Virtual Splendor

November 30, 2008
A virtual cathedral

Courtesy of Charles Sparkman

Senior Charles Sparkman spent this past summer designing a magnificent Gothic cathedral featuring stained-glass windows inspired by those at Canterbury Cathedral and substantial columns built to endure. But his architectural accomplishment, though impressive, exists only in a virtual world.

The design project, part of a fellowship offered by Duke's Visual Studies Initiative, allowed Sparkman to apply lessons learned in two courses offered by the department of art, art history, and visual studies.

The first was a course on "Gothic Cathedrals" taught by Caroline Bruzelius, Anne M. Coogan Professor of art and visual studies. It invited students to examine medieval European cathedrals from various perspectives, investigating financing, the history of the sites and relics, and the artistic and structural developments—as well as the technology—that made the construction of such buildings possible.

In the course, students were divided into groups of three and asked to create virtual cathedrals. One member was responsible for writing about the building's history; another for designing its stained-glass windows and iconography. Sparkman took the third role, generating basic, two-dimensional architectural plans using computer software called AutoCad.

After drafting his group's plans, Sparkman, who also studied three-dimensional modeling using Maya software in a course on "Virtual Form and Space," spent the summer building on them. He presented his creation in the Duke Immersive Visual Environment, a six-sided virtual-reality theater. After distributing pairs of special 3-D glasses, he used a hand-held wand to guide visitors on a tour of its massive, historically accurate interior.

This wasn't Sparkman's first foray into building design. He studied architecture at Tulane University before transferring to Duke in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.