Thursday, February 21, 2013

Airbrush Demonstration - Cesar Pelli's Petronas Towers

Note: the following, similar to my post on the Louvre, has to do with techniques from 20 years ago.  It could be categorized as “history” rather than “demonstration”, but the reader can take it for what it is worth, and use it in any way they wish.

Early August 1992, while I was summering in the Adirondacks I got a call from Jon Pickard at Cesar Pelli’s offices in New Haven.  He needed a rendering of a project in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  I had already worked on a job in Kuala Lumpur, so I knew the city (vaguely), but the project that Jon outlined over the phone was well beyond anything I’d ever seen.  

It was a twin tower skyscraper that would eventually become the tallest building in the world.  And, the rendering needed to be finished in 10 days!

Kuala Lumpur is the capitol and largest city of Malaysia.  It began as a boom town based on tin mining in the 1850’s, but quickly grew into a multicultural metropolis, with Malay, Chinese, Muslims from India, and British citizens all mixed together.  In spite of civil war, riots, flood and fire, not to mention World War II, Kuala Lumpur continued to expand dramatically, until today it has 1.6 million people in the city itself, and 7.2 million in the suburbs surrounding it.

Oil was discovered late in the 1800’s, and the first well was drilled in 1910.  The national petroleum company, called Petronas (or Petroliam Nasional Berhad) was established in 1974, and immediately became a world player in oil production.  With massive, steady profits, the company diversified into refining and transport, and in addition, decided to build a world class headquarters tower.

The rendering of this massive headquarters would have to be completed in a manner as quick and practical as the building of Kuala Lumpur itself.  As I said, ten days!

The old race course used by the colonial Brits was chosen as the site, and Cesar Pelli was picked to design it.

The headquarters towers were planned to be part of an extensive retail and residential development surrounding a man-made lake.

The two towers were surrounded by smaller cylindrical shaped forms mirroring the main theme and creating an ensemble.

Although the natural forms were strongly vertical, the brise-soleil, as you can see, provides a strong horizontal break at the various setbacks. Each tower had a short cylinder attached to the front called a "bustle".  A "sky bridge" connected the towers.

The design featured a geometry based on the Muslim “Rub el Hizb”, or 8 pointed star, with semi circles tucked between the points.  A repeating pattern that I was endlessly thankful for as I started the computer modeling.

The following demonstration seems like a history lesson now, what with computer gaming programs able to render a scene realistically in real time.  However, the mixing of computer and hand in the process reminds one that the human mind continues to be the wild-card in the digital world we live in.

As soon as I got the “go ahead” from the Pelli office in New Haven, I jumped in the car and drove back to my apartment in Manhattan.  A package from Mr. Pickard was waiting for me.  It included site photos, model photos, and a complete set of drawings (including an elevation sheet that must have been 8 feet tall).  None of the drawings were in a digital format, so I immediately set to work translating 2D to 3D, and paper to computer.  Unfortunately, the computer model I created has been lost, but some of the printouts from the time show the complexity of the job.  

The modeling was relatively crude, with a simple line standing in for 8 inch stainless steel tubes.  To speed up the “hide line” process I eliminated most of the unseen parts of the building.  Note: computer rendering was being used at this time, but was slow and expensive; hand work was still the fastest technique in that dark, dusty, primitive age.

Because of the abbreviated schedule, the final art could only be 24 inches tall, quite small for a building of this size.  In fact the size was just enough for the mullion pattern and brise-soleil to read clearly on the printer that I used for the final line drawing.  

The final line drawing, above, was printed out and sent to be reproduced on matte photographic paper.  

All during the modeling process I was sending updates of the model, and also sketches exploring the direction of the final rendering.  My first note to Jon (above) gave a verbal description of my vision, plus a thumbnail sketch on a yellow lined pad.  Jon was the best interlocutor I ever had, letting me run with an idea, while offering clear, timely comments to keep the process on track.  He would have made an excellent illustrator, if he hadn’t been such a successful architect (he is an award winning principal of his own firm now).

Above is a sketch that explored my proposal to break up the tower shaft by “melting” it into the sky.  The sketch was produced with a large tip marker so that it could be clearly sent by fax instead of losing a day sending by Fedex.

We quickly decided to pursue a view from near street level, and to show the entire shaft clearly instead of breaking it up.  Before the computer model was finished I began to work out the composition in sketches, adjusting existing buildings and working out the framing.

Since this was to be a full color rendering I started trying out color schemes.  Above is one of the first passes.  It is your basic warm building lit by sunset and manmade fixtures, set off by a cool background.  The vignette sketch below shows the level of detail expected in the final art, and adds some notes to suggest the principles that would guide my decisions overall.

Mr. Pelli decided that the building, being stainless steel, should be closer to the sky color, so a primarily cool palette was chosen, with warm color relegated to the street lighting and accents.  

Another back-and-forth produced more specific adjustments…

…and the final sketch was approved by the time the final line photographic print was delivered.  Again, amazing expedited feedback from Pelli’s office.

The following images are scans of slides taken at the time.  The quality is limited, but you can see the process moving along quite well.  The work was done in a small apartment in Manhattan, with a Paasche “V” airbrush, cheap compressor, and a ruling pen.  The pigments were transparent Pelikan Drawing Ink, and both transparent and opaque acrylic airbrush media (Badger and Comart).

The line drawing was sprayed with opaque white acrylic to grey out the lines.

Then, everything but the sky was masked with frisket film, and layers of ultramarine blue were sprayed and erased back.  Frisket is a thin plastic film with a weak adhesive on the back, which comes in rolls or sheets.  When applied to the art they can be cut with X-acto blades (or some other razor sharp instrument) to reveal an area that you want to paint.

Since the sky was going to be a dramatic dark foil for the towers, a large number of layers were sprayed, pulling the frisket regularly to check progress along the way.  Touches of red, orange and violet recall the sunset, and areas were erased with hand or electrical eraser to suggest cloud forms.

Here is the rendering minus frisket.  The streaks and spots you see in the sky are flaws in the 20 year old slides, not flaws in the original.  By the way, I always sprayed the sky first because I wanted the sky to be smooth and controlled.  I often found that noticeable variations showed up when spraying an area that had already been masked.  The variations weren’t noticeable in the building sprays because of the texture and detailing that cover most buildings.

Now, the base is masked, and various existing buildings are modeled with a palette ranging from dull violet to dull red.

As a building area is finished the frisket is replaced, and another area is opened up.  Last to be opened is the street, which gets a range from dull orange to yellow.  Finally, I open all of the existing buildings and street, and give them all a reddish orange layer to unify them.

Above is the rendering at this point, with all masking removed.  Now, on to the towers themselves.

The entire image is masked, and the new construction is opened.  A layer of opaque white acrylic is applied to lighten the lines.  More white opaque is sprayed on the left side of each of the towers than the right, since the sunset light is coming from that side.

Here, again, is the rendering with all masking removed.

And, here is a shot of the work space; cramped, dark and dank, with chains attached to the floor (just kidding).  

The art is again masked, and the short third tower on the right is modeled, one facet at a time.  The main towers’ darkest facets are opened and sprayed.  And, finally, the short, cylindrical “bustle” in front of each tower is opened, and the round shape and connection are rendered.  Notice that the cylindrical shape is opened completely, and the shadow is sprayed so as to leave a reflective highlight on the far right of the cylinder.  Also, all the modeling is faded out as it approaches the ground, since the wash of street lighting will overwhelm the sunset light at ground level.

A new sheet of frisket masks the towers (note that it doesn’t cover the entire picture), and the semicircular facets of the towers are sprayed one at a time.  Since they are semicircles the shading is gradual.  Also, the cap of the “bustle” is given a warm metal top.

Here you can see the frisket partially removed, to show the result of the tower modeling.  

And, again, a view of the work area.  The blood from the daily whipping can be seen on the right (kidding again).

A new sheet of frisket, and the warm tones of the sunset are added to the left facing surfaces.  Also, the warm wash from the street lights is added.

Here the frisket is off again, and you can see that the vertical modeling of the towers is practically complete.

This view of the work area includes the painting, sketches and inks, as well as an electric eraser and the airbrush at the lower right.  The compressor below the desk was activated by a foot switch to free my hands (I did not yet have an automatic compressor with tank).

Now it’s back to the building base.  Using brushwork, the detail of the building entrance is worked out.  The street reflections are varied with an electric eraser, and people, cars and highlights are painted in.  Brushwork also adds shadow to the brise soleil, and highlights to the mullions, bustle and sky walkway.  At this point I treat the rendering as a traditional painting; areas are painted, then I step back to gauge the effect, then back in for more work.  Back and forth getting the right balance.

At this point I am touching up the entire painting.  Mainly darkening and highlighting to get better three dimensionality and punch.  The existing buildings must stand as the background and frame, the towers must glitter with real and perceived detail, and the base must give life in spite of the tiny scale.  At this point I am adding spots of pure opaque white, black ink, and primary color.

Finally, the painting is compared with the color sketch.  It is easy to wander away from the original concept, so the sketch is on the drawing board during the entire process.  In spite of this, I feel that a touch of sunset warmth can be added.

Above is the rendering as photographed on the board (and scanned from the resulting slide).  

This version, above, is the rendering as photographed professionally with controlled light and a large box camera.  This version was wrapped up and sent off to Pelli.  All finished in less than 10 days!
But it was not the end…

As designed and rendered, Petronas Towers was just short of the previous tallest building in the world.  Shortly after I finished the rendering I got a call asking me to make a couple of design changes.  The sky bridge was to be supported by struts rather than the cables originally shown.  In addition, the towers were both getting a new spire, which would make them the tallest building in the world at the time.  I was told that the decision had been discussed and made at the highest levels of the Malaysian government.

As you can see the new tops were not only taller, but made a more satisfying finish to the towers.

The design meant that I had to model and render small patches that would be pasted on to the original, and then photographed to produce the final-final rendering.

Building on the original computer model, I modeled and printed out the new pieces.  They were again reproduced on matte photographic paper, and keeping the original rendering close by, I matched the color and light using the same rendering technique.  When they were attached to the original you could not tell that they were there.

The rendering was eventually reproduced in all the usual architectural and construction magazines in the United States, as well as the New York Times and American regional papers.

But I was blown away not long after, when I visited Pelli’s offices on an unrelated job, and was shown into a conference room.  One of the walls was hidden by what must have been a hundred magazines from Southeast Asia.  Each of them reproduced the rendering on their covers.  I’m not a social person, and fame is not one of my goals, so as I said; blown away.

The rendering may have been produced at high speed, but the building construction was complex and slow.  Trouble with unusual bedrock conditions delayed the actual superstructure construction until 1994.  

The towers were finished in 1996, but they were not officially opened by the Prime Minister until 1999. 

Although Petronas lost its title of tallest building in 2004, it is still the most elegant of the “tallest” buildings.  That may not count for much among people that simply look at the statistics, but it is noticeable to anyone with an eye for design.  A tall building is still aesthetic riddle, but Pelli and Pickard scored on the Petronas Towers.  I count myself blessed to have been associated with it and its creators.

- St. Vincent airbrush demo

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