How satellites are rebooting building design

How satellites are rebooting building design

Astrospatial Architecture - Manal Rachdi’s proposed “City Sand Tower” to sustain a new population in the Moroccan desert
Manal Rachdi’s proposed “City Sand Tower” to sustain a new population in the Moroccan desert

Today’s electromagnetic and earth observation systems are propelling a future-habitats’ design movement that could be named Astrospatial Architecture. 

Spaceship Earth is back on the agenda with futuristic architects and environmental planners. Popularized by Richard Buckminster Fuller and other modern science pundits during America’s 1960s space race against Russia, this term remains the most evocative of several concepts which promote the accelerating ambition to manage holistically our planet’s environmental systems.

In this century, the Spaceship Earth dream is being facilitated by tele computation tools originally devised to fly airplanes, rockets and satellites. Pulsing the scenes flickering across our myriad screens are the semiconductor and sensor-enabled infrastructures of massive parallelism; connecting non-visual data across globally distributed grids of processors, portals and storage banks. As predicted by Al Gore in his 1992 proposal for a “Digital Earth” global climate model, parallelism seems to be the only systems architecture, and conceptual metaphor, that could “cope with the enormous volume of data that will be routinely beamed down from orbit”.

How will all these bits of information help architects to envisage structures made of atoms? This question, published in 1995 by William J. Mitchell to extrapolate the urban development implications of common access to the Internet, still highlights the crucial paradox and paradigm for professionals dealing with virtual architecture. He wrote: “The network is the urban site before us, an invitation to design and construct the City of Bits (capital of the twenty-first century). … But this new settlement will turn classical categories inside out and will reconstruct the discourse in which architects have engaged from classical times until now. … How shall we shape it?”

Today, astrospatial (developed for space exploration) and geomatics technologies are propelling the hybrid domain of earth observations, which underpins fundamental reforms of geography, surveying and environmental planning. Emerging systems of visualizing today’s torrents of location-specified data also require major innovations to help merge different ways of modeling natural and constructed environments. Third millennium simulations, comprehensively explained by Stephen Wolfram in A New Kind of Science (2002), are being underpinned increasingly by his “Principle of Computational Equivalency” between complex natural processes and their correct mathematical models (which may be generated by surprisingly simple cellular automata codes). Wolfram’s concepts are accelerating various compatible practices across many long-estranged science disciplines and are unlocking (for advanced architects and other building professionals) digital simulation scenarios that go far beyond the current capacities of CAD-CAM, BIM, GNSS (GPS) and GIS.

Textbooks explaining behavioral modeling for a “new science of cities” were published by Michael Batty (2005, 2013)after his University College London colleague, Andrew Hudson-Smith, wrote a comprehensive thesis (2003) on virtual visualization technologies relevant to online urban planning. Spatial techniques to represent urban flows are exemplified by mobile phone data videos of pedestrians and buses (MIT SENSEable City Lab, 2006, and many later examples) and are expanding architecture’s core premise to envisage (static) building stocks.

The world’s first earth observation photograph from space: captured by a 35mm camera aboard the US Army’s V-2 #13 missile, launched from the White Sands Missile Base, New Mexico, United States, October 24, 1946
The world’s first earth observation photograph from space: captured by a 35mm camera aboard the US Army’s V-2 #13 missile, launched from the White Sands Missile Base, New Mexico,
United States, October 24, 1946

Modeling global earth systems

More than any physical structure, Google Earth was the artifice which explicitly highlighted massive urban implications from our escalating “space economy”; a phenomenon surveyed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) since 2007. Google Earth and other early virtual globes suddenly showed why it has been intelligent for earthlings to explore outer space. It demonstrated that we must rely on ubiquitous surveillance from orbiting vehicles to realistically comprehend our planet’s conditions: visible and invisible, spatially from core to stratosphere and horologically from genesis to oblivion. The better we are at flying in outer space, the better equipped we can be to sustain life on Earth.

Today, international scientists and technically literate policy strategists are updating the Spaceship Earth and Digital Earth visions via an epic scientific movement called the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). Proposed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, progressed at two following Earth Observation Summits in Washington DC (2003) and Tokyo (2004), and launched in Brussels (2005, the same year as Google Earth), this intergovernmental program is refunded to continue to 2025.

GEOSS is co-ordinated by the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) in Geneva, an intergovernmental secretariat representing more than 200 member nations, global science bodies, UN agencies, conventions and foundations. It supports key environmental declarations including the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement, the Convention on Biodiversity and Agenda 2030. Its groups of specialists are working with the UN Statistics Division to exploit satellite and remote sensing data to measure and monitor advances towards the UN goals. More than 150 major government agencies now provide datasets for public access through the GEOSS portal: the raw information often must be visualized (frequently with dynamic map platforms) to be comprehensible to audiences lacking statistical analysis skills.

Online environmental planning

What does global monitoring from space vehicles have to do with architects of terrestrial buildings? It seems logical that government planners in future will require property developments to be designed and cross-checked against locally relevant environmental datasets and that ECV data and other natural systems information will need to be integrated (more visually) with design modeling of major building projects. EO surveillance, using equipment to measure invisible electromagnetic waves reflected from land, sea and air surfaces, seems especially valuable to help clarify whether sites are suitable, or not, for future human living.

One example was the 2004 Arup-planned proposal to build China’s first eco-city, named Dongtan, on a swampy island off Shanghai. After substantial international publicity that was later described as “greenwash”, viability for this project evaporated after scientists revealed not only that construction would slaughter local wildlife but that Dongtan is among many coastal and island locations that will be submerged by progressively higher tides.

Today’s massive mutations of cadaster administration systems are driving latest global debates about smart cities and data cities where governments decide how to handle public information

Previously, sea-surface heights were not considered often in architectural design, but today’s satellite-informed forecasts are becoming more pertinent: not only for planning seaside cities but also in designing and insuring houses for oceanfront, clifftop and flood-prone sites.

Conversely, Earth monitoring may have potentials to highlight large land areas, for example the deserts of North Africa and Australia, that may become suitable habitats for humans (via global warming or other climate changes, or with substantial engineering). Architects already are imagining fantastic scenarios, which via photorealistic CGI, may convince (unfamiliar) viewers that they have been built. For example, Manal Rachdi (OXO, Paris) has published a 450 m-tall vertical city concept, proposing solar and geothermal power and rainwater collection to sustain a tower of offices, a hotel, community facilities and six hundred housing units, suggesting this be sited in Morocco. Swedish architect Magnus Larsson visualized a new Sahara “dunescape”, incorporating a 6,000 km-long “shelterbelt” of trees and a sand-sculpted desert camp comprising caves for several thousand refugees. He suggested sowing Bacillus pasteurii, a wetlands bacteria, to transform the sand particles into a structurally cohesive, fibrous stone structure with cavities that could be occupied by otherwise homeless humans. Rachdi, Larsson and other speculative architects seem inspired to draw solutions for the current international governance challenge of creating new cities for large groups of refugees from wars or natural catastrophes.

Like the ancient disciplines of cartography and surveying, cadasters today are evolving from 2D static maps on paper to nD (theoretically infinite dimensions and domains) of information, most of which must be communicated between semiconductor-enabled devices, often without being visualized for the eyes of humans. Today’s massive mutations of cadaster (and census) administration systems are driving latest global debates about smart cities (mainly enabled by commercial systems) and data cities (where governments decide how to handle public information).

Currently, there is a vacuum of coherent recognition about how public open online access to extensive repositories of environmental data might help local planning and development professionals to more effectively serve their constituencies, and contribute responsibly to global climate management strategies. Minimizing corruption of data — during gathering, storing, analyzing, exchanging and disseminating — looms as a colossal challenge.

Conceptually at least, national and local spatial data infrastructure systems seem essential to seriously consolidate today’s rhetoric about “evidence-based planning”. Three international data-agglomeration movements are evolving — and all depend on both automated computation and visual representations to make sense of the raw content. First, many advanced governments now have programs to location-tag as much public information as possible, especially Census statistics: this thrust may help transform representations of cities from 2D and static mapping to 3D (and conceptually nD) dynamic models. Another new scheme is ISO 37120:2014, the world’s first standards code to support comparisons of municipality performance indicators, prepared by the Global City Indicators Facility at the University of Toronto and adopted by the International Standards Organization in 2014.

An earlier concept, launched by UN-Habitat at its Habitat II conference in Istanbul in 1996 and prototyped by some Middle East and North African cities, since, is the GUONet global network of “urban observatories”: centers for collating, analyzing and publishing (mostly graphically, using 2D maps) statistics recording location-relevant social and environmental conditions.

Central Dubai, with the Burj Khalifa Tower, mall and waterscape
Central Dubai, with the Burj Khalifa Tower, mall and waterscape

The urban observatories idea was conceived by American information architect/author Richard Saul Wurman, beginning with his same-scale plasticine models comparing the land contours of fifty different cities (1963).In Design Quarterly 80: Making the City Observable (1971), he reviewed the potentials for visual evidence (of urban stocks such as buildings and flows of traffic or natural forces such as wind and water) to inform more accurate development decisions. He proposed two types of clearing houses: “urban observatories” (for monitoring and analysis) and “urban data centers” (for storage and access). These distinct, yet interlinked, operations still seem vital to underpin a globally congruent system for planning and managing future urban developments, and would need science-astute professionals, remotely supported by supercomputers, to facilitate valuable uses of the data.

Earth observation outcomes: Data city systems and geodesign

How will the GEOSS affect architectural practice? And (how) will architecture practitioners contribute to this scientific vision?

If implemented successfully over the next decade, the GEOSS would provide access to many globally distributed banks of the geo-tagged and climate-related information that seems necessary to underpin evidence-informed designs for future places to live. The point of all this data, for built environment professionals, is that architects will be expected to exploit it not only for specific projects, but to continue to reform the profession’s methods of design and representation. Today’s vital innovations are coming not just from visualization software suppliers (Autodesk, Esri, Trimble, Hexagon, Bentley and others — noting Google-Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs spinoff), but also from the research departments of major inter-disciplinary professional consultancies (for example, AECOM, Aedas, Fosters, MVRDV, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Greg LynnFORM, Heatherwick Studio, Arup, Buro Happold and many engineering firms).

An emerging technique for urban simulations is procedural modeling, which saves considerable time in modeling and changing volume outlines for urban areas comprising many buildings; so is useful for planners concerned with stakeholder consultations

Academia’s contributions include progressive international research-conference networks (such as Smartgeometry and various computer-aided architectural design groups) and agenda-setting postgraduate centers at various universities (notably the CASA, Space Syntax and architecture units at UCL’s Bartlett faculty, the MIT Media and SENSEable Cities Labs, the ETH-Z Future Cities Labs, the Dutch, German and Austrian TU systems and independent schools like the AA in London and IAAC in Barcelona).

Underlying recent debates about the latest long wave of Climate Change is a shared concern about how (or whether) humanity can avoid massive losses of life (or even eventual extinction as a species, as predicted by Elon Musk and other space travel entrepreneurs). Scientists promoting integrated earth systems simulations suggest that “visual computing” of multiple dimensions of information is essential to clarify patterns of activity and insights towards effective solutions.

Bob Bishop, chairing a campaign to build an International Centre for Earth Simulations (ICES) in Geneva (comparable in his proposed scale to the CERN particle physics facility), suggested that “one important advantage for visualization-based analysis is that computer simulation output can be presented as multiple layers of data for every time-step in a process”.

One example is the Australian Geoscience Data Cube, launched in 2013 by Geoscience Australia’s National Earth Observation Group to save substantial time in analyzing time-sequences of NASA/USGS Landsat imagery over Australia’s vast land mass (which spans forty zones of longitude and latitude). The Data Cube process is to slice the Landsat imagery into tiles covering precisely the same land co-ordinates, then to stack the tiles as a time-series, then to identify, extract and analyze only the differences of data for each specific zone.

While the idea of layering datasets was dramatically demonstrated with Apple’s Time Machine method of storing and visualizing document files (released in 2007), the idea had not been applied usefully to satellite imagery. Now supported by influential EO agencies, this system seems likely to accelerate the ease of analysing how natural systems affect areas with potential for building developments.

Another promising demonstration of advanced analytics of satellite images of built environments is the European Commission’s Global Human Settlement Layer (GHSL), launched in 2013 and renamed Human Planet since the UN’s Habitat III conference in 2016. An EC science team at Ispra, Italy, developed a high-performance computing process, named I2Q, to automatically query sensor and population data from satellite and aerial images of cities and settlements. Tested on all types of sensors, the 12Q-GHSL system can be used to visualize built surfaces, percentages of built surfaces, average sizes of buildings and the numbers of structures for every image (tile). This introduces a widely applicable automatic processing method to generate globally consistent, optimized mapping of the structural conditions of settlements; supporting international responses to crises, and the sustainable urban development agendas of the UN and GEO systems.

Advances from scientists towards a sophisticated global system of simulating environments are not seriously accessible or cohesive yet for architects, and most geomatics experts are not equipped to design physical facilities for urban areas: this void seems propitious for entrepreneurs. Also not concerned with designing real cities — but far advanced in visualizing fantasy environments and simulating real cities (as in film scenes where famous monuments seem to explode) are entertainment industry CGI studios such as Pixar and Weta.

An emerging technique for urban simulations is procedural modeling, which saves considerable time in modeling and changing volume outlines for urban areas comprising many buildings; so is useful for planners concerned with stakeholder consultations. Parametric modeling, where structures are assembled individually with specific rules and measurements, gives more accuracy in detailing geometrically irregular buildings but is less flexible for changing basic design strategies.

Map of Sana’a, Yemen, showing building footprints, heights and structural materials, generated from Alpha-Tree analysis of satellite images, for the Global Human Settlement Layer, a contribution to the GEOSS and Digital Earth visions
Map of Sana’a, Yemen, showing building footprints, heights and structural materials, generated from Alpha-Tree analysis of satellite images, for the Global Human Settlement Layer, a contribution to the GEOSS and Digital Earth visions

All modeling methods (including non-digital) are encouraged by protagonists of the Geodesign movement, which Esri has promoted at special user conferences since 2010. Carl Steinitz, the former Harvard landscape professor who authored the first Geodesign manifesto, has said that Geodesign modeling requires both design arts and geographic science skills, in different proportions and using different processes, to help answer six questions: 1) How should the context be described? (Representation models); 2) How does the context operate? (Process models); 3) Is the current context working well? (Evaluation models); 4) How might the context be altered? (Change models); 5) What differences might the changes cause? (Impact models); and 6) How should the context be changed? (Decision models).

One key to potential convergences in modeling buildings, cities and their natural contexts is LiDAR, which gives building professionals precisely geo-tagged simulations of the surfaces of complex structures: far more detailed architectural information than is possible with other imaging methods. Different qualities of survey data are obtained from light aircraft, drones, and balloons, moving trucks or fixed tripods. Generally the terrestrial and low-flying scanners obtain higher quality resolutions than satellite images — but they survey targets only once or infrequently, while satellites now promise constantly updated information to inform modeling over multiple decades.

Also transforming traditional visions of architecture are many designers and artists who exploit cities as after-dark stages for “licht architektur” spectacles, using post-Edison (mostly RGB LED) illumination sources and control systems. Electroluminescent (semiconductor-enabled) urban lighting technologies are equipping the most powerful new arts and architecture movement of the early 21st century. This third great wave of illumination follows the primitive paradigm of sunlight, moonlight and fossil-fueled flames, supplemented since 1879 by post-Edison electric lighting.

Today’s “smart light cities” artists are breaking away from traditional exhibition containers such as museums and galleries to transform buildings, bridges, streets, skylines, fountains, waterways, parks and public spaces with multistory video projections, facade-scale pixel screens, gobo (stencil)-filtered pole lights, luminous footpath substances and radiant, technicolor sculptures with invisible sensors responding to human presences, touches, voices, steps and eye movements. Experimental protagonists include Yann Kersalé, Hervé Audibert, Hervé Descottes (L’Observatoire International), Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Daan Roosegaarde — influencing many international designers of architectural lighting and electronic theatrics for public events.

Futuristic architecture faculties are improving their resources to educate students about emerging techniques of architectural lighting. Technology-experimental cross-disciplinary researchers seem to be pioneering novel transmedia — and trans architecture — genres where citizens may drift between virtual and physical domains of behavior. Diverse experiments with new ways of experiencing light and visually exploiting data are being encouraged especially by (for example) the Media Architecture Institute (emphasis on urban and architectural light experiments) and the International Society for Presence Research (emphasizing scientific advances with virtual reality, augmented reality and robotics).

Optics — the science domain concerned with light and vision — has always catalyzed the concepts which philosophically advanced architects interpret as themes for constructing the aesthetics of buildings. During the United Nations’ International Year of Light 2015, optics was promoted as the source of most of the electroluminescent (including data-conducting) technologies that are transforming our cities and ways of life. Current theories of quantum electrodynamics (QED), clarified by Richard Feynman in lectures from 1979, interpret all optical and electromagnetic behaviors in terms of dynamic exchanges between electrons (particles of matter) and photons (particles, or what he called ‘corpuscles’, of light). Feynman’s principles are vital for 21st century interactions between real and virtual worlds: they explain many emerging strategies for information transmissions such as li-fi, data modeling, holograms, and virtual and augmented reality. They also underpin emerging ideas to develop a new global computing grid termed the Internet of Light (IoL), which would conduct flows of sensor data via the tiny semiconductors which activate LEDs. Offering vastly more potential than today’s Wi-Fi, future Li-fi systems seem likely to deliver the next- generation data networking infrastructure necessary to implement the Internet of Things.

Paris artist Yann Kersalé’s Sea Mirror heliostat of color-changing LEDs and mirrors, cantilevered from an upper floor of Sydney’s Central Park One apartment tower, designed by Jean Nouvel with Peddle Thorp
Paris artist Yann Kersalé’s Sea Mirror heliostat of color-changing LEDs and mirrors, cantilevered from an upper floor of Sydney’s Central Park One apartment tower, designed by Jean Nouvel with Peddle Thorp

Astrospatial architecture: Design in digital space

What would R. Buckminster Fuller think of today’s explosion of post-Edison, semiconductor-controlled electrical systems and their potentials to accelerate his “energetics-synergetics” theories?

As well as his geodesic architectural shelters and engineering of vessels and vehicles, Fuller progressed a global logistics vision from his 1928 manifesto, 4D Timelock (including an axonometric ink sketch of life on Earth, promoting his “Air-Ocean World Town Plan”) to his late-1960s book, An Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth and Posthumous (1992) volume, Cosmography. His recognition of light as a crucial transmitter of computer data is evident in his sophisticated proposal for a “Mini-Earth” exhibit, written for the American Institute of Architects in 1963; four years before his legendary geodesic pavilion opened at the Montréal Expo ‘67.

Optics — the science domain concerned with light and vision — has always catalyzed the concepts which philosophically advanced architects interpret as themes for constructing the aesthetics of buildings.

Fuller wrote: “The design of a two-hundred-foot diameter Miniature Earth… fabricated of a light metal trussing. Its interior and exterior surfaces could be symmetrically dotted with ten million variable intensity light bulbs and the lights controllably connected up with an electronic computer. … Information could be remembered by the computer, regarding all the geographical features of the Earth… under a great variety of weather conditions. …If we use the thirty-five millimeter contact prints of the photographs taken by the aerial surveyors… Man on earth… would be able to see the whole Earth and at true scale in respect to the works and habitat of man. He could pick out his own home. Thus Mini-Earth becomes a potent symbol of man visible in the universe.”

More than half a century after this lecture — and one decade into the Google Earth (GEOSS) era — these word-pictures seem almost quaint. Fuller died in 1983, two years before Feynman published his seminal book of lectures updating 1920s theories of quantum electrodynamics, but Fuller already must have recognized that QED would unlock many novel applications of his “universal architecture” and “world planning” dreams. Today, the technologies of light waves — whether visible or not to humans — are propelling a new global Enlightenment age — including a future-habitats design movement that could be named: Astrospatial Architecture.

The physical frontiers of astrospatial architecture already could be claimed to extend to the Moon and Mars, which are targets for increasingly serious research, design and ‘analogue’ (earthly) prototype tests involving “space architects” who focus on how earthlings might comfortably live in spacecraft or on other planets.

However, designing physical structures for real localities —whether earthly or otherworldly — is not really the key design or domain distinction of astrospatial architecture. This emerging realm of creativity is mediated entirely via planes of pixels separating human occupants of airspace from cybernetic constructs assembled in what neogeographer Andrew Hudson-Smith termed “digital space”. He noted (2003) that “digital space takes many forms, and it is limited only by our imagination.” Today that seems like a useful general axiom to help perceive revolutionary potentials for astrospatial architecture on, and beyond, Spaceship Earth.

This article is adapted from Davina Jackson’s “Rebooting Spaceship Earth” essay in Graham Cairns’ recent book Visioning Technologies: The Architectures of Sight (Routledge, 2017). Davina also edited D_City: Digital Earth | Virtual Nations | Data Cities, a 2012 “snapshot report” sponsored by GEO. Her latest book is SuperLux: Smart Light Art, Design and Architecture for Cities (Thames and Hudson, 2015).