Aztec Templo Mayor: A VR World in a Book
It's a novel concept, creating an elaborate VR world with painstaking detail then primarily only giving access to it through the pages of a dead-tree printed book. However, that is what Antonio Serrato-Combe, professor of architecture at the University of Utah, did in 2001. In fact, he did it so successfully that a 2009 British Museum exhibition exploring the power and empire of the last elected Aztec Emperor was able to use this book-world as its primary source material.
Antonio has spent decades bringing the ancient structures of the Aztecs into focus. However, when he had collected his research together, he was not sure how to present it. The buildings themselves were long gone, ruling out any chance of showing this civilisation at its height in the traditional sense.
Destroyed by Hernando Cortes in 1521, the Templo Mayor was the epicentre for Aztec ceremonial life and served as the setting for colorful displays of highly energised rituals depicting the relationships between social groups and humans and their gods.
The question of what the Aztec Templo Mayor Precinct looked like has piqued the curiosity of many, including Serrato-Combe. For more than two decades, he has been trying to solve the mystery on how the capital of the Aztecs looked by using the technology and tools of architecture.
"The Aztec capital was a thriving metropolis planned and built according to principles that not only understood and applied critical environmental issues, but added holistic concepts as well," explains Serrato-Combe. "The Aztecs did not compartmentalise the arts. The final result was a unique combination of architecture, sculpture, painting, costume, wall and sand painting, pottery, masks, amulets, all into one expression. I envy those individuals who had the opportunity to experience those environments."
Mere words were not enough to describe such passions. They had to be shown, the vuewer immersed in them. Only one media is really expert at that, and Antonio almost completely overlooked VR as a method of presenting his work. Until that is, a chance comment by a student in the late 90s.
He said, "One day, after one of my history classes here at the University of Utah, one of my students remarked, 'since you know so much about Pre-Columbian architecture and you also seem to be a computer geek, why don't you combine both disciplines and come up with a book that uses digital tools to illustrate the past?"
So, the book ' The Aztec Templo Mayor: A Visualization', was born. In its pages the research was presented, along with an elaborate, painstakingly constructed X3D model of the entire complex, created to 1:1 scale, and populated with a smattering of avatars. Almost every other page of the book presents a stunning view or another, all from within this one work of dedication, and of art. A work so detailed it alone can serve as reference for recreating the site in any other world.
Through his project, Combe has become the authority at the university on digital visualisation techniques and now teaches architecture students the basics of an integral tool in architecture. "Digital tools in architecture are unique in that they provide a communication channel where a student does or proposes something and the computer responds," he says. "The conversation between student and machine triggers a variety of actions that eventually make the academic experience more exciting and fruitful."
The only shame is, whilst visualisations from the book are exhibited at the British Museum, the world itself, has never been released for public exploration.