Urban exploration or urbex is the exploration of human-made spaces that are generally inaccessible and hidden away from the general public. Recording the visit of these ‘forgotten’ spaces through photography is a main component of this phenomenon which has resulted in a wealth of urban exploration photos and videos of abandoned sites.
Urbex destinations are located worldwide and include a wide range of abandoned sites. Belgium has been a very popular destination for urban explorers and Château de Noisy, a neo-gothic castle in Belgium dating back to the 19
th century was a very famous destination which was demolished in 2017. There is a rich collection of urbex materials on this building which urban explorers have shared through various online platforms, such as personal websites, Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr. The latter has become a significant repository of urban exploration photographs.
Regardless of the social and political complexities of this phenomenon, urban exploration is intertwined with abandoned historic sites and in recent years the potential of urban exploration for preservation of heritage has been brought to the attention of academia. Considering that urban exploration is becoming increasingly popular, the importance and possible contribution of this activity and its records for research on abandoned heritage sites cannot be neglected.
This research focuses on the documentation and information management of abandoned heritage sites and looks into the potentials of the rich collection of existing digital urbex resources for their preservation by exploring their content and new means of representation and engagement. The unique value of such iconographic data can be attributed to the fact that normally these abandoned sites are inaccessible to the general public. Hence these photos and videos can shed light on these unknown places, and with the right utilization can not only document and digitally preserve some aspects of the valuable heritage but also can bring public attention to heritage sites that may still be saved from deterioration and revived.
To explore the potentials of urbex produced materials for heritage preservation, concentrating on the rich collection of urbex data of numerous abandoned sites, this research aims to gain insights into the urbex scene and its evolution. Moreover, focusing on Château de Noisy, considering that the prevalent methods of documentation of a historic site which require physical access and presence are not applicable, it aims to explore the potential of ‘distant documentation’ by investigating the application of existing tools and software to create a new approach for the preservation of abandoned and even demolished heritage sites and their story. To reach these objectives, focusing on Flickr and using the Flickr API service, two Flickr Dataset are collected: One of general photos related to urban exploration on Flickr (from 2000 to 2017) and another which includes the specific photos of Château de Noisy on Flickr. To collect, prepare, visualize, analyse, create and present the data for this study multiple tools and methods are employed: Python Scripting Language (collection and preparation), Tableau Desktop (visualization and analysis), Voyant (textual analysis), ContextCapture (creation/reconstruction) and WebStorm (presentation via the creation of a website).
Terminology of the urbex Flickr photo titles and visualizing the distribution of the urbex Flickr photos, led to interesting insights into the urbex scene. Furthermore, the collected and downloaded images of Château de Noisy from Flickr offer insights into this abandoned building carrying information on diverse aspects such as its function, materials (and pathology), structure and context over the course of many years.
Château de Noisy was demolished without being given the chance for detailed documentation through advanced
in situ techniques. Using the ContextCapture software and a selection of the images and videos of the castle that were identified through retrieving the images of the Château de Noisy Flickr Dataset, a 3D mesh model of the building and its immediate context is created. This scalable 3D reconstructed model can allow a flexible interactive experience of the site and can be used to curate and create an immersive experience of the exterior of the building and its immediate context while providing additional heritage information. A digital reconstruction of the building and subsequent narration that builds upon this vessel can create an engaging and immersive experience for the public and digitally preserve the ‘fairytale castle’ building that once stood in Celles. The experience of such distant documentation of Château de Noisy can also be implemented in other heritage sites which are demolished or inaccessible. For buildings that still exist, raising awareness of its current state and heritage values can lead to their potential preservation and revival.
Figure 1. Image extract from the reconstructed 3D model of Château de Noisy
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