Spatial Humanities

I recently came across an article in the New York Times about the relatively new field of spatial-humanities and its application of GIS to discover, interpret and broadcast current and historical information in digital, spatial maps to broaden understanding of space, place and people. Widely used by historians to reconstruct events and locations in more accurate and comprehensive ways that before, it is also used by archaeologists, literary theorists, and others to analyze real and imagined landscapes.

Prominent projects conducted thus far include a complete digital recreation of the Battle of Gettysburg, as well as of Salem, Massachusetts during the witch trials. Studying Salem from a spatial humanities approach revealed never before realized facets of church affiliation, judge behavior, courtroom habits, types of evidence admitted, and more that contributed to the hysteria of the time. David Bodenhamer, a historian at Indiana University, says that GIS technologies “make it possible to analyze complex and changing patterns of political preferences, religious affiliation, migration and cultural influence in fresh ways by linking them to geography.”

Others have chosen to use spatial-humanities to create maps on globalization and trade, urban studies, and even digital musicology, in which scholars create spatial representations of harmonic form.

The Scholar’s Lab at the University of Virginia Library has created a website to give access to the new field of spatial-humanities, including current projects, readings and research and how to get involved. Projects and groups abound in diversity, including architecture, anthropology, archaeology, literary space, political science, psychology, linguistics, geography, environmental history, and more.

So where does this come into play for architecture? Uses abound, as many existing projects demonstrate. Hypercities explores the historical layers of city spaces in an interactive and hypermedia environment, allowing users to see where cities have been, how they have gotten to where they are, and where they may be heading. Imagine being able to create a digital map, complete with layers including the previous 20 years of population density and demographics, changing shape of public and private space, successful and failed development, as well as up-to-the-minute information of numbers of people checking in with foursquare, local ticket sales, apartment vacancies, daily traffic density, etc. This would not only reveal tremendous depth of information about the ephemeral city, but also how people use and interact with the city, and how the culture and dynamic of a neighborhood has metamorphosed over time. Further, this would all be a presented in a spatial and digital manner, allowing users to turn layers on and off to see different spatial and cultural relationships in the city.

As a tool for anthropologists, sociologists, architects, city planners and more, there is tremendous potential to understand the city and its inhabitants in new ways, which can only lead to new methods of collaboration and new ideas for how we design and build for ourselves.

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