Image of landscape made with "point cloud" technology. Courtest: Atelier Girot.

Particularities of Place: A Response to the Landscape Architecture of Christophe Girot

This is the second in a series of response to the Spring 2016 RSA/RDA Lecture Series, Projective Infrastructures. To read Oliver’s and Veras’ response to the first lecture by Chris Reed of Stoss, click here.

How we choose to represent a landscape can reveal as much about us as our representations do about their ostensible subjects. For Christophe Girot, the representational techniques used by contemporary landscape architects both enable, and are symptomatic of, a way of thinking about landscape that suppresses the particularities of place. As he argued in his lecture, the zoning- and map-driven abstraction of contemporary practice, with its conceptualization of landscape as a set of scientifically diagnosable systems or flows, has begotten a set of unspecific design responses, and it has robbed landscape architects of the ability to deal with the fact of our culturally mediated experiences of landscapes.

Girot used the lecture to advocate for a different way of thinking. He described this way of thinking as “topology” and likened its intended use to the way architecture uses the term “tectonics. “Though “tectonics” had once been used only in the geological sciences, it has also come to describe a way of thinking about architecture that emphasizes a coming-together of parts. Similarly, Girot’s invocation of “topology,” which up to now has been a primarily mathematical term, is intended to pave the way for a more comprehensive conception of landscape — one focused on its status as a complete physical body with volumetric, poetic, and temporal dimensions.

This reverence for the specificity of place has led Girot, in conjunction with his colleagues at Atelier Girot and his students at the ETH Zurich, to develop their own system for recording and representing landscape. Through a combination of spatial data obtained via LIDAR, or laser scanning, and drone photography, existing sites are mapped in fine detail into three-dimensional virtual “point clouds.” These models, comprised only of densely grouped points in space, offer Girot and his counterparts a foundation for looking at a site in many ways, from the creation of infinite numbers of thin “salami”-like sections to that of complex four-dimensional models to test the performance of design solutions under flood conditions.

Courtesy: Atelier Girot.

Courtesy: Atelier Girot.

There is an interesting contrast here with contemporary mapping techniques, wherein systems, flows, or objects are mapped as distinct entities and then layered together to describe a site. Girot’s point clouds, in their purest form, simply describe the physical being of a particular location without distinguishing among soil, rocks, trees, houses, or water. The equipment notes the coordinates of what it “sees.” The identification of different objects becomes an attribute of their reception, not of their presentation. In place of the exploded axonometric systems diagram of the landscape urbanist, Girot proposes a CT scan. These scans, however, unlike people, have a fixed permanent address. Each “point cloud” model is located in actual world space.

This allusion to medical technology is one we suspect Girot would appreciate given the amount of time he spent speaking to the notion of landscape as a body. This analogy is also helpful in tracing back to the notion of topology. Bodies are, after all, continuous wholes that comprise unique parts. “Topology,” with its emphasis on surface continuity (not regularity), attempts to provide a model for rendering global and local conceptions of the landscape as complementary rather than contradictory, much as the structural lens of architectural “tectonics” provides a way to think about the individuality of parts as a vital constituent of the sense of an architectural whole. For Girot, then, topology acknowledges the literal connectedness of one place to the rest of the earth that grounds it as a specific location as such.

Courtesy: Atelier Girot.

Courtesy: Atelier Girot.

But it is in the way Girot’s point clouds might ultimately facilitate the testing of design solutions in new ways that we find the promise of his models and, by extension, of “topology.” The work produced in his “Kyoto Sound Experiment” studio, for example, shows these models’ capacity to engage multiple senses. Here, Girot’s point clouds themselves become an infrastructure, providing a visual scaffolding for the integration of location-specific sounds. Currently, these projects are merely evocative, since we are only able to hear sound that is recorded along a specific path. In this sense they are more movies than models, but they do point the way toward a more comprehensive sense of what it means to “test” a design solution, wherein we might be able to interact with a full complement of sensory data in real time.

The most fascinating aspect of Girot’s point clouds for us, however, are not just their ability to help us evaluate small-scale effects synaesthetically, but in the way their accuracy and computational efficiency have proved equally useful for thinking about gardens as city-scale flooding models and 700-million-ton heaps of rock. Their specificity is not at odds, in other words, with broadness of scale. In this way, “topology” might finally provide us with both a conceptual framework and digital tools for thinking big and small simultaneously; it might allow us to engage ecological systems objectively without losing track of the smaller-scale effects of our work and the place of this work within the world.

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