Out and About with the MA in Architectural Heritage

MA Students #1 smallIt’s the start of a new academic year and this year it brings a welcome development, the first cohort of our new MA students studying Digital Architectural Heritage. Despite the poor weather we have dusted down the DBHG minibus and been out on the first of our field trips, visiting historic buildings and examining them in detail –  activities which are key features of the course. The work this term revolves around the digital reconstruction of a medieval chantry chapel. The students have a range of set background reading to learn about the theory of mediaeval architectural design practice, encompassing aspects of religion, culture and philosophy as well as the techniques of designing high status buildings in the mid fourteenth century. There’s a substantial applied aspect to this term’s work too, an important part of which is learning to design “ad quadratum”, a geometric design method widely used in the middle ages. The students will be using digital tools (as you would expect at the DBHG) to explore this neglected but fascinating approach to architectural design. Using computers to articulate medieval designs has two advantages, firstly the geometry is accurate, and secondly it’s linked absolutely to the arithmetical (numeric) quantification of the geometries, so both can be assessed simultaneously without significant error. Among other things this allows appreciation by comparison of the difficulties that would have been experienced in using the traditional drafting and measuring techniques of ink on vellum to design and also provide insights into how medieval master masons and patrons overcame or at least ameliorated those difficulties. It also opens up a wide ranging exploration of  issues surrounding craftsmanship and artistic practice in the medieval world and its similarities and differences to doing so within a contemporary context. This is a debate which the course participants are engaging in enthusiastically as well as discussing issues surrounding aesthetics in general, and the evolution of architectural styles in England in particular. However, there is no substitute for actually experiencing real medieval buildings when attempting to understand medieval architectural theory because the whole experience is so much more than the sum of the theoretical parts. You gain a much deeper and extensive appreciation of how overall form and detail work together to create an impressive whole when standing in front of (or sitting in) a 700 year old sedilia or choir stall, or listening to medieval plainsong or chant reverberate around a nave. Historic architecture like this is so much more than the plans and models that we deal with on a daily basis, it has a powerful reality which is difficult to capture or recreate digitally. Gaining an appreciation of these dis-junctions between the model and the reality and the challenges their circumstance of existence impose is not lost on us, and finding the right place and techniques for communicating both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of medieval ecclesiastical architecture is just one of the challenges this year’s cohort of MA students faces. No pressure then.

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About Douglas Cawthorne

Reader in Digital Heritage at De Montfort University.
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