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August 1, 2018

Using ‘facial recognition’ technology on buildings to unlock architectural secrets

About a decade ago, a modest update to Apple’s iPhoto software showed me a new way to study architectural history. The February 2009 update added facial recognition, allowing users to tag friends and loved ones in their photos. After a few faces were tagged, the software would begin to offer suggestions.
But it wasn’t always accurate. Though Apple’s algorithm continues to improve, it had a tendency to find faces in objects — not just statues or sculptures of people, but even cats or Christmas trees. For me, the possibilities became clearest when iPhoto confused a human friend of mine — I’ll call him Mike — with a building called the Great Mosque of Cordoba.
The ceiling of the mosque’s forecourt supposedly resembled Mike’s brown hair. The layering of two Visigothic archways supposedly resembled the area between Mike’s hairline and the edge of his brow. Finally, the related alignment of the Moorish cusped arches with their striped stonework resembled Mike’s eyes and nose just enough that the software thought a 10th-century mosque was the face of a 21st-century human.
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Rather than viewing this as a failure, I realized I had found a new insight: Just as people’s faces have features that can be recognized by algorithms, so do buildings. That began my effort to perform facial recognition on buildings — or, more formally, “architectural biometrics.” Buildings, like people, may just have biometric identities too.
In the late 19th century, railway stations were built across Canada and the Ottoman Empire, as both countries sought to expand control of their territory and regional influence.
In each country, a centralized team of architects was charged with designing dozens of similar-looking buildings to be constructed throughout a vast frontier landscape.
Most of the designers had never been to the places their buildings would go, so they had no idea whether there were steep slopes, large rock outcroppings or other terrain variations that might have led to design changes.
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