The making of 3D objects for Moscow maps


Story by Pavel Zyumkin.

We get a task to draw and put on a map famous buildings and points of interest to make visual wayfinding with maps easier. Looking at the concept. On paper everything looks fine, but of course real life introduces its complications.

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All of Moscow! The scope of work is tremendous, but you never know what you can do until you try.

First, we need to understand what buildings exactly we will be working with. Creating criteria for selecting the landmarks: complexity of shape, visual prominence, high recognizability, cultural value, social significance, the effect of a closed perspective, location, size and so on.

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Choosing buildings that match the largest number of the criteria. After careful consideration, inspection and screening we end up with about 500 objects. Obviously, some will be sifted out in the process, some won’t be in the field of view or will only show a dull side, but still the volume of work is overwhelming. Dividing the selected objects and Metro stations into groups to understand the priority and to coordinate work with other departments and third parties. Which is important because our delivery plan directly depends on the station reconstruction schedule.

Getting started.

The chosen buildings vary greatly in style, size and age. Determining the degree of detail, drawing method and the overall style for different situations.

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One of the obvious problems with visual perception of buildings on flat maps is having to show as much of the façade and as little of the roof as possible without distorting proportions too much. Analyzing examples and using the classical trial and error method.

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Coming to a conclusion that the process has to be as follows. We need to draw buildings in 1:1 scale and choose the angle separately for each individual fragment of the map. To better show the façade and increase recognizability we need to align all objects to an axonometric grid where the width to height ration is 1:4 (1 meter of width for each 4 meters of height).

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To correctly show building proportions and heights we apply double and triple distortion of height. For medium-high buildings with busy façades we use triple stretching (for example, for the Historical Museum and the Bolshoi Theater).

Many of the buildings are located in the historical center of the city where we can show them in more volume. Increasing the height threefold will allow us to show the façade of the building. For small and ultra-high buildings we use double magnification where the proportions are not distorted and remain recognizable.

Using the example of Moscow City to decide what to do if a point of interest obscures something more interesting and important on a map.

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Coming to conclusion that the best approach is to use 50% transparency.

The work has just begun, but we have already started typesetting a guide capturing all the decisions for future generations.

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Now all that’s left is to draw all of the buildings.

Day after day, week after week the work for each building goes on like this. We gather all available information: photos, floor plans, blueprints if they are available. At the same time we read about the history of the building and the architect as reliable plans are much easier to find by the architect’s name, not by the building’s modern name. Then we compare everything with today’s condition and dimensions and double check it on several resources. One of the very helpful websites is recently released by the studio which allows to easily check building width and height on panoramas, not very precisely of course but still useful. Next we load all of this information into a program and build a basis and perspective.

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Often the joy of discovering a plan goes away upon closer examination as it turns out that the drawing is not true. It happens, so it’s better to trust photos and approximate sizes instead.

Drawing the basis and the rough shape. To check the contour we use five different sources as satellite photos from different companies each have their distortions. The easiest approach would be to use a photo taken from a low height as a reference but it’s hard to find those in sufficient quality. On there are wide angle aerial photos of most of the big cities in Europe which would have helped a lot, but unfortunately the function is not available for Moscow. So instead we have to sift through a million of other resources.

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Now we need to get into the shoes of the architect and the constructor and remember the basics of building standards to correctly understand the rhythm of window placement, height of floors and order of columns. Of course, the construction album for the building would have had all those details but it is impossible to find.

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When the logic of the architect is more or less clear, we group repeating parts into components to avoid drawing the same things over and over.

The icing on the cake are various decorative elements: stars, bas-reliefs, sculptures and moldings.

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And just like that, day after day we draw one building after another.

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The most interesting objects are buildings where the architect’s logic remains a mystery that is interesting to solve. Not a single flat corner, nor the same window nor any kind of a repeating element.

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Churches, temples and monasteries are a separate case altogether. There are hundreds of them in Moscow and the most difficult thing here is not to get confused with their names. The same church can have a different name in different sources including Yandex, Google, 2GIS and our own spreadsheets. So you have to spend time to make sense of it all. While drawing, we have to take a brake from church domes every once in a while switching to something strikingly different and Constructivist just to let our eyes rest from seeing the endless crosses, domes, dome drums and parvises. By the way, in order to make sure the cross on top of the dome looks the same way from all angles, it rotates along with the camera.

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Some buildings require a more careful approach as we need to simplify graphics as much as possible without making the building less recognizable, all to make sure the computer doesn’t die when rendering the vector image. One example of this is the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman monument with the adjacent museum. This is where the experience of converting complex forms into primitives comes in handy. Gently blowing the dust off our previous solutions.

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Drawing from all angles, then simplifying as much as possible so that construction lines help the monument remain recognizable.

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Giving the figures the sickle and the hammer, covering them with a rag and finalizing the details, removing excess edges, optimizing and smoothing corners and of course adding the museum building. The result looks nice.

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Adding pleasant little things to some models to give them more life and character.

Many buildings in Moscow have clocks. Trivially setting the hands to look like a smile the way they do in all ads seems boring. Deciding to leave a hidden quality mark in the form of initial letters of the designer’s last name, Зю—3:10. Simple, elegant and doesn’t disturb anyone.

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Hour after hour, day after day, more rows in the spreadsheet turn green and the work goes faster. In parallel with drawing we load finished models on to maps. This is a long and tedious process as for each Metro station there can be up to 15 different angles. To simplify work and ensure visual consistency we create a template with an isometric grid, adjustments for shadows, styles, line width and so on.

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Central stations have so many objects that you could easily to use the computer to warm up a cup of coffee or cook something while the maps are rendering. Although it’s better to just step away and not breathe during the process as every once in a while the program glitches and produces something strange.

But that’s OK, we can fix that, it’s just important to catch those errors. Interestingly enough, no matter how much you update the export template, there is just no better way to determine an angle than using a piece of sticky paper.

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Correcting outlines, fixing defects, assigning colors and editing angles. Uploading everything to the map guys’ server.

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In some cases a building doesn’t end up on a map but we still need to mark it. That’s what marginalia is for. Thus, we need to draw façade icons for all the chosen buildings.

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Finally, the end seems to be near. Albums of stations outside the Circle line are completed and handed over, the stations in the center are gradually being done as well. While the work is going on, the city continues to live and develop, the Moscow Central Circle opens and new buildings get built. Corrections are flowing in.

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For example, the second phase of Metropolis construction on Voykovskaya including a transfer to the MCC has just finished.

In the Kremlin, they silently dismantled building 14. Catching the moment when the building still exists on the satellite map but is already gone from the street map.

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Some things we draw just in theory, from blueprints and for the future.

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Separately drawing buildings that somehow failed to make the cut due to human error but that are certainly significant.

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All the models are ready. Collecting them all in one place and typesetting a catalog.

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But the work doesn’t stop here, the albums are still being prepared and updated, Moscow is being built and destroyed, in a word, it continues to live.

Now we know exactly the size of legs of the Kolkhoz Woman, the volume of brains in the Russian Academy of Sciences building, the depth of courtyards on Lubyanka, the height of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building without the tower and the number of loopholes in Kremlin walls.

Preparing the announcement with a sense of great accomplishment.

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