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How Technology Is Aiding Conservation Efforts with Heritage Buildings Today

How Technology Is Aiding Conservation Efforts with Heritage Buildings Today

Recent initiatives have proven that technology can also become an instrument of positive change regarding cultural preservation. Technology is aiding human efforts to maintain the existing buildings so that future generations can interact with the works of their ancestors, learn more about their culture, and keep them from going extinct.

By Michael Akuchie 

For decades, technology has aided and quelled all kinds of wars and conflicts.  Aside from consequences such as deaths and diseases, these conflicts also affect a region’s cultural heritage. According to Merriam-Webster, culture is defined as “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group”.  While the non-material element of a culture is covered in the religion, language, and customs, the material culture includes art, books, clothing, and, of course, structures. 

Certain buildings are highly symbolic as their designs, shapes, and colours often tell stories about the people of that region. For instance, the Pyramids of Ancient Egypt were built as the final resting place of the rulers.

According to a blog post by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), factors such as urban development due to growing population, mining, erosion, and civil unrest, jeopardise the future of these structures which contain cultural value to the host community and the rest of the world. In Syria, for example, many historical buildings have either been completely destroyed or badly damaged, following 13 years of civil war, including the Arch of Triumph, a 2,000-year-old archaeological site, and a 2nd-century Roman amphitheatre in the city of Bosra.

But what if, amidst the conflict and degradation, there was a way to preserve these structures? Recent initiatives have proven that technology can also become an instrument of positive change regarding cultural preservation. Technology is aiding human efforts to maintain the existing buildings so that future generations can interact with the works of their ancestors, learn more about their culture, and keep them from going extinct.

Archaeologists have found recent technologies such as digital cameras, laser scanners, and light detection and ranging (LiDAR) highly useful in retrieving data from historical sites and developing preservation techniques that best suit the project. For instance, LiDAR has been used by Damian Evans, an archaeologist, in locating medieval cities underneath the forests in Cambodia. Using the technology, Evans was able to get a close look at the historic cities and learn new things about the people’s culture. Some architectural firms are also interested in maintaining the cultural history of buildings despite the change in times. 

On the 23rd of April, 2024, I attended a showcase of groundbreaking projects by HTL Africa, an architecture firm with a keen focus on designing structures that are the perfect blend of technology and tradition. One of the projects that fascinated me the most was a Presbyterian Church in Ghana that HTL had recently remodelled. Built in 1861 by the Basel Mission, a Swiss Church Missionary Society, the church served the community as a place of worship and eventually a place to host wedding ceremonies. As time went by, the building was abandoned and a new one with a more modern appeal was constructed. HTL was recruited to assess the church building and determine if it was worth retaining or should be destroyed.  

How Technology Aiding Conservation Efforts with Heritage Buildings Today| Afrocritik
A presentation at HTL Africa’s event | SM Productions

Commenting on the project, James Inedu-George, CEO and Head of Design at HTL, said “Our task with the Presbyterian Church was to restore the project with a hopeful imagination of what it could be without changing the existing parameters. To achieve this, we used Rapid Prototyping to fully understand the project.” For context, Rapid Prototyping is the use of 3D computer-aided design (CAD) to reproduce a physical structure. Once the prototyping is done, additive manufacturing also known as 3D printing is used to bring the prototype to life. 

According to him, the firm’s engineering team was asked to study the walls, the materials used, and exactly how they were structured. After the assessment, Rapid Prototyping was leveraged to make 3D models of parts of the building they wanted to work on. It was a far more efficient way of getting the project done than relying on manual measurements. 

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HTL decided to retain the building by opting for a cultural preservation initiative that saw them restore the structure to the original version. The restored building was also fitted with stained glass windows, a church-based tradition where the windows are used to illustrate teachings, document bible stories, or simply create an ambience of solemnity. Speaking on the role of technology in cultural preservation projects, Inedu-George explained that rapid prototyping is a valuable tool to engineers and architects as it helps them to scan buildings quickly, with the assurance of accurate results.

How Technology Aiding Conservation Efforts with Heritage Buildings Today | Afrocritik
Photo of the remodelled Presbyterian Church | HTL Africa

Another notable example of cultural preservation using technology is the Arch of Triumph which was destroyed in 2015 by ISIS fighters in Syria. In a daring project led by the Institute of Digital Archeology (IDA) and UNESCO, volunteers in Palmyra, the location of the Arch of Triumph, were given 3D cameras to create images of the structures. Using the images and 3D printing technology, the IDA and UNESCO were able to replicate the Arch’s design in a structure that looked and felt like the original. Of course, 3D-printed buildings raised some important questions.  For instance, are 3D-printed structures to be taken seriously like the original, even if a machine was used to make them and not human effort, or should people look past the matter of authenticity and simply focus on what the structure symbolises? 

The above examples make strong arguments for technology’s continued use in cultural preservation. Aged cultural buildings can be assessed using technological tools such as VR headsets, drones, and 3D printing, and then improved on to not only endure for future generations but retain the region’s heritage. Also, AI-driven technologies such as Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality can help architects better imagine how to preserve cultural buildings. 

As mentioned, buildings are a significant fabric of culture as they embody the norms and beliefs of society. They help the current generation relive the experiences of their ancestors. Therefore, the preservation of buildings is a step that cultural societies and the government should take seriously. It is worth adding that while wars, urbanisation efforts, and time are factors that will continuously affect the lifespan of cultural buildings, technology can help people retain what has been lost. Innovations such as 3D printing can help one to easily reproduce a structure that was damaged during fighting or demolished by the city in a bid to create space for urban development. 

Michael Akuchie is a tech journalist with four years of experience covering cybersecurity, AI, automotive trends, and startups. He reads human-angle stories in his spare time. He’s on X (fka Twitter) as @Michael_Akuchie & michael_akuchie on Instagram.

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