Point Cloud Models Uncloak the Hidden

According to Christophe Girot, point clouds instill panic in politicians and architects. They reveal and expose a city from all vantages, enabling one to move behind, around, and through the whole spectrum of the built environment. The backsides of buildings, a filthy alleyway, a secret roof garden—all are equal opportunity to the virtual visitor. Though this technology has been available for ten years, the only city whose entirety exists as a point-cloud model is Zürich, Switzerland. And why is that? “It’s not the cost or the big data,” says Girot, “but the fear of being unveiled.”

Girot, who is professor and chair of landscape architecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), spoke at the college of environmental design at University of California at Berkeley on large-scale landscape design and modelling, investigating topological methods, and experimenting with new media.

The potential of his point-cloud modelling has been written about; this new vein of visualization is one which Girot is known for advancing. Though Girot did discuss the technology in his work, at this talk, he set point cloud models in the context of siting, clearing, and planting—components of the process inherent to landscape design, which centered his talk on the particularities of a site.

At the ETH, Girot and his team have garnered attention for point-cloud modelling of projects at the territorial scale. The technology is also relevant at the human scale, owing to the level of detail that it elucidates.

A precise engineering technology that is now used for modelling, the point-cloud model creates a depiction of the site by congregating billions of pixel points, all of which carry position information gleaned by drones, Lidar, and 3D-scanning.

As a viewer moves through the model, the minute points slowly push by you in a way that is less like you’re walking through the space than like you have become the camera floating through it, seemingly any detail available for close observation.

By sharing an abundance of information, the models evoke what it is like to be in a place. In spite of appearances, Girot asserts these models counter the “tech-y,” “plan-y,” and mapping-focused vein that dominates contemporary landscape architecture by bringing focus to the site.

For instance, Girot shared a series of garden models from Kyoto, which were created to illuminate the aural, visual, and textural qualities of each site (see video above and image below).

Sampling Kyoto Gardens / Christophe Girot

Interestingly, Girot calls the models “still-lifes.” This telling moniker illustrates what Girot wants the viewer to cull from the scene: the emphasis on detail, the attention to the haptic, and the ability to know the infinite variations of texture.

Beyond the capacities of the still-life—and equally important to Girot—is the model’s ability to disclose the place’s ambient sound. All of these details accumulate to a highly accurate version of the site’s sensory experience.

There are implications for the designer in point-cloud modelling: The information captured in a half-days’ worth of 3D-scanning can yield an infinite number of drawings and simulations that explain the site. “This is a mode of empowerment,” he said.

The exposure of so much detail can offer clarity, and can also uncloak the hidden—that which is concealed intentionally or not. And while he remarked that he did not want to mention politics, his insinuations about the power of this technology were made clear.

This guest post is by Grace Mitchell, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of California at Berkeley.

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