Visualizing the Mountain Estate: Landscape, Architecture and Experience in Chengde

Team Members Participating:

Biju Dhanapalan
Associate Professor, Visual Effects and Animation
School of Art, Design and Media, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Hedren Sum – @hedrensum
Digital Scholarship Librarian
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Stephen Whiteman – @stephen_whitemn
Senior Lecturer, Art History
University of Sydney, Australia

Project Summary:

Visualizing the Mountain Estate (VME) explores the shifting architectural, experiential, and imaginative dimensions of an early modern Chinese imperial park. It marries 3-D modelling with GIS-based analysis and data-rich annotation into a dynamic research and presentation resource for the study of Chinese historical landscapes. Drawing together disparate historical and contemporary sources, VME engages questions of architectural, environmental, and cultural history through computational analysis and interactive presentation. Its framework enables productive dialogue across disciplines and technologies to create a dynamic, interactive platform for iterative development and evolving research and discovery.

The project focuses on the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) imperial park, Bishu shanzhuang—the Mountain Estate to Escape the Heat. Consisting at its greatest extent of more than 250 architectural complexes spread over nearly 3500 acres, Bishu shanzhuang was by far the largest and most elaborate Qing garden. It stood at the heart of an imperial circuit through which emperors toured, relaxed, and conducted state business for up to seven months a year. Built in numerous stages over almost the entire 18th c., followed by 200 years of decay and reconstruction, its historical stratigraphy is now hidden beneath veneers of modern preservation, academic historiography, and touristic presentation.

VME reconstructs the park’s physical environs and its experience over time through mapping, modelling and interactivity. It is developed from the Bishu shanzhuang Historical GIS (BSSZ HGIS in Dropbox), which records chronological, architectural, experiential, and other data relating to each structure within the park’s built environment, as well as its topography and hydrology. Assembled from archival records, critical readings of period texts and images, and extensive fieldwork, the database is being expanded for 3-D modelling. Utilizing a custom-built interface, researchers and other users will be able to query the database for their own research as well as explore ongoing team projects.

By incorporating images, texts, and narrative accounts as integral parts of its approaches to data, research, and interpretation, VME extends beyond a reconstruction of stratigraphy to visualize alternative forms of the landscape. Whether imagined or depicted, the critical analysis of such landscapes is crucial to our sense of how the space was conceived, understood, and experienced. Thus, a monumental portrait of the site ca. 1710 contributes architectural and horticultural information, but is also modelled in relation to a 1708 account of touring the garden and to the site itself. Borrowing digital tools and methods from film pre-production, visual effects, and gaming to complement those from geography, art and architectural history, and material culture, VME’s framework creates new opportunities for engaging with dynamic historical environments.

Presentation Slides (PDF)

Visualizing the Mountain Estate (web alpha)