Upload your old building to the cloud

Over the long run, I suspect that efforts to preserve historic buildings and sites will be hindered by improvements to augmented reality.

I’m old enough to remember when Google Glass was the hot new thing. This wearable technology promised to blend physical reality with digital information. While Glass was a commercial flop, it laid the foundation for other innovations in the field. It’s not hard to imagine architecture and engineering offices using technologies like Microsoft HoloLens or similar visualization gadgets in the very near future.

Given enough time, the hardware cost will drop to a level where any enthusiastic consumer can own an augmented reality headset. Once this happens, historic preservationists may face unique challenges – especially in cities with high pressure for development. A developer may claim to be able to simultaneously preserve a building (through 3-D digital capture) and satisfy a market demand (by razing a historic structure).

There are tremendous advantages to preserving historic buildings. Last May, I felt positively inspired about the topic after hearing Stephanie Meeks deliver the keynote address at the Congress for New Urbanism.

Yet, if the experience of the building can be preserved digitally, some may argue that the physical form is no longer worth preserving. With political pressure to build more housing or foster economic development, some politicians may sympathize with the argument.

Should this come to pass, I have four brief thoughts on the matter:

  • Digital preservation is not equitable. While anybody can experience the exterior of a historic structure simply by witnessing it from the street, a digital version requires some hardware. This places a cost burden on people who want to see old buildings.
  • Digital preservation should not be controlled by a monopolistic software developer. It is essential that open source standards be used for any digital preservation project.
  • Even digital preservation isn’t necessarily permanent. A computer record is only useful as long as technology exists to process it. Digital archivists can ensure that projections of historic buildings will be accessible for generations to come.
  • If a historic building is to be demolished, its components may still have lasting function. With proper deconstruction practices, many building materials can be salvaged in a condition suitable for re-use. Groups like Emergent Structures in Savannah are closing the loop on building material waste cycles.