Using Google’s Building Maker to Change the Face of Boston

11/20/09Follow @wroush

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rows of fashionable brownstones. But by the 1980s the Washington Street area was so decrepit that the creators of the NBC series St. Elsewhere (1982-1988) chose Franklin Square House, the building across the street from the James Court site, as the exterior for St. Eligius, the show’s benighted urban hospital.

Things started to turn around in the late 1980s. The elevated railway where Orange Line trains can be seen rumbling past the hospital in St. Elsewhere‘s opening sequence was torn down; the street’s parks and sidewalks were rebuilt; many new condo buildings went up, and many historic buildings were renovated; and environmentally friendly Silver Line buses replaced the old elevated. Nearly $600 million was poured into the area’s revitalization all told, and in 2008 the street won a “Great Places in America” prize from the American Planning Association.

James Court building in BostonI feel that modeling my building for Google Earth helps to extend this story in at least a small way, by adding to the digital environment that other people can now use to explore and navigate the reborn neighborhood. You can go to Google’s 3-D Warehouse to view or download my finished model of James Court—and if you click on the “View in Google Earth” button you can preview what the building will look like inside Google Earth, if and when Google approves it. For my next project, I think I’ll try modeling “St. Eligius” itself, a building to which James Court pays architectural homage in many ways. (Its curving mansard roof will pose an interesting geometry challenge). [Update 11/21/09: I've now finished a first draft of the "St. Eligius" building, which, as I just learned, started out as the St. James Hotel in 1867. President Ulysses S. Grant stayed there in 1869.]

The reason I’m so excited about Building Maker—and about digital mapping and modeling tools in general—is that I think they can foster a deeper sense of connection to the real world. Even before Building Maker, there was a burgeoning community of volunteer geo-modelers contributing their Sketchup creations to Google Earth, but now many more people can have the experience of literally putting something on the map. As Limber says: “If we put things in the hands of users, they can keep things fresh, put time and love into their creations, and frankly build out the world in ways Google can’t or won’t for a long time. We’re trying to demonstrate with tools like Building Maker and Sketchup and Map Maker and My Maps that maps are very dynamic things and that the world can help to create them and keep them up to date.”

So even if your city isn’t one of those covered by Building Maker yet, I encourage you to pick a location and try creating something. It’ll nourish your inner architect. And because the models are stored in open formats that can be imported into many different digital environments (not just Google Earth), you’ll be doing a favor to every citizen of the emerging Metaverse.

Here’s a pretty good Google video on Building Maker.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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