COSCH Profile: Mieke Pfarr-Harfst

Stefanie Wefers interviews Mieke Pfarr-Harfst of Fachbereich Architektur Informations- und Kommunikationstechnologie in der Architektur, Technische Universität Darmstadt, Germany

Do you recall any particular event or experience that inspired you to become an architect?

No, not really. I come from a family in which building has been a tradition. My great-grandfather and grandfather were both carpenters by trade. They designed houses, too. My father also first became a carpenter and then an architect. Growing up in such a family one gets a special understanding and particular sensitivity to architecture, the built environment and cultural heritage.

You have been involved in many projects that aimed to digitally reconstruct cultural heritage assets. Can you please give an overview of these projects. What was the purpose of and context for these digital reconstructions?

Most of our projects were funded by the BMBF, or the Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung. The aim of these projects was always to visualise some results of research into different cultural heritage sites. We normally show the resulting visualisations at an exhibition to convey certain knowledge to the public. Film sequences were our favourite output formats for presenting these results in the early years. Today, we are combining different output formats. Film and haptic models are the examples of these, so-called, hybrid formats. We are also using visualisation as a research tool. We discover new knowledge, which we publish, for example, in conference papers. We are working together with experts from different disciplines such as archaeologists, art historians and engineers. Our projects have therefore an interdisciplinary and, usually, an international character.

Which project has been the most challenging, and why?

For me the project "Imperial Tombs of Chinese Emperors" was the most exciting, because one had to understand not only Chinese architecture, but also Chinese understanding of the afterlife. It was not easy to find all the information necessary to reconstruct the tombs. So the reconstruction relied on Chinese researchers' knowledge of comparable historic buildings or objects. There were also great difficulties at the political level.

Computer visualisation of the tomb of the Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty, Zaholing,
China © FG IKA, Technische Universität Darmstadt, 2006.

How common for an architect is to be involved in these kinds of cultural heritage projects?

I think, in scholarly reconstructions, this is quite common. But architects are rarely involved in projects serving entertainment.

What are the advantages of these kinds of digital reconstructions and how are they commonly used?

One of the greatest advantages, or potential use, of such reconstructions is that these computer models are three-dimensional and visual. It is possible to show the results of a research project and the scholarly discussion in a very simple way. Understanding complex content and spatial relationships is quite easy in a spatial model thanks to its three-dimensionality and imagery. Visualisation of different building phases of a structure may advance its discussion amongst researchers. Such models support communication between different disciplines. They help with the verification of existing knowledge and enable new insights. Digital reconstruction is mainly used in museum exhibitions and TV documentaries to communicate historical knowledge. Over the last five years, an increase in use in research can be observed.

How do you see the general challenges in digital reconstruction?

There are so many challenges at the moment. In order for the user to perceive the reconstruction as intended, the computer model must communicate historical research effectively. The appearance of the model should not mislead. It should present the difference between evidence-based research and hypotheses. These are only some of the challenges that need to be addressed. Therefore, we have to think about documentation strategies for such digital 3D reconstructions.

You visited King's College London and the Faculty of Electrical Engineering at the University of Sarajevo for a COSCH Short Term Scientific Mission (STSM). Both these institutions have been engaged in the development of digital 3D reconstructions. What was the aim of your visit? Could you identify further challenges posed by digital reconstruction? Please shortly describe the outcomes of these visits.

The aims of my visits were to analyse, evaluate and compare 3D modelling workflows and to define some general phases of a typical workflow. In Sarajevo and London I investigated 19 projects, based on defined criteria that impact on 3D modelling processes. I achieved two main results through these two study visits. First, I defined eight types of visualisation of cultural heritage. Second, I proposed a general definition of a working process as an input-output schema. Defining different types of cultural heritage visualisation is necessary for the development of the COSCHKR [ontological representation of knowledge] and must be seen as a first attempt and work in progress. Only by differentiating between different types of visualisation, the creation of a user-friendly and universal, structured ontology is possible.  This also applies to a definition of a universal working process. Comparing different working processes implemented to the projects conducted in Sarajevo and London, respectively, the similarity between workflows can be observed. It was possible to assign the work packages of these projects to a work frame, which consisted of four main phases: preparation, collecting, processing and finishing.  Within and between these phases there is a principle of input-output, which appropriates the next step. This depends further on the terms of the project: its background and purpose, people involved, available techniques, timeframe and funding, etc. Therefore, the project plan and working process are defined by these terms and conditions.

The results of my STSM research represent work-in-progress. It is necessary to investigate more projects to define rules and guidelines for the quality assurance for 3D digital reconstruction.

You are a founding member of the Working Group "Digital Reconstructions", which is affiliated to the Digital Humanities Association of the German-speaking countries. What are the aims of this Working Group?

Our basic idea was to connect the proponents of historical digital reconstruction in Germany and take the whole field forward. We have defined six main research interests: the basics of historical reconstruction, methodology, documentation, presentation of knowledge, communication of knowledge, technology. More information can be found on our website and in the Group's memorandum at We are working on a joint publication, in which we will summarise earlier research in this area and the first results of our work.

Thank you!

24 May 2016

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