The Architecture of the Overlap

[Image: Screen grab from Sir John Soane’s Museum].

One of my favorite museums, Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, has teamed up with ScanLAB Projects for a new, 3D introduction to the Soane’s collections.

[Image: Screen grab from Sir John Soane’s Museum].

“We are using the latest in 3D technology,” the Museum explains, “to scan and digitize a wide selection of Museum rooms and objects—including Soane’s Model Room, and the ancient Egyptian sarcophagus of King Seti I.”

The opening animations alone—pulling viewers straight into the facade of the building, like a submarine passing impossibly through a luminous reef—are well worth the click.

[Image: Screen grab from Sir John Soane’s Museum].

The museum’s interior walls become translucent screens through which the rest of Soane’s home is visible. Rooms shimmer beneath other rooms, with even deeper chambers visible behind them, golden, hive-like, lit from within. Like a camera built to capture only where things overlap.

In fact, I could watch entire, feature-length films shot this way: cutting through walls, dissecting cities, forming a great narrative clockwork of action ticking away in shining blocks of space. As if the future of cinema is already here, it’s just hidden—for now—in the guise of avant-garde architectural representation.

[Image: Screen grab from Sir John Soane’s Museum].

ScanLAB’s work—such as in Rome, beneath the streets of London, or in strange new forms of portraiture—continues to have the remarkable effect of revealing every architectural space as actually existing in a state more like a cobweb.

Hallways become bridges crossing the black vacuum of space; individual rooms and galleries become unreal fogs of ornament and detail, hanging in a context of nothing.

It thus seems a perfect fit for a place as bewildering and over-stuffed as the Soane Museum, that coiling maze of archaeological artifacts and art historical cross-references, connected to itself through narrow stairways and convex mirrors.

Of course, this also begs the question of how architecture could be redesigned for maximizing the effects of this particular mode of visualization. What materials, what sequences, what placements of doors and walls would lend itself particularly well to 3-dimensional laser scanning?

The new site also includes high-res, downloadable images of the artifacts themselves—

[Images: The sarcophagus of King Seti I; courtesy Sir John Soane’s Museum].

—including Seti I’s sarcophagus, as seen above.

Click through to the Soane Museum for more.

(Elsewhere: The Dream Life of Driverless Cars).

Composite Archaeology

[Image: A laser scan of the Pantheon, courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC; view larger!].

ScanLAB Projects, focus of a long article on Wired last month, are back in the news with a BBC documentary exploring the infrastructure of ancient Rome.

The show “explores Roman infrastructure and ingenuity, all below ground level”:

We journeyed via the icy, crystal clear waters of subterranean aqueducts that feed the Trevi fountain and two thousand year old sewers which still function beneath the Roman Forum today, to decadent, labyrinthine catacombs. Our laser scans map these hidden treasures, revealing for the first time the complex network of tunnels, chambers and passageways without which Rome could not have survived as a city of a million people.

The results, as usual, are both breathtaking and bizarre.

[Image: Courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC].

The surface of the city is scraped away, a kind of archaeological dermabrasion, to reveal sprawling networks of knotted masonry and old corridors spliced together in a translucent labyrinth less below than somehow in the city.

[Image: Courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC].

One of the most interesting points made in Mary-Ann Ray’s excellent Pamphlet Architecture installment—1997’s Seven Partly Underground Rooms and Buildings for Water, Ice, and Midgets—is when she describes her use of composite photography as a way to experiment with new forms of archaeological documentation.

Indeed, the pamphlet itself is as much architecture as it is archaeology—perhaps even suggesting a new series of historical site documents someone should produce called Pamphlet Archaeology—looking at wells, baths, cisterns, and spherical refrigeration chambers, in various states of ruin.

All of these are representationally difficult spaces, Ray explains, either curving away from the viewer in a manner that is nearly impossible to photograph or presenting constrictions of perspective that make even wide-angle photographs inadequate.

[Image: Courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC].

Ray writes that the spatial complexity of the buildings, quarries, basements, and other excavations that she explores are, in a sense, an entirely different kind of space: knotty, interconnected, unstable. “They were also spaces,” she writes, “which seemed to have the ability to ‘flip-flop’ in and out of multiple spatial or constructional readings.”

What appears to be near is revealed to be far; what seems far away is suddenly adjacent.

[Image: Courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC; view larger!].

Ray uses the metaphor of a “hyper-camera” here in order to draw comparisons between her composite photography and what she calls “a kind of cubist multiple view,” one where “the frame might succumb to the taper of perspective into deep space, or it may counter it, or build it into something else altogether.”

“In these composite views,” she adds, “the photograph can record the enactment of space as one maneuvers or roams through it with the eye or body.”

While Ray’s photographic approach is technologically, materially, and even visually very different from the work of ScanLAB, the two projects share a great deal, conceptually and methodologically. In fact, if many of the above quotations were applied, instead, to the images seen in the present post, they would seem to be the appropriate descriptions.

[Image: In the ruined basements of architectural simultaneity; ScanLAB Projects and the BBC].

ScanLAB’s laser work seems to fulfill many of the promises of Ray’s composite photography, offering multiple, overlapping perspectives simultaneously whilst also eliminating the problem of the horizon or ground plane: you can thus look straight-on into the basement of an ancient structure without losing sight of the upper floors or chambers.

The city is split in two, made into an architectural section of itself that is then animated, made volumetric, turned into Ray’s “enactment of space as one maneuvers or roams through it with the eye or body.”

The show airs tonight on the BBC. Check out ScanLAB’s website for more info, and definitely consider picking up a copy of Mary-Ann Ray’s book; it remains one of my favorites and has actually become more, not less, topical since its original publication.

Urban CAT Scan

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

The London-based ScanLab Projects, featured here many times before, have completed a new commission, this time from the British Postal Museum & Archive, to document the so-called “Mail Rail,” a network of underground tunnels that opened back in 1927.

As Subterranea Britannica explains, the tunnels were initially conceived as a system of pneumatic package-delivery tubes, an “atmospheric railway,” as it was rather fantastically described at the time, “by which a stationary steam engine would drive a large fan which could suck air out of an air tight tube and draw the vehicle towards it or blow air to push them away.”

That “vehicle” would have been a semi-autonomous wheeled cart bearing parcels for residents of Greater London.

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

Alas, but unsurprisingly, this vision of an air-powered subterranean communication system for a vast metropolis of many millions of residents was replaced by a rail-based one, with narrow, packed-heavy cars running a system of tracks beneath the London streets.

Thus the Mail Rail system was born.

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

While the story of the system itself is fascinating, it has also been told elsewhere.

The aforementioned Subterranea Britannica is a perfect place to start, but urban explorers have also gained entrance for narrative purposes of their own, including the long write-up over at Placehacking.

That link includes the incredible detail that, “on Halloween night 2010, ravers took over a massive derelict Post Office building in the city and threw an illegal party of epic proportions. When pictures from the party emerged, we were astonished to find that a few of them looked to be of a tiny rail system somehow accessed from the building.”

Surely, this should be the setting for a new novel: some huge and illegal party in an abandoned building at an otherwise undisclosed location in the city results in people breaking into or discovering an otherwise forgotten, literally underground network, alcohol-blurred photographs of which are later recognized as having unique urban importance.

Something is down there, the hungover viewers of these photographs quickly realize, something vague and hazily glimpsed in the unlit background of some selfies snapped at a rave.

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

This would all be part of the general mysticism of infrastructure that I hinted at in an earlier post, the idea that the peripheral networks through which the city actually functions lie in wait, secretly connecting things from below or wrapping, Ouroborus-like, around us on the edges of things.

These systems are the Matrix, we might say in modern mythological terms, or the room where Zeus moves statues of us all around on chessboards: an invisible realm of tacit control and influence that we’ve come to know unimaginatively as nothing but infrastructure. But infrastructure is now the backstage pass, the esoteric world behind the curtain.

In any case, with this handful of party pictures in hand, a group of London explorers tried to infiltrate the system.

After hours of exploration, we finally found what we thought might be a freshly bricked up wall into the mythical Mail Rail the partygoers had inadvertently found… We went back to the car and discussed the possibility of chiselling the brick out. We decided that, given how soon it was after the party, the place was too hot to do that just now and we walked away, vowing to try again in a couple of months.

It took some time—but, eventually, it worked.

They found the tunnels.

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

The complete write-up over at Placehacking is worth the read for the rest of that particular story.

But ScanLab now enter the frame as documentarians of a different sort, with a laser-assisted glimpse of this underground space down to millimetric details.

Their 3D point clouds afford a whole new form of representation, a kind of volumetric photography that cuts through streets and walls to reveal the full spatial nature of the places on display.

The incredible teaser video, pieced together from 223 different laser scanning sessions, reveals this with dramatic effect, featuring a virtual camera that smoothly passes beneath the street like a swimmer through the waves of the ocean.



As the British Postal Museum & Archive explains, the goal of getting ScanLab Projects down into their tunnels was “to form a digital model from which any number of future interactive, visual, animated and immersive experiences can be created.”

In other words, it was a museological project: the digital preservation of an urban underworld that few people—Placehacking‘s write-up aside—have actually seen.

For example, the Museum writes, the resulting laser-generated 3D point clouds might “enable a full 3D walkthrough of hidden parts of the network or an app that enables layers to be peeled away to see the original industrial detail beneath.”

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

Unpeeling the urban onion has never been so gorgeous as we leap through walls, peer upward through semi-transparent streets, and see signs hanging in mid-air from both sides simultaneously.

[Image: By ScanLab Projects, with permission from the British Postal Museum & Archive].

Tunnels become weird ropey knots like smoke rings looped beneath the city as the facades of houses take on the appearance of old ghosts, remnants of another era gazing down at the flickering of other dimensions previously lost in the darkness below.

(Thanks again to the British Postal Museum & Archive for permission to post the images).

Romanticism of the Scanning Error

[Image: ScanLAB Projects].

(A different version of this post previously appeared on Gizmodo).

Matthew Shaw and William Trossell, the London-based duo known as ScanLAB Projects, continue to push the envelope of laser-scanning technology, producing visually stunning and conceptually intricate work that falls somewhere between art and practical surveying.

Their work also bears an unexpected yet increasingly pronounced political dimension, as they have scanned concentration camp sites, designed insurgent objects for thwarting police laser scanners, and even point-mapped melting ice floes in the Arctic as part of a larger study of climate change. The results are astonishingly, almost hypnotically detailed, as in this cinematic fly-through of an outdoor festival, where we pass through tent walls and very nearly see recognizable expressions on participants’ faces. It’s as if the future of the motion picture might really be narrative holograms.

Last week, Shaw and Trossell premiered a new project at London’s Surface Gallery, exploring where laser scanners glitch, skip, artifact, and scatter. Called Noise: Error in the Void, the show utilizes scanning data taken from two locations in Berlin, but—as the show’s title implies—it actually foregrounds all the errors, where the equipment went wrong: a world of “mistaken measurements, confused surfaces and misplaced three-dimensional reflections.”

The tics and hiccups of a scanner gone off the mark thus result in these oddly beautiful, almost Romantic depictions of the world, like some lunatic, lo-fi cosmology filtered through machines.

Frozen datascapes appear like digital mist settling down over empty fields—or perhaps they’re parking lots—a virtual Antarctica appearing in the middle of the city.

[Image: ScanLAB Projects].

Huge domes of white light burn like spherical flames above a central point that remains both mysterious and unidentified, resembling the halos of nuclear explosions or the birth of stars.

[Image: ScanLAB Projects].

Spectacular bursts of color then suggest the presence of some new stratosphere, where black airplanes roam the edge of space and clouds are nothing but processing errors in a blurred celestial rendering. Perhaps we could call it expressionist scanning.

[Image: ScanLAB Projects].

In Shaw’s and Trossell’s own words, “Using terrestrial LIDAR technology it is now possible to capture the world in three dimensions. This technology can create near perfect digital 3D replicas of buildings, landscapes, objects and events. But these digital replicas are always an illusion of perfection. Noise: Error in the Void explores the inherent mistakes made by modern technologies of vision. Here we see the unedited view of the world as seen through the eyes of the LIDAR machine. Reality is shrouded in a cloud of mistaken measurements, confused surfaces and misplaced three-dimensional reflections.”

A short film—more like a dark ambient music video—shows some of the images in action.

In all honesty, many of the images are colored in a way that looks a bit more like a Pink Floyd laser show than the almost melancholy landscapes I like so much above, and I even made a few of these greyscale to see if, stripped of color, they could still repeat the lonely, wanderer-above-a-sea-of-fog feeling that the other images have, the benthic void of miscalculated data that nonetheless results in new worlds. But then I figured I shouldn’t mess with ScanLAB’s work and I left them as is.

[Images: ScanLAB Projects].

But, even here, blinded by the colors of a rave, throbbing architectural shapes rotate and spin, as if parts of London are stuttering in and out of sync with themselves, a whole city rumbling through a shockwave of digital reverb, blinking gyroscopically out of control.

[Images: ScanLAB Projects].

If you’re lucky enough to be in London in the next few weeks, check out their exhibition at Surface Gallery—and, even better, if you’re an architecture student, you can actually take a class with these guys. Check out their teaching work here.

(Read an earlier version of this post at Gizmodo).

Documentary Holography

[Image: A “detail theft” by ScanLAB Projects].

ScanLAB Projects, a reliably interesting and enthusiastic design-research duo formed by Bartlett graduates Matthew Shaw and William Trossell, explores, in their words, “the potential of large scale terrestrial laser scanning as a tool for design, visualization and fabrication. We use a range of state-of-the-art 3D scanning technologies to capture buildings, objects and spaces.”

As it happens, they mean this quite literally, as they aim to “capture” and then illicitly reproduce, using multi-axis milling machines, architectural details scanned around London. These are what they call “detail thefts… arguably cloning the original architect’s intellectual property.”

[Image: A “detail theft” by ScanLAB Projects].

You can read an earlier write-up of their many projects—from “stealth objects” to scanner-jamming architectural ornament installed on an urban scale—here on BLDGBLOG (as well as in the forthcoming Landscape Futures book).

What I find so consistently interesting in their work, though, is that, over the past few years, they’ve been expanding the representational range of the laser scanner, using it to document highly ephemeral, even ethereal, spatial events.

Whether scanning mist and humidity or traveling north to the Arctic to shoot lasers at pressure ridges and melting ice floes, their work is almost a kind of documentary holography: not a film, not a photograph, not a 3D model, but also not simply a point-cloud, their work operates almost narratively as they capture objects or places in the process of becoming something else, blurred by passing fog or pulled apart by unseen ocean currents. You could write a screenplay for scanners.

[Images: From the “Arctic Climatic Tour 2011” of ScanLAB Projects].

For a more recent project, one that indicates a growing environmental or ecological emphasis in their work, the duo found themselves in the presence of heavy forestry equipment, a haunting and behemoth machine busy uprooting, de-branching, and stacking trees, converting a living forest to mere timber. The satiny black background makes it all that much more dreamlike, as if occurring in secret at 2am.

[Image: Forestry Commission Tree Harvester by ScanLAB Projects; view larger].

Cast in black and white and seeming to gleam in the laser light, the machine is both dinosaur-like and ghostly, implying the total gutting of the forest around it as the orderly bar code of the trees is disrupted by this artificial clearing.

[Image: Scans of a Forestry Commission tree harvester in action, by ScanLAB Projects; view image one, two, three, and four larger!].

In all cases, the images are much more evocative when viewed at a larger size (see captions for direct links), which you can also find on the ScanLAB Projects website.

Finally, if all this interests you, consider signing up for a 10-day workshop with ScanLAB Projects up in Ottawa, Canada, from 5-13 July 2013, focusing on “post-industrial landscapes.” Here’s the course description:

Set within the context of a post-industrial era, we find ourselves venturing through the Canadian wilderness of Gatineau Park, walking in the footsteps of industrial alchemist Thomas “Carbide” Willson. Within this natural blossom lie the ruins of his former empire, the decaying heart of industrialization and manufacturing in a factory that never fully materialized.
The course will explore 3D devices that can scan the unnatural post-industrial landscape in an attempt to fuse the accidental qualities of discovery—such as Willson’s trial and error of calcium carbide—with the mathematical precision of laser-scanned environments. Students will form their own architectural “carbide,” a fusion of scans and digital modeling to generate a landscape that materialies from Willson’s place of decay into a new architectural ground.

More information, including registration, is available here.

Stealth Objects and Scanning Mist

The London-based architectural group ScanLAB—founded by Matthew Shaw and William Trossell—has been doing some fascinating work with laser scanners.

Here are three of their recent projects.

1) Scanning Mist. Shaw and Trossell “thought it might be interesting to see if the scanner could detect smoke and mist. It did and here are the remarkable results!

[Images: From Scanning the Mist by ScanLAB].

In a way, I’m reminded of photographs by Alexey Titarenko.

2) Scanning an Artificial Weather System. For this project, ScanLAB wanted to “draw attention to the magical properties of weather events.” They thus installed a network of what they call “pressure vessels linked to an array of humidity tanks” in the middle of England’s Kielder Forest.

[Image: From Slow Becoming Delightful by ScanLAB].

These “humidity tanks” then, at certain atmospherically appropriate moments, dispersed a fine mist, deploying an artificial cloud or fog bank into the woods.

[Image: From Slow Becoming Delightful by ScanLAB].

Then, of course, Shaw and Trossell laser-scanned it.

3) Subverting Urban-Scanning Projects through “Stealth Objects.” The architectural potential of this final project blows me away. Basically, Shaw and Trossell have been looking at “the subversion of city scale 3D scanning in London.” As they explain it, “the project uses hypothetical devices which are installed across the city and which edit the way the city is scanned and recorded.”

Tools include the “stealth drill” which dissolves scan data in the surrounding area, creating voids and new openings in the scanned urban landscape, and “boundary miscommunication devices” which offset, relocate and invent spatial data such as paths, boundaries, tunnels and walls.

The spatial and counter-spatial possibilities of this are extraordinary. Imagine whole new classes of architectural ornament (ornament as digital camouflage that scans in precise and strange ways), entirely new kinds of building facades (augmented reality meets LiDAR), and, of course, the creation of a kind of shadow-architecture, invisible to the naked eye, that only pops up on laser scanners at various points around the city.

[Images: From Subverting the LiDAR Landscape by ScanLAB].

ScanLAB refers to this as “the deployment of flash architecture”—flash streets, flash statues, flash doors, instancing gates—like something from a short story by China Miéville. The narrative and/or cinematic possibilities of these “stealth objects” are seemingly limitless, let alone their architectural or ornamental use.

Imagine stealth statuary dotting the streetscape, for instance, or other anomalous spatial entities that become an accepted part of the urban fabric. They exist only as representational effects on the technologies through which we view the landscape—but they eventually become landmarks, nonetheless.

For now, Shaw and Trossell explain that they are experimenting with “speculative LiDAR blooms, blockages, holes and drains. These are the result of strategically deployed devices which offset, copy, paste, erase and tangle LiDAR data around them.”

[Images: From Subverting the LiDAR Landscape by ScanLAB].

Here is one such “stealth object,” pictured below, designed to be “undetected” by laser-scanning equipment.

Of course, it is not hard to imagine the military being interested in this research, creating stealth body armor, stealth ground vehicles, even stealth forward-operating bases, all of which would be geometrically invisible to radar and/or scanning equipment.

In fact, one could easily imagine a kind of weapon with no moving parts, consisting entirely of radar- and LiDAR-jamming geometries; you would thus simply plant this thing, like some sort of medieval totem pole, in the streets of Mogadishu—or ring hundreds of them in a necklace around Washington D.C.—thus precluding enemy attempts to visualize your movements.

[Images: A hypothetical “stealth object,” resistant to laser-scanning, by ScanLAB].

Briefly, ScanLAB’s “stealth object” reminds me of an idea bandied about by the U.S. Department of Energy, suggesting that future nuclear-waste entombment sites should be liberally peppered with misleading “radar reflectors” buried in the surface of the earth.

The D.O.E.’s “trihedral” objects would produce “distinctive anomalous magnetic and radar-reflective signatures” for anyone using ground-scanning equipment above. In other words, they would create deliberate false clues, leading potential future excavators to think that they were digging in the wrong place. They would “subvert” the scanning process.

In any case, read more at ScanLAB’s website.