A piece of the puzzle – continued

Ewsum, with some added colour and quick trees
Ewsum, with some added colour and quick trees

Adding some colour and toy trees to judge the effect of more naturalistic surroundings …

Next round: shutters and side windows

Enlightenment in action: preview


Tesla apparatus 1896 (3d model, partial render)- Teylers Museum, Haarlem, Netherlands
Tesla apparatus, unfinshed state (3d model, partial render) - Ducretet & Lejeune 1896

Just a sneek preview… This image is a test-render of a set of 3D models of early scientific instruments, made to get into gear for a project I’m preparing together with friend and colleague Riemer Knoop and the staff of a prominent museum. The project revolves around the Enlightenment in the Dutch Republic in the 18th century. A slightly difficult but extremely interesting challenge since it combines elements from philosophy, science, architecture, theology, art, social and museological history.

This particular instrument which is used to demonstrate the generation of electromagnetic waves by induction, is using a Leyden jar, a kind of early capacitor. Ever since being a kid I have been fascinated by early scientific instruments because their function is so brilliantly intertwined with the aesthetic appeal of their form.

The model will be finished next weekend – some bits and bobs are still missing and it looks way too clean – and will serve as the basis for some visual explanations which are impossible to achieve with the real object, or the really good existing roundshots of  the objects.

A piece of the puzzle – experimenting with colour


Borg Ewsum, some colour added to judge the effect
Borg Ewsum, some colour added to judge the effect

I just loosely sprayed the model with a brick-red colour to be abke to judge the effect. I’m sure that the finish of the building has greatly changed over the centuries, as has the shape and composition of the building. It could well be that at this final stage of the borg’s existence it was partly white-washed like the borg Fraeylema at Slochteren. 

In my initial design the mote was too narrow, so I widened it and changed the bridge accordingly.

On Plato and 3D modeling

This morning it occurred to me that there are some intriguing parallels between Plato’s core philosophy, as described in The State (Politeia), or the Timaios, and 3D modeling in applications like Modo.

Let’s resume. For Plato every being in this world is nothing more than a projection of a perfect archetype, the Idea, onto a very imperfect medium, the physical, or material world. We have no real certainty, or knowledge about the purest form, or idea, because our minds are affected by the same imperfection. What we see around us can be compared with shadows thrown by these perfect forms on a wall by the radiance of truth, the sun. We cannot however see the forms that throw these shadows, because they are just beyond our reach, as we are standing in a deep cave, and the Ideas are outside, higher up, behind a rim. That’s depressing, isn’t it?

To explain what we could call ‘classes’, or ‘families’ of objects, Plato explains that an object can participate in more than one Idea. So, identity is built-up, it consists of some central idea and a cluster of ideas that shape the object, like ‘red’, ‘heavy’, ‘ovoid’. From another point of view we would call this ‘attributes’. The intriguing thing is that once you start thinking about clusters of objects you tend to be left empty-handed, because when you take all the attributes or properties away, nothing remains.

What then is this thing that the properties are properties of? Well, … there you have the remaining history of philosophy since Plato and Aristotle of course.

Going back to the State we could identify the ‘thing’ which is being shaped into a recognizable form, with some nondescript material ‘blob’. The addition of properties gives the blob shape and identity.

When we go to our modeling environment something very similar happens. We start with a dull grey primitive form, this could be a cube, or a globe. And start to add shape by adding edges and connections. We the refine the shape by telling the program that it should build up some tension between the edges and points, or to create more edges between the existing edges (this is called subdivision surface modeling). These refinements are not really part of the primary object, but in fact mathematical ‘projections’. The shape can really get quite blobby at this stage.

Then we start adding more details by painting a surface structure on the primeval blob. Again, this is just a attribute, not an essential quality. We then can add colour, and material properties, like reflection, transparency, refraction index etc. When we are using the object for animation we can add weight.

Our primeval blob, now formed by the Idea in our mind (yes, we are now definitely entering the realm of Platonic theology!), is part of a scene. A little world with a horizon, ambient light etc. We can add lights to this world, other objects, we can even simulate real sunlight at a give geographical location and time. A special type of light let’s us project images into the scene.

So this world is constructed layer upon layer, out of properties projected on amorphous entities that only retain their shape because mathematics tells them to.

I’m sure that, if my blobs were suddenly endowed with a consciousness and the faculty of thought, they might wonder how the hell they ended up in the place where they are, and who thought about all this. They might wonder about their identity and see some strange similarities between the things around them and themselves.

I add a small sequence of pictures to illustrate the process of creating a weird landscape out of a box.

the primeval box
the primeval box

We start with the box and tell it to build up some tension arond the edges.

the box rounded
the box rounded

Now we beat the box repeatedly with a blunt object.

the box beaten and pulled at
the box beaten and pulled at

We add another ‘property’, a layer of spray paint, but we tell the objects these spots of  paint are in fact little bumps. The nice thing is, we create an illusion of bumpiness, by projecting the Platonic Idea of bumpiness on the beaten box, without actually changing the box at all.

the spraipainted box, translating the spray into bumps
the spraypainted box, translating the spray into bumps

Now we add some more colour. And we tell part of the surface that it should behave like a mirror. So the nice blue artificial sky is reflected.

colour added
colour added

We add an extra Platonic light to the scene.

light added
light added

And we have created a very ugly Platonic landscape. Which bring us to the fact that Platonic philosophy and its descendants (neoplatonic philosophy, and some Christian platonic thinkers) never quite knew what to make of ugliness, or evil. Is it the absence of Beauty, of Goodness? Or is it a positive (in the sense of existing) entity, or an attribute in itself (ugliness, badness)?

Now we return to the primeval box, we can see that the pulling and pushing has left some traces on the original geometry. So this is where our parallel ends. Or does it?

the primeval box, badly mistreated for this demonstration
the primeval box, badly mistreated for this demonstration

On Macchiavelli

Reading Macchiavelli’s “Prince” is not a gargantuan task. Still, I postponed it for years, until last october, when my wife, daughters and I drifted into a bookshop in Florence at dusk and looked for some reading that could complement the autumnal athmosphere of the Renaissance tower where we stayed. Somehow Florence itself seemed to tacitly urge me to buy the booklet.

It was enlightening, of course, I knew very little about the city and it’s history. In stead of directing my attention towards Italy I always have focussed on the art, culture and history of Burgundy and its great dukes.

One passage, however, struck me with force, because it fits like a glove on the small and sometimes rather stale world of cultural heritage institutions with is multitude of auxiliary organisations and their consultants: “… there is nothing more dangerous to carry through than initiating changes in a state’s constitution. The innovator makes enemies under all those who prospered under the old order, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new. Their support is lukewarm partly for fear of their adversaries, who have the existing laws on their side, and partly because men are generally incredulous, never really trusting new things unless they have tested them by experience” [Niccolò Macchiavelli, The Prince, Penguin Classics, 2003, p. 21]. A little further on the same page he says ” … unarmed prophets have come to grief”.

It is striking how true this is. Most innovations in the digital accessibility of cultural heritage in the Netherlands were the result of the combined vision of a relatively small group of people who were active in all segments of the sector, in the institutions, in government, in business, in academia. The concepts of web 2 and 3 were part of many plans and advisory texts long before it became the popular topic of conferences. All interesting and lasting changes could be made by the political force supporting the vision. Resistance to innovation mainly originated in establishments that were used to a placid form of unchallenged authority.

Macchiavelli’s lesson is a sound one, and still very fresh und usable in everyday practice. When a cultural heritage institutions develop new information strategies, it is very important not to draw all attention towards the mission, but to consider the role of individuals. Change can appear threatening to people. That is not necessarily bad. As long as these emotions are not overlooked.

Amusing is the fact that now the world of the web has changed, the most ardent enemies of innovation in heritage institutions are now fervently shouting “web 2.0!”. Of course, the visionaries already know that just beyond the horizon web 5.0, ‘the narrated web’, awakes.

Reconstructing a piece of a puzzle

In the province of Groningen (Netherlands) a large number of stately mansions, which go by the name ‘borg’ in Dutch (plural ‘borgen’), have been demolished in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

A small number of these interesting buildings has survived and is now part of our cultural and architectural heritage.

Within the context of a cultural education project I am trying to create a reconstruction of one of these houses. I use Luxology Modo 302 for this task.

Here are a couple of pictures of the work in progress. Most of the detailing is being done right now. Lots of windows and shutters to model!

The only thing we have left from this building with its long and interesting history is an empty stretch of land, marked by the remains of the mote, and the defensive tower, still standing. We can trace its building history through archival documents and images on old maps, engravings, a painting in the Groninger Museum and a stained glass window. I use an image from 1843 as the basis for this model, combined with a plan that has been drawn in 1899.

The original nucleus of the building was formed by a steenhuis. A steenhuis (stone house) is a typical phenomenon of the northern Dutch coastal region (and the neighbouring German region, now Ost Friesland), they were houses built in the middle ages by the important and the powerful using brick while all other building was done in a combination of mud, straw, and wood. A steenhuis was comparatively big, measuring about 8 x 11 m on the surface, while a height of 15 m was not uncommon. So they must have been really visible landmarks (as the remaining ones are still today), confirming the power of its owner, and when things went wrong the envy and aggression of their opponents! The steenhuizen were not unlike the medieval towers we can still admire in Italy. And their faith was similar. We are lucky that many still survive in San Gimignano, but nearly all these family towers in Firenze and Bologna have disappeared too. The  Northern Dutch steenhuis was polyvalent. It could house a family in times of peril, but also served as a granary, or as a temporary place to stay while managing ones distant property. 

Many steenhuizen were at some stage more or less enveloped by a cluster of additional buildings. In some cases the original tower-like shape got lost altogether. So many of the once-existing and still remaining borgen somehow evolved from these towers. Ewsum was also built around a steenhuis. This is a feature which is not visible now. Since I use 19th century material for the basis of this visualisation I will add this older nucleus later in the process, probably working with cutaways and partial transparencies to clarify the structure.

As a whole this visual is not meant as a scientific reconstruction, it is purely educational, showing something which has been lost, but also showing how such a structure came about.

More historical details follow.