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MIT’s “Ways of Seeing” Project Preserves Endangered Built Heritage in Afghanistan

MIT is using the latest technology and the traditional art of architectural renderings to preserve Afghanistan’s endangered built heritage. The project, titled “Ways of Seeing: Documenting Endangered Built Heritage in Afghanistan,” aims to provide people with a virtual experience of four historic sites in the country. This project is a result of MIT’s response to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021.

Immersive Virtual Experience of Four Historic Sites in Afghanistan

The “Ways of Seeing” project uses multiple modes of imagery to provide people with a vivid sense of the four historic sites in Afghanistan. The images will be available for viewing through the MIT Libraries by the end of June, with open access for the public. A subset of curated project materials will also be available through Archnet, an open access resource on the built environment of Muslim societies. The four sites included in the project are:

1) The “Green Mosque” in Balkh,
2) The Parwan Stupa,
3) The tomb of Gawhar Saad, in Herat, and
4) The Minaret of Jam.

All the sites have significant historical and religious value and exhibit diverse architectural styles.

State-of-the-Art Technology Meets Traditional Art of Architectural Renderings

The project’s “digital transformation strategy” is led by Nikolaos Vlavianos, a PhD candidate in the Department of Architecture’s Design and Computation group. Using cutting-edge technologies and drones, Vlavianos’ team creates three-dimensional digital models of the sites and creates immersive experiences in extended reality (XR). He conducts studies of the psychological and physiological responses of humans experiencing such spaces in person and through XR.

The drawings for the project are created by Jelena Pejkovic, a practicing architect, based on the digital data collected by Vlavianos and his team. Pejkovic used a traditional rendering technique, commonly known as VERNADOC, to meticulously render the buildings by hand and give them texture. Her drawings are so finely wrought that they beg the viewer to slow down and pay attention to the intricate details.

A Unique Opportunity to Preserve Heritage and Serve the World

Fotini Christia, an MIT political science professor who led the project, said, “Ways of Seeing is a project that I conceived after discussions with that group of colleagues and which is truly in the MIT tradition: It combines field data, technology, and art to protect heritage and serve the world.” Nasser Rabbat, the Aga Khan Professor and director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT, also offered advice and guidance on the early stages of the project.

The project is supported by a Mellon Faculty Grant from the MIT Center for Art, Science, and Technology (CAST), and by faculty funding from the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS). It is co-presented with the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), the Sociotechnical Systems Research Center (SSRC) at the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, the MIT Department of Political Science, and SHASS. Junior students from Wellesley College also participated in the project under the guidance of Vlavianos.

A Broader Architectural Metaverse for Future Preservation Efforts

Vlavianos envisions a broader architectural metaverse consisting of immersive experiences in XR of physical spaces worldwide that are challenging to access because of various constraints. He plans to utilize autonomous drones deployed simultaneously in various locations worldwide for rapid production and advanced neural network algorithms to generate models from fewer numbers of images.

The “Ways of Seeing” project strives to make these outputs accessible and available to Afghan refugees displaced around the world but also to anyone keen to witness them. This innovative form of historic preservation is a testament to MIT’s tradition of combining field data, technology, and art to serve the world.

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