GIS, Architectural Reconstruction, and Visualizing Certainty

Update: Commented on the blogs of Amanda, Anne Ladyem, and Sheri.

There’s a television show on the cable channel HGTV that speaks to the power of digital visualizations to convey an argument.  The show is called Property Brothers and the goal is to demonstrate how with the help of a real estate agent (one brother) and a general contractor (the other brother) prospective homeowners can get a house with features that would normally be well out of their price range by buying a lower-priced home and renovating it.  Every episode of Property Brothers plays out the same way.  The home buyers don’t believe the brothers’ claims as they patiently describe how they can knock down walls, install new fixtures and deliver on all the buyers’ requests while staying within the budget.  Then, the brothers bring in the digital visualization of what they plan to do.  Here’s an example:

Every time the skeptical homeowners see the visualization, which is essentially just the words of the brothers in cartoon form, they are transformed into true believers.  It’s a testament to the power of visualization to carry an abstract argument.

The power of visualizations relates directly to the readings and to this week’s assignment, the architectural reconstruction using SketchUp.  The readings from David Bodenhamer’s Spatial Humanities each deal with how Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can assist research in the humanities.  In his conclusion, Bodenhamer notes that the positivistic assumptions, the pretensions to scientific certainty, that underlie GIS would seem to make it a bad fit for the epistemology of the humanities geared as it is to question those assumptions.  In other words, we’re back in the homeowner’s kitchen on Property Brothers — our ability to doubt seems to be circumvented when an assertion can be presented visually.  As Bodenhamer points out, though, this phenomenon is all the more reason for humanists to engage with mapping in general and GIS in particular.  Because humanists are practiced in questioning assumptions and noting how a given piece of evidence makes a proposition, be it an image, a document, a map, or something else entirely, it is especially important for humanists to understand how these visualizations are constructed.

Since we are tasked with making our own visual representation this week, it’s worth thinking about these same issues with regard to architectural reconstructions.  As Prof. Petrik demonstrated in class with the reconstruction of a Helena brothel,  recreating a 3D model of a historic building can produce new lines of questions that historians can investigate with their research.  I chose to reconstruct the Mastin-Minor building, part of the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded.  I used the Sanborn map of the colony and the one photo I could locate online.  Here’s the photo:

Minor-Mastin building, part of the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded

Minor-Mastin building

The building is interesting in several respects.  It is the first building on the Colony grounds constructed specifically for feeble-minded inmates — the institution began as a colony for epileptics only.  It is also interesting because as a building specifically designated to house feeble-minded women, I believe it must be where Carrie Buck , the defendant in Buck v. Bell (1927), the Supreme Court case that legitimized forced sterilization, lived.  Here’s a two dimensional image of my reconstruction of the building:


Creating this reconstruction in SketchUp forced me to reflect on the kinds of changes institutions like the Virginia Colony were undergoing when the Mastin-Minor building was built in 1914.  As I mentioned in a previous post, institutions for the disabled in the 19th century were impressive buildings, basically monuments to the science of medicine.  By the 1920s, they became increasingly seen as custodial warehouses for undesirable people.  State legislatures providing the funds for their construction were not interested in erecting monuments to anything.  The evidence I’ve found relating to the construction of the Virginia Colony reveals both of these dynamics at work.  The founders envisioned a progressive facility even as they worried about costs.  I think the Minor-Mastin building reflects this compromise.  It is not nearly as impressive as the Kirkbride asylums like the Danvers State Hospital, but it is not a warehouse like many institutions constructed in the 1920s.  This is a distinction that I came to appreciate while trying to make a Mansard roof using SketchUp.

Synagogues in Germany Project


4 responses to “GIS, Architectural Reconstruction, and Visualizing Certainty

  1. I also thought of Property Brothers while doing our reconstructions. It shows the power of the visualization in making people understand. What types of difficulties did you encounter doing your reconstruction?

    • Viva la Property Brothers!
      To answer your question, I think the biggest difficulty was only having the one photograph to go off of. I was unable to get details on the back side of the building, because I could only see the front. With a couple more photos from additional angles, I think I could have done much more complete reconstruction.

  2. First of all, excellent reconstruction! I think that by showing that model–in this case, too, isolated from the rest, we really could focus on the building and understand it better.

    And I also liked the point you made about the power of visualization. I saw that in focus when I was at the exhibition design firm for which I previously worked ( The designers would spend days creating elaborate CAD models of the exhibits, with every detail intricately mapped out (as it needed to be–you couldn’t have an electronic interactive 30 feet away from the closest outlet, nor put a text panel on top of the fire extinguisher!). But these mostly turned out 2-D line drawings that were great for the exhibition fabricators, but that the clients never understood. So one day a new designer began doing models in Sketchup. These were relatively quick–not ones you could use for actually building the exhibit. But nonetheless, he could do flythroughs, show better colors, etc., The clients could visualize the product they were getting, whereas they couldn’t with the regular architectural drawings–and thus ate these up, although they were much less sophisticated. So as you said, this shows the importance of visualization…

  3. That’s a terrific real-life example, David thanks. It is amazing how “seeing is believing” really works often in ways we don’t anticipate. I think this is kind of a central tension in academic history in general and digital history in particular. Historians are wary of arguments that seem not to rely of the rationality that comes with text. But I would argue, and I think you’d agree, that at the very least we have to understand how these visual representations work to communicate what they are “doing” for the very reason that they do seem to affect people in a profound way.

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