Sunday, May 17, 2020

Composition Demonstration - The Ellington Building

Note: This demonstration uses geometric patterns, including the golden section, to work out the composition of an architectural illustration. These patterns are NOT some sort of minor god to be followed blindly or exactly. They are visual “crutches.”  
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Most renderings of architectural projects are done on a tight schedule. The building is modelled, the view chosen, and the composition of the image settled with a quick sketch. 
With more time you can rethink the composition at every step of the process. The following project demonstrates this process.


In my ongoing “hobby” of designing new “landmark” buildings along Broadway in New York City, I came upon a fine site facing north toward Straus Park, a small landscaped triangle at the intersection of Broadway, West End Avenue and 106th Street. 


The most notable feature of the park is a bronze 1913 statue of a pensive nymph that commemorates the deaths of Isidor Straus and his wife, Ida, who perished together aboard the “Titanic.”


In designing a high-rise for this site, I decided to play with a setback tower in the Art Deco style of that era. I worked out a rectilinear plan set onto the trapezium-shaped site with the rest of the block a pocket park. A geometry of circles and arcs informed the setback locations.




Both elevations above (E/W & N/S) were developed from geometric forms reflecting the plan geometry. 


Above, a massing block from the early AutoCad block model.







Above is a series of preliminary perspective sketches of the principal viewpoint.








The four views above are AutoCad viewpoints from 106th Street (looking east and looking west), from Broadway looking north, and from West End Avenue looking north. I did not expect to find a “money shot” for the final art in these views, but it is best to explore all the angles if you have the time.



Above, a “worm’s eye” view (for the fun of it).







Above are three possible views looking south across Straus Park. The first seemed too flat, the second too distorted, but the third felt just right (hat tip to Goldilocks and the Three Bears).
With a range of views available, I decided to create value studies in pastel of a number of them.









Although several of these pastel studies worked for me, the last had the drama that I favor.



Above, a hidden line perspective view of the complete model.



The same view rendered in different styles in Accurender.





Above, top, the preferred hidden line view with context and greyed reflection. Above, bottom, a pastel sketch over line print. Just to see what a straight rendering might look like in a double square format.


It is fun playing with a single image that has lots of compositional possibilities….
But wait, there’s more! 
I often paint a multi-image “composite” board when I design something for fun. Most of the time it is of a high-rise on a vertical oriented board: pretty straightforward.



This time I thought I’d try a vertical building on a horizontal board.
In balancing multiple images on a single board, composition can be rather complicated. The focus is sometimes lost, and balancing the various secondary images gets tricky. On a horizontal board the vertical building is even more likely to be lost.
Below is a series of pastel sketches showing the main drawing which will fill the final board and function as background for all other drawings. Each variation uses a different geometry to explore the shift to a “composite” board.






The first three variations didn’t have enough space for all the secondary drawings I wanted to include, and the last image was just too expansive. In desperation I roughed out an idea which included trees in Straus Square to the left, and the corner of a building that would show up in the right foreground.



Rough as this was, it seemed a good direction to explore, and I worked it up in AutoCad, Accurender, and finally Photoshop. The sequence of permutations below ends with the final art.



This raw Accurender image places the line drawn elevation of the building entry on the right.



Here the trees and sky are Photoshop layers to facilitate adjustments and change.



The building plans/elevations are creating a frame at the bottom and left edges.



Shade and shadow have been added to the building entry elevation on the right, and the building geometry lines are floating before the central image (green lines).



The line drawn plans/elevations are desaturated and faded. An after-rain mist is on the street, and the elevation of the building top is now in the upper right corner. A golden section based board geometry in red is layered on the image.



The same image as before, but with a different board geometry in red. Note that the perspective image at the center of the board has black line detailing that helps it stand apart from the rest of the board images.
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Here is the final art. As you can see, the secondary drawings have been uniformly faded into the background while remaining legible. Meanwhile, the central image has been strengthened with color saturation and value contrast. 
I was and still am satisfied with it, but there were probably a dozen other approaches that would have been as good.
Again, the use of golden section or any other compositional geometry is a tool, nothing more and nothing less. Training your eye to see (and then hide) patterns, as well as simple repetitive sketching, is more important.
Other posts on composition can be found:

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Harry Cobb

Henry Nichols Cobb, FAIA, longtime partner of I M Pei, died in early March of this year. 
Having worked for and admired him, I thought I’d post a personal memory. 
When I arrived in Manhattan after college looking for work, I took my resume to the Pei Cobb Freed offices in Midtown. I didn’t get past the receptionist.
Years later, after I won a national award, I got a call from Mr. Cobb. He said that my work had beautiful “mise en scene” and that he would like me to come by to discuss a project. After looking up “mise en scene” (nice compliment) and getting my best suit out of storage, I met Mr. Cobb. He was quiet and mannerly and quickly put me at ease. He was obviously steeped in the history of architectural drawing, and in the process of producing good architectural illustrations. Mr. Cobb was also sure of what he wanted and what he didn’t want—in other words, a pleasure to work with. Eventually I worked on a number of projects for him.
… a couple of examples…
Dusk view of the centerpiece of Canary Wharf.

Interior rendering of a corporate headquarters in Spain.


I’ll leave the last, and appropriately elegant, word to Mr. Cobb.

“If the truth be told, perspectivists have a wickedly tough row to hoe. They are the servants of servants—unless the client happens to want a pretty picture but is too cheap to hire an architect, in which case they are just servants. So why should the tenth anniversary of the American Society of Architectural Perspectivists be the occasion for anything more than a sympathetic shrug and a condescending nod? Here’s why.
“In the age of cyberspace, perspectivists may be the last true romantics. And how could it be otherwise? For they alone celebrate in their art that supreme distillation of romance, the vanishing point. Has there ever been an invention of the human mind so irresistibly alluring, so mysteriously seductive, so real yet elusive, in sum so essentially and ineluctably romantic as is the vanishing point? Not the least of its romantic qualities is its name. As anyone who has ever constructed a perspective drawing knows, this passionately imagined, infinitely distant point in space is actually nothing more than the point of convergence for a few straight lines inscribed on a flat surface. But to call it such would deprive it of all its romance.
“Let us then salute the one art that finds its origin in the vanishing point; and let us salute also those who, following in the great tradition, today dedicate themselves to the practice of that art. Through their skillfully rendered representations of architectural visions, they remind us, as we now more than ever need to be reminded, that we are all at heart romantics."
Henry N Cobb, FAIA (in “Architecture in Perspective 10” exhibition catalog, 1995)

Monday, August 5, 2019

Inspiration - Schell Lewis


I happened on an old Harvard Magazine (March April 2009) yesterday while sorting out moving boxes in the attic. (No, I’m not Ivy, my son is). It had an article on the Supreme Court with a rendering of the Supreme Court building in Washington. The rendering was by Schell Lewis, an excellent but now forgotten architectural delineator.


It struck a chord with me. First, it was sad that such a talented artist was now completely forgotten. And second, it reminded me that I had gathered images for a blog post on him; a post that was filed away when I found so little biographical information.

Since I’m more interested in the art than the artist, I’ve decided to post what little I’ve got.


According to the 1920 census, Schell Lewis was born about 1887 in Moline, Illinois (I found a site suggesting that he was born in 1875, but that seems improbable). By 1920 he became known for his skill in architectural delineation. He worked in the office of Charles A. Platt for years, but by the late 1920s he was doing professional renderings for other architects. He was active into his 60s, with little evidence of age. The latest image I could find was from 1960.

The following is from Pencil Points magazine, vol. 2, 1921
“Though Mr. Schell Lewis has made many excellent perspective drawings and sketches he has not specialized in rendering… His charcoal drawings, made as a means of studying the designs in the office and not as presentation drawings, convey the character of the designs admirably and are done with great facility.
Mr. Lewis was born in Moline, Ill., but his family removed to New York when he was a youth. After acquiring the rudiments of drafting he entered an architect’s office in New York. Then, after a few attempts, he secured a place in the office of Mr. Charles A. Platt, in whose organization he has been continuously excepting six months with the U. S. Shipping Board and six month with Trowbridge & Ackerman.
All of Mr. Lewis’ work shows an appreciation of architectural character as well as a knowledge of architectural design.”


I first saw Lewis’s work in Drafting Room Practice by Eugene Clute (Pencil Points Press 1928). I found an old copy in a used book store years ago. There was no biographical information, but they reproduced a number of wonderful architectural detail studies done in charcoal.





The only other story I found concerning Lewis’s work is in The President as Architect: Franklin D. Roosevelt's Top Cottage, By John G. Waite Associates, Architects. In 1938 President Roosevelt sketched out the design for a “cottage” on his Hyde Park property north of New York City. Lewis, who did regular work for Henry J. Toombs, FDR’s favorite architect, was brought on to do a couple pencil renderings for a publicity brochure. Being a “traditional” renderer familiar with traditional architecture, he fit in perfectly with FDR’s love of the old country style of building.




Here are a few additional images which show something of Lewis’s rendering process. His preliminary sketches are nice examples of value studies produced by all artists of the time. The preliminary working out the light and dark areas ensures an image that presents the subject in a pleasing way. See my post on Gustave DorĂ© for more of the same, as well as all of my posts on composition.

Prelim sketch for Cadet Barracks at U S Military Academy
Finished rendering of Cadet Barracks at U S Military Academy

Prelim study for an aerial view of a Church

Prelim sketch for a rendering of a Church

Finished rendering of a Church

Unfinished Prelim study for a Church
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The following images are all of the Schell Lewis renderings that I could find on the internet. They are arranged in roughly chronological order. Comments are included as I felt the need.

1088 Park Avenue New York City, 1924

This and the next 6 renderings are nice examples of subtle value manipulation used to enliven otherwise dull forms.

Apartment Block in New York City, 1926

Proposed Development at Warm Springs, Georgia, 1926

111 John Street, New York City, 1927

15 East 39th Street New York City, 1928

1441 Broadway, New York City, 1929

Bronx County Jail, New York City, 1931
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Proposed Chapel at Kent School, Kent, Connecticut  1929

The image above was the only interior rendering that I found.

Georgia Building, 1933

Chapin School in New York City, 1935

The following 4 renderings are from the 1939 World’s Fair, held in New York City. Both Hugh Ferriss and John Wenrich did illustrations for the fair.

Court of the States Building, Inner court collonnade & tower

Court of the States Building, Inner court

Court of the States Building, Spanish grouping

Court of the States Building, West court
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Band Building, 1947
Mallory Gymnasium, Rhodes College, 1949

Toronto City Hall proposal, 1955

Trezevant Hall, Rhodes College, 1959

Moore Moore Infirmary, Rhodes College, 1960

Proposal for Mahan Hall at West Point, 1967

Lewis seems to have preferred pencil throughout his career, but was clearly a master of ink as well, as shown in the last two images I found. The first is copied from the internet and is very low resolution. The second image (noted simply as "brick house") is scanned from Arthur L. Guptill's classic Rendering in Pen and Ink, and is detailed enough to show both the overall composition and the satisfying details.

Burrow Library, Rhodes College, 1951


So, what do I take away from all this?
Schell Lewis is inspiring because he blends the large, conceptual view with the rendering of crisp detail. “Fine” artists can often get away with a broad-brush splash of emotion or symbolism (the rest is commentary). Architects, on the other hand, are usually obsessed with the details: “God is in the details”. But both scales of view are necessary.
The architectural illustrator must needs do both. Yet, it is unusual to find someone who can mix the two extremes so seamlessly as Schell Lewis did.