Building Better Cathedrals

How art history scholar Caroline Bruzelius used technology to create and improve her iconic Gothic cathedrals course

DURHAM — Your mom may be cool, but did she ever strap you to her chest and carry you to the top of Notre Dame Cathedral?

Caroline Bruzelius, as an assistant art history professor at Duke, did just that in 1986 when her son Anders was just three weeks old.

Bruzelius had just received permission to scale the scaffolding to study and measure the medieval building’s stones while the famous Paris cathedral was under renovation. Those opportunities don’t come along every day to researchers in her field.

 “I was nursing the baby so I couldn’t exactly leave him behind on the trip; It was the only way I could do my work,” Bruzelius reflected recently. “He must be only baby who has been up 108 feet off the ground, in a Snuggie, in Notre Dame Cathedral.”

Anders is all grown up now and Bruzelius, 36 years after coming to Duke, is heading into retirement in 2018. Her teaching career has, at its core, always been about one thing: studying how old buildings were made. But these aren’t any old buildings. These are some of the world’s great monuments to art, religion and culture built in medieval times in places like Rome, Naples and Venice.

These days, Bruzelius no longer climbs atop scaffolding or otherwise risks her or her family’s safety to do her work. She is among many scholars at Duke and elsewhere whose fields have been demonstrably shaken — improved, revolutionized and substantively changed — by technology. For Bruzelius and the students who have taken her iconic design-your-own-medieval-cathedral course over the years, hand drawings begat two-dimensional designs which begat moving, 3D images that look more like a movie than an artist’s rendering of an ancient cathedral.

“Caroline’s Gothic Cathedrals is a signature course of the Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies,” said Sheila Dillon, professor and chair of the department. “Its reputation among the undergraduates is clearly demonstrated by the fact that it always fills and fast, and almost always has a waitlist. From talking with students who have taken the class, it is clear that it was a transformational experience for them.”

Students research the design, materials and financing involved in the construction of a world-class monument.

Over the years, Bruzelius has continually tweaked the course, the rapid-fire improvement in available tools providing a marked advantage in the classroom.

“We have very few documents on the construction of buildings from the middle ages, so the documents are the buildings themselves,” she said. “Notre Dame was built over 100 years. So how can you understand a mega-building like that? When digital technology showed up, this is what I had wanted my whole life. This was my answer to time and process and question that I couldn’t answer before. It was like walking onto a new planet.”

Her task has always been to explain what she calls the ‘flow’ of a building’s history — how it was built, renovated, re-built and changed over time. Understanding the flow helps you understand not only what a building looked like, but how people did it, the materials they used, the money they spent, the time it took.

When her teaching career began, her tools were rudimentary by today’s standards. In groups of four, students set out to design their own cathedrals — accurate structurally and aesthetically and a proper reflection of the time period. Each student played a role: one as a historian, another as the architect; a third devising the project’s budget while another decided which icons — angels, saints or other thematic symbols — would be featured.

In the 1980s and 1990s, her students sketched these designs by hand, using graph paper.

The first tech revolution arrived around 2000 thanks to AutoCAD, a design software commonly used by architects. She hired an engineering student to teach the tool while she focused on other parts of the class. The results were immediate.

“The drawings all of a sudden were very professional-looking,” she recounted. “They had to be meticulous. The students were learning a really great skill. They were creating things with significant detail and precision.”

It’s worth noting that the new technology didn’t make life easier or faster for students, Bruzelius said. In fact, it made their work more rigorous, in that the software allowed for more detail and precision.

Around the same time, Duke’s Art and Art History department added ‘visual studies’ to its title, a merger that drew students and faculty members from other arts and sciences areas like media studies and engineering. This expansion of ideas eventually led to the WIRED Lab, a workspace where Bruzelius and other faculty and students have spent the last eight years using digital tools to re-create old buildings and, in the case of the ongoing Visualizing Venice project, mapping the development of an entire city.

Evolving technology has changed the field and the class. Structures are now modeled on computers and 3D printers turn the designs into tangible objects.

The Wired! Lab started using a new software called SketchUp, which allowed old building plans to be transformed into 3D models. Later, another new tool called Maya arrived. It too allowed for even better digital modeling of the buildings Bruzelius and her team were trying to imagine and re-imagine.

3D software allows researchers to not only create models of buildings that no longer exist, but also project how those buildings evolved over years of use.

“I feel apostolic about this technology because it’s life-changing and discipline-changing,” she said. “The more we can get our students thinking critically about how things were made, the better. And technology is always changing. Things are possible that weren’t possible before, and that’s exciting.”

 In her career home stretch, Bruzelius looks around the Wired! Lab’s Smith Warehouse headquarters and wonders aloud what she’s going to do with the 36 years of accumulated drawings, designs, texts, reports and other evidence of generations of student work on medieval cathedrals. Perhaps she can leave them behind when she finally departs. Duke has hired a new art historian, Edward Triplett, who plans to take over the cathedral class, perhaps broadening it to include castles as well. He will begin teaching this fall; the course is already filled, with several students on the waitlist.  

“This course has been a Duke tradition,” Bruzelius said. “I’m very pleased it will continue.”

by Eric Ferreri, originally published at: https://stories.duke.edu/building-better-cathedrals-bruzelius with video and photographs.