Armchair Architect

Craft & Design
Armchair Architect
Once you choose the city, a zoomable satellite map lets you choose the street and the very building you want to model. Then pick from a series of fully adjustable 3D icons that most closely match the building shape. The accurate model emerges incrementally through various satellite views.

I live in Los Angeles, but, like Tony Bennett, left my heart in San Francisco, whose charming Victorians, swooping hills, and rolling fog spark my fondest memories. So when I heard Google was releasing Building Maker, a tool for amateur designers like me to create geo-located 3D models of buildings in their favorite cities, I looked to see if mine was listed: sure enough, there she was. I updated my Google Earth, cracked open an Anchor Steam, and got to work.

Building Maker exists for a couple of purposes. It’s a way for Google to beef up the infrastructure of Google Earth — adding height, width, and thickness to those weird, flat maps that comprise the application. But the tool also allows folks to virtually tour a place, to experience a city in all its architectural splendor from their PC desktops. My time spent modeling was to be the trade-off for sharing my love of the City by the Bay.

As it turned out, using Building Maker was easy. From the home page, I chose San Francisco from a drop-down menu, and a zoomable map allowed me to find a particular location I wanted to model. I picked my first apartment building, a flat-topped, blocky rectangle in the Western Addition.

Once I’d selected it, I simply clicked to align the corners of transparent 3D blocks superimposed on a series of satellite photos, tugging here and there to fine-tune each view. Some photos were clearer than others, but Building Maker was smart enough to average my work out as I progressed.

Before long, I’d advanced my building enough to save it in the 3D Warehouse — just a folder, really — awaiting approval by Google’s QA experts. I got a message: “Your model will be reviewed for Google Earth.”

I was excited! I immediately tackled more complex designs: a building with a gable; a stately Edwardian overlooking Golden Gate Park; my pal Jeff’s restored loft in Pacific Heights. As my skills improved, I incorporated more of Building Maker’s features, which include a stackable block tool, a magnet for aligning and connecting disparate features — a gable, say, to a roof — and a free-form shaping tool. I previewed each new model in 3D on a city map.

I had some questions, though, so I tracked down Mark Limber, Building Maker’s product manager at Google. Limber explained how the tool was born of SketchUp, Google’s free 3D modeling software acquired from AtLast, which allows people to design everything from furniture to floor plans.

“We want to create a map of the world,” Limber said of Building Maker. “We have 50 cities now, and we’re adding new ones all the time.” He likened the effort to the internet, explaining that the nascent infrastructure — Google Earth — already exists and merely needs to be filled in. “Plus, we want to create a community of mapmakers,” he said, and I had to admit: I loved modeling buildings in my favorite city.

But I was curious: how long would it take Google to approve — or reject — my models? And what were their criteria for doing so? About a week, Limber said, once Google techs determined it was a reasonably good likeness and not a duplicate of one already further along in the process.

A week passed as I attempted more complicated buildings: places I’d worked and visited. Some were modeled already; others required more time than I was willing to spend. Still, I liked how Building Maker made me see architecture anew, encouraged me to scrutinize a building’s aesthetics. Even an edifice as drab as the DMV became interesting once I discerned it was made of a series of staggered slabs.

Yet after a week, my models remained unapproved. I phoned Limber back. The popularity of Building Maker’s launch meant they were a little backed up, he explained sheepishly. But at my behest, clicking into my warehouse, he crowed, “Those are awesome!”

I glowed with pride.

Sure enough, a few days later, my little phalanx of San Francisco models appeared on Google Earth — abrupt, odd-looking edifices springing up from the flat map and beginning to populate the city’s impossible topography. Every day I see more of them, modeled by me and others, and soon anyone will be able to tour the San Francisco I know and love. I hope that in time, Google will perfect a technology that models the fog, too, that clings like cotton candy to her hills in the afternoons.

Building Maker:

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Colin Berry is a freelance arts and design writer who lives in Los Angeles. He is the author, with Isabel Samaras, of On Tender Hooks (Chronicle Books).

View more articles by Colin Berry


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