Thursday, July 28, 2011

Non-Photorealistic Digital Rendering

A client asked for non-photorealistic illustrations of four model homes for use in marketing materials. I had produced most of my previous illustrations using color pencils overlaid on black and white hand-drawn ink lines copied onto charcoal paper. Knowing that these illustrations would be subject to several modifications before final approval, I decided that to produce them digitally would allow me to change them more quickly than would drawing them by hand. Nevertheless, I decided to try to simulate the appearance of color pencil drawn over lightly drafted linework.

Because I had previously designed the homes, I could quickly and easily construct SketchUp digital models of each of them. Using a combination of SketchUp, Kerkythea, and Photoshop Elements, I was able to rapidly and affordably create a series of digital renderings.

I derived the technique largely from work done by my friend Jim Leggitt, and combined it with other experimental techniques of my own to get an appearance that satisfied both my client’s goals and my own within a very short turnaround time.

Step 1:  I created a base model in SketchUp, shown here in original form. 

Step 2:  I exported a jpeg view of the model in high resolution, 2000 dpi. This produced fine linework while preserving the textures, colors, and shadows generated in the model. I imported the jpeg into Photoshop Elements, and created a new adjustment layer so that I could fine-tune the values. Note that the people have disappeared! The client wanted to feature just the house, but allow potential buyers to imagine themselves in the picture.

Step 3:  Using the SketchUp base model, I created a photorealistic rendering in Kerkythea and saved it as a jpeg. Its only purpose was to generate appropriate reflections in the windows which SketchUp cannot do. Opening this rendering in Photoshop Elements, I cut and copied the reflections, then pasted them as a new layer over the layer created in the previous step. I set the layer to “multiply” so that the window mullions would be visible through it. I used the eraser tool to ensure that the reflections appeared to be behind the foreground elements.

Step 4:  To simulate a surface similar to textured paper, I added a layer consisting of a very light gray rectangle with a "sandstone" texture filter, and set it to “multiply”.

Step 5:  To satisfy my client’s preference, I added a very light gray layer set to 91% opacity, then using the eraser tool with a broad “sponge” brush, I erased away all but the edges to vignette the drawing and enhance the “hand-drawn” allusion.

The final product, although clearly not hand drawn, simulates some of the soft characteristics that make hand drawings so appealing, but using a more flexible, easily adjustable, rapid technique.

For more information, visit Ray Brown Urban Design or Ray Brown Studio

Monday, July 25, 2011

The importance of having a civic vision

In a major American city, at an important urban intersection formerly occupied by a significant landmark church, a suburban style drugstore is currently under construction. After an exhaustive battle between the retailer and a coalition of preservationists and neighborhood advocates, the destruction of the church was allowed to proceed. 

When complete, the drugstore will be a case study in how not to redevelop urban commercial district sites. Where the church was built to the sidewalk, the store sits behind a parking lot. Where the church defined the public realm, and was of sufficient height to be seen from some distance, the store is a typical one story, nearly windowless mashup of brick, foam trim, and badly proportioned pediments intended to mollify the community. 

There was, however, no mechanism to prevent this inappropriate form of development. There was no agreed-upon urban design plan or civic vision to guide City decision-makers. Public opinion about the issue was divided, in part because the city's residents have not yet collectively decided how they want their city to look, work, and feel. With no vision to guide them, decisions are ad hoc and respond to the whims of each individual moment, or the winds of politics. Sound familiar?

By contrast, people in cities like Portland or Denver are remarkably united behind a clear idea of the characteristics, content, functions, and appearance of the city they want to inhabit. As a result, such cities are winning the competition to successfully attract talented, highly educated people, the businesses that employ them, and the resulting increases in real value and economic prosperity.

Characteristics of a Good Civic Vision
Cities, towns, and neighborhoods can derive their civic visions from the physical or conceptual characteristics that are part of the spirit of the place and give it meaning for its residents. They can include special topographical features like mountains or hills, bodies of water, a particular climate, a specific way of life, a cultural tradition, or a notable history. The best civic visions incorporate those concepts, but also stem from the people themselves knowing who they really are; the stories they tell about themselves, what they celebrate, what they stand for or represent, what they believe in and value. Expressing these ideas promotes a special sense of place. Often, people have an innate feeling for these ideas, but often can't really agree on how, or even whether, to communicate them through a consistent approach to physical design, function, and appearance of their community.

In some cities, a pervasive suspicion of and hostility toward "government" can represent a barrier toward achieving good public realm design through public action. To help overcome that barrier, the best vision plans are created within a transparent, open, public process that is intended to arrive at a consensus for what a city should be. They are based on shared community values, and meet the reality of the market. They are simultaneously created from both the top (government) down and the bottom (community) up. Most importantly, in order to be a plan and not a dream, civic visions must meet the realities of the marketplace. Only then can they be translated into public policy and subsequently implemented.

Good Design as Practical Economic Policy
Design is about how things work as well as how they look. Good design contributes to economic sustainability, even prosperity. Many cities struggle to balance the economic advantage of creating an appealing, attractive, hospitable city with the compulsion to do whatever is necessary to attract new business—any new business—at any cost. All too often, officials regard design to be an unaffordable, unnecessary luxury instead of the contribution to competitiveness and economic success that it really is.

Chicago’s Millennium Park, San Antonio’s River Walk, Toronto’s Dundas Square, and Denver’s 16th Street Mall all represent investments in the public realm that perfectly capture and communicate the spirit of their cities and the people within them. Those cities also all boast civic vision plans that guide decisions about the shape and quality of development large and small. They help those cities gain population, jobs, tourism, and the economic success that follows. They know that good civic design is not a luxury, it’s a practical investment.

Implementing the Vision
In the current economic climate, cities find their resources strained to the breaking point. Little money is available either for planning or implementation. However, because development is currently in a slow period, now is the best time to plan for whatever changes the future may bring. Some cities will grow, others contract. Having a civic vision will help them set a framework for responding to those changes. 

To move the vision from plan to action, city leaders must be willing to formulate, adopt, and commit to a set of implementation policies and design guidelines backed by enforceable ordinances. They must seek new, creative ways to join with private interests to obtain financing, acquire property, and create market-driven projects that can incrementally grow over time in direct response to changes in market demand.

How We Can Help
Ray Brown Urban Design can help. We have more than thirty years of experience in helping cities, towns, and neighborhoods craft both inspiring civic visions and realistic strategies to implement them. Our services include:
  • Architectural and Urban Design Concepts
  • Public Place Design including Streets, Parks, and Squares
  • Vision Planning
  • Participatory Design Workshops and Charrettes
  • Performance and Form-based Zoning
  • Development and Implementation Strategies including Recommended Policies
  • Design Guidelines and Standards
We can assemble a team of specialists who will help you clarify, communicate, and successfully implement your vision. For more information, Contact Ray Brown Urban Design

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Empire State Building, The Eiffel Tower, and Albert Einstein

In her book, "Packing For Mars", author Mary Roach reveals that many
astronauts suffer from "space sickness". Space sickness results from a sudden loss of orientation in space where up and down don't really exist. The human body gets confused and rebels, causing severe nausea and sometimes nearly incapacitating astronauts.

It seems that humans are hard-wired with a need to know where they are in both space and time, as well as who surrounds them. Without this information, people feel unsafe, confused, and lost. Landmarks help orient people in space, but icons do more because they also represent a culture and its values.

Landmarks are often higher than their surroundings so that they can be seen from a distance and from many directions. Sometimes, they also mark a particular location such as a public square, important intersection, place of historical cultural importance, or natural feature. Certain landmarks achieve iconic status when they come to summarize and symbolize a place, a culture, a worldview, or a history.

Icons have meaning. It can result from design, scale, or location, but achieving it requires that the people it symbolizes eventually come to completely embrace and love the icon itself. However, icons are unique. They exist without peer. The Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, and the Statue of Liberty, among many others, are all examples of landmarks that have become icons. Icons are special.

The Empire State Building can be seen not only from most parts of Manhattan, but also from the outer boroughs and New Jersey. It makes orientation to midtown Manhattan easy. However, it also symbolizes the energy, drive, ambition, and determination that is the spirit of New York City.

The Statue of Liberty symbolizes America, but it is the America that drew generations of immigrants in search of a better life under the values on which the country was founded. That America is as much a concept as a place. The Statue also marks the location of Ellis Island, the entry point for millions. Many American families tell stories of ancestors whose first glimpse of America was Lady Liberty.

The Eiffel Tower captures the spirit and values of the culture and its time. It was the machine age, a time of progress, expansion, and prosperity expressed in delicate and artistic iron tracery, peculiarly French. Who else could have erected such a graceful tower. Who else would shape an entire city to honor it. Where but in Paris could it be located. The Eiffel Tower therefore achieves the rare distinction of serving triple duty, symbolizing not only a city, but also a culture, and even an entire nation.

So what has Einstein to do with all this? Although not the first to pose the idea, Einstein is perhaps commonly thought of as the man who clarified the relationship between space and time. Landmarks and icons help us know where we are in space, and offer perspective on who built them and what was going on in the culture of their time. At their best, icons have so much power that the stories associated with them, the values that gave rise to them, and the spirit of the people who created them take on a life of their own. As a result, iconic structures help shape decisions both in the present moment and the future that results from those decisions. It is why they are so rare and treasured. Such is the power of the icon.

Next: How buildings, including landmarks, help define the public realm.

Ray Brown Urban Design

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