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Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

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The Palimpsest uses 3D scanning and virtual reality to record urban spaces and the communities that live in them.



In 1998, researchers discovered that mathematical proofs by Archimedes had been overwritten with biblical texts by monks in the 13th century. Documents such as this, with previous erasures still visible beneath the primary text, are known as palimpsests. Architecture can also be a palimpsest: as cities and buildings are modified and re-purposed, traces of their previous lives remain visible.

Here we imagine what an urban palimpsest can be in the digital age. Using 3D scanning and virtual reality, our project records personal stories and local histories, layering them over the city at a 1:1 scale. Building this collective memory is especially important in areas undergoing dramatic urban redevelopment. Our first initiative, The Camden Palimpsest, uses the UK High Speed Rail 2 project as a case study. It highlights stories of Camden residents – some of whom will lose their homes and workplaces – and explores how their lives will be transformed. Our virtual Palimpsests aim to create more inclusive planning practices, using emerging technology to directly connect communities, governments, and developers in conversation. They also become historical documents, digitally recording spaces and stories that might otherwise be lost.



For more information about the making of the Palimpsest, click here to read a full article with detailed descriptions of our process and past work.










The palimpsest diagram scanning 4


Key Terms:

Immersive technology blurs the boundary between media and reality. In particular, we are utilizing virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), binaural sound, and real-time 3D scanning. Our emphasis on accessibility leads us to prioritize low-tech applications of these tools, such as Google Cardboard, in-ear binaural microphones, and Project Tango. Our experiments in this area explore what kind of information, what amount of information, and what contexts are required for immersive experiences. We are especially interested in the role of sound in VR and AR experiences.

Democratization of design is a concept which we use to refer to several ideological stances on the production and consumption of technology. First, we are advocates for the free software movement, which is related to but distinct from open-source. Specifically, ‘free software’ refers to ‘the freedom to run, to study and change, and to redistribute copies with or without changes’ (Stallman 2016). Second, we believe in the democratization of the production of architecture not only because it promotes critical engagement with the built environment, but because it is a necessity. Globally, the demand for architecture is far greater than what professional architects can provide, and is often most needed by those who cannot afford professional support. We aim to provide those with the most need with tools for improving their architecture.

Empathy is the overarching theme which guides our explorations and ultimate goals. Chris Milk refers to VR as the ’empathy machine’ because of it allows people to literally take the perspective of another. While we agree with aspects of this view of immersive technology, we take a critical approach to defining empathy, its potential benefits, and its potential harms. Empathy also informs our stance regarding free software. We believe empathy is key in order to increase the dissemination of technologies to those with needs.