Monday, 16 May 2011

A Canvas for Design

Last week I presented at an event for the UK Autodesk distributor, Excitech. The presentation was based largely on one I had given previously on a “Super User” tour of South East Asia and Australia with Autodesk in October 2009. The title of the original presentation was “A Canvas for Design”, the premise being that as a traditional artist or architect  chooses their medium (be it fat felt tip pen, oils, clay, technical pen, etc) according to either the stage of the design / work or to the feel they want to give a piece the same should be true for those of us using computer software to design.

In the early days of computer take-up in architecture there were few of us who were really comfortable designing with this new medium. Back then the software / hardware was far less developed so freedom of expression with these tools was limited and equally few had grown up with computers and so were not fluent enough with the tools available to be able to freely express themselves. By contrast I started life in architecture uncomfortable with drawing by hand. My weakness became my strength as it forced me to learn to express my ideas, not with a single piece of software such as AutoCad, but with a range of programmes using each of their relative strengths to create my designs rather than limiting myself to concepts restricted by the ability of a single piece of software to produce them. I think dexterity between software is analogous to an artist sketching out a framework on a canvas by pencil before filling out with oils, gauche, or water colours according to the feeling he / she wish to create. Whilst the power and ease of use of modern software can reduce the need to move between programmes to create a design an ability to do so, coupled with a good knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of each, can produce an extremely efficient and powerful workflow. In this way the designer today who understands the nuances of the software packages at their disposal becomes like the sculpture choosing between clay, metal, or stone before embarking on a new piece of work. 

A personal example of this process is a concept design I produced whilst at Dyer Architects in London for a new retail mall in Russia. The clients were looking for a design of circa 100,000 square meters which they could reproduce throughout the Russian regions. It was clear to us that here was an opportunity to use the architecture of the store to create a very strong brand identity. Reacting to a sketch plan for the store by one of the directors which reminded me of a space craft I set out to produce the competition winning image using 3ds Max Design. I chose 3ds Max on the basis of its toolset which allowed forms to be molded interactively - somewhat like clay. What I found particularly interesting in retrospect was the process of achieving the image. I didn't have a strong form in mind, rather I spent the majority of my time experimenting with the tools available to see what could be used to create a fluid wing-like design. To this extent the appearance of the final image had as much to do with the way the algorithms inside 3ds Max produced the shapes as it did to my own design decisions. At some points It felt to me as if I was reduced to a spectator whose role was merely to watch the form changing shape and to decide when something looked good and when something did not. A testament to the power of the software egven then (2006) was that the design and production of the first design was created from start to finish within 24 hours. The final image is shown below, together with some images of how the design progressed once the competition was one and how it took shape on site in Krasnodar, Russia. 

The original competition winning image
The developed Concept Design - also produced using 3ds Max
The Oz Mall on site in 2010
Testing the Lights (protective film to cladding still in place) 2010
As a footnote, the first store, which is shown above, is nearing completion in the Southern russian town of Krasnodar. It is not 100,000 sqm but 220,000sqm and can be clearly seen in Google earth about 1 mile south of the airport - dwarfing the airport in size. The mall sits between two motorways and when the exterior lights were being tested many of the cars were stopping and people were getting out of their cars to take photographs.. I think the concept of the brand could be considered a success!

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