Building the Wexner Center on Google Earth

Wed, May 13, 2009

Wexner Center on Google Earth

Chris Jones, Wexner Center's Director of Design writes:

I'm a mapping and geography junkie, and as such I have been a fan of Google Earth for some time. Upon discovering the "3D Buildings" feature of the software, I knew that the Wexner Center for the Arts simply had to be included so that anyone around the world could explore the building and discover through their own exploration what makes the building a landmark architectural statement. What remained missing was a person with time and the skills and dedication necessary to complete the model to a level of detail befitting of the center. The project sat idle, in the back of my mind, waiting for the right moment.

In the fall of 2008 when Brian Lapolla, a graduate student in Ohio State's Knowlton School of Architecture, began his time as the Wexner Center Design Department's GA I knew that the project stood a good chance of finally getting done. I proposed the idea to Brian, he accepted the challenge, and over the course of the winter months he carefully constructed a highly detailed model of the Wexner Center using Google SketchUp. The resulting model is stunning and was approved by Google in early March for automatic inclusion in Google Earth whenever the "3D Buildings" feature is turned on.

Replicating a built project for Google Earth is a process that provides a breadth of learning experiences. To create a model in Google SketchUp (which is primarily used for concept sketching) is a test, especially for a building like the Wexner Center. Diagonal axes, broken forms, and exposed scaffolding, just to name a few, provide enormous challenges. This analysis will discuss the process from initial SketchUp research, through construction drawing analysis, and into the creation of the digital model. Each phase of the project, while viewed independently, was read through a set of lenses that would gear the project towards a successful entry into the Google Earth 3D Warehouse.

Wexner Center on Google Earth

The project began with research into precedent models that were successfully submitted into the Google 3D Warehouse. Having little experience with Google SketchUp, I had to evaluate and understand the methods in which previous submittals were constructed. Sticking with the theme, I choose two of Peter Eisenman's projects that were already archived within the 3D Warehouse. The projects are the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, and a concept model of Eisenman's House II. These projects became a constant reference point for the base model of the Wexner Center.

A specific tool set became necessary in order to achieve something that was viewed not as a rendering but as a model to be placed on a digital earth interface. The criterion of this tool set was laid out by Google and included conventions that discussed specific characteristics of Edge, Line, Face, Polygon, Texture, Material, Tiled Texture, Alpha Transparency, Low Poly, and File Size. Juxtaposing this tool set with the current precedents became a useful learning exercise in proper construction procedure.

The research process involved multiple video tutorials with a variety of massing exercises that established a sense of competence within the 3D interface. This level of understanding is not always necessary given SketchUp's ability to create a user-friendly interface, however as the model becomes more complex, and tends to break away from the extruded cube, a deeper understanding of the program is needed. Before the start of the project I tried to prepare myself for the different obstacles that I knew where going to arise; it goes without saying that the tool set that I had established was forced to adapt and reinterpret the project throughout its design.

Wexner Center on Google Earth

With a level of confidence established within SketchUp, it was time to learn as much as possible about the building. Access to local drawings and numerous books (whose coverage ranged from initial design entries to the actual construction process) provided a strong foundation. As a graduate student in architecture I knew that construction drawings would be the most useful in understanding the detail and nuances of this building. With a few e-mails and phone calls, an established contact was made with the university architect's office, and through explanation of the project, I was granted limited access to all of Peter Eisenman's original construction drawings on file. I now had all of the information needed to start making the massing portion of the model.

Throughout the process there was a constant back and forth, with a scale in hand, between computer drawings and physical documents. It seemed imperative that the Wexner Center, Weigel Hall, and Mershon Auditorium would all need to be modeled together, despite the fact that they are three different buildings. It became very clear that each building, on its own, would be missing a very significant piece. The inclusion of the other buildings gave the project a sense of balance and closure. The project now had a mass that could reflect back to existing drawings and seem precisely accurate.

Once the mass was complete, it was time to think about material, and specifically to the critical hierarchy with which the center was articulated. This certainly was viewed as one of the most important tasks, because the accuracy and application of material is what distinguishes the Wexner Center from other buildings on campus. Photographs, at least in Google Earth, tend to be the most efficient tool for applying a material texture to a mass; however it is difficult to get photographs of the Wexner Center that are not obstructed or taken from oblique angles. While difficult, it was not impossible to take a set of photographs at different vantages points and use tools like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator to achieve the desired elevation. There was a constant back and forth between taking the photographs and spending the necessary time in Photoshop to remove obstructions while matching colors. Once the image was accurate it was time to import the texture map into SketchUp and apply it to the corresponding mass. The process is similar to preparing images for web use, but there are guidelines that suggest keeping the images at the lowest resolution that will portray the building accurately, in order to keep the file size as small as possible. File size, as it turns out, is the number one reason that the Google Earth evaluation team rejects models.

The approval process, while a lot of fun, was the most time consuming. With an accurate mass and realistic texture in place, it was time to submit the first iteration to Google for feedback; with a typical three-month wait time, it was certain that this would not be an overnight process. While the layover was extreme, it gave an abundance of time to go through numerous changes and updates that sculpted the center into its most current stage. It also gave extra time to collaborate with the members of the design office, on what things to improve. The collaboration helped me to grasp the nuances and details that were viewed as the most important for this replication.

After a long wait and much anticipation, the Wexner Center model was approved for Google Earth on the first pass. As a member of the Google 3D Warehouse, the Wexner Center is automatically loaded onto the 3D buildings layer of Google Earth, and can be viewed anywhere in the world. The project remains, however, under constant development. As pictures get better and computer techniques get refined the model will undergo more iterations that will ultimately add to the representation quality of the building.

Click here to see more photos on Flickr. If you have Google Earth or the Google Earth plugin installed, download this KML file to be automatically sent to Wexner Center on the globe. Make sure you have 3D buildings enabled.

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