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A Lecture to Blog About: Glaire Anderson, “Interpreting and Visualizing the Villas of early Islamic Spain”

May 10, 2012

The following are informal responses to Glaire Anderson’s recent lecture in the School of Building Arts lecture series by some members of the undergraduate architectural history seminar ARLH 200: Reading and Writing in Architectural History.  They are arbitrarily presented in reverse alphabetic order.

Kathy Schnurr

It seems the only way to delve successfully into the past is to simultaneously reach for the future. At a lecture at the SCAD Museum of Art on May 3rd, Dr. Glaire Anderson chronicled her work on villas from medieval Islamic Spain that coupled new technology with archaeological evidence and historic architectural research. With a quiet sense of humor and a passionate undercurrent, Anderson related her account only to be presented with an enthused, “But what’s your next step? Did you think of this?”

Recent excavations at Madinat al-Zahra showed only fragmented evidence of the Medieval life that took place there. The region was integral to court culture and caliphal society. Cordoba was vying to claim hegemony and leadership, struggling to claim its place in society amongst the larger cities of Baghdad and what would become Cairo. As a major Islamic center, ambassadors from other empires would be received in these villas, and they performed certain necessary social functions like ambassadorial meetings, weddings, as well as other festivities. The ideal villa in Islamic Spain centered around a leisurely court life, the epitome of which is found at Rummaniyya, which is roughly translated as “the Pomegranate Villa.”

The house of a powerful eunuch in the town, Rummaniyya existed as a complex with rooms and water features above a larger terrace that would have been agricultural. After receiving new and exciting archaeological news from a German excavation of the area, Anderson and a team of her colleagues first put the resulting information, along with a fair amount of educated estimation, into a Google Sketchup model. An extremely useful tool for analysis, the three-dimensional projection of the site allowed the complex to be seen in scale. For Anderson, this was clearly an exciting experience, her expression and gestures becoming more animated, delighted as the audience leaned in.

Working with a computer scientist and an architect, she produced this model and moved quickly on to another. Using first-person shooter technology in a gaming program called Unity-3, the team assembled a navigable map. What started as a pile of stones in the Spanish countryside, a thousand-year old archaeological dig turned quickly into a navigable projection. Aware that the process was not yet complete, Anderson immersed herself in the material culture of the era and started to fill in some of the unfinished corners of the villa, inserting textiles, precious objects, and even lamps to try to attain some of the ambiance of the space. She even theorizes the game as a possible educational tool, allowing students to move through the space and access options for what the villa may have looked like, given that they provide correct answers.

What Anderson presented can only be the future of architectural history. In order to stay relevant in an ever-technological era, the field must look to advancements in computerized modeling. Modeling becomes extremely useful in cases where buildings no longer exist in their original capacities. Though I am no expert at Medieval Islamic architecture, the villa was easy to approximate with an approachable visualization. At the end of her lecture, Dr. Anderson received questions from mostly students, a true tribute to the forward-reaching scope of her project.

Olivier Maene

Glaire D. Thompson’s lecture on the Villas of Early Islamic Spain, which took place at the SCAD Museum of Art on Thursday, May 3, was one of the most outstanding lectures I have attended so far. Interestingly enough, this is not because of the topic of her lecture, but because of the cutting-edge research methodology employed in her dissertation.

Starting off, Anderson introduced to us her topic as well as its location and the surrounding landmarks of Cordoba, Spain. She painted a very clear contextual picture of what her research was focused on, while also providing us with the many issues related to her topic. For a long time, the Islamic villas of Spain had been considered pleasure palaces for the court, but Anderson believed there were more important matters involved in these villas’ structure. It was clear from earlier research that these palaces served as the main residence of the different parts of the Moorish court, but, on top of that, she argued they also served as the complexes for cultural cultivation, as well as international politics.

Having presented to us her thesis, Anderson shifted her focus to a secondary topic, which was her research methodology. Through several levels of research she was able to unearth the supposed function of the villas of early Islamic Spain, as well as providing the audience with a valuable tool for the future of architectural history. Anderson had done some hypothetical research over the years, which, a few years ago, she had the opportunity to put into a Google Sketchup model in collaboration with a mathematician. By doing so, she discovered that her perspective on the Villa Rumania was changed entirely. By visualizing what used to be just a two-dimensional plan, she was able to better grasp the ideas of architecture versus landscape that are so important in Islamic architecture.

Having discovered this new perspective on her research, Anderson decided to take things a step further and approach a game developer with the idea of putting together a navigable three-dimensional model, which would incorporate not just the architecture and the landscape, but also the material culture of the Islamic villa. This is the point at which her lecture really took on a second identity. Presenting the research she had done and the findings she had made became secondary to a much larger issue; the future of architectural history that lies within the exploration of new technologies, as well as extensive collaboration with other disciplines. By working together with mathematicians, computer engineers and other professionals, Anderson was able to create an intricate model of her case study, though which she made new discoveries and confirmed earlier made hypotheses.

Not only did she stress the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration, at the same time Anderson argued that not only architectural historians could benefit from a richer visualization to work with, but also art historians. By being able to put textiles, candlesticks, containers and other portable objects in a space, art historians are now provided with contextual information, which could help them make conclusions about the usage and meaning of their studied objects.

Glaire D. Anderson’s lecture on the Villas of Early Islamic Spain formed a platform for presenting to the audience her latest research on the villas of tenth century Spain, but at the same time it also served as a vehicle to raise awareness of the importance of collaboration with other professionals, as well as the incorporation of new technologies into future research projects. A fresh and exciting alternative for what seems to have become a boring profession to a lot of people, Anderson’s lecture gave a new spin to historical research and paved the way for future historians to discover new things through means of collaboration and a more technologically developed research toolbox.

Amanda Gierke

You may remember as a child those exciting days when you were able to play computer games during class, ranging from Jump Start, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego or The Oregon Trail.  Using these games children were introduced to basic math, history, science and English; enabling students to learn with this fun new technology. These educational video games are very similar to the concept Glaire D. Anderson introduced at her lecture on Thursday May 3rd, The Villas of Islamic Spain.

Glaire Anderson has been studying these villas for many years. One villa in particular she has focused on, the Pomegranate Villa, is the only Villa that still has remains standing, making it easier to depict a site plan. The Pomegranate Villa is a medieval villa in Spain, more commonly known as a pleasure house; because of the primary use of these villas, many have been over looked for their significance in architectural history.  Set aside from the rest, Glaire Anderson has taking matters into her own hands, embarking in heavy research and creating a book.

After interpreting the site plans and creating a rendering in Google Sketch up, she then decided to take the plan a step further. While talking to computer scientists, they decided the best way to create a 3D model that someone could walk through, would be to use the program Unity; this is software commonly used to create video games. After a long process of collaboration, and further research, they re-erected the Villa with computer technology. They then chose to take this model even a step further, and create a game out of it. As you wander through the villa, questions will be asked, and for each correct question the player has a choice of adding a new decorative feature. This allows  for creative freedom as there may be multiple style choices for one detail, and allows us to understand that in reality we are still not one-hundred percent sure exactly what these villas were decorated like.

As Anderson furthers the features in her game, she is unraveling new educational tools, which may help make architectural history reach a broader audience. This tool could be used with whole cities, allowing people to understand the history of the built environment along with the lifestyles of past cultures, much like the game Oregon Trail, which allowed many elementary schoolers to embark on the long journey out West, during the mid-1800s.

Aside from the over used filler words such as “uh,” Glaire engaged her audience well, with an interesting topic. She used the full stage, was very informative and answered her questions well. She has shown a new light on the future of not only Architectural History, but history in general. This will allow future historians to teach the aspects of architecture in new and creative ways.

Claire Clayton

Glaire Anderson’s enthusiasm for the munyas of Islamic Spain translates loudly to the audience as she is very charismatic with hand gestures and uses the stage to her full advantage. She even offers a lighthearted joke, which is a refreshing change of pace. You can really tell that she is passionate about her subject.

Anderson’s begins her lecture with a power point that gives the audience an idea of the architecture of the villas. She also explains a detailed map of the site that really engages you in the subject and makes you feel like you understand the layout of the site.

Anderson returns to one single point within her presentation—these villas are not pleasure gardens. They aren’t frivolously placed buildings that are unworthy of our attention. This is the moment where Anderson’s passion and enthusiasm really comes through; she chose to concentrate on an area that has usually been disregarded as something not as important as a mosque, etc. but she found her own little magical place that has inspired her.

As her lecture continues, Anderson explains the purpose of the villas and truly gives the audience an idea of what happened or who lived there so long ago. With Google Sketchup Anderson is able to give the audience a relatively accurate visual tour of what the villas would have looked like. Therefore, instead of trying to explain it, Anderson ends up showing history. With this tool, Anderson gives the audience something not found in history notes, sketches, etc. she gives the viewer a visual sense of the scale and purpose of the villas: one that the viewers can actually place themselves in—one that is tangible; from the architecture to the landscape. In hindsight, Anderson gives a present life to the people and buildings that lived so long ago.

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