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Graduate students make unusual model of proposed slavery memorial

What were once drawings and a model for a slavery memorial have been brought to life by two graduate students who devised an animated, computerized architectural model that lets viewers "travel" through the proposed island monument.

The work by master's degree candidate Gregory Anderson and doctoral candidate Lawrence Sass began in 1993 when local artist Paul Goodnight and architect Don Stull of Stull and Lee in Boston approached the department, seeking someone who could animate their vision of a Boston Harbor memorial to the Middle Passage. The term refers to the intermediate leg of the triangular slave-trade route that operated from 1619 to the mid-1800s. In the first leg, trading ships left Europe for Africa; there, they captured slaves for the "middle passage" to Boston and other North American ports as well as the Caribbean, where the slaves were sold. Ships brought New World goods including spices and cotton back to Europe on the third segment of their journey.

Messrs. Sass and Anderson set about the task of designing a piece of animation that would be not just an architectural illustration, but also a video that would be interesting and sophisticated enough to be used as a fund-raising tool. "If you can't read [architectural] drawings, how are you going to get your idea across? We realized the general public needed a higher level of reality," Mr. Sass explained. The result of two years of work (which was separate from their thesis projects) won Architectural Record's first prize in computer delineation, beating out entries from more than 80 other architectural firms and designers. The project will also be featured on PBS' "MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour" sometime this fall.

In the four-minute animation, the viewer "approaches" a small, low harbor island from sea level. On the island is the monument, which consists of a hollow cube 80 feet high perched on a pyramid. The viewer enters the cube, which represents the New World and which contains a boardwalk over a pool of water symbolizing the ocean over which the slaves traveled. The interior walls are covered with glazed ceramic tiles of African artwork, and a crevice at the top allows visitors to see the passage of the sun across the sky. The swooping, zooming virtual camera and changing light give a much better sense of what the structure would really be like than drawings or still-animations could. "Very seldom do you get a chance to use a camera not limited by gravity," Mr. Sass noted.

Central to the animation project are the historical events that the monument itself will try to convey. Although video "walk-throughs" of proposed buildings are not new in architecture, the two students wanted to convey more than just the physical structure. "Typically, there's no story behind the walk-through," Mr. Anderson said. "It doesn't really inform you about the symbolism."

"A good animation comes from a good story-it's just like a movie," Mr. Sass added. "This way of displaying a building has not been employed in our profession."

To get a better sense of what the Middle Passage was all about, Mr. Sass made a research trip to the west coast of Africa, talking to experts and visiting the still-standing "slave castles" where captured people were held in cages while awaiting the arrival of a ship to take them away. (A matching monument designed by an African architect is planned for an island off the coast of that continent.) "He came back with so much conviction that it changed the way we approached the project," Mr. Anderson said.

Messrs. Sass and Anderson also had to research different types of software (eventually settling on a package called Radiance), as well as write some of their own. They also watched movies like Star Wars and Jurassic Park to glean special-effects and movie-editing techniques. "It was definitely a self-taught type of experience," Mr. Anderson said.

Some elements of the monument's appearance will be different than those shown in the animation, since the students had to provide detail that the artist and architect have not yet finalized. For example, a location has not been secured, so Messrs. Sass and Anderson worked from photographs of Sandwich Island in Boston harbor. The interior artwork was based on scanned images of calendar pages showing African-American art.

Though they started the project knowing little about the Middle Passage and the slave trade, Messrs. Anderson and Sass hope their work will contribute towards realization of a monument that could have as much impact as the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, or the Holocaust Museum. It could be years before the political and financial hurdles are cleared, "but if I could see it built in my lifetime, I could die happy," Mr. Anderson said.

Funding for the project was provided by the office of Isaac Colbert, associate dean of the Graduate School, and the Department of Architecture. William Mitchell, dean of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning, is faculty advisor to Messrs. Anderson and Sass, who also received technical assistance from Phil Thompson, research associate in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and John DeValpine, a fellow graduate student in architecture.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 13, 1995.

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