ArchiTrace: An Urban Social History and Mapping Platform

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Angel David Nieves

    Hamilton College

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ArchiTrace: An Urban Social History and Mapping Platform
Nieves, Angel David, Hamilton College, United States of America,
ArchiTrace is a dynamic, web-based markup tool that will allow researchers and content authors to work together in a collaborative co-authoring environment as they build and share architectural drawings, maps, and spatial representations of African urban spaces across a historical timeline. By focusing on the spatial dimensions of the built environment, historical and present-day cityscapes become both the backdrop and interface to a rich archive of cultural heritage assets gathered over the course of their historical development. ArchiTrace will combine a broad range of artifacts such as historical texts and photographs, maps and aerial photographs, providing both cultural and historical context to the depicted regions. Finally, by allowing an audience to watch the transformation of both the spaces and their cultural artifacts evolve over expansive timelines, researchers will be able to follow the historical tracks of the evolution of the regions themselves.

In the example of Soweto, the model housing schemes of the 1950s through the 1980s provided by the state government and its architects were essentially an attempt at social control, but through the inspection of aerial photography and the differences in what was proposed, built, and modified by residents reveals a certain amount of resistance to the ordered panopticon of township housing schemes.

Through the aerial photography captured over a 50-year period, the changes in the city’s physical landscape suggest a form of spatial resistance to the imposed uniformity of the built environment under apartheid. By facilitating architectural and spatial comparisons of this kind through a suite of interactive mapping and comparative tools, ArchiTrace will allow historically embedded social histories to become emergent features of the overall presentation. Where projects like HyperCities focus on the development of the urban form, ArchiTrace facilitates the curation of a biographical narrative in a city’s social history as a way to characterize the development of a region and its people.Todd Presner, “Hypercities: A Case Study for the Future of Scholarly Publishing,” The Shape of Things to Come, ed. Jerome McGann (Houston: Rice University Press, 2010), 251-71. HyperCities provides a blank canvas for understanding urban form, while ArchiTrace will provide a spatial subtext to urban place making.

ArchiTrace’s granular data structure will allow users to inspect fine detail in a city environment at any level of scope, whether tracking the development of entire neighborhoods over decades, or the changes of an individual building’s architecture over the course of mere years. ArchiTrace will offer content authors tools for the creation of data units at several different scopes. Content authors can “curate” the granular layering of spatial information from the level of individual home, block, town or city, to more generalized regional levels. ArchiTrace’s uniquely granular data structure is inspired by architectural “Building lives:” mapping the life cycle of an urban form across a variety of scales and time periods.

ArchiTrace will feature prominent social networking and collaborating tools, allowing researchers and content authors the opportunity to build, share, and co-edit materials within a project collection. This can range from the simple sharing of files within a project’s workspace to the realtime shared editing of text, architectural drawings, and annotations. ArchiTrace aims to facilitate researchers and participants alike in the creation of both collections and exhibits, acting as both an archival and educational platform for researchers and public audience.

By engaging open source software and standards, ArchiTrace aims to create an extensible project platform capable of growing in the many directions promised by forthcoming web technologies. As web-based 3D technology becomes more broadly implemented in future web browsers, we anticipate being able to integrate the models from which our images are derived into an interactive and dynamically-generated 3D environment. Although the initial depictions of ArchiTrace’s cityscapes will begin as 2-dimensional representations, we aim to eventually extend those aerial photographs, maps, and still- image renderings of the project into 3D models.

A recent series of discoveries, in the South African National Archives, provides for some new ways to begin mapping the growth and development of townships over the forty-six year apartheid era. Over the past four months I have come across a cache of maps, architectural plans, aerial photographs and other source documents related to the design and planning of townships across the city of Johannesburg. These drawings and plans suggest, as many historians have previously stated, “the apartheid state remained steadfastly committed to terror” through the design and “layout of the location [townships which] were planned with explicit, detailed attention to the disciplinary potentials of space.”Ivan Evans, Bureaucracy and Race: Native Administration in South Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997). As some have argued, “The tyranny of the planners’ blueprints yielded a degree of spatial compartmentalization whose sheer banality had profound implications for every aspect of urban life.”Ibid. As noted, “when planners reshape the built environment, individuals are compelled to adjust accordingly, reinforcing to some extent the spatial parameters of their oppression.”Ibid. I am however suggesting that individuals and communities impart changing meanings to spatial structures over time. Space not only becomes implicated in the transformation of self-perceptions and the capacities of social groups – space both restrains and enables in some deeply profound ways. Township residents “were neither simple victims of the state nor pure protagonists of resistance” – they negotiated their daily lives through their engagements with racialized space-making. Resistance, among those incarcerated/detained/imprisoned in “planned communities” like Japanese Americans in internment camps, or victims of the Holocaust through concentration camps, is as much about the forging of bonds within space as it is about propelling struggles from one “stage” (or township), to another. How then might we document the “spatial underpinnings of apartheid [era] projects”? After the Soweto Uprising of 1976, the spatial compression, brought on by township planning and design, enabled for the mass proliferation of dense political networks within and between Black residential areas across Johannesburg. How might we then use spatial tools to document the history of resistance, while also telling the story of the ways in which residents converted the bureaucratic and spatial impediments to political mobilization into weapons of struggle? These and other questions – that have yet to be formulated – are the basis for developing ArchiTrace.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2011
"Big Tent Digital Humanities"

Hosted at Stanford University

Stanford, California, United States

June 19, 2011 - June 22, 2011

151 works by 361 authors indexed

XML available from (still needs to be added)

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (6)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None