Drone capture of Volterra city center.
Courtesy Autodesk. Drone capture of Volterra city center.

Wladek Fuchs recalls a story taught to architecture students in his native Poland: “After Warsaw was destroyed by the Nazis during the Second World War, the old town was reconstructed from measure drawings that had been done by the students of architecture before the war,” he says. “At the time they were doing those drawings, nobody thought that they would be useful in that way.”

Now, more than 60 years later, Fuchs—an associate professor in the University of Detroit Mercy’s (UDM) architecture department—is applying this same methodology to an ongoing research project in Volterra, a mountaintop town in the Tuscany region of Italy. With the help of Autodesk, Case Technologies, and the support of the nonprofit Volterra-Detroit Foundation—created by alumni and faculty of the School of Architecture at UDM—Fuchs is part of a multidisciplinary effort to digitally record and preserve the ancient architecture of the town using reality computing tools such as drones and laser scanners. Following the example of the students from 20th-century Warsaw, the group—including Autodesk strategic project executive Tristan Randall and Case Technologies director of services Mark Dietrick, Assoc. AIA—is working to collect as much data as possible. “We’re preserving the information [about Volterra] to make sure that it is available when it is needed,” Fuchs says. “Although we really hope that it will not be needed [in the same] way.”

Volterra’s structures date from the first century B.C. and showcase a unique mix of architecture from the Etruscan, Roman, and medieval periods. For the past 30 years, the town has also hosted one of UDM’s study abroad programs. However, the reasons for selecting this 11,000-person town for a comprehensive case study vary, creating a complicated web.

For Dietrick, his and Case Tech’s involvement with the city and the project are inextricably linked. A former classmate of Fuchs’, Dietrick is on the board of the Detroit-Volterra Foundation—of which Fuchs is the executive director—as well as an alum of UDM. Following a presentation on reality computing technology including flying drones and laser capture as part of his full-time work with Case Tech, Dietrick shared an idea with the Detroit-Volterra board: “I said, ‘how much fun would it be to re-create [the technology] in Volterra and to do a real deep dive program to explore these technologies?’” he says. “I presented it to my ownership here at Case Technologies and they were excited from day one and said, ‘Absolutely, this is something that our company wants to get involved in.’ ”

For Fuchs, who has spent two decades of his career studying the architectural history of Volterra, a project like this could only take place in the Italian village. “We chose Volterra because of our long-term connection with the city,” he says. “Going to a strange location would have made it 10 times more difficult to get things done.”

Additionally, Volterra, like much of Italy, suffers from a lack of available capital for investment in historic preservation projects. In recent years, Italian government officials have traveled abroad seeking foreign dollars, with incentives such as tax credits or developing corporate sponsorship programs for monuments, to fund restoration and maintenance on crumbling ancient infrastructure. “The vast majority of what is considered the world cultural heritage is in Italy,” Fuchs says. “They cannot be left alone in their efforts [to preserve]. We must help.”

To do so, however, they would need a technological heavyweight to coordinate this effort—and Case Tech’s partner, Autodesk, fit the bill. “A few years ago we began investing in technology for capturing the built environment,” says Randall, describing his company’s laser light detection and ranging (LIDAR) and photogrammetry capabilities. “We built technology to allow architects, historians, and engineers to be able to capture the environment in very rich detail,” Randall says. “And that’s essentially the technology that we applied for Volterra.”

As part of a team of 10 architects, engineers, historians, and students, Fuchs, Randall, and Dietrick spent two weeks last October using Autodesk technology to capture the physical elements of historic sites around the town including: a Roman theater from the first century B.C., an Etruscan gate dating back to the fourth century B.C., and a medieval wall from the 13th century. After amassing imagery from 500 laser scans and completing 20 to 30 camera-outfitted drone flights, the team consolidated the data using Autodesk’s ReCap 360 software to create three-dimensional digital models of the various structures. (ReCap 360 allows users to upload data to create "point clouds" that can then be viewed and edited before transferring to other programs.) They then transitioned these "point clouds” of information to Autodesk Revit to construct interactive Building Information Models.

Though some may argue that time and money might have better spent in physically restoring Volterra’s structures, preservation efforts are not enough in certain cases. For this ancient town, the Volterra team sees an opportunity to “monitor the erosion and degradation of these structures,” Dietrick says. The Etruscan gate, for example, still functions as an entry point to the city for vehicles, which cause some level of deterioration. “It’s crumbling,” Fuchs says. “The thought was that we need to be able to document what’s happening to it over time. If we do the scan now and if we repeat it in three years, we may be able to see where and how, and how much of that stone has actually crumbled and disappeared.”

In the case of the Roman theater—excavated 59 years ago, in 1958—digital archiving might be the best means for safeguarding a historic resource. “[We] dug it up and now that it’s exposed to the elements, it’s already starting to deteriorate,” Randall says. To comprehensively capture the details of the theater, the team scanned the structure from 150 different locations—achieving a level of architectural detail that Fuchs had not been able to record and assess over his 25-year career of studying ancient theaters. While he has yet to publish his findings, Fuchs’ believes he has discovered new details about the design system of the Roman theater that might challenge long-held assumptions about ancient structural practices. He hopes to present the findings by 2018.

As for the future applications of the technology, the work has just begun. On June 28, the team will present their findings to Volterra’s Mayor Marco Buselli and his staff. In July, Autodesk will return to Italy with Case Tech, the Volterra-Detroit Foundation, and other partners to scan another Roman theater—this time in the town of Gubbio in the Perugia province.

While the team shares the hope of returning to Volterra to complete the digitization of the city, they have succeeded in creating a partial digital record of the architectural history that can be shared. “I think there’s a need to be able to have these treasures faithfully reproduced digitally so they can potentially be rebuilt [or to] monitor their erosion and degradation,” Dietrick says. “And if you can’t rebuild them, then at least we have some memory of what it used to be and we can share that experience with people around the world.”

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