Google Earth and Architecture

I recently came across the brief synopsis of a book titled Distributed Urbanism. The synopsis briefly discussed the author’s interest in how cities and technology are changing and how architects are responding. This quickly brought to mind many experiences while in school involving the use of Google Earth as a research and design tool. The tool certainly has its value and place, but I also feel that it is easily abused, or valued too highly. I’ll try to explain my thoughts below.

Google Earth is a wonderful tool for seeing and understanding the earth from a vantage point we can normally never attain. And until the advent and expansion of the program, it was only a limited audience that saw what many of us are now familiar with. Google Earth allows us the view the natural landscape and built landscape from an entirely new perspective. This bird’s eye view can show us patterns and relationships in the built environment that may not be apparent or discovered through other means.

The views captured from the software are also a valuable graphic and presentation tool. Many posters for architectural projects contain at least one Google Earth image, which precisely, and often creatively, shows exactly where the site is in space and geography. Different scales of photos reveal different things about the conditions of the site. One photo may illustrate that the project is sited near the water in a large harbor. The next may show that the project is near a pier and other public space on the edge of the urban fabric. The last may show the site and its immediate surroundings, as well as how the building or project is laid out on the site. These three views, as well as other derivations, present valuable information about the site and project in an attractive visual format. However, this is, I feel, where the benefits and strong points end and where I will become more critical of widespread application of the program.

Fundamentally, the bird’s eye view is completely different and at odds with the street level view and human scale. For all the information the satellite view can give us, it can tell us little if anything about life and conditions and the human scale on the site. The excessive use of satellite views puts an emphasis on where the site is in space and geography as opposed to what it is. The what entails all of the qualitative factors of the site that relate to the human experience of the place and project. The culture, demographics, history, population trends, traffic patterns, wind, sun, noise, microclimates and more all contribute to one’s experience and understanding of a place. These factors should be understood, valued and promoted to help promote a positive qualitative experience on the site for the users and passersby.

The serpentine and pedestrian streets of medieval Copenhagen

One example that quickly comes to mind is a case study an urbanism class did while I was studying in Copenhagen. We compared the medieval part of the city to a new development in an outlying area, Ørestaden, and noted the difference from both the bird’s eye and street level experience. The two areas of the city differed greatly in both regards. The former area was a dense labyrinthine network of streets and alleys, as well as buildings tightly packed into the fabric. The latter was a typical grid pattern, with large block buildings and nothing much else to note. The street level experience differed drastically. The medieval part of the city is a delight for one to walk through. The serpentine streets and serial views always draw your feet and curiosity around the corner; the variety of shops, sights, sounds and smells engulf the senses and engages the mind. Further, the scale was appropriate for the user, from the width of the street to the façades of the storefronts; all were in tune to the human scale. In contrast, the new area featured large and wide avenues, much more suited to the car than the pedestrian. The storefronts lacked and buildings lacked an appropriate scale, far overwhelming their human users. The street was much more devoid of life and sensory interest, and the wide avenues encouraged the wind to sweep through the area.

Another famous example is Brasîlia, Brazil, planned and designed to be the ideal modern city. Designed from above and at a large scale, the brilliant success on paper is a failed urban city. Many of the areas are utterly inhospitable to the pedestrian and the width of the avenues, and distances between buildings and urban centers are wholly out of scale and unnecessary.

Google Earth has its place to be sure, but it should not be too heavily used or leaned upon during the design process. Beginning the design process in Google Earth creates a foundation of detachment from real time, real space, and real people. It is a static view that does not change with the seasons, the time of day or anything else. It is immune to the inputs of people, conversation, commerce, sounds, textures, smells and other forms of urban delight.

You take delight not in a cities seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives you to a question of yours. Or the question it asks you, forcing you to answer….”

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

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