Sunday, November 20, 2011

Aliens and Aphrodite

Two articles caught my eye recently. Both address the problem of design and beauty, which is central to my book.

Michael Mehaffy and Nikos A. Salingaros: The Architect Has No Clothes, in Guernica, an on-line magazine of art & politics, analyses the alienation of designers and the society that they serve...

Empire State Plaza, Albany, NY (wikimedia commons)

"Have you ever looked at a bizarre building design and wondered, “What were the architects thinking?” Have you looked at a supposedly “ecological” industrial-looking building, and questioned how it could be truly ecological? Or have you simply felt frustrated by a building that made you uncomfortable, or felt anger when a beautiful old building was razed and replaced with a contemporary eyesore? You might be forgiven for thinking “these architects must be blind!” New research shows that in a real sense, you might actually be right."

The authors go on to cite a number of studies that show that architects see the world differently than ordinary people (they call it 'Architectural Myopia'). To any second year architectural student this is obvious (and the parents of said student are seen as kindly but boorish). To any "ordinary" person who has dealt with an architect, it is equally obvious that said architect is interesting and perhaps brilliant, but has a curiously inhuman view of reality.

This is one of those times when "nurture", or the education of a person, makes a profound change that can overwhelm the natural human inclinations. It is also important to note that the most "out there" architects are below the age of 30. Older architects seem to settle back into a design attitude that takes into account the need for architecture to accommodate real people, while keeping an "architectural" sense.

The authors go on to date this Architectural Myopia to the early 1900's, driven by the industrial revolution and the breakdown of the traditional order. "Peter Behrens, the father of corporate branding, was given the challenge of developing the first architectural “branding” for the buildings of the German Electrical Equipment Firm AEG. He did so by using elementary industrial geometries, formed into a romantic and iconic expressive shape. The building itself was now a kind of billboard for the company—an attention-getting new product design in its own right. It was not a coincidence that three of his young colleagues went on to profoundly shape architecture in the 20th Century: Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius."

I am not sold on their solutions to this problem (community involvement, etc.), but the article certainly nails the problem. Read the whole thing.

Old New York State Capitol Building, Albany, NY (wikimedia Commons)

Beauty Now in the Eye of the Algorithm - New image recognition technology judges photographic aesthetics looks at a new computerized way of recognizing "beauty"...

"New technology from Xerox can sort photos not just by their content but also according to their aesthetic qualities, such as which portraits are close-in and well-lit, or which wildlife shots are least cluttered."

This lead paragraph covers the strengths and the limitations of such a program. "Close-in", "well-lit", and "uncluttered" are all good rules to follow in getting a pleasing image. And I'm sure that an algorithm can be created that covers a dozen other rules. This computerized system is especially useful in portraits, where the focus is on a familiar thing, but the "beauty" is in studying the variation in detail.

What is missing here is that humans are drawn to more then a set of rules. Once the rules are established and applied regularly, someone will do the exact opposite, just to stand out. Eventually lots of people will be "rebelling", and you will find a new "style" that is surrounded by its own rules. The new style gets established, new rebels go to work, and the cycle keeps going. The Style magazines of the New York Times are a constant reminder of this never ending rebirth.

As much as I like new technology, I doubt that computers will ever "settle" the definition of beauty. However, using new programs to explore the question sounds like fun.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Hard and Soft Shadows

Back when I was just a "kid with a dream" I met the preeminent architectural perspectivist, Steve Oles.  He was one of those rare people who are both a genius and a gentleman.  The gentleman was soft spoken and courteous,  with a barely noticeable southern accent.  The genius manifested itself as we walked through midtown Manhattan, and he pointed out the various effects of light in the city canyons.

One of his comments regarded the play of sharp and fuzzy shadows cast by the tall buildings and closer structures.  I had seen the shadows before, but I hadn't "seen" them.  And so, some examples and comments on hard and soft shadows...

This watercolor shows sunset light casting shadows on the wall.  Soft shadows on the right from the window opening, and sharp shadows from the lamp and chair.

The same effect shows up in this pastel of the New York Public Library.  The soft shadow is cast by the building across 5th Avenue.

The soft gradation on the Woolworth Building above, assumes a low sun catching the tower top only, producing a strong articulation in the sunlight, and a more subdued modeling in the cool shadows.

The typical Beaux-Art elevation, like the entrance above, assumes sharp shadows cast by the elements of the building itself.

This rendering of the same building shows a complex interplay of soft and hard shadows, and window reflections.  It is a very un Beaux-Art effect.

Although soft shadows occur most naturally (and usefully) in exterior renderings, a large interior space with glass roof can produce the same soft shadow, which can also be very useful in framing and composing a rendering.

Whereas the sunlit areas show soft and hard shadows, the areas like the parking lot above produce ambient light shadows below and between the cars.  These are the "occlusion shadows" that show up as pools of soft darkness between objects in ambient light situations.

These shadows occur all around you all the time.  Everyone expects them without realizing it consciously.  So use that expectation to rearrange your composition and refocus your rendering.

See also Natural Spotlights.