When three architecture researchers discovered that their London studio was going to be steamrolled – alongside several buildings nearby – to make room for the new High Speed 2 (HS2) railway, they turned to virtual reality. The result, Palimpsest, named after the ancient practice of overwriting parchment manuscripts, recreates the ghosts of neighbourhoods past, using 3D scans of buildings and people to create immersive records of changing cities.
“It’s a historical document,” says John Russell Beaumont, 27, one of Palimpsest’s creators at University College London’s Bartlett School of Architecture. With co-creators Takashi Torisu and Haavard Tveito, Beaumont scanned the soon-to-be-inaccessible St James’s Gardens in Euston with LiDAR rigs and used them as a blueprint for a walkable virtual stage peppered with 3D videos of buildings and interviews with residents.
Palimpsest currently only runs on Oculus Rift, but Beaumont intends to adapt it for Tango, Google’s augmented-reality platform that allows users to 3D-scan environments with their smartphones. “With Tango on their phones, [users can] scan their houses and maybe record a video of themselves talking about their experiences and concerns,” he says.
Beaumont believes Palimpsest could become a forum where past, present and future versions of the same place coexist – and are discussed publicly, allowing citizens to deal with upsetting redevelopments in their communities. “Right now, if people need information, they have to go to a developer’s office – on the developer’s ‘turf’ – and ask questions there,” says Beaumont. “On Palimpsest, developers themselves would come on the platform and say: ‘OK, here are our proposals,’ and show you digital projects you can walk around in virtual reality.”
The trio is now aiming its scanners at Hackney Wick, another area undergoing sudden mutation. Can VR lessen the blow of gentrification? Possibly, Beaumont says, if only psychologically – “I see it as cathartic,” he says. “In these situations, people just like to be listened to.”