The “Spiky” Geography of Art History

…according to the Metropolitan Museum, NYC

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According to its founding mandate: “The mission of The Metropolitan Museum of Art is to collect, preserve, study, exhibit, and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art that collectively represent the broadest spectrum of human achievement at the highest level of quality.”
Over the past few years, the Metropolitan Museum has catalogued over 25% of its holdings online. This represents ~590,000 objects, covering over 5,000 years of human history from 17 curatorial departments. The diversity of objects in a museum’s collection (and the amount of contextual information known about these objects) may reflect the kinds of narratives a museum can curate about artistic and global history. This animation charts the provenance and year of production of every single object that is catalogued on the Metropolian Museum website, whenever this information is known.
The geography of art history is, in some ways, “spiky.” Certain regions, particularly cities, are home to diverse and famous artistic output. Thomas Friedman similarly describes globalization as being spiky and concentrated in big cities. Other regions are comparatively less productive and less often collected. Either this reflects museum curator’s historic bias against Africa, Latin America, etc. in favor of Europe. Or, this might reflect a more fundamental historical reality: If geography guides artistic production and privileges regions with good geography, like areas surrounding the Mediterranean, then landlocked and inaccessible regions with poor geography will have less “exciting” artistic output.
If you liked this, please see my analysis and animation of the Museum of Modern Art’s collection history, where I seek to answer the question Where in the world is modern art?

 

 

In this animation, each colored dot indicates one geographical location represented by art in the Met’s online collection. The dot’s location indicates where this object was created. The dot’s size corresponds to the number of objects from this location. The time each dot appears corresponds to the year this object was created. Collectively this animation reveals the potential geographical and temporal preferences of the Met’s online inventories for objects collected in the common era (the year 1 c.e. to present-day). The dots above are assumed to be a relatively accurate sample size.

However, there are many objects in the collections with known provenance but unknown production date. Figure 1 below illustrates objects with known provenance and known year. Figure 2 shows objects with known provenance, regardless of whether year is known. The data-set in figure 2 has approximately double the number of objects, but these are concentrated in the same regions as objects in figure 1. This is because objects with known year also tend to have known provenance. Hence, figures 1 and 2 exhibit similar tendencies.

 

Art objects from ancient cultures like China, Egypt, and Sumeria frequently have known provenance but unknown year of production. This year might be estimated to the level of century with the help of carbon dating and through comparison with similar objects whose date is known for certain. Were the dates of these ancient objects known for certain, they could have been included in the animation above, thereby increasing the size and density of dots in under-represented regions. In this case, the animation would have resembled figure 2.

There is one more interpretive problem: Does this visualization reveal more about the diversity of the collections, or the preferences for which objects are selected for inventory online? For instance, does the statistical absence of objects from East Asia, in comparison to France, mean that the Met collects objects from East Asia less actively and in fewer quantities? Or, does this absence merely mean that fewer objects from the East Asian collections are selected for display on the museum website?

Metadata for this animation was downloaded here from the Met Museum’s website, then edited as a spreadsheet in excel and visualized in Tableau Public. This data was published by the museum staff in the public domain under a Creative Commons license. I am also publishing this visualization as an interactive map; it is open source and free to download  at this link.

 

Oxford University in a Box

 

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This is a paper architectural model of the University of Oxford. The model folds out of a re-purposed, antique leather box measuring 7 by 14 inches with a depth of only 1.5 inches.

One half of the model features the historic university buildings: The Radcliffe Camera, Bodleian Library, Sheldonian Theatre, Church of Saint Virgin the Mary, and the Clarendon Building. The other half features the campus of Saint Catherine’s College.

This model is made from paper cutouts, measured and folded to form the shape of various buildings. Below is the image of one of these cutouts before assembly, and the groundplan of the campus before the paper buildings were mounted on cardboard.

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This model in a suitcase will be a souvenir of my study abroad experience. Below is a view of this model with my hand for scale. Attaining this amount of precision in so small a model is difficult, but it is possible. This model represents about two weeks (or 100 hours) labor.

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Computer Models of World Heritage

Beginning in 2016, I became involved in building interactive computer models of world architecture and heritage. Through computer modelling, there is the possibility to broaden the audience of a work of architecture beyond the small number that may actually visit the building in person. World heritage sites or buildings of cultural importance are of particular aesthetic and research value as computer models can reveal qualities of their construction and design that are otherwise invisible to the naked eye. A few of these models I created are featured below:

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Amiens Cathedral in France and the Kaaba in Mecca (Saudi Arabia) are two of the most cogent examples of the technical possibilities of computer models. By building a model that is accurate to the measured foot, one can then view the building from beneath, above, or from unique angles that are otherwise impossible for the public to view in person. The view of the Kaaba from directly above is one such view that is possible to simulate through computer models, but is impossible to view from in person. This is due to religious and legal sanctions against flying above the Kaaba. The view of Amiens Cathedral from directly below is another example. The computer model strips away the layers of earth beneath the foundation, thereby suspending the cathedral in mid-air and permitting an imaginary view which, while theoretically existing, is humanly impossible to view.

These same models also allow us to strip away unnecessary or obstructive additions to better appreciate specific aesthetic qualities of the building. Such details include people, street furniture, and neighboring buildings that block certain angles of view. The Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque of Jerusalem (which are surrounded by trees and ancient Roman-era walls on all sides) or Amiens Cathedral (surrounded by the medieval and mostly modern urban fabric of the city) are two examples of this phenomenon. Similarly, models permit us to restore structure to their original appearance as originally intended to be viewed by patron and mason, such as this model of the restored Parthenon.

Overall, the possibilities and applications for modelling are growing, and the state of the field today is by no means static. Future developments in computing, internet speeds, virtual reality, and photogrammetry will certainly permit further advancements in this field of technical and academic research.

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A Few Theoretical Views of Architecture

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The Kaaba from Above

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Al-Aqsa Mosque from Beneath

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Amiens Cathedral from Below

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Hypothetical Cross-Section of Amiens Cathedral, based on a drawing by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.

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Columbia University

A Map of Campus

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This drawing depicts every building, window, tree, and architectural detail on campus as visible from a perspective 500 feet above the intersection of 110th and Amsterdam and looking northwest toward campus. The number of windows on each facade and details are faithful to reality. There are about 2,000 windows in this image and at least 50,000 individual lines. The image measures 26 by 40 inches and is framed in my room on campus. The personal objective of this project was to create a souvenir through which to remember my formative experiences and time at Columbia. I draw the world I find at Columbia so that, years from my graduation, I can look at this image and reflect on the four formative years I spent here.

The perspective in this image was formed by using Google Earth satellite photos combined with information extracted from Google Maps street view. To read an interview and article about this project, click here.

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Ink Drawing of Columbia University. Measures 26 by 40 inches. Click image to launch full resolution.

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Columbia Campus

Ink Drawing of Columbia University. Measures 26 by 40 inches. Click image to launch full resolution.

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Columbia in a Box

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Before my first day as a Columbia College first-year, I assembled a miniature model of Columbia’s campus out of painted, folded, and glued paper. This creation, featuring most of Columbia’s Morningside Campus, folds out of a vintage cigar-box that measures a mere 5 inches wide by 9 inches long, and 3 inches deep. The model was made by taking flat sheets of paper, etching the silhouettes of the campus structures onto each sheet, decorating these sheets with windows and architectural details, and then cutting out the silhouettes and folding each into the shape of the structure. Each building is made with no more than one sheet of folded paper.

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Timelapses of Morningside

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This project features six time-lapse sequences of Columbia University’s Morningside Campus. I placed a camera horizontally above my desk as I drew and painted each watercolor.

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Ink Sketches of Campus

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How to Run a Canal

The film featured below illustrates the opening and closing sequence of an early canal lock: The Duke’s Lock on the Oxford Canal.

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“The Oxford Canal is a 78-mile (126 km) narrow canal in central England linking Oxford with Bedworth, near Coventry. Completed in stages between 1770 and 1790 during the English Industrial Revolution, it connects to the River Thames at Oxford and is integrated with the Grand Union Canal. The canal was for approximately 15 years the main canal artery of trade between the Midlands and London; it retained importance in its local county economies and that of Berkshire.

“Today the canal is frequently used in weekend and holiday narrowboat pleasure boating, as seen above with rented narrowboats passing through Duke’s Lock, No. 44.”

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– adapted from Wiki.

Evolution of the English Country House

 

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This four minute animation traces the evolution of English country house design from the period 1660 to 1715, which was broadly defined by the arhcitectural style of the English Baroque. Roughly between 1660 (near the end of the English Civil War) and 1715 (with the beginning of the Georgian monarchy from Germany), English Architecture witnessed a profound shift in country house design from the compact and square-ish form of the fortified Elizabethan and late-medieval country house to the more open and less compact plan of the Baroque and later Palladian country house. This shift too in design followed a new embrace of the aesthetic relationship between country house and its surrounding, bucolic landscapes. The objective of this animation sequence is to visually illustrate these aesthetic and architectural changes. Click to watch the video above, or watch the slideshow automatically play below.

This animation sequence is part of the progression to my degree in Architectural History & Theory from Oxford and Columbia University.

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Music: Franz Schubert_ Piano Trio in E Flat, Op. 100. Link to soundtrack.
Link to powerpoint presentation here.
Creative Commons permission is granted to download and circulate this video for non-commercial purposes, provided attribution is given to Myles Zhang.

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Digitizing the Gothic Cathedral

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Read more about this project here and here.

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My objective is to recreate Amiens Cathedral as it appeared in the 15th century. My method described above and presented at St. Catherine’s College at Oxford University in spring 2018 is to build an computer model of the entire cathedral, accurate to the foot, photo-realistic, and fully interactive. My hope is to find new and creative ways to engage students and visitors with this architecture.
I am further expanding upon this work for my senior thesis and by building computer models for Columbia’s Media Center for Art History. I also created computer simulations for the Eiffel Tower’s construction sequence and of a small parish church in Burford, England.
This project would be impossible without the invaluable and expert guidance of my faculty mentor and medievalist Stephen Murray, who taught me in the Fall 2016 Bridge Seminar Life of a Cathedral.

Eiffel Tower – Animated Construction Sequence

This animation illustrates the Eiffel Tower’s construction from August 1887 to May 1889. Music from Festival of the Animals by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns accompanies the animation for dramatic effect.

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The Eiffel Tower was built over 18 months – from August 1887 to March 1889. This film shows the construction sequence, starting with the foundations and ending with the cupola. Model editing and animation in Sketchup; post-production and effects in iMovie.

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Sources:
– Model source file: free download from 3D Warehouse
– Virtual reality computer model: view on Sketchfab
– I consulted this 2002 reprint of the Eiffel Tower structural plans to make the model.

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Burford Church – Two Minute History

This project is also featured on Buford Church’s official website.

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Beautiful Burford Church in Summer

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Construction Sequence

At the conclusion of my year as an art history student at Oxford University, I chose to base my final research project on Burford Church in Oxfordshire County, England. This is a Grade I listed structure by English Heritage, roughly constructed between 1175 and 1475, with continued modifications in the Victorian era. With the generous supervision of my art history tutor, Cathy Oakes, I visited this humble parish church and constructed a computer model that documents the structure’s gradual construction and expansion over nearly 300 years work. I converted the finished model into a short, two-minute film, featured below. The original source files for this project can also be freely downloaded here from the “3D Warehouse“, a database of architectural models for the use of designers, historians, and researchers. The subtitles of this sequence are transcribed here:

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Around 1175, work begins on the Norman church – a simple structure with choir, nave, and tower between. Here we see the structure being erected from east to west. Notice the round Norman windows.

By 1200, a small side chapel is added to the south of the tower. An aisle and entrance foyer on the south are also added. These changes require demolishing part of the existing structure.

By 1250, the side chapel is demolished and replaced by a north transept, south transept and expanded chancel.

By 1400, a crypt is added and the tower extended up. At this point, the architectural style changes from Norman to Gothic – from round arches to pointed.

The local cloth merchants also construct a guild chapel – detached from the main church and built at a slight angle.

By 1475, the guild chapel is partially demolished. On its foundations the Lady Chapel is built.

Meanwhile, most of the remaining nave is demolished to construct two aisles on either side of the nave, a larger west window, and new clerestory-level windows.

Two chapels are added on either side of the choir as well as a 3-story entrance tower. Neither of these additions are visible from this angle.

This completes the construction sequence of Burford Church.

We are now circling around the church – working our way clockwise.

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Visual Analysis

The film below is a brief visual analysis of the church’s architectural fabric. Through my analysis, I seek to understand the following: What is the visual language of Burford Church? What aspects of medieval social and cultural history can be deduced from the church’s decoration? And, in the absence of a written historical record, how can we detect the sequence in which the church was erected on the basis of architectural fragments alone?

 

 

 

 

Image Gallery

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Zoning and Affordable Housing in Newark

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In the summer of 2017, I helped oppose the gentrification and rezoning of the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark. The area was zoned for buildings no higher than eight stories, which was respectful of the small and community scale of the existing structures. City officials, however, proposed rezoning a large section of the Ironbound for 18-story structures – four times taller than any other structure in the immediate area.

Motivated by profit, a large parking corporation and other landowners lobbied the city to increase the maximum allowable height – thereby increasing the value of their land and threatening the existing community with gentrification. The small streets and infrastructure of the Ironbound would not have been resilient or large enough to support such a large increase in density.

To oppose this ill-devised proposal, I created a computer simulation of how the neighborhood would appear, were the proposal passed. This computer simulation and the proposed legislation were also the subject of a Star Ledger article by human-interest reporter Barry Carter. I am providing the link to this article here. This computer simulation was also watched by members of the City Council and the property owners effected by this legislation. I also spoke five times before the City Council and at community meetings to oppose this project and argue for development in Newark that is genuinely sustainable and genuinely respectful of the existing community and the city’s people.

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Computer Simulation

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Speech before the City Council on Tuesday, September 19

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The text of this speech is transcribed below.

I’d like to speak on why opposing MX-3 is consistent with supporting inclusionary zoning.

To my knowledge, 7 members of the City Council voted in favor of inclusionary zoning. This is an important move to protect our city most vulnerable residents and to preserve affordable housing in our downtown.

MX-3 and upzoning will jeopardize this important piece of legislation.

Why?

inclusionary zoning kicks in when (firstly) developers build structures over 30-40 units and (secondly) they request a variance to build this structure.

But, when an area is zoned for larger and taller structures developers can build more and larger structures WITHOUT requesting a variance to build larger. And when developers do not need to request a variance for height, it is less likely they will need to include affordable housing in their project.

In effect, MX-3 will remove the requirement to build affordable housing in the effected area. When zoning is overly generous to developers and zoning permits overly large scale, develops do not need variances. And when developers don’t need variances, they do not have to built affordable housing.

In addition, since MX-3 could be expanded to anywhere within a half mile radius of Penn Station, it is quite possible that MX-3 could be expanded in the future. In effect, this would eliminate the requirement for developers to build affordable housing in this area. Upzoning does not benefit affordability.

Secondly, what is sustainability?

Sustainability and transit-oriented development is not just about a short distance to Penn Station. It is not just about green roofs or any type of development.

Sustainability is about affordable housing that we the people can afford to live in. We don’t want luxury condos for the 1% in the MX-3 area. We want development that our residents and you can afford.

All of us can agree that WE ALL WANT DEVELOPMENT. But, we want development that is 1. Affordable 2. Respectful of the Ironbound community. And 3. Respectful of our city’s diversity and history.

MX-3 is none of these things. It is about landbanking and benefiting the 1% wealthiest outside our city. I encourage you to strike down MX-3 and to encourage instead an open dialogue with the community about SUSTAINABLE and AFFORDABLE development in our city.

Developers should come to Newark and development should happen. But, we should not upzone entire sections of our city, in effect removing the requirement for affordable housing, undermining the inclusionary zoning we just created, and jeopardizing the recent master plan we created with public participation.