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Divine intervention

architech

As its first online restoration, Soluis is returning St Peter's seminary at Cardross to its former glory, if only virtually

There is only one building so far on the Virtual Restoration site at www. virtualrestoration. org. It is the 1966 Gillespie Kidd and Coia St Peter's seminary at Cardross, which for some time has mired the Scottish Roman Catholic church in conservation controversy.

Gavin Stamp has called it the finest modern building in Scotland and the Scottish establishment agrees, because this Brutalist building with stunning naturally lit interiors is now Grade Alisted. Its real-life history is less glorious. The church ran the seminary for just 14 years, closed it down in 1980 and has let it rot for the past 13 years.

And rot it has. Photographs of it elsewhere on the web include bands of kids roaming through its smashed interiors and hanging off its overgrown parapets. In this sorry tale of earthly neglect there has even been talk of stabilising the building and presenting it to the public as a modern ruin.

So if you are going to embark on a virtual restoration website in Scotland, St Peter's seems like the ideal first candidate. But why a virtual restoration project and how does it work? The people behind the half dozen or so computer images currently on show at Virtual Restoration are the five principals of Soluis Technologies, the three-year-old architectural visualising agency and bureau service based in Stenhousemuir, near Falkirk. The company name is simply pronounced 'Solus'.

Managing director Martin McDonnell says of the website: 'It is almost purposeless. It comes out of a bit of an interest in the building itself and we decided to do a bit of a flier.

We have had expressions of interest from around Scotland but we probably need to do a bit more work on it.'

He and Soluis' head of creative media, Stephen Colmer, were students together at Strathclyde's building design-engineering course.

He explains: 'Steve was brought up in nearby Helensburgh and was kind of aware of St Peter's; and the building was the subject of his undergraduate dissertation at Strathclyde. So he had his own body of material about it.'

The building has also been the subject of a television programme; the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) has produced a booklet about it; it is on various at-risk registers; and the latest planning application for its rejuvenation is in progress. McDonnell says: 'During the BBC2 Restoration programme there was a lot of interest here, and in the Sunday Herald three of the six architects interviewed about their preferred restoration project chose St Peter's, even though it wasn't on the BBC2 shortlist.' One of the other three architects interviewed was St Peter's original co-designer (with Andy MacMillan) Isi Metzstein, now emeritus professor and, laden with honours, the grand old man of Scottish architecture.

Doing it

'So, ' says McDonnell, 'we decided it was a good time to do it - I suppose as a kind of PR exercise and maybe something which might have a life of its own.' And also, you suspect, because they decided it might be interesting. 'We worked from Steve's dissertation work and we had a body of published text and drawings and photos, and from that we put together collaged pictures which gave us a reasonable idea [of the three-dimensional reality]. Some of the drawings conflict with the building, probably because design changes were made up to the last minute. Steve has visited the site and has a decent photographic record of it but we are asking for more accurate information from, possibly, Metzstein and perhaps the RCAHMS may have a record.' So far Soluis has spent about four person-weeks over three months on the project.

Colmer has an MA in CAD building design and worked with Tom Maver's Strathclyde Abacus unit, which looked after those two impressive three-dimensional computer models of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

With McDonnell and three associates, he has set up an operation with a render farm of 25 machines, eight or nine of which are also workstations. The two have a strong background in AutoCAD and are also skilled in VIZ, the architectural version of industrystandard three-dimensional modeller, 3D Studio Max.

McDonnell says: 'The prescribed VIZ method is to use its built-in technology for doors and windows and stairs. But that is good only if you are dealing with a standard 'normal' building. Anyway CAD drawings did not exist for St Peter's - although we produced our own outline drawings of the form.My preferred approach is to model a big three-dimensional shape and start knocking holes in it.'

So they worked directly in 3D for the St Peter's models.

Metzstein has spoken about the importance of light in the original design and Soluis has been aware of that. McDonnell says: 'St Peter's is a beautifully lit building. Up to three years ago CAD lighting was largely a point to point thing. But now the applications incorporate radiosity - the accurate modelling of light bouncing off walls and floors and in different colours.'

New directions

McDonnell is looking at methods of presenting three-dimensional moving images on the internet. He has rediscovered an interest in vrml (virtual reality markup language) - the virtual version of html. He says: 'You can port things around in a very small size and it will allow you to wander around a virtual building. It is very old, as old as 1990. But it is the new way to see something on the internet because you can walk around it.

'It has a very strong use in the architectural world: it is reasonably easy to use vrml models for the architectural stuff. You can output it from editors [because it is a markup language] and, for example, switch lights on and off and define the source and volume and distance of sound. Using a web browser with a plug-in you can walk round a building.'

Another technology that Soluis has been looking at, as have several architecture schools, relates to games environments. McDonnell says: 'The quality of the architectural experience is incredible in terms of lighting, modelling, material finish. You can move around and it is really cheap to do at home, but not for commercial use. The licences for games engines cost more than £100,000.'

Right of possession

It seems odd that the original designers, professors Metzstein and MacMillan, were not approached first for the original drawings but this was a project that grew to achieve a critical mass before anyone quite realised it.

Metzstein has yet to pronounce on the site, images and project, although he hopes the images are better than most of the computer-generated ones he has seen so far. You wonder briefly about issues of who owns the rights to the building's image. Metzstein takes a relaxed view, while McDonnell says: 'I'm not sure what rights are owned by who'. At the beginning this was not really an issue, and one suspects that it won't become one.

The only eventuality that might raise controversy is what Soluis does with its images. McDonnell has only mused briefly on this topic. He says:

'There are two potential routes. One might be to set up as a commercial company specialising in virtual restoration projects. The other would be to set up with one of the schools or public bodies, perhaps as a not-forprofit organisation which would attract a different kind of support.

But it is a bit of a quagmire: I prefer not-for-profit because it is more interesting as a historical archive or maybe part of a body of archives.'

One of the earliest examples of restoration CAD was the reconstruction of Abbé Suger's 12th-century Cluny Abbey, demolished in 1793 and rebuilt virtually in 1991 by an IBM France-sponsored team from Ensam engineering school. IBM has subsequently sponsored similar projects in Germany (Dresden's Frauenkirche Cathedral), Milan's Piccolo Teatro, the Guggenheim Bilbao, the cloister of St Guilhem le Desert in France and some of Leonardo's machines.

Other institution-sponsored virtual restorations include Carnegie Mellon University's Temple of Horus at Edfu; Manchester Metropolitan University's tomb of the 18th-dynasty Egyptian Menna; Silicon Graphics'Aztec Temple of Tenochtitlan; English Heritage's virtual Stonehenge; and Strathclyde University's virtual models of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Venice, Rome and Barcelona.

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