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Rebuilding l’Aquila

January 24, 2011

in background, church of San Bernardino in the "red zone" of l'Aquila

Yesterday I went to l’Aquila for the Building Maker workshop sponsored by Google and organized by Barnaby Gunning Architects as part of the project “Come Facciamo“.  About 20 people, mostly it seemed architects or engineers in their “career years”, dedicated their time on a grey, snowy Sunday morning to come out and hear instructions about a tool which provides hope and visibility for a city which has seen several waves of devastation, from speculation and corruption in the late 20th century, to the tragedy of the 2009 earthquake, to the speculation and corruption of the post-earthquake “reconstruction” (not to mention the G8 fiasco).

Today, the historical center of l’Aquila is a ghost town, buildings structurally reinforced but boarded up and empty of life. Walking through the town yesterday, the echo of my camera shutter resounded eerily in the silent streets. The only other sound were the broadcasts of soccer games coming from the military checkpoints where soldiers control who enters the “red zone”.  This is not a city but a shell of a city that was.

The workshop focused on several related software tools offered free by Google: 1. Building Maker,  for creating 3D models of buildings based on aerial photographs, 2. SketchUp, a 3D modeling program and 3. Google Earth, the virtual earth on which photos, models and a wide range of geographic data can be situated. Representatives from Google (both Italian and American) were present to explain the software, working through the creation of a model on screen and then circulating among the participants as they struggled to model buildings chosen from a list of coordinates provided.

The site I chose randomly from the list was not easy, not just for its form but especially for its current state.  The earthquake destroyed a large section of the building, which led to questions about where our models were to represent the city as it was or as it is. I had an interesting discussion about this with Nicole Drobeck of Google, a 3D data specialist who was very helpful in explaining to me (in English!) the workings of the program, but the conclusion was, well, inconclusive. I learned that the Google streetview car had been through l’Aquila just days before the earthquake and that the satellite date currently on Google Earth is pre-earthquake, so we can document what the city was, but the detailed aerial imagery which Building Maker uses were gathered after the disaster, when Google sent a plane out of the way for a rare, specific city documentation of l’Aquila. The project provides a tool for inserting proposals for reconstruction but also an objective, real-time document of the slow state of reconstruction which contrasts with the narrative of success stories often heard.

I didn’t get too far on my model before I had to pack up to return to Rome, and later as I opened it again (pulling it down of the virtual shelf in the 3D warehouse) for the first time I asked myself about the story of this block. It was simply too bizarre to be working on photos and vectors and planes when the object of the study was a place with its history, its aura, its stories and its tragedies. Thanks again to Google, it was easy to pull up news articles to learn that Via Campo di Fossa n. 6 was a site which until the 1970s the city of l’Aquila had wisely avoided constructing and when the master plan of 1979 did allow construction it happened fast, with too few controls. And that on  6 April 2009 half the building collapsed on itself, killing 27 occupants.

While no virtual reconstruction can change this history, hopefully it can serve to tell the story as completely, simultaneously both concretely and transparently as possible.

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