In the midst of the COVID pandemic everything seems to be virtual. Virtual school, virtual work, and virtual meetings now dominate many of our lives. This has been made possible largely by the development of the high-speed internet and servers powerful enough to record, combine, and then project images over it to our home computers.

There is a similar phenomenon operating in the world of architecture, real estate, and museums. Since it is not currently safe to travel to these places to see and experience them first hand, a series of new technologies are helping bring those spaces to us.

The simplest of the technologies is the video tour. This will take a person on the internet through a house or building but on a fixed, unchanging path. YouTube has become a repository of thousands of video real estate ads for people who would like to see a house or building for sale but do not want to have to negotiate the protocols to see it in person safely.

These video tours were recently created to show the three projects selected for the Doris Duke Preservation Awards by a jury pulled from the City of Newport and the Newport Restoration Foundation. The winners this year were the Commodore Edgar House (McKim, Mead, & White, 1885); the Newport casino Frieze Restoration (McKim, Mead, & White, 1880); and the BankNewport Restoration (Thomas & James, 1929). The annual awards will be held (virtually of course) on September 11th, 2020. Here is a link to a sneak peak of the Edgar House or watch it below:

A similar but more advanced variant of the video tour is the computer animation. As computer speed and processing power continues to advance exponentially, architects are able to create Matrix-like environments with shade, shadow, reflection and realistic materials to create sequential tours like the real estate video tours, but of spaces and buildings which exist only in the computer and the imagination of the designer. These have become powerful and useful tools to help clients, design team members, contractors, and others in color what is proposed.

Of greater sophistication than the video tour is the Matterport tour. This is a three-dimensional depiction of a space made from many thousands of photographs taken from hundreds of locations. This allows someone on the computer to choose their own path and to see the entire space in 360° from any one of the predetermined spots often marked with a faint ring on the floor or wall. The Preservation Society of Newport County created Matterport tours of some of its most visited properties like Hunter House, Marble House, and the Elms to satisfy people’s appetite to see the real thing before they reopened in the summer. These tours can be found at this link.

So, while we are more or less confined to our residences, thankfully new, powerful, and exciting technologies are helping us get and stay connected to great Newport architecture. As things continue to advance rapidly, I do not think it will be many years before we will be able to put on a virtual headset and travel to great buildings here and elsewhere and experience them almost as if we were able to visit them in person.


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Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, is an historian, educator and practicing architect at A4 Architecture who lives and works in Newport, Rhode Island. He was a 2013 and 2020 recipient of the Doris Duke Preservation Award and has served on the Marble House committee for nearly two decades.