most architectural cases, shape is much more important than the detailed grains of decay or whatever else on the front of a limestone building, for example.
Then we use photogrammetry to demonstrate that this is the emerging technology. So on a section of a wall, you can compare the FARO data, the photogrammetric data, and the laser scan data, and you can really see what's meant by correspondence to surface.
So what we got the students to do was to do the recording, then to prepare the data in the most objective way possible, then to send it to the CNC milling machines downstairs here in Columbia, to get the data milled with a resolution that's the maximum resolution possible. And what you can see on the FARO data is a triangulated surface, very beautiful. It looks a bit like an Agnes Martin painting or something. It's got its own qualities. But it's a transformation.
You look at the photogrammetric data with a raking light, it starts to mimic the surface of the wall. But it's still not the surface of the wall. And you look at the Lucida data, and the correspondence between the Lucida data and the surface of the wall is breathtaking. It's still not the surface of the wall.
But in photography we know that a 1-megapix camera is not called a high resolution camera. It's something that's very simple. And if you photograph an image from close up with a macro lens using a composite method of photography, you can build an image which can be gigapixel. And if you have a low resolution camera, you'll never do that.
So there are horses for courses, there's techniques for every different thing. And what we're really concentrating on at the moment is to say which technologies would be satisfying the needs of the next five years. So I would still argue there will be a place for a scanner like the Lucida scanner. There will be a place for the FARO scanner. But there will be an even bigger place for photogrammetry because with just a camera and a tripod, you can record objects in difficult situations, so in the desert in North Africa; in Syria, where Iconem went in recently and did very good photogrammetry; in Iraq; in Dagestan; in Jordan; in Israel; in Lebanon. So you can do it in places that are not entirely peaceful and that the foreign office recommends you not to go to. You can train people and equip them, and they don't need logistical support to get to the sites.
So the future of one level of recording will definitely lie with photogrammetry. But that still won't answer all the needs. I mean, it's doing color and 3-dimension together. Can it match the Lucida? No. Are there times when you'll need something that's different? Will it be able to match the Lucida in five years if people put the effort into writing the software and the programming? Probably. And so all of these things are not fixed. The recording technologies are as dynamic as the applications that are used.
But I would rewind and add one thing to that: that if you're recording in a war zone, it's already too late. So recording is something that should be done in times of peace, and it should be something that every government, every heritage body is working to do. And it should be something that should be done with accepted notions of what constitutes the standard that's needed, and with a shared frame of reference.
These are the things that your department here I think is really needing to work towards helping to find a shared terminology.
Otero-Pailos: On that note, I think it's been a really wonderful discussion, and thank you so much for joining me for this podcast.
You can listen to every episode of GSAPP Conversations, here. This particular episode is available to listen to directly on Soundcloud and through the iTunes store and iOS Podcasts app, where you can also Subscribe. GSAPP Conversations is a podcast produced by Columbia GSAPP's Office of Communications and Events in collaboration with ArchDaily.