Monday, February 16, 2009

The Personalized Landscape

I saw a headline the other day about how a new wave of smaller GPS chips was coming out that was going to make all sorts of personal electronic devices "location aware". This got me thinking about how the actual locations might become aware of the electronics. That sounds a lot like privacy intrusion, so maybe we step back a little and have it more that you opt-in to be in a database (like a grocery store discount card), and when you're in a location and communication links to your cell phone then the location knows you are there. This might already be happening for all I know. I remember in the movie "Minority Report" Tom Cruise is running through this mall and the Gap electronic billboards start trying to sell him personalized items, and science fiction tends to be not too far ahead of reality in things like that.

Anyhow, what I think would be really interesting in terms of this concept in public space is how an environment might alter to accomodate your personal tastes. For example, the outdoor lighting at night might shift to your favorite color.... or maybe the dominant favorite color based on the group of people connected. So, if the space is green, and then it starts to shift to red you know something about the people around you. Or maybe the color isn't based on a favorite color, but is instead a mood indicator based on your Facebook status... such as "Aaron is feeling jubilant." So the night lighting works like a public mood ring.

What if actual elements in the landscape changed, such as the shifting of various plaza levels. Maybe for the person into parkour, you get a crazy terraced landscape, but for the wheelchair bound visitor the grades shift back to ADA compliance.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Landscape Sharding

I was reading an article on scaling in games and virtual worlds, and two of the most common strategies for dealing with large volumes of users in such worlds are geographic decomposition and sharding. The goal of both of these is to minimize the response time between an action on the user side computer and the response from the server side host computer. Nobody likes to sit around and wait. I thought this somewhat analagous to waiting in line for a ride at an amusement park. Nobody likes a long line.

Getting back to the scaling concepts, geographic decomposition breaks down the game world into different areas, each of which is mapped to a host server. So, a specific island in the game might be hosted on a server, and anyone visiting that island would communicate with that specific server. In our amusement park analogy, Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland might be such a geographically decomposed area. The second technique is called sharding. In this strategy each shard is a copy of a part of the game or virtual world. So players who exist in one shard can only interact with only those players and objects that exist in their shard. Getting back to amusement parks, this reminded me of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. There's a single ride environment, but it is shared by several sets of tracks that offer slightly different ride experiences. You and your friends better get in the same set of cars if you want to stick together.

Scaling of landscape is certainly an issue that long pre-dates online games, but I do think these terms of "geographic decomposition" and "sharding" are evocative ones that are worth co-opting. The types of space that pop into my mind for applying them are amusement and theme parks, Olympic venues, festival sites, cemeteries, security checkpoints, etc. Aren't the airport security lines a form of sharding? Neighborhood parks might be more geographic decomposition instead of sharding. With a cemetery, how do you divide the site into more intimate scaled units. Again, maybe more geographic decomposition. What about box superstores such as Target and Home Depot. Those seem more sharding to me. You go there and it's almost like walking into the same floor plan no matter what city you're in. Are recreation parks with ball fields and courts a similar form of landscape sharding?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Stop-motion, Scale & Landscape

This past month's issue of Metropolis magazine had an article on the stop-motion animation version of Neil Gaiman's "Coraline" that should be out later this year. The director is Henry Selick, who also directed "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "James and the Giant Peach". Both of these are also primarily stop-motion animation features. I've enjoyed this style of animation for a long time now, probably first getting introduced to it in the form of the Rankin & Bass produced TV Christmas specials such as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer".

There are a couple of features of stop-motion animation that I think make it uniquely interesting to me. The first of these is that you're taking these physical, real-world objects and injecting life into them. In some ways, it's like a magician's creation of a Golem, and there truely is something magical in the illusion of life given to these inanimate things. The second feature of stop-motion that I find really intriguing is how it plays with our pre-conceived notions of scale. Miniratures shot close-up with a camera look huge on the screen. So you can either create doll-house sets to represent the "real" world (as you find in the amazing "Wallace & Grommit" films by Nick Park), or you can abstract existing "real" scale objects to create the landscape of the film. One animated short I remember that did this very well in an animation festival I saw years ago was called "The Potato Hunter" by animator Timothy Hittle. In it, baked potatos become buffalo roaming the plain (or plane in this case) of the dinner table.

There's also a hybrid abstracted-dollhouse landscape that seems to be what I enjoy the most. The animation of The Brother's Quay fall's into this category. They bring an incredible graphic design sensibility to their animated worlds, transforming a packaging barcode from the "real" sized world into a wall paper pattern. The characters and stories they introduce often create a nightmare dollhouse world with its own dream logic in the landscape they have crafted.

This dream-like quality and landscape abstraction also can be seen in Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas". That film presents some beautiful examples of traditional landscapes abstracted into a dream-like spaces. The traditional cemetery is warped into a jack-o-lantern filled, rolling hill graveyard. That they were minirature sets blown up to full-size on screen somehow connects back to that magic of the golem creation myth.

I think this abstraction of scale is something that can have a strong impact on people's imaginations. In gardens the creation of bonsai comes to mind as one of the most popular forms. To shrink a tree down to such a compact form in a way compresses the landscape into minirature. The whole world is contained in a single pot. We hover over it like a giant. On the flip side of scale, there have been many artists who blow-up mundane objects to gigantic size, such as this saftey-pin sculpture at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco that I took a photo of. The re-scaling of the object not only makes us rethink about the aesthetic shape of the object, it also shrings us down to the world of the object. We are the size of insects. Thinking about these things, it is clear to me that scale can be a powerful tool in affecting how people experience a space. I'll try and be more conscious of it in the future.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Urban Bird Warfare

Every weekday evening near sunset I take the bus up Lamar Boulevard here in Austin, TX, and as the weather started getting colder the concentration of roosting birds started to increase near downtown. The trees in front of BookPeople just past 6th Street are packed with Grackles, and when the bus door opens at the stop there, the vehicle is flooded with a cacophony of bird sound. It's an amazing noise in passing, although perhaps not so charming if you hear hours of it everday. Then there's the poop speckling the sidewalk along this stretch. The uric acid in the feces can corrode the material over time. Then you have the potential clogging of gutters and pipes with nests. So, while I enjoy my moment of the bird roosting ritual in passing, I also understand that it's a nuisance for many business owners.

So, how does one manage such a nuisance? One option is a range of active bird warfare techniques that involve pyrothecnics, bird fog, gas-operated exploders, exploding shotgun shells, visual scaring devices, recorded bird distress calls, and falconry. Here are some sample images of such equipment as can be found on sites such as ABC Advanced Bird Control.

The Gas Operated Exploder

Super BirdXPeller PRO
Scare Ballon

Double-barrel Gun for Exploding Shells

Bird Fogger

Then you have your standard range of design options, such as bird spikes or netting, or the electrical tracking if you want to get fancy.

The Spikes

The Shock

But could we as landscape architects and urban designers take things further? Could we design bird-resistant landscapes? First you bury all the power lines so they can't sit on those or the poles. Then you get rid of the trees so there are fewer nesting options. Plant only noxious shrubs so they've nothing to eat. Building rooftops might need to have tight eliptical radii edges that provide no perch. Throw in lots of randow bird spikes here and there. Float a bunch of the scare balloons, or place animatronic owls on every rooftop. Encourage local after-school falconry groups. Sponsor civic fireworks shows every evening at sunset. I can see it now...

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Concrete Trolls (not Trowels)

My friend Sandy posted this photo of the Fremont Bridge troll in Seattle on flickr a long while back, and I really enjoyed how LARGE a sculpture it is. Please note the VW gripped in its left hand should you think that the person sitting on said hand might be just a tiny doll.

Jump forward a few years, and I am at work flipping through some very old Landscape Architecture magazines at work when I come across a short article and some photos describing the construction of the troll. I misplaced my copy of the article, but I have these pictures to share with you. I apologize for the lack of photo credit, but that's missing with the copied article.

The base form of the troll was wire mesh that the artist then covered with layers of shotcrete, with hand-trowelled layers added later. If you've not seen shotcrete in action, it's like if a powerwasher was spitting out a thin concrete mix instead of high pressure water. Gunite is the same type of thing, with shotcrete being the umbrella name for such processes. Typically, shotcrete is, as I said, a very thin mix with a fine mortar-like aggregate and a high percentage of cement compared to sand. So, you still have the three main concrete ingredients: cement, aggregate and sand.

I was looking for more good examples of shotcrete use, and it's definitely more of an industrial product than an artistic one. Swimming pools, skate parks, erosion control, and hobbit-hole wine cellars seem to be some of the more popular uses. The skate parks produce some of the more interesting examples of shotcrete use, in my opinion. Here's a cool one in Reedsport, OR designed and built by Airspeed Skateparks.

In my search for interesting shotcrete images, I stumbled upon ferrocement, which is shotcrete's close cousin. Unlike shotcrete which has all three usual component of concrete, ferrocement doesn't have any aggregate. It's just cement and sand on a wire mesh. It's also not shot out through a high pressure nozzel. Instead, it's typically hand-troweled onto the mesh surface. So, it's a lot more labor intensive process to create a ferrocement structure or sculpture, but the results can be very cool. A lot of Gaudi's organic architecture, for example, is based on ferrocement. In places with cheap labor, it also seems to pop-up as a popular construction technique. Here are some shots I found of projects in India and Mexico over on the website:

All of this has me wanting to come up with new ways to use concrete and cement in future landscape architecture projects. I challenge you to do the same as we kick off 2009!