Archaeology as Study of the Future

Dominik Lengyel (BTU Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus-Senftenberg) & Catherine Toulouse (Lengyel Toulouse Architects Berlin)

There is no question that archaeology’s first goal is to research the past. However, the very fact that this research is carried out with a contemporary view makes its relation to the present clear. Thus, the interpretation of the significance of findings for the future is not long in coming. This applies to all findings: social, economic, but also architectural. For example, archaeological research reveals spatial and typological connections and, in some cases, proves the universality of conditions and circumstances that are perhaps taken for granted and which are perpetuated in the future, such as the use of rectangular openings in walls as connections between rooms. The shaping of the future is thus already inherent in archaeology. The concrete shaping of the future, however, is the responsibility of creative disciplines such as architecture, which for its part, however, always looks to the past for both distinction and inspiration.

Thus, the entire history of building serves as a source not only for the knowledge of the architectural past as such, but also as a field of investigation of already completed experiments. Every planning process is preceded by the thorough study of existing examples, especially those of the same building typology. Conclusions are drawn from experiences with existing architecture, the structural and aesthetic successes of actual buildings as well as any supposed and assumed mistakes of predecessors, whose resolution is attempted with the new plan.

In addition, there is the historical reflection of one's own position in the history of architecture. Depending on an individual’s personal attitude, this can lead to completely different results in an otherwise identical design task, depending on whether the plan is to seek a break with the past or a continuous development from it. However, more profane constraints (such as building costs) can also lead to decisions that would be difficult to explain otherwise.

More important in terms of the responsibility of planning for society and the environment are assumptions about the needs of the future. This is because the lifespan of a building now plays a greater role once again, making versatility, but also longevity and overall sustainability a decisive factor in architectural planning and design. This is where archaeology comes into play. In many cases, buildings in the distant past were designed to be much more durable than in in recent times. Archaeology can be extremely insightful with regards to structural longevity.

Archaeology and architecture certainly have one thing in common: the way they deal with uncertainties. Ruins often do not reveal the upper floors’ room plan in archaeology just as architectural clients often do not think about the window tiling while dealing with the overall building size. Especially the record of the past is almost always fragmentary (often very much so). We rarely get a complete glimpse of past realities; hence interpretation is rife with assumptions and inferences. Such uncertainties are immanent, i.e. they are unavoidable and must be accepted, both in the study of the past and in planning for the future.

When viewing the architecture of the past, we must recognize that vanished parts of buildings may have clearly existed (e.g. walls over foundations), but their form, appearance, materiality and structure remain assumptions, no matter how well-founded those assumptions may be. Dealing with uncertainty is therefore an essential part of archaeology, as it is of course of research in general.

Planning for the future is equally uncertain. It is simply not possible to predict what demands will be. In architecture, however, this begins at the very first step, usually when architecture is commissioned by a third party. Then the architect acts as mediator between the client and his or her ideas. The skill of the architectural design process lies in progressing steadily from the general to the specific, from the abstract to the concrete, first giving the client a rough idea and then gradually planning the building in ever greater detail in order to maintain the client's influence as consistently as possible. Dealing with uncertainty is, therefore, just as much an essential part of architecture as it is of other creative vocations on the whole.

The importance of visualisation

The central competence of the discipline of visualisation is not only to recognise this uncertainty as an integral part of the disciplines and to use it consciously in research and planning, but also to present it adequately (Lengyel and Toulouse, 2021a). Unlike language, which is already abstract in itself, visualisations are often measured against physical reality. Language can certainly form the basis for considering different degrees of abstraction. Attributes generally serve concreteness, so the distinction between a small and a large house is as clear as it is unfocussed. The decisive difference between verbal and visual language, however, is familiarity and, thus, acceptance. Even the stand-alone term ‘house’ evokes significantly less irritation than its visual counterpart.

The wide range of abstraction of verbal architectural hypotheses in archaeology can be translated into equally abstract visualisations. Their visual abstraction while in some cases markedly clear, seems unusual at first glance. This is mainly because such visual abstractions stand out from the current trend of photorealistic experiences. Yet the tradition of abstract representation in the form of drawings or sketches (including views and floor plans, or even rough sketches) is well founded. Just like verbal language, abstract representations are able to reproduce statements much more precisely than can a photorealistic representation. This applies both to hypotheses in archaeology as well as to design ideas in architecture.

Herein lies the potential of the uncertain visualisation of archaeological hypotheses for architecture. In general, archaeologists describe architecture from precise points of view, such as in terms of pure spatial structure or merely in relation to geometric proportions or the connections of topology. These are aspects of architecture that must also have been harmonised during planning. This search for a harmonious whole is the reason for the progressive development of architecture during the planning phase. Reflection on what has been achieved in intermediate steps—whether in the form of drawings or models—is usually the decisive instrument of design, much rather than the early photorealistic vision (Lengyel and Schaerer, 2020).

The process of architectural design is, of course, highly individual. A wide variety of influencing factors determine both the procedure and the result. But the object of the design is always balanced against what already exists. Both architecture which is physically constructed as well as that which is merely planned is known to the designer. Already here the differences are uncertain, as very few designers have actually visited all the buildings that they identify as inspirational for their design in physical reality. In this way, drawing inspiration has both an attractive and a delimiting effect. According to the unwritten professional ethos in architecture, the planned building must be different from any existing building. At the same time, it should at least maintain (if not further enhance) the known qualities of its predecessors. In a sense, the design process fluctuates in constant tension between differences and similarities.

The decomposition of architecture into its parameters (such as the above-mentioned proportion and topology, for example) is a common method in design. The analysis—here literally the division of the complex whole—allows for separate consideration of the individual aspects. The visualisation of uncertainty in archaeology pursues precisely this in the translation of hypothetical statements. Once broken down, these components allow for synthesis into new architecture. And this is precisely where the great potential of archaeology for architecture lies. Archaeology describes the connection between spatial needs and planning solutions in the past, so that many components do find their way into the pool of planning and design comparable with actual buildings. Timeless phenomena, such as the drainage of settlements through the targeted arrangement of roof pitches in conjunction with cisterns and sewage pipes is a still unchanged necessity with countless (and also ancient!) models for dealing with it. This very problem has quite verifiable solutions that are no longer observable through personal experience, but instead can be found in the archaeological record.

Some examples of uncertainty visualisations

The following examples of visualisations of hypotheses about architecture are intended to illustrate how aspects of planning can be transferred.

Cooperation with the German Archaeological Institute on the visualisation of the mountain city of Pergamon in what is modern day Turkey around 300 CE produced a particular challenge. See Figure 7a. One of the central issues was to visually reflect the discovery that the mountain was almost completely covered with constructions on two sides. See Figure 7b. The difficulty, however, was the uncertainty surrounding the fact that, on the one hand, it was clearly established through keyhole excavation that building development was very dense, even on steep slopes, but that there were no traces of most individual buildings. See Figure 7c.

To bridge this gap, it was necessary to develop a synthetic urban texture. In the sense of architectural design, this represented the certainties of the structure in an otherwise abstract way and conveyed them equally clearly through the existing context. The result is a city texture that represents every single individual building as a simple prism, while it represents the city as a whole according to the rules of ancient architecture. See Figure 7d.

Figure 7. a. Pergamon. Overall view around 200 CE; b. Pergamon. View from opposite hill; c. Pergamon. View from opposite hill; d. Pergamon. Eastern slope. All images © Lengyel and Toulouse, BTU Cottbus. Used with permission.

Figure 8. a. Pergamon. Altar of Zeus; b. Pergamon. Sanctuary of Athena; c. Pergamon. Sanctuary of Traian; d. Pergamon. Royal palace V. All images © Lengyel and Toulouse, BTU Cottbus. Used with permission.

These rules consist of a system of passable paths, stairs, terrain work, spatial dimensions, spatial arrangements and building arrangements as well as a functioning drainage system, readable from the arrangement of the roof pitches. Thus, for the first time, the well-known buildings of Pergamon such as the Great Altar (Figure 8a), building complexes such as the Athena Sanctuary (Figure 8b) or the Roman Trajaneum (Figure 8c), but also much less well-preserved ones such as the palace (Figure 8d) can be presented in an urban context (Figure 9a). Beyond this, however, the qualities of the urban planning of ancient Pergamon can measure up to those of extant cities, provided that these too are examined through abstraction, i.e. concentration on their structure (Laufer et al. 2012).

Take another example. Cologne, Germany was founded in the Roman period. The slow decay and loose settlement structures of the Early Middle Ages changed through slowly manifesting structures in the Late Middle Ages to produce a street system that can still be read today. Over the course of visualising the building phases of Cologne Cathedral (Figure 9b), we learned that even the extremely uncertain representation of buildings (vertical prisms standing on their sides above a pentagonal base with two right angles) is capable of adequately but also specifically reproducing clear urban planning hypotheses from archaeology. These can be drawn not only diagrammatically in model-like axonometric overview representations, but can also be converted to an immersive pedestrian perspective. See Figure 9c. Despite abstraction, taking a perspective from the natural eye level clarifies how even partly hypothetical buildings such as the Old Cathedral would have appeared in relation to existent building segments, such as the Gothic choir of the Cathedral today as well as and what spatial influence their presence may have exerted (Figure 9d), even if the details remain unknown (Schock-Werner, Lengyel and Toulouse, 2011).

Figure 9. a. Pergamon. Acropolis and castle gate. © Lengyel and Toulouse, BTU Cottbus. Used with permission; b. Cologne. Urban structure 1st–11th century CE; c. Cologne. Old Cathedral, 11th century CE; d. Cologne. Cologne Cathedral 11th–16th century CE Figure 3. b-d. © Lengyel Toulouse Architects, Berlin. Used with permission.

Similar assumptions often lead to similar solutions. The structure of modern theatres to lead visitors from a foyer (Figure 10a) (which serves the purpose of social exchange) via a more or less compact staircase into the auditorium (where on entering the overwhelming spatial effect is exaggerated in order to enrich the visitor’s experience) was already manifest in antiquity (Figure 10b).

Figure 10. a. Dyrrachium. Entry zone of amphitheatre, 1st century CE; b. Dyrrachium. Model access to cavea of amphitheatre; c. Dyrrachium. External facade of amphitheatre. All images © Lengyel Toulouse Architects, Berlin. Used with permission.

Figure 11. a. Dyrrachium. Exit to cavea of amphitheatre; b. Rome. Phases of transformation of Palatine palaces, 1st–3rd century CE; c. Rome. Flavian Palace on Palatine Hill in Rome around 300 CE, axial. All images © Lengyel Toulouse Architects, Berlin. Used with permission.

The visualisation of the ancient Amphitheatre of Dyrrachium, sponsored by the Gerda Henkel Foundation in cooperation with Prof. Henner von Hesberg, takes the same approach (Figure 10c). This visualisation makes it possible to experience the different and, above all, differently long and winding access routes to the respective seating groups as simulated in walk-throughs (Figure 11a).

In this way, fundamental architectural issues are addressed that are reflected and reflected upon anew in every building, namely: visitor guidance, orientation, attractiveness and (last but not least) safety, also in the event of evacuation (Lengyel and Toulouse, 2021b).

Figure 12. a. Rome. Flavian Palace on Palatine Hill in Rome around 300 CE, diametral; b. Rome. Domus Severiana on Palatine Hill, 1st century CE. All images © Lengyel Toulouse Architects, Berlin. Used with permission.

Abstract architectural qualities such as generosity, representativeness or even monumentality can be found in the architecture of all periods. This is also the case in the courtyards of the imperial palaces on the Palatine (Figure 11b) in Rome, Italy of which not much more than the foundation walls have survived (Märtin and Wulf-Rheidt, 2012). Their uncertain visualisation, which shows nothing but hypotheses supported by findings of building researchers and established by analogies, illustrates all the more the significance for the architectural planning of the future (Figures 11c and 12a). Especially in view of the current trend towards historicism, it cannot be excluded that a more or less similar spatial impression will not be realised again in the future (Figure 12b). In any case, the benchmark is high, and the visual reference is herewith present, simply by virtue of the architectural view of archaeology – a view which must of course be interpretively rigorous, but also creative.


  • Laufer, E., Lengyel, D., Pirson, F., Stappmanns, V., Toulouse, C. (2012) ‘Die Wiederentstehung Pergamons als virtuelles Stadtmodell‘, in: R. Grüßinger, V. Kästner, A. Scholl (ed.): Pergamon. Panorama der antiken Metropole : Begleitbuch zur Ausstellung. Petersberg: Michael Imhof Verlag, pp. 82–86.
  • Märtin, R.-P., Wulf-Rheidt, U. (2012) ‘Räume verwandeln. Der Palatin in Rom‘ in: Excellence Cluster Topoi (ed.): Jenseits des Horizonts. Raum und Wissen in den Kulturen der Alten Welt. Stuttgart: Theiss, pp. 12–23.
  • Lengyel, D., Schaerer, P. (2020) ‘Visualisation‘ in: L. Hovestadt, U. Hirschberg, O. Fritz (ed.): Atlas of Digital Architecture: Terminology, Concepts, Methods, Tools, Examples, Phenomena. Basel: Verlag Birkhäuser, pp. 284–323
  • Lengyel, D., Toulouse, C. (2021b) ‘Visual Mediation of Unique Construction and Access Principles of the Amphitheatre of Durrës’ in: BCS Learning & Development Ltd. (ed.) Electronic Visualisation and the Arts London 2021 Conference. DOI 10.14236/ewic/EVA2021.8 (Accessed 01.01.2023)
  • Lengyel, D., Toulouse, C. (2021a) ‘Prinzipien der visuellen Vermittlung von Kulturerbe. Wahrnehmung, Tradition und Digitalisierung‘ in: Arbeitsgruppe formation continue NIKE/BAK/ICOMOS (ed.): Digiarch 2021 – Kulturerbe im digitalen Zeitalter / Patrimoine culturel à l’ère numérique, Schriftenreihe zur Kulturgüter-Erhaltung 7. Basel: Schwabe Verlag, pp. 60–65
  • Schock-Werner, B., Lengyel, D. and Toulouse, C. (2011) Die Bauphasen des Kölner Domes und seiner Vorgängerbauten. Cologne Cathedral and Preceding Buildings. Köln: Verlag Kölner Dom.


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