Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Inspiration - John C. Wenrich

John C. Wenrich (1894 – 1970) is one of the more obscure greats in architectural rendering. There is no book covering his life, and his rendering work is limited and scattered. In spite of this, the sense of atmosphere that he imbued into pencil and watercolor is unsurpassed. No survey of early 20th century architecture is complete without noting his contribution.

He was born in Maryland, the son of a locomotive engineer (Whistler had similar parentage), and worked for a local architect before enrolling at the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute (RAMI) in Rochester, New York. Being drawn to art, he went to New York City to study at the Art Students League, and after serving in France during World War I, spent 5 months at the University of Toulouse. Returning from Europe, he joined the firm of Gordon and Kaelber Architects as an illustrator, staying there until 1931. 

Oddly, it was during the Great Depression that his career took off. In 1930 he did renderings for the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago. The illustration of the Tower of Water and Light (below) begins to suggest the atmospheric direction his art is going.

In 1932, on the strength of his work in Chicago, he was hired as an architectural renderer for the design team of Rockefeller Center. The following seven illustrations are pencil and watercolor views from those years.

This view from the east of the central tower was for me emblematic of what an architectural rendering should be. Although the viewpoint is impossible (buildings are in the way), the majesty of the image makes any objections irrelevant. 

This view of the project looking down Fifth Avenue cheats on the sun direction (he shows it coming from the north), but again, is forgivable considering the effect produced. His technique of subtle watercolor tones and practiced pencil texture is done with a sure hand.

This aerial view of the complex is less romantic than his other drawings, but it is a brilliant mix of atmosphere and information. The problem of differentiating the project from the surrounding urban fabric is handled with a strong but delicate tone and color change. This is another image that I kept in mind whenever working a similar job.

While the previous aerial took a viewpoint with the sun behind the viewer, this aerial looks directly into the sun. That Wenrich would take such an unusual view says a lot about his artistic daring. The effect is less informative than the previous rendering, but the abstract mystery of the result is worth the effort.

This view overlooking the sunken plaza at Rockefeller Center (famous for winter skating)illustrates Wenrich’s quick confident hand.

Above is another rendering where the viewpoint is inside an existing building. Any renderer who has worked on urban projects has encountered the same problem; a pedestrian simply cannot see a skyscraper set among other skyscrapers. It is fairly standard for the type, but the darkened main tower setting off the light block in the middle ground is interesting.

 I only have an uncolored copy of this view of Rockefeller Center, but the conceptual idea is quite tantalizing. The moon and car headlights mark this as a dusk view with the dying light illuminating the top of the building. Dusk is the time of day I love to capture, and I would absolutely love to see what Wenrich did with his colors here. 

This rendering of a Wall Street office tower, completed in 1935 is a long time favorite of mine. It places the ethereal tower above the old New York fish market, and makes them fit together perfectly. The morning light is pure New York, but the dissolving form is of an imaginary, almost fantasy Gotham. This rendering suggests the color tones that Wenrich might have used on the last Rockefeller illustration above.

As a comparison, the watercolor painting above is of the same building, but from a different viewpoint and painted with a completely different attitude. It is by Theodore Kautzky (noted below), who treated the subject as the basis for a vibrant exercise in color composition. Kautzky was know more for his views of existing buildings, and became a pure artist and teacher in his later life.

The Rockefeller Center work led directly into a gig for the New York World’s Fair of 1939. Wenrich, along with Theodore Kautzky, Hugh Ferriss and Chester Price were hired as "official delineators" of the fair. Each of the following four illustrations show a different side of his vision and art.

The Plaza Study, above, shows in detail what Wenrich had been doing (at street level) for Rockefeller. The crowd is believable, varied and yet holds together as a whole. Knowing his penchant for atmospheric drama, a “happy story” fair with flowers and flags is a real change.

This view across the water toward the silhouetted statue of George Washington is another change of pace for Wenrich. It reflects the poster art of the early century which emphasized blocks of color and texture, while de-emphasizing 3D forms.

This illustration of the Hall of Music seems to be a conscious tribute to Wenrich’s fellow “delineator”, Hugh Ferriss. The night view, spot lights, black and white technique and silhouetted crowd, all suggest “homage”. Unfortunately, the design in general is less than forgettable. 

This early study of the Metals Building at the Fair is curiously washed out from a distance, but plays a sophisticated game with warm and cool colors close up. It reminds me of Lebbius Woods’ work 50 years later. I doubt that there is any direct connection between this and Woods, but it does suggest a similar genius.

I have not found anything about Wenrich after 1940. He did work on the New York World’s Fair in 1964, but I haven’t found any drawings attributed to him from that work. By 1947 he was back at RAMI, now known as the Rochester Institute of Technology, teaching part time. I like to imagine that he decided to settle into a quiet life in Rochester, after the tumult of the big city with its big projects. He died August 16, 1970, just as I was enrolling in architecture school.

Sadly, that is all I’ve got on Wenrich (a few websites are noted below). Someday I hope that a well illustrated book will come out. But in any case, if he had only created the 2nd and 9th images above, he would still be on my list of heroes.

Out of the Cavewall

The oldest pictures made by humans are primitive stick figures with no attempt to represent three dimensions. 

But over time, cave paintings became more realistic, suggesting different materials, and modeling forms with shading. 

Over the centuries artists have tried to capture three dimensional realities on a flat surface (Carl Larsson’s Autumn)

The gold standard of art was to fool the viewer into thinking that what he was looking at was 3D reality; a standard achieved by Rembrandt Peale in this self portrait.

Seeing reality emerging from a plain sheet of paper is one aspect of artistic magic. It is what makes figure drawing so gratifying for me.

…But I really want to talk about Architecture and Architectural drawing.

A building plan has no need to aspire to illusion. It is a diagram which anyone can understand; like a map or the squares on a child’s game board.

But, the actual building is often much more complicated. At the very least, architects try to distinguish materials and depth of field. A clearly rendered elevation goes a long way to explaining a building. This and the preceding plan are of the Third Church of Christ Scientist in New York City.

In the end, an accurate perspective layout is the best foundation for creating the illusion of reality. This is for the obvious reason that we live and see in three dimensional reality. The airplane is a Caproni biplane from 1911.

Perspective, along with rendered materials and cast shadows, presents the project in a form that the architect, client and public can easily understand. Done right, it resembles a simple photograph, as does this rendering of Viollet-le-Duc’s 1861 proposal for the Paris Opera.

 Done with subtlety , it can be a magic trick where the three dimensional object is there, but is just out of reach. This is an effect that John Wenrich achieved regularly.
Stay tuned.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Perspective - One Point Perspective - Portfolio & Comments

Over the years I have created quite a few one point perspectives. The following are samples of layouts, both hand and computer generated. Some illustrate an aspect of layout work, but most are simply here to show the range of projects that accommodate one point views. 

This layout from the 1980’s shows a pedestrian way through the Harper and Row Headquarters Building in Manhattan. It is essentially an elevation with steps in the foreground, and a rectangular passage receding geometrically into the distance. It could have been worked out using a diagonal vanishing point alone, but was actually constructed from a measured plan which can be seem in light pencil under the passageway itself. The most difficult part was the lettering on the cylinder to the left of the opening, which was worked out by eye.

This view of an office hallway at the General Reinsurance Headquarters in Manhattan was typical for sketches in the ‘80s. The plan can be seen at the bottom of the column, and the picture plane line and horizon line are the same. The drawing was not done to “sell” the concept, but was merely a taste of the finished space. Such sketches were the “bread and butter” of rendering work 30 years ago, but are done by computer in no time now.

This executive office is more complex than the preceding layout, but was done with the same limited intension.  In this case a blue print plan was placed under a sheet of vellum, and the position of various corners and objects were marked on the picture plane (the horizontal line near the top of the desk).  It is interesting in that it has a diagonal wall on the far right, and has a mirror directly in front of the desk (which shows the reflection of the diagonal wall).

This view of a high end furniture headquarters is relentlessly orthogonal, but has enough going on to make it interesting. The plan can be seen ghosted on the foreground, and, again, the picture plane line is the same as the horizontal line. Perhaps the hardest part of this drawing was the figures (“designy”, but not outrĂ©).

As noted before, exterior views of buildings don’t often make sense for one point perspectives. When you are viewing a large exterior space, as with this urban development project in Glasgow by KPF, it can be very effective. The construction lines are not visible on this drawing, but I do remember that it was worked out from a blue print. Note, that the tower at the center of the image is essentially an elevation with minimal shifts to show depth.

The original conception for this apartment building lobby involved a polished marble floor of equilateral triangles. Once that grid was constructed the position of everything else was settled. This layout was the first step in a process that culminated in a finished color rendering, which became part of the rental brochure.

Greenwich Mews is a row of townhouses in the West Village of NYC. When it was originally proposed they needed a perfectly accurate rendering to sell the concept to both buyers and the city agencies. It too became a complete colored rendering, but all the colors and materials were closely controlled so as to avoid any blow-back from disappointed buyers. These townhouses go for about $5 million these days.

Pei Cobb Freed Architects developed plans for the Barcelona waterfront in the late 80’s. This is one sketch showing a gateway structure leading from the Placa de les Drassanes to the Moll de Barcelona, with a new World Trade Center at its tip. This was one of a number of sketches on trace paper that added new structures to an existing view.

Perhaps the best known of my renderings is that of Pei’s Louvre renovation/addition. I had heard of the project before, but had not understood the extent of the construction until I was called on to reveal the underground space in a single perspective. The final layout was a conglomeration of a dozen photos, a computer wireframe, and hand layout work. Most of the existing structure was under scaffolding, so even that had to be filled in by hand. The final airbrush and acrylic rendering can be seen HERE.

The Old AT&T Building was converted to general office space back in the 80’s. The magnificent lobby was cleaned and restored to its previous glory. This layout is mostly a tracing of a photograph with the reception desk added. It is however an interesting example of a one point perspective, including the distortion that is noticeable in the column capitols at the edges of the view. 

Lower Manhattan is filled with old streets that are actually short narrow alleys, better suited to the 17th century than today.  Dey Street is one of these alleys that was going to be converted to a pedestrian way, but was never carried out. This view of the proposal is another layout that mixed a photo of existing conditions and a hand layout of the proposed use. The octagonal paving pattern was actually fun to work out (ahh, the joys of youth).

This view of an auditorium at Franklin Marshall College shows a halfway point in working out the viewpoint, people and stageset that might work best. 

This proposal for the new Police Academy in New York City also shows a hybrid of computer and handwork. It was done at the time when computer rendering was still difficult and expensive, but wireframe hidden layouts were the norm. Shade and shadow, as well as any complex/natural object were always left to the person accustomed to hand rendering.

In this view of the Tokyo International Forum the trees, cars and people have been drawn onto a computer hidden line print, and the shade, shadow and general tones are being explored. I actually loved working with the computer at this point of my career; layouts can be boring and tedious, while working out the lighting and composition was always a pleasure.

The Philosophy building at Texas Tech is a heavily decorated building, but it pushed the wireframe business further along with surface textures, window detailing and general ornament. People, trees and the fountain’s water are still done by hand.

I am including this view of an auditorium at Columbia University as an example of a one point perspective that really is a highly complex layout. The stage proscenium and balcony seating vanish to the dot seen at the upper right, but everything else is either curved or has its own geometry. This rendering was done early in my career, and (believe it or not) was a really fun thing to layout.

The owners of this building on Fifth Avenue in New York City wanted to know what the new storefronts and entry would look like from across the avenue. It is only a perspective at the entry and the flags; an elevation would probably have done the trick just as well.    

This proposal for a high end hotel in Manhattan was my single attempt at a “Paul Rudolph” ink rendering. It was a lot of fun to do, and may be one of the reasons I wear glasses today. It is a one point perspective, although much of the upper tower is using the diagonal vanishing points. Also, as noted before, it works as a one point because it is a section perspective with a large interior space.

Large auditoriums (auditoria?) are perfect for section perspectives. The Kansas City Auditorium illustrates this, being a large space for the audience and a large space for the performers. In this case the entry stairs and lobbies were to be featured, so the vanishing point (center of the green lines) is at the center of the main lobby. This drawing was created in Photoshop, starting with a section provided by the architect, Hugh Hardy.

The final art, above, was also done in Photoshop.