AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings

Aimee Heidelberg - February 10, 2024

Artificial Intelligence (AI) lets imagination soar. It can create wonderful, magical worlds where unicorns frolic with polar bears. It can also create terrifying dystopian scenes, where monsters are lurking behind every corner. And when an architectural historian gets a hold of AI, naturally their first question is, “What will the famous landmarks of the world look like hundreds of years in the future?”

AI cannot be expected to be fully accurate in its output; it’s not a predictive modeling software. Using it is more like a fun shake of a Magic 8 Ball. Yet asking AI to imagine the future of these buildings has created some surprising results, ranging from hilarious to terrifying. The AI generated creations below show the potential future of the world’s treasures. But these visions serve as a warning and a call to arms, asking what kind of future society wants for its cultural treasures.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Great Pyramid of Giza complex. Ahmed Emad H (2020, CC 4.0).

Past: Great Pyramids of Giza (c. 2550 to 2490 BCE)

Ancient Egypt is famous for the amazing architecture of its tombs, particularly its pyramid construction. But pyramids were only used for a relatively fleeting period of Egypt’s history. During Egypt’s Old Kingdom, tomb and temple construction shifted from earlier mastaba to a stepped pyramid (more like several mastaba stacked on top of one another), then to smooth-sided pyramid. The greatest champion of this movement is arguably Snefru, who attempted three different pyramids; One collapsed, another had strange bend, and the third, the Red Pyramid, sat quite wide. But Snefru’s son Cheops would learn from these and create the Great Pyramids that would become the symbol of Ancient Egypt well after tomb building moved into rock cut tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Its once polished white limestone covered sides have been stripped to the golden structural stone, but Cheops’ Great Pyramids still, after thousands of years, represent Egypt’s might.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Great Pyramids as airport hangar. AI generated, 2024.

Future: Great Pyramids of Giza

According to artificial intelligence, the area around the pyramids will become an airport or large drone service center. Aircraft will take off from the sands of the desert, despite no runway to be seen. In the AI realm, aircraft in the future will be able to take off vertically; there isn’t a runway to be seen. And the threat of crashing into one of the world’s greatest architectural treasures doesn’t seem to be a concern, some of these aircraft are precariously close to the larges of the Pyramids. Even without the threat of damage to the Pyramid, it looks like the site has been severely impacted. Some of the smaller temples, stepped pyramids, nearby cemeteries, and other monuments appear to have been removed or moved from their original location.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
View of the scaffolding on the Parthenon from Philopappos Hill. George E. Koronaios (2019, CC 4.0).

Past: The Greek Acropolis (5th Century BCE)

The Greek Acropolis personifies the high-level architecture of the Greek Hellenic period. The term Acropolis actually means “high city.” In 5th century BCE, Pericles controversially funded a massive building project on the highest hill in Athens, creating the gleaming colonnaded buildings, fronted by the Propylaea, the gateway into the complex, the religious temple Erechtheion, and the famous Parthenon, dedicated to Athena, patron goddess of Athens. One of the world’s best-known buildings and UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Parthenon stands tall amongst Pericles’ architectural wonders on the Acropolis Hill. Its massive Doric columns and artistic pediments have come to symbolize Greek architecture. Despite invasion, neglect, reuse, looting, and a 1687 firebombing that ignited gunpower stored in the building and blowing its roof to pieces, the Parthenon endures as ancient Greece’s lasting legacy.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Acropolis with elevated transit. AI generated, 2024.

Future: Greek Acropolis

While the Parthenon appears to be getting a facelift, it appears the Acropolis Hill itself has been blasted into a smaller platform to accommodate the urban transportation systems of Athens, which looks like an electromagnetic Maglev system. The AI future of the Acropolis shows a reverence for the original Parthenon, as the roof has been left alone, it appears that the Erechtheion, which has solid wall construction rather than the peristyle of the Parthenon, has been replaced with a random temple (although this could be their representation of the long-gone Temple of Zeus Polieus reconstructed, depending on the angle, though still not accurate). The elevated transportation system runs around, but not through the Acropolis Hill, preserving the picturesque Parthenon.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Roman Colosseum. Kevin Brintnall (2013). Public domain.

Past: Colosseum (c. 70 – 72 CE)

Contrary to popular belief, the Colosseum was not the most popular arena in ancient Rome. The Circus Maximus held that title, as the chariot arena on the nearby Palatine Hill. Yet the legend of the Colosseum has eclipsed the Circus Maximus, in part due to how much of the building remains for people to explore, and in no small part due to the notorious gladiator bloodshed associated with the building. Architecturally, the Coliseum is a unique piece of art. Instead of using a single classical architectural order, it uses all of them, a different one on each level. The building’s arrangement looks much like modern arenas; ticket holders went to a numbered gate, then up to their specified levels and seat sections. Those attending the Gladiator combat games could enjoy refreshments and had access to restrooms. The Colosseum wouldn’t be out of place for modern sporting events.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Colosseum as sports stadium. AI generated, 2024.

Future: The Colosseum

Staying true to its roots, AI has predicted the Colosseum to be restored to its circular arena form. After enclosing its hypogeum, the floor would convert into a stadium once again. As the crowd fills the stands, drones float overhead, possibly to record the action or as light show entertainment during the game breaks. The exterior is fully restored around the building’s circumference. Scoreboards and monitors also hover nearby, not attached to the arena itself but visible from the stands, nonetheless. Parking seems to be sparsely used, but the automobiles are still present. There is a lane of traffic directly outside the stadium, with parking itself in a concentric ring around that moving lane. Where once gladiators battled for victory and glory, the stadium once again glows with life and lights.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Roman Pantheon. Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz), (2016, CC 4.0).

Past: Pantheon (c. 126 – 128 CE)

Rome’s Pantheon was an architectural innovation, even for advanced Roman engineering. Its rounded floor is flanked with niches in the walls. Each niche held an image of one of Rome’s many gods, and each (literally) got its time in the spotlight. The oculus in dome’s midpoint allows sun to stream in. Depending on the time of year and day, each niche lit up to ‘highlight’ a certain god. Although Hadrian commissioned the currently standing building, its frieze translates to “Marcus Agrippa the son of Lucius, three times consul, made this” likely acknowledging an earlier temple building built by Marcus Agrippa around 25 BCE. In 609 AD, the Catholic Church converted the Pantheon into a church, removing the Roman gods and putting in Catholic religious icons. They have maintained the building so today’s generations can step back in time and see the same marbles and concrete the ancient Romans saw.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Roman Pantheon in a future cityscape. AI generated, 2024.

Future: The Roman Pantheon

Apparently, the preservation of the Pantheon went a little sideways. Whereas the Pyramids and Parthenon retained their original form, if not setting, and the Colosseum became repurposed back to its original use, the Parthenon underwent a rather shocking facelift in the AI realm. First, the infamous inscription that dedicated the Pantheon to Marcus Agrippa has been replaced with a new dedication that has no Latin translation. Its pediment, the triangular element resting on top of the columns, is no longer shadowed by a second, offset pediment embedded into the main part of the building. The historic ridges on the dome, showing the Roman construction techniques, have been smoothed out. AI was accurate, however, in showing no artwork in the pediment,, which is how it appears today.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Al Dier, Petra, Maya-Anais Yataghene (2011, CC 2.0).

Past: Al Dier Treasury, Petra, Jordan (est. 1st century)

In 1845, poet John Burgon described Petra as the “rose-red city half as old as time.” This 1st century merchant city, once the capital of the Nabataean Empire, boasts a number of rock-cut buildings with facades that resemble Greek and Roman temples. After the decline of Petra as a trade center and capital around 106 CE, the city sat abandoned for centuries, fading from memory. It was brought back into the limelight in the early 1800s, when a European traveler disguised in Bedouin garb, explored Petra. The Al Dier site is one of Petra’s most well-known architectural wonders, cut deep onto the rock and fronted by a classical Hellenistic and Mesopotamian design carved out of the sandstone cliffside. Historians speculate about its use; it may have been a mausoleum or a monastery. While much of its architectural details have added over time, its façade remains well preserved.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Al-Dier in the future. AI generated, 2024.

Future: Al Dier, Petra

AI envisions a future where there is massive urban development right against this protected UNESCO site. Ad Dier currently sits far away from any urban location, isolated from all but the hardy travelers that come to visit the remote tourist destination. But AI has envisioned a future where the nearest city is just across a busy four lane highway situated at its base. Skyscrapers loom up from the currently unoccupied cliff sides around Al Dier, and there seems to be development cut into the cliffs behind the ancient wonder as well. Smaller buildings, possibly commercial, public, and residential, flank the monument. The drones are back, too. For whatever reason, AI seems to believe that drones and personal aircraft will be a big part of urban life in the future.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Chichen Itza. Daniel Schwen (2009 CC4.0).

Past: Chichen Itza (c. 600 – 1200 CE)

Chichen Itza stood as a thriving Mayan city of tens of thousands of residents on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula between 600 – 1200 CE. The central city, with its pyramids and platforms, astronomy tower, ball court, and proximity to two cenotes, once covered an area of about 5 kilometers (1.9 square miles), with people living and farming land outside of this core government, market, and temple area. After the arrival of the Spanish in the mid-16th century, the population of Chichen Itza abandoned the city. Left to ruin for centuries, archaeologists uncovered the Pyramid of Kukulkan in 1841. They found a stepped pyramid standing about 30 meters (98 feet) tall, with a temple at its peak, reachable by a steep staircase on all sides. Today, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has been named as a New Seven Wonders of the World.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Chichen Itza and futuristic city. AI generated, 2024.

Future: Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza today is a bustling tourist destination, an open field among the lush jungle greenery. The Temple of Kukulkan remains the center point of the site, but there is a great deal of space around the Temple and the other buildings. In the AI version of the site, the open space around these historic buildings has been filled in with a large central boulevard, lined with trees and ending its vista at the Temple. This boulevard is flanked by very modern buildings. In the distance, small high-rise buildings loom up where the Thousand Columns Group should be (depending on the direction this image represents). Even more disturbing than the medium density urbanism abutting the temple is the low-flying aircraft that seems a little too close to the Temple of Kukulkan for comfort.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Angkor Wat. Daniel Lautenbacher (2023, CC 4.0).

Past: Angkor Wat (12th Century)

Deep in the Cambodian jungle outside Siem Reap, five mountain peaks loom up from across a small lake, its reflection giving the site an ethereal look. This breathtaking site is the Angkor Wat Temple, a relic of the Khmer Empire that once dominated the area from 802 to 1431 CE. Built under Emperor Suryavarman II (1113 – 1150), Angkor Wat was the crown jewel of the Khmer Empire’s religious and government complexes, serving as the capital of the Khmer Empire. Intricately carved relief of deities from Buddhist and Hindu traditions cover the site, from the walls of the temples to the five towers meant to symbolize Mount Meru. Originally built as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu, Angkor Wat was used for Buddhist practices after the 12th Century. The temple was active as recently as the 1800s but years of neglect let nature reclaim it before becoming a popular tourist destination.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Angkor Wat with urban development encroaching on its sacred site. AI generated, 2024.

Future: Angkor Wat

In the AI future, Angkor Wat’s remote jungle location is consumed by high density urban development, creating its own, less symbolic, version of a mountain range. The stunning bridge that leads to the temple is replaced by a road, allowing people to drive right up to the base of the structure. The entrance has been altered to extend the main staircase; before adding the roadway, it was accessible by bridge to a short staircase. But much of the temple remains intact, despite the modern city that seems to loom over the skyline behind it. And, of course, the drones fly in the temple’s air space, which could be dangerous for the artistic peaks rising from the main temple.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Borobudur, Java,Indonesia. Jakub Hałun (2022, CC 4.0).

Past: Borobudur

In the heart of Java, the Buddhist Borobudur Temple has welcomed visitors and pilgrims to walk amongst its tiers. Each of Borobudur’s tiers is covered with openwork stupa, 72 of them in all, and detailed relief along the walls and balustrade. While visitors take in the artwork, they also experience Buddhist philosophy, with each level symbolizing Buddhist cosmology of the Universe. The base of Borobudur is kamadhatu, the sphere of desires. Moving upward is the rupadhatu, represented by five square terraces symbolizing the sphere of forms where desires are abandoned but form remains. At the top is the arupadhatu, where desire and form are left behind, symbolized by the three circular tiers and the monumental stupa. Borobudur sees around 1.44 visitors each year, and us a world UNESCO site.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Borobudur in futuristic setting. AI generated. 2024.

Future: Borobudur

The temple of Borobudur itself appears to have been left reasonably alone in the AI future. But the temple becomes inaccessible thanks to a four-lane roadway that completely encircles the site. To balance out the now-inaccessible openwork stupas and give visitors something to see up close, new stupas of assorted sizes are built in their own stupa forest. The city, possibly Magelang or Muntilan, and its high-density construction seems to have replaced the jungle greenery in Borobudur’s landscape. The drones, like those in Angkor Wat, are hovering precariously near the structure, with no concern about spacing or proximity to the pinnacle of the central, monumental stupa.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Great Zimbabwe, great enclosure and conical tower. Andrew Moore (2019, CC 2.0).

Past: Great Zimbabwe (11th – 15th centuries CE)

Great Zimbabwe stood strong as a medieval stronghold along the East African coast. It dominated trade in the region from the 11th century to the 15th century. Its trade area is expansive; archaeologists found pottery from as far away as China and Persia and coins from Arabian nations in the ruins. However, by the 15th century, overpopulation and depleted resources led to the city’s abandonment. Great Zimbabwe is known today for its Great Enclosure, a 14th century stone wall 9.7 meters (roughly 32 feet) tall in some places. One of the most notable archaeological finds in Great Zimbabwe is the 9 meter (30 foot) tall conical stone tower in the Great Enclosure. There are no records of whether the tower was part of the royal residence or a symbolic grain storage tower, but it is one of Africa’s largest ancient structures still standing and the symbol of the long-abandoned city.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Greater ZImbabwe in the future. AI generated, 2024.

Future: City of Great Zimbabwe in the future

AI has predicted a startling future for this UNESCO World Heritage site. While it understands the importance of the site’s historic walls, it seems to have completely demolished them and replaced them with significantly taller, more imposing walls with parapets and crenels. The famous tower has either been removed or enveloped by the height of the massive towers that loom over the site, likely extending far past the borders of Great Zimbabwe’s original walls. There is virtually no evidence of the vibrant trade center it was in the 11th to 15th century. Instead of the indigenous architectural wonder and point of interest Great Zimbabwe is today, this AI version seems to completely neglect its roots. But they did manage to keep the drones away!

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Meridian Gate. David290 (2018, CC 4.0).

Past: Forbidden City (1420 CE)

Larger than fifty Buckingham Palaces, China’s Forbidden City once housed China’s Imperial Family and select servants. This private city-within a city was walled off, surrounded by a moat, and boasting roofs in the yellow color only the Emperor had permission to use. The Forbidden City served as the center of the highest, most elite governmental and religious functions of China for more than five hundred years. Guarding the entrance to the highest governmental spaces is the Meridian Gate. This gate has three entrance points. Only the Emperor could use the central entrance, although there were a very few exceptions. His wife could use it to enter the Forbidden City on her wedding day, and the students with the top three scores in imperial exams were allowed to exit the Forbidden City using the central corridor. Everyone else, from the royal family to the public officials, used the smaller gates at the side.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Forbidden City, Meridian Gate. AI generated, 2024.

Future: Forbidden City

The Meridian Gate of the forbidden city, which is currently an open plaza suitable for large crowds, gets an overhaul in this AI-predicted future. The Meridian Gate area has been enhanced with decorative balustrades and an elevated boulevard flanked with conical trees and lanterns. The two doors flanking the center entrance are no longer directly accessible, visitors need to cross the bridge through the former plaza space and move to the left or right. The bridge leads visitors to the glowing warmth of the Forbidden City, toward the Hall of Supreme Harmony, While preservationists balk at changes to exterior spaces right next to historic structures, the changes to the Meridian Gate area are significantly less intrusive than what AI predicted for the Colosseum or Petra.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Machu Picchu. Allard Schmidt (2005). Public domain.

Past: Machu Picchu (c. 1450 CE)

High in the Peruvian Anders lies the ruins of a great Inca citadel Machu Picchu. Historians debate the original role of this city, whether it was a royal retreat, or just a community taking advantage of the high elevation for protection, but its legacy persists. The traces of those who lived and worked in the community flank the mountainside. The stepped terraces once used for farming are holding fast, even 450+ years after its occupants abandoned the site. The canals were cleared out and are still capable of providing fresh water to the site. The masonry walls of storehouses (colca), houses and administrative buildings (kancha), and religious buildings remain, showing the astonishing Inca stonework. The stones, some as large as (or even bigger than) the average human, are cut into multi-sided, squared off blocks that somehow fit together in a puzzle-like format, locking together for strength without using mortar.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Maccu Picchu in the future. AI generated, 2024.

Future: Machu Picchu

AI left the Machu Picchu site itself relatively undisturbed. The terraces are visible, the colca and kancha are still in their deteriorated but preserved state. But the picturesque mountainside and its valleys have been infilled with urban development, and a lot of it. High density skyscrapers have filled in the mountains, overtaking the land and cutting into the treasured mountainside. The likelihood of this happening, however, is questionable. The terrain in the Peruvian mountains may make skyscraper building a perilous task with more trouble than reward. Getting materials to the site would be more expensive than building in the lowlands. The terrain would take more leveling than a mountainside could withstand. Slopes are notoriously unstable, and no builder would risk skyscrapers like this tumbling down. This is an unlikely future for a treasured site, even if the site itself is relatively well preserved.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Taj Mahal. Jakub Halun (2019, CC 4.0).

Past: Taj Mahal (c. 1631 – 1648)

The Taj Mahal, with its gleaming white marble, inlaid stonework, and immaculate garden and reflecting pool is a Mughal era love letter from Emperor Shah Jahan to his late wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who passed away during the birth of the couple’s fourteenth child. The couple reportedly had a deeply devoted, loving marriage, traveling with the Shah during military campaigns, discussing matters of state, and earning his trust and honor. Upon her death, Shah Jahan commissioned the Taj Mahal as a monument to his beloved wife. The tomb lies at the edge of the quadripartite garden (a garden divided into four distinct parts), instead of in the middle, an unusual placement for tombs at the time. It is dominated by a marble onion dome, giving the building height and dominance over the landscape, and flanked with four minarets as part of its Muslim tradition.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Taj Mahal in the future. AI generated, 2024.

Future: Taj Mahal

India has some of the most densely populated cities in the world. Agra, site of the stunning Taj Mahal, is the forty-first most densely populated city in India, out of the 640 census districts. AI perhaps took this population issue into consideration when it showed urban development going right up to the base of the Taj Mahal. Gone are the quadripartite gardens. Gone are the water bodies that reflect the magnificent white marble onion dome. While the Taj Mahal itself manages to retain its form and its Mughal era splendor, it’s been taken out of its original context and plopped in a sea of identical-looking buildings. In historic preservation, context and setting are critical. It explains the “why” and “where” of the historic site. Without the garden, only part of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan’s story is told. The rest is lost in a sea of urban development.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Independence Hall. Beyond My Ken (2013, CC 4.0).

Past: Independence Hall (1753)

When the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1776, they met at the Philadelphia State House, now known as Independence Hall. There, luminaries like John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson picked up their pens and signed the American Declaration of Independence. In 1787, the United State Constitution would also be signed here. Because these documents were so critical in creating the framework of the new United States government, Independence Hall is considered the “birthplace of America.” It has been the center point for political and social movements, political speeches, and appears on the United States $100 bill. Today, about 2.7 million people visit the restored Georgian-style Independence Hall.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Independence Hall and Statue of Liberty. AI generated, 2024.

Future: Independence Hall in the future

In one of the most hilarious (or gut-wrenching) AI generated futures of beloved historic buildings, Independence hall gets a complete overhaul. The main building gets windows removed and its width appears shortened. The central section of the building has been widened. The central Palladian window appears to have been removed and two sash windows appear on either side of where it should be. In the steeple itself, a circular window replaces the multi-pane window. A statue of an unknown figure sits in front of the building, where a gathering crowd moves toward the entrance, barely acknowledging the giant bald eagles swarming above. The eagles lead to one of the most noticeable AI predictions. Instead of the white cupola that dominates the top of the building, the Statue of Liberty, or a replica of her, has lifts her lamp as a beacon to the giant eagles and, presumably, to America.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Buckingham Palace and Victoria Memorial. Diliff (2014, CC 3.0).

Past: Buckingham Palace (1837)

Buckingham Palace has served as the official residence for the United Kingdom’s rulers since 1837. King George IV commissioned the palace on the grounds of the former Buckingham House, but never had a chance to live there. After George IV’s death in 1830, William IV (George’s younger brother) continued the project but never lived in the palace, either. Queen Victoria was the first royal to live in Buckingham Palace, establishing her household there in July of 1837. The neoclassical palace boasts 775 rooms, and some of the most priceless artworks and furnishings in the world, many of which are on view to the public during touring season. The palace is still used by the Royal Family, although King Charles III lives in Clarence House where he has resided for almost two decades. The palace is undergoing renovations, so it is possible it shall be a royal residence once more.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Buckingham Palace modified in the future. AI generated, 2024.

Future: Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace undergoes quite a transformation in the AI-predicted future. First, the corner of the building is rounded off, creating a new corner entrance with a detailed arched door. The door leads to the grand staircase, descending to a water body, presumably St. James Park Lake, although the arched bridge, boats, and how the building is shored up looks more like a river. Instead of the lush greenery and gardens of Buckingham Palace, London seems to be sprawling into the once-revered space. And curiously, a classically columned cupola with a giant gold bird, or a moved Morning Nike statue from the Victoria Memorial, stretches its wings in place of the flag that usually indicates the sovereign’s presence at the palace. The colonnades and pediments across the front of Buckingham Palace remain, but the now-crowded out palace seems to be one more building in London rather than a high-style royal palace.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Postcard showing full length of Empire State Building, 1951. Public domain.

Past: Empire State Building (1931)

Bult on the edge of the Great Depression in the heart of New York City, the 102-floor Empire State Building was on course to rival its challenger, the nearby Chrysler Building for the title of Tallest Building in the World. And it did; the building held the title until 1970 with the construction of the original World Trade Center twin towers in lower Manhattan. It was completed in 1931 on time and under budget, to the relief of its owners. But the building had a rather lackluster opening. While it is an architectural wonder of Art Deco skyscraper construction, it only had three-fourths of its rentable spaces filled in when it opened. Critics called it the “Empty State Building.” This has turned around, with a 2023 90% occupancy rate. The building today has office and retail space, and its 86th and 102nd -floor observation deck is a ‘must see’ for tourists to New York.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Empire State Building with skydome and solar panels. AI generation, 2024.

Future: Empire State Building in the future

The Empire State Building is very high-tech in the AI-predicted future world. While the main structure of the building remains intact, it appears to be covered in solar panels. Or perhaps the walls have been extended outward. Perhaps both. The additions to the front are unclear. Moving upward, the observation deck and spire have been enclosed in a dome, with smaller buildings and structures offering more space for visitors to frolic and take in the sights of the New York skyline. And what a site it is. In addition to some tall, narrow skyscrapers toward the East river, there appears to be a new skyscraper to the southwest, which looks like a combination of the Chrysler Building at the bottom and Empire State Building at the top, as if the two had bred.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Pripyat, looking toward Chernobyl plant. Jorge Franganillo (2017, CC 2.0).

Past: Pripyat (1970)

Pripyat was a thriving town of 49,000 workers and families of the nearby Chernobyl Power Plant. Shortly after the 1986 explosion of the plant’s nuclear reactor and spewing of radiation into the air, the entire city of Pripyat had to be abandoned. Initially, residents were told they would be back to the city after a short while. They didn’t bother packing their belongings or have time to make long term arrangements for their pets, who were left behind in the evacuation. Today, the city of Pripyat sits abandoned, an icon of a modern city left to let nature take over. Its abandoned relics of the 1980s make it a popular destination for urban explorers and adventure seekers. But beneath its surface lies the danger that has haunted it since the day it was evacuated, the threat of deadly radiation. It is not expected to be inhabited permanently for generations.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Pripyat is stil abandoned but development on the fringes. AI generated, 2024.

Future: Pripyat

While the other buildings in the AI future are once again full of life, and on the edge of bustling cities, Pripyat remains in a radiation-saturated dystopia. Vines overtake the abandoned buildings, birds (or possibly drones that look like birds) fly over abandoned cars that are sinking into the earth. The apartment buildings are crumbling, and the interior spaces are in an advanced state of decay. The Pripyat of the future is merely an advanced timeline of Pripyat today, although urban adventurers have covertly brought life, ever so briefly and illegally, into its spaces once again. The once energetic, young city has long disappeared, let to rot. But still, life lingers. Vegetation flourishes. Animals make their home in the area, with wolves recently discovered to have advanced cancer resistance. The lack of human life in the city has not, in fact, stopped life in Pripyat.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
Colosseum, showing section of building stripped of exterior detail. (Ank Kumar, 2015, CC 4.0).

These buildings are protected, right?

History aficionados might look at these images and think, “These are absurd; nobody is going to build a freeway through Petra.” But architectural treasures have been destroyed throughout history. The Colosseum, though victim to erosion and neglect to some extent, looks the way it does in part because much of its fine marbles and architectural details were stripped off to be used in other building projects. Abandonment of places like Machu Picchu and Greater Zimbabwe meant neglect of the buildings, leading to their ruin. Buildings that have been continuously used and adapted to modern needs and have been constantly maintained like the Pantheon have fared much better. The Parthenon, the crown jewel of Greece’s Acropolis Hill literally had its roof blown off. Historic treasures are not immune to destruction and major change.

AI Is Creating A Surreal Future For These Historic Sites & Buildings
UNESCO’s international November 2023 conference to protect cultural resources. Vlad on RSM (2023). Public domain.

AI shows us ideas, but historic preservation brings us reality

The historic preservation movement across the world has taken different forms. For these buildings, recognized for their worldwide cultural importance, UNESCO has provided some protections around the globe, providing legal and financial assistance for preservation and conservation. Individual countries have also developed local preservation policy and laws to protect sites with national importance. Many nations even have a list that specifically names and investigates properties of national importance to highlight them for preservation initiatives. These lists include the United States with the National Register of Historic Places, Japan’s Protection of Cultural Properties, and the List of Historic Heritage of Brazil. There are similar registers found all over the world. Could these AI images give us a glimpse into the future? Not likely, as long as historic properties and preservation policies remain a cultural value.

Where Do We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

Acropolis. History.com editors, History.com, 29 June 2023

Al-Khazneh. (n.a.) Universes in Universe (n.d.)

Angkor Wat. History.com editors, History.com, 28 February 2018.

Borobudur Temple Compound (n.a.) UNESCO World Heritage Convention (n.d.)

Chariot racing stirred up both love and hate in Ancient Rome. David Alvarez, National Geographic, 24 June 2021.

Guarding Petra. Michelle Strange, Smithsonian Magazine, Jan 2008.

Imperial Dragon. American Museum of Natural History (n.d.)

Petra. Mati Milstein, National Geographic, (n.d.)

The Inka Empire: Preservation and Storage (n.d.) Smithsonian Institute (n.d.)

The forgotten history of Beijing’s first Forbidden City. Jonathan Dugdale, University of Birmingham, (n.d.)

Why the Empire State Building, and New York, may never be the same. Keith Collins, Nikolas Diamant, Peter Eavis, Or Fleisher, Matthew Haag, Barbara Harvey, Lingdong Huang, Katrhick Patanjali, Miles Peyton, and Rumsey Taylor. New York Times. 15 September 2021.

 

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