Simulating Landscapes with Point Cloud Models

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Postcard from “Gotthard Landscape: The Unexpected View,” 2014 Architecture Biennale, Venice, showing a multi-layered perspective / Department of Architecture, ETH Zurich

We need to find a word that brings us back to common ground. In a lecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Christope Girot, professor and chair of landscape architecture in the architecture department at the ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) in Zürich, Switzerland, suggests that “topology” may be the word, for it speaks to the logic and intelligence of a landscape. Girot acknowledges his unique way of viewing: “I believe in the landscape as a body.” He means this in a very literal sense, emphasizing landscape’s physical qualities.

One of the first slides Girot flashes before the audience shows topology’s etymological roots: Topos (place) and logos (reason). Topology, he claims, is about sensing and conceiving landscape. Rather abstractly, topology, then, can define a way in which constituent parts are interrelated or arranged. This approach can be applied to landscape architecture through multi-layered visualizations, and new, multi-scalar methods of design.

(Girot borrows the term topology from philosophy, but also reclaims its original meaning from its contemporary mathematical association. Girot makes reference to Hans Kollhoff, who retrieved the term “tectonics” from the realm of volcanoes and inserted it into the core of architecture).

In practice, his use of point cloud modelling for large-scale projects emphasizes landscape’s elevational information. This means designing on a “skin,” an abstracted land form developed by filtering raw data and draping a point cloud. The raw data to which he is referring is what his team collects by sending flying drones with laser scanners over a landscape. Girot uses an incredibly complex coordinate system to achieve a level of precision previously unknown to landscape architects. If his lecture could be summed up by a single statement it would be this: Landscape architects must become masters of simulating reality for this is the future.

A term that Girot employed even more than topology is precision. Point cloud modelling, he argues, is the optimal tool for achieving precision because it achieves a precision competitive with the instruments employed by structural engineers. It elevates the position of the landscape architect, granting a heightened level of control and broadening the landscape architect’s territory. Girot reminds us of a time when engineers, architects, and landscape architects each practiced within their respective scalar domains (1:1-1:1000 versus 1:10,000-50,000, etc.). In contrast to this, today, point cloud modelling enables landscape architects to reverse the order by teaching engineers something about sensitivity.

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Detail of a perspective generated from a point cloud model / Department of Architecture, ETH Zurich

What is astounding is how Girot has been able to apply this methodology, translating a seemingly infinite set of tiny informational dots into more than a pretty pointillist picture. (It is worth mentioning, however, that this does not preclude the possibility of an unlimited number of instant perspectives exported from zooming around in the point cloud model dimension.) While it is easy to gape at the seductive visualizations, such as the 20-meter projection of a fly-through made for Gotthard Landscape: The Unexpected View, the ETH’s contribution to the 2014 Architecture Biennale in Venice, Girot wants to make clear that this method is not just for show; it is a tool.

His animations present a new way of perceiving landscape, allowing viewers to experience an x-ray-like vision of the alps that situates the tunnel beneath a massive load, a measurable “void” beneath the modeled surface. The tunnel itself will alter the way in which visitors make their way “through the alps” by promising a 1-hour 40-minute journey without a single alpine view. In this case the model becomes a tool for communication rather than a tool for design.

fig4_biennials-ch-postcards-gotthard-ethz
Postcard from “Gotthard Landscape: The Unexpected View,” 2014 Architecture Biennale, Venice / Department of Architecture, ETH Zurich

While point cloud technology introduces new design methods to the field, it by no means guarantees the quality of a design. This technology can only bring us one step closer to a desired level of precision. For example, point cloud modelling is a tool that measures, with surprising accuracy, the extent of flood events on existing topography. For the ongoing project with the Future Cities Laboratory in Jakarta, Indonesia, Girot and his team use point cloud modelling to give definition to a landscape that lacks topographical data.

Girot generated a model of the polluted Ciliwung River to achieve the information required for a systems approach to dealing with a region where informal settlements established within the narrowing riverbed suffer from frequent flooding. With a virtual topography, or a “skin” of the river district, the lab succeeds in developing what Girot calls “the new Nolli plan,” an “urban bas relief” that reveals useful information for an urban strategy.

fig5_chiliwungRiver-jakarta-girot-ethz-ch
Detail from a bird’s eye view rendering made by the Future Cities Laboratory for the Ciliwung River project / Department of Architecture, ETH Zurich

Girot introduces to us a new design approach: communication through simulation. Here, precise data-based 3D modeling precedes the design of a landscape.

This guest post is by Lara Mehling, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design

3 thoughts on “Simulating Landscapes with Point Cloud Models

  1. Emma 11/20/2014 / 7:53 am

    Great article! My son is studying architecture at the university and I think that this article will be very interesting for him. Thanks for sharing! Regards!

  2. Urban Choreography 11/24/2014 / 2:40 am

    Reblogged this on Urban Choreography and commented:
    Thinking with topological tools brings landscape to the fore and highlights how it is the base for all improvements made in terms of the built environment. Adapting to the new tools and learning to use them and manipulate digital terrain models brings landscape architects into the world of engineering and is a real design tool as illustrated here by Girot.

  3. Ahmad Dahlan 11/26/2014 / 10:32 pm

    Awesome for the ongoing project with the Future Cities Laboratory in Jakarta, Indonesia.

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