As seen by google earth: perspectives, and the streets are paved in gold…

by Yule Heibel on November 28, 2006

Well head, Medicine Hat

The image above is not a bas-relief carving of a face — it’s a Google Earth photo of the Medicine Hat, Alberta region. The Toronto Star has a fascinating photo essay link from Oct.25 on this page (scroll down at least a third of the way), introducing the series thus:

Since its debut, Google Earth, a program that combines satellite and aerial photography, has offered computer users a whole new realm to discover. Here’s a look at a few of the site’s intriguing images. [note: there’s a javascript here, which I can’t reproduce as a link: javascript: gallery_open(‘thestar’, ‘1161770509929’); — it’s best to find it on the Toronto Star page and click through there.]
Click through to the Java script pop-up, and you’ll see the photo, with this description:
What might look like an iPod wearing native American is actually a well-head just east of Medicine Hat, Alta. This location can be found here using Google Maps.

There are several other weird images, including a building in San Diego (on the naval base, of all places) that looks from above like a giant swastika. But this natural formation of the “iPod wearing native American” has to be the spookiest one of all…

I’m fascinated by how the ubiquity of satellite imagery is mediating our sense of being on the planet, or, more specifically to my interests, being in an urban environment. Recently, for example, the LA Times ran an article on how google earth is affecting architects’ perception of “the lowly roof”:

Architects say the influence of the bird’s-eye view seems to grow by the week. Clients arrive for preliminary meetings having studied overhead views of their building sites on the Internet. (…)

There is a significant political dimension to that shift. The overhead view has always been synonymous with power. Indeed, many satellite images in Google Earth were once available only to government agencies.
“For me, Google Earth is revolutionary in that sense,” said Enrique Norten, a Mexican-born architect based in New York. “Even a year or two ago, it was a huge problem just to get a single aerial photograph for a site. And you had to pay for it.”

But there are reasons to be less sanguine about the implications for architecture and urbanism. Precisely because it is so easy to use, Google Earth suggests a kind of access to cities that can’t be matched in the real world, especially after the attacks of Sept. 11. It may tempt architects to play to their growing virtual audience at the expense of a building’s day-to-day users, creating new architectural icons designed to look striking not from the sidewalk but from above, on a computer screen.

And the technology may promote a false sense that cities are somehow knowable at a glance. The power of that illusion has become clear on cable news programs, whose anchors use satellite imagery to zoom in, godlike, on the site of a story.


In beginning to grapple with the effects of technology on the design world, architects have fixated on the fluid, “blobby” shapes made possible by powerful software. But Google Earth suggests the most significant result of the marriage between architecture and computer power has to do with perspective rather than form.

What’s changing most radically, in other words, is not how buildings look but how we look at buildings.

What’s so curious here, of course, is that when we’re in the flesh, we typically don’t float several kilometres above the earth, looking down at buildings. We look at them from the street. If perspectival shifts, facilitated by “the marriage between architecture and computer power,” are working their magic on us, and if these shifts affect what we accept as interaction at street level, this could have truly far-reaching consequences, and make attractive the kinds of propositions that we currently don’t want to endorse wholeheartedly: think, for example, “vertical streets,” in the sense of some high-rises popular in some fast-developing, industrialising Asian nations, architecture which is severed from the economic life on the horizontal street. Verticality permits the better-off to set themselves apart, literally perpendicular to, the less-well-off at ground-level: a gated community into the sky, as it were.

As it happened, I was just reading an article in the Wall Street Journal, Robert A.M. Stern; New York, New York, by Eric Gibson. (It’s a subscriber-only article, alas.) Robert Stern has just published New York 2000, volume 5 of his book series on New York City, and Gibson gives his readers an overview. Author and journalist are soon on the topic of “iconic” architecture or stand-out buildings; what Stern had to say was heartening — and woe to us if we forget it:

Yet for all the non-stop building that goes on in — and defines — New York, the uncomfortable fact remains that beyond a handful of familiar icons it is, well, hard to point to a lot of truly distinguished buildings. The criticism made by architectural critic John Schuyler in 1898 and quoted in “New York 1900” still applies: “The real defect of modern architecture,” he wrote, lies in “the estrangement between architecture and building — between poetry and prose.”

With land and construction costs high and continually rising, most architecture is driven by a pragmatic, bottom-line mentality…


Mr. Stern concedes there is a school of thought that argues that “we need all these dazzling icons,” but asks, by way of response, “what are they doing for the streets of the city, what are they doing for the neighborhoods? That’s the way they should be measured, not just that they stand out.” Besides, “I think New York has been great in that architects have been very pragmatic but some of them have produced poetry from the pragmatism. The poetry of pragmatism is New York’s strength,” he asserts. “You know, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Waldorf Astoria hotel and Rockefeller Center were buildings that were meant to have ‘curb appeal’ if you will, but also were meant to meet the bottom line.”

That, it seems to me, is a trenchant way to bring perspectives back to earth — ground-level earth, I mean, not the godly perspective bestowed by the technology of computer power.


maria November 29, 2006 at 12:56 am

Fascinating post — as usual. That iPod-wearing Native American head is truly spooky … as is the notion of the ways in which all these satellite images could work their ways into our habits of perception, when what we need to pay attention to is “the bottom line.”

yulelog November 29, 2006 at 1:13 am

Thanks, Maria. Yeah, that “head” land formation is bizarre, to say the least. (Hmm, memo to self: drive to Medicine Hat sometime next year and find a hot spring to leap into — Banff isn’t that far away. Maybe the “head”‘s magic powers extend to bestow true re-creation?)

As for information & its informing of perception (traditionally — ?, what a quaint word! — rooted in the body), here’s an interesting description of an art project by Amy Youngs & Kenneth Rinaldo, called Dis M Body: “In this installation we explored the disembodied nature of information and messages as they dislocate and fracture one’s sense of self while simultaneously expanding one’s sense of connection. Our sense of self is no longer created through direct experiences but instead through mediated and simulated experience. Our senses continue to extend far beyond the physical limits of our bodies… (…) While these technologies amplify and clarify our knowledge, they also diminish and shrink our sense of self. The instantaneous quality of the information places us in a perpetual present.”

maria November 29, 2006 at 7:18 pm

I just checked out Dis M Body, and their piece titled Video Dissection ( makes me think of blogging … for some reason.

yulelog November 29, 2006 at 7:32 pm

Might it perhaps have anything to do with the posture this piece requires of participants? 😉

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