Thursday, December 31, 2015

Hand & CAD - The Wireframe Years - 1

Columbus Circle, Steamboat Springs & the Queens Museum.

When computers began to be used in architectural offices, they were unstable and relatively primitive. I lived through that period of frustration, elation and work-a-rounds.  This is just one of a number of posts I want to write about it – partly, just to leave a record of the work, but mainly as an example of mixing the digital with the hand.

In the early 1980s 3D computer modeling was not an option in architectural offices. Just buying a computer with the requisite memory and graphics was way too expensive. But in 1985 the office in which I worked bought an early CAD computer and a very early version of AutoCad, which was used for Building Department submission drawings. Simple diagramatic drawings were created, with much computer crashing and gnashing of teeth.  The simplest 3D modeling was a faint glimmer in the recesses of that early software.  

The layout above was done for the Columbus Circle Competition in 1985. The red curves show where I used a print out of circles in perspective from that early CAD computer. Without those print outs, the semicircular façade of the proposed building would have been a frustrating job of sketching and re-sketching. With a large plot of these curves the layout was not much harder than a run-of-the-mill hand layout.

In 1987 I bought my own CAD computer, and played with it whenever I could find the time. I spent my nights working on small rendering jobs, and very occasionally I found that I could use the (at that time) primitive AutoCad program to help speed my work. The sketch above mixed a photo of an existing building with a CAD view of rotated cubes and some hand layout work.

This interior view of the same job used a crude wireframe of the ceiling and floor (now lost), and hand layout work. The computer made the curved lattice and joints easy. In both drawings the paste-up layout was made uniform by redrawing it using ink on mylar.

Another project that used complex curves was a ski resort condominium in Steamboat Springs. In general, the building could have been worked out via hand or computer, but the ski-slope-like roof posed a problem.

By limiting the model to the visible walls I only needed to construct a few 3D “faces” for balconies and railings. I worked out shade and shadow on a letter sized printout, and used that as the center of a hand drawn setting in the ski resort area.

A pencil sketch of the final was Xeroxed and worked over with pastel…

…and a more finished sketch was tried over the ink final.

The final art was finished with airbrushed transparent ink on a photographic copy of the ink drawing.


Early in 1989 I had the chance to do a rendering of the renovation of the Queens Museum, on the site of the many World’s Fairs that were hosted by New York City.  Built for the 1939 Fair, and used as the home of the United Nations from 1946 to 1950, the museum is now a venue for arts and educational programs, as well as being the permanent location for the “Panorama of the City of New York”. 

The renovation architect was Rafael Vignoly, who has since gone on to much bigger projects. It happened that he had organized a small 3D CAD group in his office, and they produced the wireframe that I used. You can see the actual wireframe lines (created on a “pin printer”) to the right of the pastel sketch.

Another pastel and pencil sketch exploring a brighter approach. The lines of the building in the reflecting pool were created by copying the building as a “block”, and placing the copy upside down directly below the building itself. The plaza layers were turned off, and a print made of the museum and its mirror below. It was then cut into the rest of the image, producing a “reflection” in the water of the pool. 

The final layout was printed full size, and then reproduced on photographic paper. I airbrushed opaque white over the entire image to grey out the black lines. Then I masked and airbrushed each area with black India ink, starting with the sky. Streaked areas in the reflecting pool were produced by erasing back the airbrushed ink (a technique that worked well with some inks, but not with others).

Next: the Tokyo International Forum.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Pre Photoshop Retouching

Before Photoshop there was photo retouching or “airbrushing” (named for the best tool for retouching photos). Photography was an expensive and iffy business, and expert artists did “post-production” by hand, cleaning up the mistakes which showed up in the darkroom. Blemishes had to be removed from centerfolds, backgrounds had to be cleaned up, and commissars had to be, ahhh, liquidated.

I never did photo retouching for a living, but there were a few architectural rendering jobs that ended up being just that. I was once approached to paint a couple of preliminary views of a hotel to be built on Broadway just north of Times Square. The client needed a night view of illuminated signs, and it seemed impossible to do it on their tight budget. However, they had a couple night photos of the site, and I suggested that I paint the new building into the photographs, saving the time and effort needed to create the context. Since the point was to illustrate generic signage (this WAS Times Square after all), the details could be fudged. 

In the first view the existing signs and the time-lapsed streak of car lights was a perfect context for a quick approximation of the new building’s sign covered façade. The building on the far left was under construction, and no signage could be suggested (it being another client/architect with a different approach, and an aggressive lawyer); thus it became a dark and dull frame to the hotel signage.

The second photo was less satisfying. Little of the existing Times Square signage was visible, and the street activity on the left was blocked in the photo by a truck. The streaking car lights of the first photo are here less exciting and distinct. Nevertheless, I blocked in the new hotel with as much realism as I could, using the preliminary design. The dull building from the first view is here part of the background to the glowing hotel.

Another opportunity to “airbrush” arrived when Hardy Holtzman Pfieffer took on the renovation of the famous Plaza Hotel in New York City (1907 photo above). The idea was to open up usable space under the huge mansard roof while simplifying the roof line. New windows had to be added, ugly roof structures eliminated, and ornamental elements that had been removed had to be replaced. At the same time the historic effect of the hotel could not change.

The original photo shows a deteriorating roof with unsightly penthouse structures poking out. Many of the original ornaments are gone, and the overall effect is less than it could be.

The retouched photo can hardly be distinguished from the original, which was a plus in presentations to  the Landmarks Preservation Commission.  On closer inspection one is rewarded with a feeling of renewal and completion. 

This detail of the old Plaza can be compared to…

… this same detail of the proposed new Plaza. 

The next time I was faced with a retouch architectural job some years later, I had Photoshop on my computer. I will be posting actual demonstrations from those days sometime in the future.