Science takes architectural history to another dimension

Millionaire is using 3D laser scans to make a digital blueprint of 500 structures and ruins across the globe
  • @cahalmilmo

When he was a small boy in the Iraqi city of Mosul, Ben Kacyra was taken by his father to the ruins of the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. It instilled in him a love of history which, some 60 years later, he is now turning into an architectural treasure trove fashioned from pixels and lasers.

The Iraqi-American millionaire has unveiled his plan to preserve for posterity some 500 cultural heritage sites around the globe by taking 3D laser scans of each of them to create a digital "archive" of buildings immune to the scourges of terrorism, global warming and urbanisation.

Over the next five years the CyArk 500 project, launched today at the Tower of London, will seek to create a digital blueprint of structures and ruins across seven continents in such detail that they will reproduce each building in three dimensions with a margin of error of two millimetres.

The charity is appealing for nominations of sites to scan as part of its aim to avoid a repeat of the cultural vandalism committed when the Taliban destroyed the 1,600-year-old Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001, blowing the statues into dust in the name of religious belief.

Mr Kacyra, a retired civil engineer, said: "I was devastated by what happened to the Buddhas. They are lost for ever because there was no detailed template to recreate them. Something similar is happening in the world all the time - we are losing the fabric of our heritage faster than we can conserve it.

"Our idea is that by using technology we can preserve heritage sites so that if over time they become lost, damaged, destroyed or simply degraded, there is a fully intact record accessible not only to archaeologists and conservationists but also to every child and every school."

The project uses a portable laser system invented by Mr Kacyra and the American engineering firm he set up in the San Francisco area after he emigrated from his native Iraq in the 1960s. After selling the company in 2001, CyArk was set up as a not-for-profit organisation.

Among the structures surveyed in Britain so far are the Tower of London, the medieval Harmondsworth Barn near Heathrow (described by Sir John Betjeman as  "the cathedral of Middlesex"), and ten sites in Scotland including the neolithic monuments in the Orkneys.

Other sites across the world have also been digitally preserved including the statues of Easter Island, the pilgrimage town Lourdes, the Mayan city at Tikal in Guatemala, Pompei, Mount Rushmore, the Tower of Pisa and the huts used by the British Antarctic Survey.

Each survey generates some 10,000 gigabytes of data - equivalent to 200,000 boxes of A4 paper - which is stored in a high-security vault some 210ft underground in Pennsylvania alongside material including the original recordings of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.

The CyArk charity, which works with governments and heritage bodies, points to its experience with two of its subjects - the Sungnyemun pagoda-style gate in Seoul, South Korea, and the Kasubi Tombs in Uganda - as proof of the value of the project.

Both of the sites were destroyed or badly damaged by fire in recent years but have been either rebuilt using the CyArk blueprint in the case of the South Korean site or await reconstruction using the 3D scan completed before disaster struck in the case of the African tribal tombs.

An advisory board has been set up by the charity, which is based in California and Edinburgh, to choose the sites to be scanned with those deemed "at risk" likely to be given the highest priority.

Mr Kacyra said: "There is an urgency here. One day I would like us to be able to return to Nineveh and do this work there. Wouldn't it be great if, digitally at least, we returned the winged bulls of Nineveh back to where they came from?"