IW 3 – James Melsom

This time we talk about visualization; scripts, plugins, more importantly the use of open source software.

Enise Burcu: What do you do currently?
James Melsom: Outside the ETH I am working in collaborations with firms throughout Europe more or less. More recently, research work with some colleagues based in Barcelona, that is also crossing back over into the research work here. Also competition work with architectural offices, mainly in Switzerland.

EB: So you work your own and collaborate with different offices?
JM: Yes. In the past years that is meant more or less competitions with other offices and some consulting work in the case of international projects. I am also involved in a sustainability organization in Rotterdam called EXCEPT, and worked on a wetland project in China with another planning bureau. More recently I won a competition in Bern so in that case I will be sharing that project with a colleague, and that will continue into the next year or two.

EB: Sounds like generally large scales projects.
JM: Yes, also because they tend to have a longer time frame  Secondly because it is the kind of work with which I am more familiar with, project work in South-east Asia, in Singapore, and Thailand so often very urban work which suits to very large-scale.

EB: Introducing new software second module updated our accustomed workflow in terms of visualization. What is your workflow? What tools do you use?
JM: In terms of visualization and in using tools such as Grasshopper, it has actually evolved very much parallel to professional work. Actually one of the philosophies which has been encouraged by the work at the chair is that work is really project or solution based, then the resulting tools are not only much more useful but can really be extremely efficient as well. For example using Grasshopper and SAGA-GIS applications together, was developed because I literally had to: I was consulting on a project for a landscape architect in Zurich who was not so well equipped, and the project was not so far that she could do necessary volume calculations. She had no idea how much material was being produced by the building works, foundations and car parking within the project. So I was able then to take that problem and actually generate a workflow using different possible project outcomes, using Grasshopper for example to dynamically generate volume calculations; really useful project tools which otherwise would not exist. These could also be given to the engineer even before they had even look at the problems themselves.

EB: They certainly open new windows as far as you know how to utilize. But if you are not confident they are even scaring I would say.
JM: I think so and the other trick is generating ways that you can also verify your results, because when you are developing a new tool or a method, you still need to have some control, ie. where you can check that the volumes are correct. You need to have a background that you can really be confident in the results that you are putting out and reliably share them with other consultants or clients. Once you’ve developed that tool (even if it sometimes seems like inefficient process to develop it) then you can easily deploy that to another project. The more projects you work on, somehow you pick up steam and it becomes even more efficient.

EB: What other tools do you use? Would you tell us unless they are professional secret?
JM: The main tools I use day-to-day, in terms of  tools made by others, would be Rhino, Grasshopper and some particular plug-ins. One is “Elk”, for getting/dealing with Open Street Map data. Another is “GHowl”, which allows you to call dynamically data from Google Earth; also “Weaverbird” which extends the abilities to work with meshes in Rhino. Apart from this I use Lightwave for rendering as well as Vray, and 3D Coat which is a voxel modeling program…

EB: All of them are for 3D. Do you start with modeling? And I wonder don’t you ever use Illustrator for example?
JM: I use a lot of Illustrator. All of my plans for competitions for example are produced in Illustrator. All of the vectors are produced in Rhino; (I might even render out shadows or textures out of the 3D model) so I try to generate something accurate enough that I can lay on the top and all of those aspects can be re-used in the final output, which also makes updates much more simple.

EB: During the module you mentioned very often of open source software, and gave a couple of examples. What is the significance of open source software today?
JM: A good example I would give is Blender. Blender first started off as a 3D application for rendering. It has evolved to the point where it is now a compositing tool – so you can literally mix and grade video inside it; you can do motion tracking (you can actually import the video and solve where the camera is moving based on the video frames); you can do character animation… In its kind it is turning in to many headed beast which actually makes it harder and harder to use. You can imagine now you have hundreds of menus, it is becoming more and more specialized and less a general tool you can open intuitively and get a hold on. The other problem with the open-software of that form is that it has so many developers now; you have 20 different universities each developing some small functionality which then they give to Blender, but there is no overarching control over the workflow (or even keystrokes) that they would make sense, that these tools would work well together. Although it is extremely powerful, it is also somewhat trapped in terms of complexity of software. The other aspect is that it is putting a lot pressure onto existing software developers to generate new business models.

EB: Is it a market already? Do they develop these software in order get them purchased by the bigger companies?
JM: It is. What is interesting is that open source software now generate most of its incomes through  sponsorship  and through selling off training material. Basically you have programs like Blender who generates more less all of the revenue by having sponsors for the films and projects (you are listed in the trailer literally like you are honored for your contribution), or they sell training for that software. It is a self supporting system because software is getting more and more complex and it is getting less and less possible to learn it by yourself. For this reason I think it is extremely important to support it, but actively. In a way open source projects should not be ‘free’ in the sense that you should donate – somehow [testing, sharing findings].

EB: I guess you donate so many of them.
JM: Probably too many. This makes the software better. And the great thing about some of these projects is that if you do involve yourself you can literally talk to the developer. For example we have been able to talk directly to the developer of SAGA and actually have been changed the software for our needs. This is huge in the sense that beyond any kind of programming which we might teach in MAS (which his maybe not so conventional for landscape architects), just the understanding of the whole process behind it means you can actually talk “shop” to these people – and they will actually listen.

EB: There are too many of them. How do you choose among the thousands which one to use? Is there a kind of network that you follow?
JM: There is a very interesting site called osalt.com. That stands for open source alternatives. You can put in Photoshop and it will get you back a list of open source alternatives. It is a database which tries to show new software, it gives a few lines what the positive and negatives are, what operating systems are available on and so on. What is interesting is that just based on the  feedback  and donations they get [open-source developers], they continue or don’t continue development. For every open-source project currently active, there is about 15 times as many (and it is increasing) which have been discontinued. This a little bit the problem that often an active programmer is studying, during their dissertation, and when they have a big paid job then they might not release some kind of open source alternative. Unless they really get a lot of involvement, feedback, monitory donation or recognition, probably they will stop supporting it at some point. The other phenomenon which has happened: there is an application called MeshMixer, which has started of as a pet project of a programmer, where you could have a bunny (for example) and add these geometries together however you would like. It was a free software and amazingly done but then Autodesk bought it – now it is still available but it is being cannibalized into Autodesk products which is actually fine, as long as it is available, but probably it is going to disappear soon as well.

EB: What other networks are common?
JM: In general there is open source applications and then there is also a massive amount of plug-ins and scripts. For almost every 3D program there are plug-in and scripts being developed, also for free. This is the other huge area which definitely needs to be supported. This is also where we try at least to teach experimentation and trusting your intuition, and not necessarily taking one product and using it because “it is the only product to do what you want to do”, but actually experiment and try many products within a project; take just try one aspect, one very narrow feature set of the software and integrate that in an efficient way within the production or the generation of landscape design. Because in any case, software will come and go, have strengths and weaknesses. It is about being flexible , flexibility is certainly something which needs to be learned, a kind of fluidity jumping between these softwares and keeping them all efficient.

EB: LVML is basically working on landscape visualization. What should we understand from “landscape visualization”? Is it future landscapes or present landscapes that is meant?
JM: I think it should be flexible as a terminology. The idea why we use so much, for example, point clouds, is the fact that is not such a static data set. You can more or less imitate transparency and color and season just by loading different sets, or you can overlay easily different scenarios at the same time. We would, in the future, like to not only talk about present landscapes (which is obviously what we are talking about what we scan) or potential landscapes by the integration of 3D models, but also integrate for example recreations of historical landscapes. For example: the previous landscape before a dam was put into a valley and was flooded; to recreate the actual previous valley bed, and town in some cases when we have  photographic  material to reconstruct that. So it should be much less tied to a specific moment and should keep that kind of [temporal] flexibility. As you would notice ,we don’t spend too much time rendering if we can help it.

EB: It is not about creating the best 3D image.
JM: No. In fact, that should be possible of course, we should have the capabilities of generating any number of different possibilities. In our case, it is also about the overlay of data of the site which we cannot see but as well this idea of testing possible futures, which is for example where GIS is extremely under-utilized in its typical usage: we are usually talking historical or current, or instantly a kind of depreciated state, in terms of potential zoning plans, so extremely abstract whenever it comes to future scenarios. This is something we try to challenge.

In terms of research we are already dealing with the Computer Vision Lab at the ETH Zentrum, involved in a nationally funded research project, which involves not only the automatic stitching of point cloud data but also the automatic recognition of photographs within that landscape. You could literally throw images into this database and recognize from where it would be taken and have chronological information generated on a temporal database, which really relates to geographical space. Aims from then on would be to continue that into video or literally movement within the landscape, and even sound within such a geographic and 3D landscape database. Apart from that chiefly in research projects such as that the one which was presented in San Francisco, that was with IAAC, with Luis, with whom I will also be running a workshop in London in April. That will be another quite huge event in which we will do temporal data capture of spatial environment, temperature, light, humidity, sound and map people’s movement and relate all of these within one geographic real-time database.

EB: Thank you for the interview James. These all sounded to me very virtual, like in sci-fi.
JM: This will be quite physical. We will definitely try to relate it to the real way people act and react in space – not a simulation. Rather than the typical mode in which usually  micro-climate is talked about in terms of simulation, or creating 3D models which imitate how we think it might be; this is about literal data capture and recording, and then reacting to existing  micro-climates  which we find on the site. The workshop scenario simply allows us map and manipulate this data, as we receive it.

IW 2 – Frédéric Rossano

Enise Burcu: I am running the student blog of MAS LA where the news, work of the students are published. Besides the regular updates I recently started to add interviews that are done with teaching team. We had a great workshop with you. However we don’t know you very well. Can you tell us your background and research that you are involved in?

Frédéric Rossano: I graduated at the Versailles School of Landscape Architecture. I have been working since as a landscape architect and urban designer. In the past years, I was associate for France at KCAP Architects and Planners in Rotterdam and Zurich, and teaching landscape design at the chair of Professor Girot. Since October I am conducting a PHD research on “flood scapes”, landscapes designed to mitigate and sustain flood events.

EB: Are you focusing on certain cases?

FR: An aspect of my research is to investigate selected projects that are currently being implemented in Western Europe, Switzerland, Holland, France and Germany. I try to understand how they were implemented, how they work, which processes made them possible and which cultural background made flood acceptable in landscape architecture.

EB: Flood is the key issue in our project site too. Do you do this workshop every year?

FR: I was mostly teaching regular semester studios in the previous years, indeed mostly related to waterscapes and flood management  It is actually the first time I lead such a short workshop. It was an interesting experience.

EB: That was interesting for us too. Until now we have analyzed the site while discovering new analysis methods. The focus was much more in the tools indeed. And now is the time to think for design. You started by giving a glance to landscape history in Europe questioning how it had been perceived. We ended up with tangible proposals if not concrete. What was your intention regarding to the workshop?

FR: The ambition was not to give a direction to your design approach – I believe this is an individual thing- but to offer multiple approaches to landscape. What I tried to do is on one hand to give as many angles as possible, including a cultural point of view – historical as well as contemporary, with the films you saw. At the same time I tried to involve you personally as much as I am involved in thinking of this landscape as a whole. This was meant on the collective level – thinking of the society or the people that live and pass there, and on the level of your own intentions as designers regarding these spaces.

EB: Did you already know the site before?

FR: No I didn’t. And actually that made it even richer, at least for me! I started the workshop knowing less than you did about the site. This, I think, stimulated the dialogue between us, as I wanted to listen to you as much I wanted you to listen to me. That is much more productive relationship than a traditional teacher-student relationship.

EB: Now you have an insight. What would you recommend before we dive into the design process?

FR: I was impressed by the roughness of the site. I grew up in Alps -a small valley near Grenoble- so I had a bit of an idea.

EB: Was it flooded there?

FR: Well actually I remember the places where I used to play as a kid, like the little streams going down from the mountains close to my grandparents’ house. It flooded its shores every year. The road was often cut by land slides and rocks would fall down into the valley every now and then. All these events were accepted, as well as the fact that the mountains were a relatively dangerous place to live, but that wouldn’t hold me from going and playing around. I think that is a key aspect of living in such an environment. It is not just beautiful and picturesque but it is also a though place. Although the image that is sold from the Alps is a very peaceful and enjoyable one, living there twelve months a year is a challenge.

As a designer I would recommend to be as though as this landscape is, and transform it accepting that it has already been transformed. Natural forces are extremely powerful here, and you need to have powerful answers to make it sustainable.

EB: You say “Compete with the Alps”. I must say that I was thinking of a totally opposite approach. This is perhaps due to my cultural background and the place where I grew up. I feel like I cannot fight against to this landscape as a designer so my proposals would be being in a peace with rather than forcefully interfering it.

FR: The problem is that if you do not fight you leave! These areas are basically not suitable for living. Maybe it is not very known but 100-150 years ago Switzerland was an extremely poor country. It was not very productive; it was very hard to grow something, hard to live and build – a beautiful place but not an easy place to live and work. I think Switzerland has become what it is now thanks to very strong interventions that turned it into a very productive and livable country. But you cannot stop working on it, you have to keep on working because the mountain keeps on falling down, sedimentation goes on, climate changes… There are many issues you cannot just ignore and sit and enjoy the landscape. You have to make it constantly inhabitable.

I have the feeling all the participants of the workshop have different feelings about it. That is the part of the interesting thing in a group setting. You get kind of a kaleidoscope of impressions and perceptions. Actually I wish we had more time to get to know each other. For instance, I would be curious to know how many of you still have roots in the countryside, how many of you experienced strong natural environments. I suggested reconstructing the site inside the studio space because I think the physicality of the landscape is a domain that you should be sensitive to, and perceive the landscape also with your body. Landscape is also a question of scale, temperature, vision. If you manage to keep your physical relationship with the landscape and at the same time develop very
clever technological tools, you have the best of both. Another aspect is that design has a lot to do with will, personal will. A part of your will is based on your experience.

EB: We will see what is coming out in the following months. Thank you very much Frederic for the interview and also eye opening workshop.

IW 1 – Susanne Hofer

We decided to make a series of interviews -that I called IW- throughout the MAS LA year, with the teaching team as well as the people who are visiting or have been related to the chair. The main topic of these interviews is going to be landscape and vision as we question through our modules and discussions in MAS LA. There are many different points of views, approaches so stories at the chair. This includes not only the teaching team but also the students. Thus these interviews is conceived to add a verbal subjectivity to what we are dealing in the program.

First of this series was with Susanne Hofer whom we had an amazing “3 Days to Amaze” workshop. You can find her short bio here at the chair’s website. Besides her background we talked about her practice, landscape and not surprisingly films.

Enise Burcu: Shall we start with your background? I know that you studied film.

Susanne Hofer: I studied fine arts before the film and video studies. Then I started to work on film sets as camera assistant and cinematographer. In 2003 I founded a company with my partner Katrin Oettli, it is called Firma Flimmer.

EB: What kind of works do you do within Flimmer?

SH: We do a lot of things for museums such as short documentaries and thematic exhibitions. We do also image films for some companies. We record their work progress and try to do it in an aesthetic way. It is a bit an edge work. It is neither advertising nor big documentary. It is in between. I am also doing sceneography videos, videos for theater pieces that define the space.

EB: So regarding your practice there are products at one hand and at the other hand interior such as theaters and museums. We could say the scale is quite different than landscape. I wonder how did you come to the institute to work with Professor Girot?

SH: That was a big coincidence. I have been working with Fred Truniger who was studying at ETH. He is a film scientists. He did his work about filmic measuring of landscape which was quite interesting. I came here and did not know anything about landscape. I really developed a way of looking also for myself and learned a lot of about space. That helps me a lot in the theatre since the space there is as much bigger. Mostly very huge black boxes where there is nothing. I have to create space with just video screens or projections. I think also the way of how I learned to look at the medium itself; the film, editing, and camera work. I developed a lot with the work of students. As a teacher you always have to rethink your way of doing things, otherwise you are not open enough.

EB: I assume in theater and museums you have light, shadow, sound and other conditions under your control whereas in landscape conditions direct you, and we could even say that you are under control of landscape!

SH: I think it is also the same because I do not have everything under control since there is always a collaboration. There is somebody else controlling the light for example, there are audiences or people at the stage. Moving images always drag attention your eye. If you are working for the stage set you cannot take everything to the video screen. You have to do something that keeps the focus in the stage. It is a collaboration. Of course it is not changing or snowing suddenly as it is in landscape. You know what is going to happen. It is about knowing what is there, and knowing the ingredients and then developing something with these different parameters. I think that is also a bit the same with landscape. You know that someday it is going to snow or it could have been rained. You have to take these parameters, and then work and integrate them. It is an equilibrium.

EB: The curriculum at the chair is relatively different than the other landscape institutes. Media Lab is offering great possibilities to the students. What do you want to teach to students?

SH: I really want to guide the view to a different angle. Looking at landscape or spaces in different way than you are used to within architectural studies. Film is very convenient to create new spaces, because you have a filmic space, completely different than natural space so you can combine images and create a new space, and look at the it differently. It is also the element of what frame do I choose and what is off screen? What do I hear? It is a very atmospheric medium. It is school of seeing and listening.

EB: Can we say that the main goal of the media Lab is providing filmic view, approach to design making to landscape architecture students?

SH: It is not just the filmic view but rather a different angle. The film, video or audio are more less  mediums where we can try out things and are very convenient as they have so many layers. It is a perception, a way of sharpening the perception to spaces. Not just visually and also auditive in an atmospheric or emotional way.

EB: We have been working with plans and sections. This tools in a way bring an overlooking at the movement and sound in landscape that are the essentials and are the ingredients that cause the landscape differ from many professions. This way of looking certainly helps gaining a wider perspective. How can we use them in practice, for instance in office life?

SH: I think there are different ways how you can use or apply to daily office works. One thing is if you have to analyze the site or go somewhere and you have to take images to home. You should be very aware what images you take home. What are the essentials in a space that you have to see and also record. You have to record in a way that is understandable for people who did not go there. That is why we always try to discuss the video and images that students bring home in a sense of what did you want to show us and what do we see in fact which differs a lot in the beginning. That is why it is very important to talk about images with this topic of the framing and the off frame. What extract do I take, what atmosphere can I record and how? What are the elements that create this atmosphere? How do I want to change it then. If I want to show a status quo.  I think you start looking differently if you go there with the video camera – not like a tourist but with a focused view and where you are aware of what you are filming.

EB: I could understand that from the workshop in Einsiedeln. We had the limitations such as the battery, light, weight you have to carry. I noticed that somehow these kind of constraints educate you since you have to be very orderly and planned and care of the timing.

SH: There is also one thing about presentations. You can make things much more clear if you have an atmospheric tool to show what is it like now or how it could be.

EB: I think it is also more convincing.

SH: Even if you don’t want to do yourself you have the knowledge and language how you could apply to give an assignment  to somebody who does it professionally. That is another possibility.

EB: I want to ask you whether there is a field called landscape video in art or film terminology? I know it will be too speculative but I have a sense that if such a field were exist it could have a power as much as landscape painting had to influence the people. After you asked us to create a 1 minute landscape painting by using the videos after the workshop this question aroused. Since then I have been thinking about how could I paint using the video as brush. Or how could I replace the camera to brush, or translate this language into this moving dimensions.

SH: We did not have time to talk about that in the workshop. I thought nobody really achieved to make a landscape painting which was also quite difficult task. It is a nice idea to continue this and really think about what is it and how is landscape represented in art. How could it be done with idea.

We are going to go into the photographic representation of landscape because they took over. For example Axel Hütte, he did a lot of landscape photography. If you think about his teachers Bechers,  when they started to photography the industrial buildings that was a step in art history to not take only beautiful arcadian landscape but these existing industrial conditions.

EB: My last questions is about your recommendations regarding to film. Tell us your favorite directors or artist that you think that are must seen.

SH: For students I would recommend different works than my favorite works. It is always changing but what I like is experimenting with the medium. That is why I really like Michel Gondry when he works with Charlie Kauffman because it is becoming a strange world that really integrates also the possibilities of the medium. If I don’t want to mention all the old films that are very important such as Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Bertolucci’s Il Conformista of which I remember every single scene. I like Michelangelo Antonioni. Orson Welles of course. There are also some new films I love, for example I like very much Wes Anderson films. For teaching there is one director I would like to show; Jørgen Leth who is a Danish filmmaker who did experimenting and documentary films. He did a very nice portrait of America that is called 66 Scenes from America. I find him very interesting. I also like John Smith who is an experimental film maker from England whom I showed you the video called Black Tower at the lecture.

Of course James Behning who has very different way of looking. His last film was 2 hours long and consists of only five shots. One was one hour long. He is really perceiving, contemplating with the images. I like the work of Bill Viola which is more into video art.

Another one very interesting film that Fred Truniger wrote about in his PHD. That is called Divina Obssesion which is about roundabouts. He just films the roundabouts and he is talking on the phone to the people who are responsible for them.

EB: It is very interesting. I don’t know about this movie, but it reminds me a book called Concrete Island of J. G. Ballard which was about a man (architect) who finds himself in one of the roundabouts after a sudden accident and lose his contacts with city life.

Thank you very much Susanne.