The latest issue of LA+ Journal, focuses on the theme of SIMULATION. This edition, guest edited by Karen M’Closkey and Keith VanDerSys. includes “…a diverse list of contributors critically investigates the theme through a myriad of lenses including biology, computer sciences, engineering, environmental science, industrial design, philosophy, planning, among other fields.”
The summary from the site:
“Our epoch has been dubbed the Anthropocene Era to mark the significance of human activities as the greatest force of environmental change. The distinctions between biology/technology, organic/synthetic, and natural/artificial are increasingly impossible to maintain. Cloned sheep, climate models, digitally-printed tissue and lab-grown meat – this is not the nature of our predecessors. This issue of LA+ addresses the theme of SIMULATION in terms of how recent technologies have changed how we understand the nature of nature. From Plato’s Cave to Baudrillard’s “Simulacrum,” simulations were historically understood as counterfeits or facsimiles and were based on the distinction between a model and its copy. Simulations remain central to mediations between reality and its representation; however, the latest forms of simulation—whether genetic manipulation or computer modeling—are not seen as impediments to truth and knowledge but as tools to uncover the complexities of nature.”
I’ve gone in depth with other issues, in this case just going to show some images and recommend you read it.
The announcement Google Earth Timelapse has created a bit of a stir, with a number of videos exploring landscape change of natural and urban systems. From their site:
“Timelapse is a global, zoomable video that lets you see how the Earth has changed over the past 32 years. It is made from 33 cloud-free annual mosaics, one for each year from 1984 to 2016, which are made interactively explorable by Carnegie Mellon University CREATE Lab’s Time Machine library, a technology for creating and viewing zoomable and pannable timelapses over space and time.”
I’m a bit disappointed with the resolution – as it is not able to zoom in to a district level at a scale that provides appropriate level of detail. That may be surmountable by using Google Earth Engine and delving into the API and programming tools.
There’s also a series of Datasets that are available from the Google Earth Engine that would be interesting to explore also, including maps for aerial imagery, geophysical data, climate/weather and demographics.
I used the Timelapse Tour Editor to quickly make a few maps of Seattle and Portland – with an eye towards For Seattle, I wanted to focus on the development of South Lake Union, where Amazon and other development has been most pronounced in the past decade or so. It shows how much redevelopment has occurred there, as well as throughout the downtown core (mostly visible with white roofs).
These are better by clicking the title and viewing in full size, as the grain for urban areas is pretty bad.
For Portland, I wanted to zoom in on the inner Southeast area, around Division Street, which was been subject to a fair amount of density in recent years. The inability to zoom into that level of detail makes this a bit less instructive, but does show the level of development north of downtown, and across the river the ‘fingers’ of density on transit mixed-use streets (which is what provides for vibrant, walkable urban neighborhoods that make Portland, well… Portland.
“Lost Man Creek is a miniature forest. But rather than growing naturally and of its own accord, this undulating landscape populated by some 4,000 Dawn Redwoods is a recreation. Artist Spencer Finch partnered with the Save the Redwoods League to identify a 790-acre section of the protected Redwood National Park in California. Significantly scaling down the topography and tree canopy heights, he reimagined this corner of the California forest for MetroTech at a 1:100 scale. While the original trees range from 98 to 380 feet – taller than the buildings that surround the plaza – the trees in the installation are just one to four feet in height.”
images from Public Art Fund, photos by Timothy Schenck
I’ve posted previously about the LA+ Journal, which has had previous issues focused on both Wild (reviewed here) and Pleasure in previous issues. The current issue takes a radically different turn – with a focus on subjects around the broad concept of Tyranny. Perhaps a strange topic for landscape architecture journal to tackle, and I had that reaction a bit myself, but it quickly became clear that tyranny is a much more radically complex idea than what comes to mind, and the social, economic, and spatial manifestations have direct relevance on urban spaces, their design, and their evolution.
“From the first utopian impulse of Plato’s Republic to today’s global border controls and public space surveillance systems, there has always been a tyrannical aspect to the organization of society and the regulation of its spaces. Tyranny takes many forms, from the rigid barriers of military zones to the subtle ways in which landscape is used to ‘naturalize’ power. What are these forms and how do they function at different scales, in different cultures, and at different times in history? How are designers and other disciplines complicit in the manifestation of these varying forms of tyranny and how have they been able to subvert such political and ideological structures?
LA+ TYRANNY asked contributors to consider how politics, ideology, and technology manifest in our landscapes and cities in ways that either advance or restrict individual and collective liberty.
The unique lens of tyranny is understood in recent cultural context early, in the essay ‘Blood on the Square’ by Steve Basson (8). The concept of the square as free and ‘democratic space’ indicative of the historic connotation of the Greek Agora ‘political debate’ and at times the locus of “heroic protest” as seen in the US and abroad is contrasted with the square as a historical place for terror and exercising of oppression. Examples of these public spaces being used for public executions, propaganda and military force, as well as new levels of surveillance through CCTV and policing and other means evokes dystopian visions of Bentham’s Panopticon and Orwellian visions of Big Brother.
The space, like any others, is available for both freedom and repression, and that a ‘pure’ public space is a myth. As referenced by Foucault, the history of the public square as exceptional or positive is built on subjugated knowledge “…where historical contents have been buried or masked in order to preserve the privileged nature of a particular narrative.”(12) The takeaway is that the square is not purely heroic, but is a ‘contested terrain’ and one that “… is virtuous and democratic but also grim and menacing.” (13) It also means that our power as designers is limited, because it is a dubious assumption that spatial organization could be employed to shape use in certain ways, and thus architecture and design “cannot create freedom in space” but rather from Foucault again:
“I do not think that there is anything functionally, by its very nature, absolutely liberating… the guarantee of freedom is freedom.” (13)
The theme brought up the previous essay is echoed in two subsequent writings. First, Gandy’s “The Glare of Modernity”(15) explores some of the power dynamic through the tyranny of lighting, which has been employed as a “means of intimidation and control,” and has now become synonymous with ‘safety’ to the detriment of livability and health through ubiquity. From a political perspective, Chang Tai Hung’s “Tianamen Square: The Grand Political Theater of the Chinese Communist Party”(20) explores the history and spatial configuration of this enormous public space in Beijing. While ostensibly the ‘People’s Square’ the narrative is more relevant to use of propaganda and designed with a focus on spaces not of comfort (no trees, benches) but of immensity and political power, referencing the communist “…contempt for leisure activities of the bourgeois…” while also avoiding the potential for spaces to be “subversive gathering spaces.” (22) The events there are then not people-driven, but “highly orchestrated” and a spatial equivalent of “a scripted text”(24) where those in power fear the unscripted.
A common theme arises around the activities of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement where places like Tahrir Square in Cairo, and Zuccotti Park in New York became well known, among many others as significant places of occupation and protest. Erik Swyngdouw’s exploration in “The Velvet Violence of Insurgent Architects”(27) looks at these places of political protest and the participants as “radical imagineers” of a new urban future that can include spatial policies of planning, architecture, urban design against powers that are averse to disturbance. (28) The concepts around the Right to the City movement (both formal and informal are realized in these “tactics of resistance”(29) and that these insurgent architects become designers of a sort:
“While staging equality in public squares is a vital moment, the process of transformation requires the slow but unstoppable production of new forms of spatialization quilted around materializing the claims of equality, freedom, solidarity.” (30)
Another reference to the Arab Spring is from Mona Abaza’s “Memory and Erasure”, (32) which looks again at Cairo, Egypt but through a different lens of public / political art complementing the occupation of public spaces. The process of art being used as part of protest, and the subsequent painting over by authorities was a subtext of the larger power struggles happening within spaces throughout the cities.
Rodrigo Jose Firmino explores technology in his essay “Connected and Controlled: Surveillance, Security and Cities”(42) which looks at a more pernicious tyranny that effects most of us. Expanding on Castells notion of the “informational city” with new technology and the Internet of Things, the essay posits a “Programmable City” where data is not just captured but utilized – taking advantage of the ubiquity and our reliance on smart technology to exert levels of control never before seen (with the exception of films like the Matrix and Minority Report). (44)
The appropriation of space by those in power through technology can also be utilized by the public who can be “empowered by the same kind of technologies that be used to destroy their liberties,” expanding on ideas of crowdsourcing, pop-up, or DIY cities. (45) Our living in the “maximum-surveillance society” means that these data are the most “powerful commodity in the informational smart city”(46) and become methods of control under the guise of safety, while also blurring lines between public and private spaces, ultimately concluding that Smart Cities perhaps lead more likely to dumb citizens.
Taking the idea presented above for appropriation of the tools of those in power to fight against that power, Stephen Graham’s “Countergeographies”(55) provides a framework for complementing the traditional methods of protest with new ideas of “Cartographic Experimentation”. A number of examples are explored, falling into categories of Exposure, Juxtaposition, Appropriate, Jamming, Satire, and Collaboration, the essay provide multiple ideas of new ways of engagement that are more “emergent, fluid and pluralized.” These experiments are useful but limited, as the author mentions, because of their lack of legitimacy – as art and activism versus being mainstream and political, but that a new wave of activists can adapt and expand them into the lexicon of more traditional forms of protest.
A historical path taken by Fionn Byrne in the essay “Operational Environment”(62) touches on some of the military roots of site design, including Le Notre and Vauban’s spatial reactions of “ballistic trajectories” (64) and the more modern appropriation by landscape architects and planners of military aerial imaging for analysis and ecological planning ala McHarg and modern GIS. This reduction of landscape and environment to “quantifiable data” as referenced by Waldheim leads to a methodology for militaristic problem solving, where “The force of the military’s technological, informational, and industrial apparatus is being set upon the environment, reducing nature to both a resource as standing reserve on the one hand and a technological-controlled, environmentally managed set of ecosystems on the other.”(66)
A more site specific and compelling examination relevant to design in many was is the essay by Patrizia Violi in “Traumascapes: The Case of the 9/11 Memorial”.(70) Taking one of the most visible examples of memorial in modern history as point of departure, Violi wonders the role of these places in “constructing, transmitting, and defining a collective memory,” and using the metaphor of memorial as text to show how
“historical memory is not something well defined once and for all, but rather something that is changing continuously over time. The actual events themselves are remembered differently, according to the different discourses, texts, images, symbols and gestures produced in relation to them.” (72)
Which is perhaps the dilemma of the legibility of any space, especially ones by which interpretation is a key element, telling a story requires framing (spatially and as a narrative) the elements of what are important, but also set up a sequence and path in which the story is told. Using the 9/11 memorial and the chasms created by the designers are indicative of the idea of Index, as referenced to Charles Sanders Pierce, in which “…a sign that exhibits a direct, causal link to the actual event that produced the sign, and which the sign itself, in its turn, signifies.” In this way, using the voids of the towers and their “material traces of the past, with direct spatial links to it, and this endows them with a very unique type of meaning.”(73)
While the potential is there for connection of space and event, it is much to ask, the social and cultural functions of ‘trauma sites’ are more indistinct, as the author concludes: “We cannot expect a memorial to capture the complexity of an event of this magnitude, or account for the whole chain of events that follow the initial principal trauma” (75)
This is also echoed by Nicholas Pevzner in “Trees and Memory in Rwanda”(78) where he connects the forest and remnant trees as symbols of ecological devastation, war and economic disasters throughout the country. In particular the unintended memorialization a the Umuwmu tree, a species of Ficus that were typically planted near houses and are sacred. These lone trees and groves left now are reminders of houses burned down through strife, a subtle way of remembering past, “symbols of atonement as well as victimization”(81) Another poignant example in the essay was the use of trees in conflict between the Israeli people (who plant pine forests on lands in attempts to claim land) and the Palestinians who plant olives to mark ownership. The battle of lands plays out in Israeli’s bulldozing Olive groves, and Palestinians using arson to burn pine plantations. Both stories show the role of landscape not as innocuous field of war, but as part of the strategy.
One of my favorite essays was an enlightening take on the structure of the refugee camp, ‘Emergency Landscapes’ by Jim Kennedy, (84) who is a shelter and reconstruction professional, and his experiences with informal settlements. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) establishes guidelines for these camps, but “neglect to take into account the rapidly evolving landscape built upon the camp by the inhabitants themselves, and the complex economies and social networks which expand into these landscapes.” (86) The quidelines themselves were designed for short term (natural disasters) but are insufficient to handle long(er) term occupations of many months or years, which is more common in areas where armed conflict makes early return impossible. So residents have taken the blueprint and using the “malleable materials” people “build barriers, food stalls, paths, roads” and other spaces.
This process is not always democratic or ad hoc, but is often used to create power dynamics with camps of the haves and have-nots, with processes that limit access, create walls and other enclosures to privatize spaces, and create better conditions for some at the expense of others. Without an “idea of what is a good camp” the question of these longer-term occupations will always be fluid, and Kennedy sees a role for landscape architects in both analysis through observation and research of the morphology (shape), operations (use) and performance (good or not?) of these spaces, as well as to establish and “inform incremental, cumulative, and mosaic approaches.”(89)
‘The Rise of Stateless Space’ by Casey Lance-Brown (92) delves into the amorphous “pockets of absence… where the rule of law is questionable,” those “contested spatial zones [where] the normal laws and standards of protections no longer apply.” (94) Using the examples of Border Patrol zones in Mexico, the focus of policing certain zones against smugglers, which moved illegal activities to more hostile and remote areas, which led to more deaths and also more extensive ecological destruction, disruption to wildlife, and other impacts. Layers of “spatial ambiguity”(96) can be smaller scale or global, with DMZs and contested territories, but remind me of further readings on Heterotopias and Terrains Vague, that expand these notions and provide interesting perspective on the role of the state and the variety of interactions with less control that are compelling to thing of in terms of emergent urbanism.
Some final essays I thought were less engaging, including a rather flat book review of ‘Architecture and Armed Conflict’ by Nick Mclintock (100) and ‘The Tyranny of Speculative Urbanism’ by Christopher Marcinkoswki, (104) where he makes the case that tyranny exists in the development of speculative urbanization due to the exploitation of ‘vanity pursuits’ through real-estate developments. Through examples, many from Africa, he shows that typically urbanization is often regarded in a positive frame as growth (good), however, it is used in nefarious ways in not really creating places of real worth but as a way to generate capital or to generate global competitiveness instead of addressing real issues that regions should be focusing on. While it is clear that urbanization is not neutral, this isn’t really new ground on which to tread, as criticism of misguided eco-cities has been kicking around for a while, and green inspired development for even longer. In concept it is somewhat interesting, but the essay itself doesn’t really come together beyond a few examples, nor did it really elevate to the magnitude befitting the tyrannical.
On that same note, after reading the collective works, the closing essay ‘The Innocent Image’(114) where Richard Weller offers a cranky argument about the overly photo-shopped project imagery, comes off as tired, and also doesn’t really fit the frame of this issue in terms of focus. The tyranny of ‘Planet Photoshop’ doesn’t match that of the urgency that the rest of the journal holds.
The wide array of voices that are not typically part of landscape architecture discourse is perhaps the best part of the journal. I kept a list as i was going, and the diversity includes geography, architecture history, humanities, sociology, urban management, semiotics, art, urbanism as well as landscape architecture, to name a few. It’s a type of dialogue that is outside of the landscape architectural mainstream (with the exception of academia) and it’s good to get perspectives I’d equate more to a broader Urban Studies focus woven into LA discourse – reinforcing the plus of the LA+ brand.
A series of illustrations woven throughout the journal that explored a variety of topics in visual form – which although sometimes interesting, did little to add to the content in meaningful ways. Aside from that, some may struggle to find the links to practice of landscape architecture, and there are definitely a few essays that maybe float to those fringes, but most included illuminate a multitude of perspectives beyond theory and provide solid fundamental issues relevant to practice. And that is what a journal should do, ably demonstrated by LA+ as it has emerged, now the third issue, as a unique voice in the landscape architecture and urbanism discourse. This one is a dense read, but compelling and relevant.
A cool use of art to activate some overpasses in San Jose, California by Seattle based artist Dan Corson. The first is called ‘Sensing WATER‘ which projects lighting on the underpass based on weather conditions. From the site:
Sensing WATER is a weather-responding and interactive artwork utilizing light and paint to define a major downtown gateway in San Jose CA. The project is composed of 2 elements, the massive painted sloped wall that abstractly references flowing water, and the overhead evening lighting that illuminates with rippling patterns of light the underpass of I-87. The project uses real-time NOAA weather data to compose different patterns of light on the ceiling. (e.g.: 0-5mph winds vs thunderstorms). The projected light maintains a similar palate to the painted sloped wall, yet becomes dynamic depending on the weather.
The use of real time sensing to activate the space, which sits atop the Guadalupe River. Corson was “… curious to link both the awareness of water issues to the new focus of the high tech industry through the use of dynamic illumination.”
Another take on the underpass is ‘Sensing YOU‘, which is more interactive, allowing users to control the patterns with an app/game from their cellphones. The goal in this case, like above, is also to “link technology and nature in this urban landscape sitting over the Guadalupe River- at the heart of Silicon Valley.” Some more info:
“Sensing YOU is an interactive artwork utilizing light and paint to define a major downtown gateway in San Jose CA. The installation is defined by over 1000 painted circles and 81 individually controlled illuminated rings that play a variety of patterns and low-resolution mapped video over the ceiling surface of the I-87 highway underpass. The patterns are activated by pedestrians and bicyclists moving through the space- setting off pre-programmed sequences.”
A recent post from CityLab delves into an on-going. Entitled ‘Are ‘Treescrapers the Future of Dense Urban Living?’, explores the concept beyond the fantastical and thinks about this type of work in terms of reality and the more pragamatic elements. Weird Dune references about Passive House designers (?) aside, having some critical evaluation the points that were brought up by the architect in the story are valid.
I do think that the focus of the comments maybe relied a bit too much on the particular type of work (i.e. hyper efficient building envelope). If you see everything through the lens of Passive House, and energy envelopes and embodied energy for structural upgrades, you may miss the trees and the forest.
Admittedly, I am both a supporter and critic of the idea, which I’ve been referring to as Vegitecture (not Treescraping, for hopefully obvious reasons) for some time now. Beyond being an aesthetic choice which has strong biophilic connections, there’s ecological and even, yes, energy considerations with integrating vegetation into buildings. It’s definitely a key strategy for a less building centric idea of passive heating and cooling, which has to me has always included vegetation surrounding structures as part of the equation – using evergreen vegetation to block colder winter winds and shade for cooling and deciduous to provide summer shading and opening up during winter for additional heating/sun after leaf drop. That diagram I think i first say in first year intro to landscape architecture.
Of course everything comes at a cost, so an accounting of cost to benefit is necessary, but that cost also much include other items in the ledger, like health benefits of access to nature, additional passive cooling and heating benefits that could be integrated with exterior and interior system integration. The opportunity is to make these projects work and think of new ways to better integrate them into the buildings in artful and functional ways.
I’ve discussed typologies before, and it’s interesting to see the evolution of the types, from building integrated living walls above, to terrace planters, roofs decks, more traditional green roofs, and much more. The possibilities in photoshop, alas, are endless. But in reality, there are some additional considerations, all of which should be taken into account. Some more images of green on buildings – nothing new here on this blog. More at the original post on CityLab as well
And these definitely trend towards the fantastic, which is part of the reconciliation between what can actually work and what looks cool in a rendering. So, yes, that involves messy practicalities the additional structural loading, and how to incorporate thermal breaks, and many others like how to maintain vegetation, how to irrigation, issues of wind uplift, leaf litter, structural capacity, and many more. Great discussions, and necessary ones, as we grow and evolve the concept.
I’ve mentioned a few times on Twitter, I have had an on-going interest in game design as a medium, but also in relation to the potential synergistic overlaps between the technology/techniques with landscape architecture and urbanism practice. The most obvious connection has to do with visual representation, as the ability to create engaging site and building environments is clearly , but there are some interesting opportunities for educational tools, user experience, ecological and urban modeling, scenario building, and iterative design.
Growing up with gaming, a trio of interactions early in college defined the concept and hooked me into the potential in an interesting way – even 20+ years ago. The first was a game my sister and i were obsessed with, Myst. Building on the word-based computer games from the 80’s like Adventureland and Pirate Adventure, Myst came out in 1991 and provided a graphical environment (that at the time was incredible) along with a mystery and things that needed to be observed and unlocked.
The interactivity and lack of linear timeline, which included puzzles and problem solving was great for some obsessive teens, but showed that games didn’t have to be either violent or proscriptive. The follow-up Riven in 1997 had better graphics and another story.
The second was for a urban planning class, we were giving a quarter long Sim City game simulation and discussed progress in class, as a way to explore ideas. Those of the certain age will appreciate the 2D top down version of Sim City, as we were doing this initially in 1993:
The scenarios allowed us to employ principles of urban simulation, think through the concepts, and then starting the clock and see how things evolved, or more likely devolved. To use this for class was transformative. The graphics have come a long way, indeed, since then, as this recent Sim City graphic below shows, with the more prototypical 3D Axonometric we think of with the game.
The technology seems akin now to some of the less game and more GIS specific tools for scenario-building in programs like ESRI’s City Engine (more on that that and GeoDesign here). On the flip side of the Sim City was geeky kid favorite Doom, the immersive and ultraviolent 3D game that literally and figuratively blew away gamers at the time.
In addition to an addictive, networked game play, there was an added feature of a back end tool to create worlds Doom Builder – which paired a bit of Dungeons and Dragons graph paper mapping with rudimentary 3D graphic world creation. The difference of course is, once done with the creation, you could play your creation.
THE SOPHISTICATED BEAUTY OF GAMES
It’s easy to dismiss gaming as a medium for geek culture with little relevance to the lofty ambitions of the architecture/urbanism endeavor. But there’s a lot more to it that shooting thing and bloddy violence. As shown above, there’s potential for wonder and problem solving, urban planning education, world building, and yes, lots of bloody violence. Guess it’s a good metaphor for life, right?
But, the ubiquity and size of gaming culture goes beyond a few teen to twenty-somethings playing violent FPS games. The size of the industry is worth billions. And that revenue is diverse. The demographic for the prototypical first person shooter is probably more focused, but there are men & women, young and old, across races that participate in some what in gaming culture.
The few recent games that have blown me away recently provide some context. First, the simplicity and beauty of Monument Valley – as probably first seen on House of Cards, which in addition to fictional presidents, appeals to designers and architects (especially those with a fondness for Escher), with atmospheric graphics and more literally puzzles to solve. The games are challenging enough to engage but not so hard as to frustrate. It’s a lot of magic.
Shifting gears to more modern FPS games, one of the first games i discovered in recent years was Bioshock Infinite, a much hyped and controversial game that wove through a fictional universe of a floating city of Columbia on a quest of sorts. Atmospheric and with a great, detailed backstory, the legend that the game exists within is compelling. The graphics complements the narrative with quasi-realism and a fuzzy, dream like quality.
The predecessor Bioshock also had an amazingly creative environment, which in converse to Columbia City was the underwater city of Rapture lending to a more moody and claustrophobic emotional state.
Both of the Bioshock games are, as well, incredibly violent, which takes away somewhat from the exploration and appreciation of scenery, but makes for some excitement.
A beautiful game in terms of the subtle environment is the graphic but non-shooting murder mystery, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. The player wanders through a landscape and abandoned town to find clues and unlock the secret of what happened. It’s emotional and you feel it, the scenery and soundscape lending to the drama.
As images, these don’t do justice to the feeling you get from these environments, which have subtle motion and great mixing of ambient sounds. For anyone new or interested in gaming, who wants to experience what a well crafted, non-shooter, modern game can be, this would be a good one. I included a video so you can see the experience:
For me it’s not a stretch to jump from these narrative stories to having the ability to explore a project site or potential design. I see the above image of the rail tracks, and immediately it evokes a simulation of exploring the High Line, both before and after construction. And not just exploring, but interacting, seeing motion and complexity. With simple visual cues This game evokes that feeling.
Finally, a more recent game released in installments is Life is Strange, which follows a third person graphic adventure of a teenage girl in an odd Oregon town. She is able to unlock events by rewinding time, which allows you to make different decisions and see how that impacts outcomes.
Check out here for more on the plotline, but the graphics again reinforce the mood. It also offers a slighly different game interaction, with a sketchy white line graphic that appears when something is of note either on the object or as subtle cues. I also love in this case there’s a proto-realism – it’s got a tinge of cartoon to it, but is also brilliant at capturing mood and the mundane.
The sophistication of these games in terms of environments, aesthetics, and narrative draw you in. There’s not a feeling of immersion, although i’d love to see some of the graphics in a VR rig, but your are 100% immersed in both the story, and, when it doesn’t get in the way, the graphical interface, also known as the HUD, or human user interface. It’s a big deal, this interface, and millions have probably been spent on making it seamless. While specialized controls and rigs are used, they are available to a few. For most, there’s simple touch or mouse input, whereas the line between the user and environment is very distinct.
A game, of course, is a constructed world with a narrative already baked in. And there are likely many more examples out there that make the point that games can be both defined broadly and offer a very close connection to the world building of landscape architecture and urbanism. While it’s possible to offer free movement and discovery in these games, in the end there’s a series of tasks, events, actions required to move from start to finish. It’d be a dull game indeed where you just walked around in an environment with no purpose.
That said, the approach may be different, and the way the environments are used may also vary, but the fact is that these games give visual examples 1) constructed worlds, 2) the ability to freely explore these worlds, 3) animated objects that also exist in these worlds, and 4) a measure of emotion and mood that is derived from real environments and landscapes. In this way, they become similar to visualization in a design medium. Thinking of this less as a narrative
There are many tools out there focused on game development, all of which blend tools for creating environments, coding behaviors, and developing user interface. The one I’ve spent the most amount of time working with is Unreal Engine, which is amazingly, now a free to use suite of tools (with a royalty structure set up to capture revenue). An example of the tool in an architectural setting, is the Unreal Paris, a video tour that came out a year ago, showing a highly photorealistic scene done in Unreal Engine, which shows the level of detail that is typically available in static rendering now being employed in a space that is both fully 3d and fully interactive.
It’s a bigger stretch to expand this beyond the enclosed architectural space, and delve into the landscape. The complexity of materials and motions in the entire apartment is probably less than a single tree, thus, to me, this is the holy grail. The seemingly large gap between architectural rendering and landscape is immense. However, this is changing. To see the potential of the technology, Epic Games did a very impressive video on their ‘Kite Demo’ seen below.
It’s a really nice animation, akin to a Pixar movie, with some stunning visuals. The part that’s not evident is that this environment is a fully realized world, which you could right now, dive into and be able to explore every square inch, through multiple platforms from game systems and virtual reality rigs. The concept that it’s not just a static, linear progression, but an actual, virtual world, is the wow moment. Because, as a landscape, while not perfect, it’s head and shoulders about anything i’ve seen in 3D landscape architectural visualization. The level of detail and size of this world gives you a taste of the potential for landscape to be transformed by these tools.
While the demo itself is impressive, if you want to dig into the specifics, there’s a longer demo from GDC 2015 that goes in-depth in some of the technology uses to create the demo assets and put them all together. It’s geeky, it’s technical, and it’s amazing.
As shown, there’s a strong visual component to this type of work that fits nicely into landscape architecture production, but it’s interesting to think of some uses that expand the notion and potential for exploration and movement. The potential for specificity, as you see with the second more detailed video, isn’t relegated to a generic library of materials, but can be augmented with a range of scanning and capture tools, such as detailed photogrammetry that yields highly realistic assets.
There’s a healthy competition between game engines, with Unity competing with Unreal Engine for pros and amateurs alike, with companies adapting or creating their own engines to fit, and a range of other free and adaptable tools based on what you like and your goals. As i mentioned, i spent time with Unreal Engine mostly, but all of them have pros and cons (in terms of horsepower, learning curves, etc) – and technology is vital to this as i found out, as i could do some basic world creation and programming, but soon found my older desktop puttering with the high graphic demands. Be forewarned, this doesn’t just open up on your current machine and go, there’s potentially an investment of time (in training) and resources (in techology) to fully unlock the potential.
The beauty of all of these systems (which are all similar in features with some variations) isn’t just the end result. The high graphic quality and immersive end result that is nimble enough to run in real time is seen in the game examples above. The tools are very sophisticated, with the ability to import and manipulate 3d assets from other worlds, create new assets, locate and building ‘levels’ in game parlance. With libraries of elements and compatibility with other programs like Maya, Mudbox, etc. (SketchUp is pretty tough to get to work though).
The back-end is where there’s a lot of beauty, with the scripting language and programming adding the dimension of interactivity to the environments. As you see below, the Unreal Engine uses a feature called Blueprint, which is a scripting environment that is based on automation of the C++ code, and is useful for non-programmers to be able to literally connect the dots on to create triggers, interactions, events, and other ‘life’ to the scenes. At a simplest level, you can take an object and give it action, such as the ability to turn on a light when a character gets within a certain distance, or to trigger sounds, or have other character’s act. Any action can be scripted in a non-linear, interactive way to create sophisticated environments.
And the specific elements for rigging characters, which can be added as main characters, either people that you can interact with, or imbuing more lively entourage into a scene.
Admittedly there’s some lag in the quality of these, as we’re far from life-life, but they are much improved. Call it more Pixar than reality but with a lot of interesting gestures, facial controls, and the ability for lifelike actions.
In relation to landscape, another worth discussing is Speedtree, who creates cross platform vegetation for gaming as well as film (hell, they just won an Oscar!). The tools allow customization of every aspect of trees, both in off the shelf libraries (which i’ve used) and a custom editor to create any type of vegetation (which I haven’t used, but is compelling). Gone are the days of cartoony vegetation, and the sophistication of the algorithms allow these to render in high quality and even incorporate wind, lead drop, and more w/o draining graphic resources (as also discussed above in the Unreal GDC video), something that high poly count vegetation seems to persistently be problematic.
Jumping out a scale to the overall terrain, the ability to create specific context is key to creation of these realistic environments. One that i used a bit is World Machine, a terrain modelling program that allows you to import topography from existing digital elevation models (DEMs) as well as to create custom features, and integrate geologic phenomena such as slides, erosion from wind and water, and other features.
These help by providing distant terrain that interacts with the other more close up assets along with sophisticated ‘level of detail’ or LOD settings that provide realistic close up information, including motion, then slowly stepping down resolution in levels, as the view gets further away. The addition of atmosphere and really amazing lighting tools, adds to the perspective focusing and gives depth as well as life to scenes. This allows for efficient use of computing resources to but the action where its most needed. The results are simple but stunning.
Another one i that i learned about more recently is Lumion, which we use at my office. I’ve seen some of the renderings but haven’t dove into using it myself, but it seems to integrate with much of what other game engines do, and perhaps more seamlessly. It is based on game engine technology, but has the added advantage of being focused on architectural visualization with tools to integrate directly with industry standard Revit.
A short video shows how it works.
And some of the results:
So as you seen, even in this short snapshot, there are a ton of resources, and many more i don’t know about of haven’t covered. This brain dump of a lot of ideas that definitely could use more exploration, but i wanted to close out the thought by giving some context on why i think all this, geekery aside, matters. The takeaway is that there is a ton of potential to disrupt and expand practice, if we can expand methods of visualization and adopt some of these techniques. On that note, a few thoughts that are worth further exploration:
Immersive technology, utilizing controller and VR rigs to allow clients and users to experience the design in a number of ways, while also allowing designers opportunities to fine-tune spatial relationships and test environments.
Rules based ecological scenarios, which allow for natural processes (vegetative colonization, competition, dispersal) that provides simulations of open-ended landscape concepts.
Topical games to create better understanding of system interactions and engage larger populations, such as stormwater, infrastructure, climate change.
Have thoughts and other examples and stories, or know of folks in the industry working and using these tools? Let me know.
The USGS tool TopoView offers access to digitized maps from 1879 to the current day – which is an amazing resource for looking at landscape change over time. Using an online mapping tool, you can access maps from 250,000 scale down to 24,000 for the entire US , including Alaska and Hawaii. The maps are downloadable in multiple formats, including JPEG, KMZ, GEOPDF, and GEOTIFF and are full size scans – so render in reasonably high resolution.
A sample of some maps (sized down from the original resolution) from the north section of Portland, ranging from 1897 through 1961 shows the difference in land use and geography – as well as indicates the shifting graphical standards of USGS maps over the years. I especially like seeing the urbanization patterns, movement of industrial lands into areas like the Columbia Slough and the (d)evolution of Guilds Like in the NW Industrial area. I hope to add these to the layering of historical mapping that we’ve already developed.
There are definitely more maps I wish existed – in different sizes – but as referenced on the site, the maps were created to highlight different features of land use – so it wasn’t fully consistent. Per the website:
“In 1879, the USGS began to map the Nation’s topography. This mapping was done at different levels of detail, in order to support various land use and other purposes. As the years passed, the USGS produced new map versions of each area. The most current maps are available from The National Map. TopoView shows the many and varied older maps of each area, and so is useful for historical purposes—for example, the names of some natural and cultural features have changed over time, and the ‘old’ names can be found on these historical topographic maps.”
For more info – a short video walks through the usage of the TopoView features. A resource worth more exploration for sure.
I recently gave a talk at the great annual conference Urban Ecology Research Consortium of Portland/Vancouver (UERC), which focuses on ” advance the state of the science of urban ecosystems and improve our understanding of them”. I was really excited to be chosen to present (i had done a poster presentation in past years), and it seemed a great way to introduce the Hidden Hydrology of Portland and what work has been done to date.
Much of this has been covered on the L+U blog – but there’s new ideas worth exploration, and some new momentum to realize some of the site-specific installations discussed here. A short visual recap:
My first experience with the concept was stumbling over the ‘Disappearing Streams’ map produced by Metro. Not sure of the vintage – but I remember seeing this easily in the late 1990s, and it’s stuck with me for years. Not actual streams but modeled topography generating basins – the concept is pretty simple – show what streams existed, and highlight those buried, piped, channeled in red, which is predominately on the inner east side and downtown.
A bit of digging yields a great set of maps, the Cadastral Survey of 1852 provides amazing detail of a nascent Portland, with stream corridors like Tanner Creek still intact running through downtown Portland, and other ecological resources (wetlands, lakes) as well as trails and early city grid (seen to the right)
A few folks share this passion, such as David James Duncan, who talks of disappeared streams in his book ‘My Story as Told by Water’ (2002) and historical account from folks like fellow Tanner Creek nerd Tracy Prince, who has authored some great accounts of the areas in Goose Hollow and Slabtown, evoking origins of place names, connections to hidden creeks, and tying this together with the rich history of Portland’s development.
Many layers interact in painting the picture of hidden hydrology. Photos are another great resource – with historic scenes of sewer creating, as well as floods and other historical events.
Beyond the Cadastral Survey, a wealth of maps exist, ranging from the mid 1850s through today – which paint a temporal portrait of the path of waterways over time – such as Tanner Creek, here shown still in existence in 1866.
And through an illustrative Aerial Lithograph here in 1870 – again showing the Tanner Creek drainage from the West Hills through the north portion of downtown.
Using these tools we can start to craft maps that take the historical and overlaying information – in this case a composite of Cadastral survey mapping, amended with other information, notes, and annotations – a layered history in map format. These could easily be hosted online (a future plan) for additional input and integration with stories, photos, experience.
The process of extracting this information from the survey – shown here in a few steps – involves 1) referencing the historical layers, 2) adding streams and other water bodies, 3) adding additional info such as wetlands and other topographic featueres, and 4) georeferencing and overlaying the historic with the current day mapping. A reverse map regression that allows us to create an interesting connection between then and now.
Because the Cadastral survey is based on the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) – the township, section, range geometry (see the faint orange lines in the map above allow the historic and modern to overlap with reasonable fidelity through cartographic rectification. The maps then, overlaid with GIS data – then digitized into shapefiles with linked data – start to allow us to provide some more detailed analysis – such as for instance, correlating basement flooding in proximity to old streams?
The second part of the talk focused on interventions – as the maps are compelling, but the ability to use them for actions are key, both in terms of expanding the validity of our interventions, but also to connect folks everyday to their hidden nature.
My colleague Matt Burlin and I have been talking about tours of the Hidden Hydrology for some time – so recently took the field maps for Tanner Creek and traced them from up towards the headwaters near Washington Park Zoo, down through the west hills and through downtown.
There are portions that still exist – albeit in a somewhat degraded form – but the visceral thrill of seeing this stream was compelling – The immersion in the sounds and experiences of these remnants is worth further visits.
And as you get to the urban sections, the natural remnants make way to a creek completely hidden – save a subtle topographic cue and some cultural interventions of markers and Tanner Springs Park, before getting to the current outfall location in the Willamette, near Centennial Mills.
How do we interact with that which is hidden, bringing lost layers of history back to the surface. Some great art installations provide inspirations that could be applied to hidden hydrology, for instance the Freen The Billboards project (which used fixed viewfinders to overlay images on billboards)…
Could be applied in zones to allow one to click through a series of images that show the stages of current, mapping, routing, and location of historical waterways – in this case a simple illustration of how this would work for Tanner Creek.
And drawing from the functional aspects of utility locates with the community artistry of intersection repair…
…one could imagine a meandering Tanner Creek weaving its way through downtown and northwest Portland streets, taking the idea of a couple of markers in the sidewalk to a much higher level of engaging and awareness in the underlying historical systems.
Thinking beyond a map or a kiosk with some informational interpretation, the array of interventions together provide multiple ways to engage, and coupled with technology could yield self-guided walking tours, vivid sound maps, and immerse multi-media experiences.
On a larger scale, the idea of Hidden Hydrology inspires thinking about community and our connections to each other. The concept of Neighborsheds, which i coined in the mid 2000s and presented at the ASLA National Conference about – involves using these natural drainages to redefine neighborhood boundaries. By rethinking political or cultural boundaries defined outside of natural systems, we can reconnect to our place in new ways. This knowledge is perceptual on one hand – but can engage folks in shared commitment – because if you’re in the neighborshed, all of your actions become innately connected in you cumulative impact downstream.
Finally, for me the concept of the Hidden Hydrology is tied to the larger ecological history. There is no better project to illustrate this that the Mannahatta Project (read more on a post here) which in it’s broader incarnation as The Welikia Project, takes the notion of historic mapping and blends field observations of biotic and abiotic factors in a rich and illustrative composite that is both rigorous and compelling.
My call to action, to create this detailed historical ecology for Portland, blending historical mapping with history, archaeology, anthropology, ecology, and other disciplines to paint a vivid picture of this historical ecology.
Beyond being fodder for art and culture, defining neighborsheds, or ways of engaging in urban exploration and wayfinding – there are some key opportunities available with this information. This can be inspiration for design interventions, can guide decisions about habitat, ecology, water, runoff, vegetation, and other factors, not in a general sense but in a block by block, historical watershed and stream basin scale.
The overlay and congruency with the hidden streams and our subsurface pipe systems is no accident – each are governed by system conditions of gravity. One is surficial and the other is hidden, so opportunities for making adjustments to the gray systems can be augmented with opportunities to use the green systems – with potentials for daylighting, integration of green stormwater infrastructure, and replication of pre-development hydrology. These decisions aren’t just based on current conditions (i.e. paved, permeable, landcover), but can be guided by understanding and modelling the pre-development hydrology – the best guide to how a particular basin wants to act by referencing how it worked before we altered it.
Finally, the concept of a pre-development metric is used for many things – to set stormwater management goals, to measure runoff in site and basin scales, and to set targets for sustainability for ecodistricts and other planning scale efforts. The return to the ‘native forest’ is a generalization of the pre-development condition, and also becomes a technological construct. Rather than pre-development condition, let’s thing of historical ecological function, which begins to not just provide us with numbers to meet, but also blends the vegetated, the ecological, the habitat, the cultural with the historic sounds, smells, textures, and colors the historical places before we forever altered them.
We won’t restore these to their natural state in all but a few selected places, but if we can restore, through metaphor, interaction, and intervention, the experience of these places, blended artfully with what they are now – places to live, shop, play – we reveal these hidden layers of inspiration to the urban experience.
A short video of the presentation is in development – and a longer follow-up, brownbag session is in the works – so look out for details.
A project of note that made the rounds over the past month resonated with the concept of Hidden Hydrology. The project ‘Ghost Arroyos‘, proposed as part of the Market Street Prototyping Festival paints the town blue, in a sense. I definitely like this idea, as we’ve discussed doing a similar exploration of Portland’s Tanner Creek.
“Every city has invisible histories embedded within its landscape. This project, “Ghost Arroyos” seeks to reveal the forgotten waterways of San Francisco through a simple, but powerful intervention. Situated between 7th and 9th street, the project will abstractly mark the footprint of Hayes Creek onto the urban surface. Visitors to the festival will be invited to trace the extent of the waterway while listening to a curated recording of hydrological soundscapes and oral histories”
Sounds much like the hidden hydrology proposals – and i’m curious to see it happen and what hurdles need to be overcome in implementation. Also, the soundscapes and oral histories are an interesting concept – that we’ve been exploring as well, so lots of great alignment to draw from.
Upper Yosemite Creek Daylighting
In digging into this project a bit, there was also a link to a proposed actual creek daylighting being proposed by the City of San Francisco is the Upper Yosemite Creek.
From the site: “The Upper Yosemite Creek Daylighting project will daylight the ephemeral historic Yosemite Creek to manage flows from 110 acres of McLaren Park. The creek will flow along the northern edge of McLaren Park from Yosemite marsh through Louis Sutter Playground and along the southern edge of University Mound Reservoir. The project will feature a creek channel to convey stormwater and alleviate localized flooding issues as well as storage and infiltration facilities. This project is the first creek daylighting project initiated by the City and will reintroduce natural habitat and provide opportunities for community learning and beautification.”
The reports are worth checking out – as it’s an interesting concept. The new ‘creek’ is a hybrid, while daylighting, the configuration, as seen above, interfaces with the built environment in a somewhat orderly manner and starts to look more like green stormwater infrastructure than natural waterways. This mediating between what was and the ‘functional’ aspects of the restoration is worth further exploration.
Two great examples from San Francisco on hidden hydrology in action.