The Dark Knight takes New York

29 03 2012

This fall, I went into Manhattan to see the 9/11 memorial.  As a Landscape Architect(ish) it was something that I thought was important to see, and while I was no where near New York in 2001, I still vividly remember the day, as I’m sure many do.  It was a pretty great space, though it probably would have been better, IMO, if the design stayed more true to the original ideas, and wasn’t pared down via Design-By-Committee.

While that was a pretty good experience, Something else caught my eye that day.  Walking down through Wall Street, a few streets were blocked off. I thought that was a little odd, but kept moving as it was towards the end of the Occupy push, so I figured it was for that.  Then I saw a pickup with a machine gun mounted in the back parked across the street form the stock exchange(!).

Then I saw it.

 

Then I saw the fake snow, and signs pointing past the fences to the set.  After a bit of walking, I found more GPD cars, and a crowd of people.  Then, about two blocks away I saw a crowd of people in front of at William and Wall (About a block from Federal Hall, site of the famous Metal Gear Solid 2 ending).

Initiate zoom lens:

IT’S THE BATMOBILE!

IT’S THREE BATMOBILES!

After that things were much less exciting.  Some smoke and snow started to be blown around, and we saw flashes of a massive fistfight, but that was it.  Still, seeing six GPD cars, and a FEW Batmobiles is never a bad day.





Design Studio: Project 1, Episode 3

20 04 2011

This week was busier than I would have liked, what with tax day and Portal 2.  I did want to give you a quick progress update however.

I tweaked some of the major areas in my deck and public turf area, refining shapes, and moving the parking slightly.  The combination of the changes create spaces that are more vibrant, draw your eye towards the areas you want to look, and have good spaces created for gardening and herbs (Sea Foam Green).

I then set about working on the back yard area.  I knew I wanted a path leading out to my private space and to the river edge.  I also wanted to include screening and a place for flood water to be cleaned, infiltrated, or at least slowed down.  I also wanted it to be something visually striking.  I have created a raised decking path and small deck area, above what is essentially an infiltration basin.  It would be planted with drought tolerant plants  in higher, normally feet-dry areas, and wetland plants in feet wet areas near the bottom.  What really sets it apart, however, is a small detention basin at the base of the wild area.  This should remain filled most of the year, and is edged by stone, creating the look of a rectilinear pond in a biomorphic wetland.

What you end up with is a geomorphic series of spaces for people, witch overlap with biomorphic and rectilinear in areas where the human space interacts the most with the “natural” areas.

This is still all conceptual, including the rough sections, so for next week I am hoping to get down to brass tacks and start doing the detailed design work.

Until next week.





Design Studio: Project 1, Episode 2

11 04 2011

Now that I have a site and a client, the first thing to do is to walk the site, and create a site analysis based on what the client needs and what the site and borrowed landscape provides.  My first cut at the site analysis stayed at a large scale and was somewhat bold.

This analysis was made with Sharpies on a trace sheet laid over the base map, and serves as a first step to get the big issues onto the page.  I then stepped down to a more detailed analysis using a wacom tablet on my PC.  This allowed me to work on top of both the base map, satellite photo, and my first analysis map, all with variable opacity, while still having the control/feel of a pen.

This analysis map is what I used for my conceptual design phase on a site scale.    This would still be for internal use in general, and would be supplemented by fine detail analysis maps if needed.  The text is also a good indicator of my current skill with a tablet, as I do not have the best handwriting, but the wacom only makes it look worse at this point.

Now that I have a working analysis map, I’m going to work on programming of the site, and conceptual designs.  The program I came up with preliminarily was to have a large space for entertaining that would also function as a semi-public space, like traditional shared backyards. In most of the concepts I also looked at more of a private outdoor space, both as more of a contemplative area, and as an area for small gatherings/date nights.  I wanted to include a small garden for both vegetable and herbs for cooking, and at least one turf area for any future kids/dogs.  I also wanted to make sure I included an area for infiltration and slowing of any flooding behind the garage. Once I had these basic building blocks, I started the conceptual phase with a method one of my professors was a huge fan of: 10 conceptual designs in 10 minutes.  Admittedly, I took more like 20 minutes, but I still got good results.

This method forces you to rethink ideas you already had in your mind.  To come up with 10 distinct ideas in a short amount of time you are forced to think about things in new, and a more instinctual way.  Also, after five or six conservative concepts, its gets easier to go nuts and do something a little more off the wall.  I took these concepts, and decided I wanted to explore the idea of a raised deck as the private space in the rear (from Concept 4), and the idea of a deck with planters built in for shading and easy herb access (Concept 5).  I also wanted to look into making the “party parking” into grass-pavers, which would increase my usable turf space greatly in the narrow yard.

On a technology side-note: I was somewhat surprised with how well the Wacom worked for this process.  In some ways I had no real hope for it replication the  experience of pen on paper, but it actually did a good job.  There are some drawbacks- fine pen control is tougher and requires another level of hand-eye coordination that even my gaming-trained mind does not quite have, and unless you buy an expensive model, you are drawing on a smallish 5″x8″ area instead of a sheet of trace the size of your table.  However, there are some benefits as well.  You can easily make a pallet of pen colors based on what the program is, and have more options than Sharpies would give you, with quicker color switches.  You can also either draw everything on one layer, or each part on a different layer, so if you like one part of a concept, you can just edit other layers, leaving you favorite untouched.  You also have the power of a perfect eraser and undo, so anytime you draw a bad line, with a single click it is completely gone.

 

Back to the design, I then pulled the two pieces I liked into a single file, giving me an idea of roughly what the two part would look like.  I then started by rough blocking the rear deck and the infiltration area in the rear, before moving to the house, and tweaking the deck slightly, moving the stairs, realigning the driveway/parking, and trying out routes for a path to the basement door.

 

I went with this deck shape because not only would it would allow for some elevated views to the creek to the south, but it would also pull your eyes in that direction. The plantings would be a mix of herbs and grasses, providing the deck with slight screening, and easy access to the herbs from the kitchen.  In my next edit I tried running the path through the grass paved area, providing the path for when cars are not parked there, and also act as stepping stones out of the parked cars.

I then tried re-aligning the sidewalk under the deck to avoid the intersection being directly at the base of the steps.  This was made very easy because my sidewalk was on its own layer, so I was able to completely change the sidewalk layout without having to touch the things I liked, like the driveway/grass pave arrangement.

 

 

I then realized that with the path going through the grass area, when people were over there was no choice but to walk through the grass.  I moved the path to become a border for the parking, and added a flagstone-ish path to the rear to get it down on “paper”.

I then decided to take a step back, and take another look at the deck shape.  I did a quick viewshed/privacy analysis from deck level, noted in hot-pink.  The tough call area to the right is because there are new neighbors, and which the yard is a beautiful wildflower garden at the moment, that may quick, and dramatically change this summer.

I then went back and re-looked at the deck, moving the stairs back to the driveway side, and had a path running to the side of the house from under the deck.

This is where I stand as of now:  I am still tweaking the deck, but also looking at the turf area, so I can make them play off each-other.  This is a good look at the kind of work you can do with the wacom too.  I’ve only used it a few hours, mostly for this project, and I’m amazed at how quickly you can try and retry things, which is so important when working with things like geo-morphic shapes.  This is after many iterations of the turf area, but because I am using the wacom instead of trace, its still readable.

This week I plan to be at 80% site planned.  I should have a few rough sections, and be to the point of detailed design.  Let me know what you think, both of the blog series, and the design!





Design Studio: Project 1, Episode 1

4 04 2011

Recently, as I have continued my search for full-time employment, I’ve forced myself to take another look at myself in terms of what I can do to improve my chances in the hyper-competitive job market of today.  Without boring you with the full list, I’ll just say that I figured out a way to kill two birds with one stone.

Starting today, I am going to run my own design studios.  I’m going to run it similar to how some of my MLA studios were.  I have 6 weeks to go from site visit to presentation.  The presentation style will vary with the project, from Competition Boards to small presentations for home owners.  I will always assume an unlimited budget.  If there is interest, I may ask readers to act as clients, giving the basic programmatic desires, etc.  I’ll be making weekly progress blogs as the project continues, culminating with the posting of my presentation graphics.  And lastly, if anyone desires, I encourage other to take part, and post your own progress blogs.

Project 1: Connecticut Residence

My first project is a private residence near the coast of Connecticut.  I will be presenting the design here on May 13th.  As it is a private residence it will consist of a few small boards, and maybe a simple powerpoint.

The owners are newlyweds who just purchased the house.  They are fond of arts-and-crafts style design as well as elements of prairie and modern design.  They don’t have any kids, but would like to have a couple in the future.  They enjoy spending time outside, and would not mind a garden that would benefit from some basic attention.  They are both ecologically minded people, and would like a plan designed with sustainability in mind.

The clients are happy with the front yard, which has a blue-stone walk leading to the porch.  They also like the color from the large Japanese maple, and the Vinca that is the ground cover for much of the yard.

There is a grade change of about twelve feet from the front to the back yard, with the driveway on the north side of the house, and a Vinca planted slope on the south.  The backyard has a small deck that the clients would like to redesign for small parties and a barbecue.  There is a two car garage, along with paved room for two additional cars to be parked with no one being boxed in, which they would like to keep for entertaining, but they are not in need of most times.

Just over 100′ from the back of the garage is a small river.  Along with the challenges this poses in terms of protected buffer zones, it also is an issue because it floods badly some years, sometimes jumping its banks at bend in the river from when it was a mill run, down a street, and behind the garage, at times dumping gravel for driveways along the way.

Neighbors downstream have yards that are mostly turf up to the river bank. Upstream there is a house that is in mediocre condition near the river bank, well within the 100′ buffer line.  This yard has a wooded area along the river.

I’ll post the site analysis with rough topography soon, along with the first conceptual designs next week.





Graphics VS. Design, and what I learned from video games

24 01 2011

A few weeks ago I posted a blog asking for critiques on some 3D models components I had made.  I posted it on IGN, WordPress, and Land8Lounge.  The response was fairly low, and I tried posting it as a discussion thread on Land8Lounge as well.  This got some helpful comments, but it also possibly inspired a thread that brought up the issue of rendering VS. design in Landscape Architecture.  This question came up a few weeks ago at a networking event for NYC landscape architects, and I talked to a few different people about it.  It made me wonder: Why is it that designers often have a negative reaction to “high end” renderings?

If I said I had never seen a rendering and assumed that the graphic quality was hiding something I would be lying.  I think this often comes from past experience, either in firms as CAD monkeys, or in school.  We, I think, have all had a presentation where we worked our ass off to the last minute perfecting a design, leaving little time to get perfect graphics, so we go out with what we can, trusting our peers and other trained professionals to see through the pencils lines to the heart of the design beneath, only to be disappointed.  We have also all had the time when we have seen the person slap together a half-assed design, but with pretty pictures, and when we are counting on our bosses and teachers to see it, they instead get “blinded” by the crisp lines, hypnotized by the texture work, and in a trance from the shadow quality.  I think it’s this shared experience that leads so many of us to distrust pretty drawings: we all know just how easy it is to lie with graphics.  Whether it is drawing a plan that doesn’t show steps because they client didn’t want them – even though it’s not physically possible, screwing with perspective sizes, or hiding views that you don’t want noticed.  We know the tricks all too well; in part because we use them to some extent ourselves.

We choose a rendering style based on what we want to show and not show: Computer graphics traditionally show a Utopian version of everything – where it all looks fresh from vacuum -packaging, but it makes the space look more contemporary to clients; Hand graphics hide views by simply not drawing the far background, but show more flow and life in the space.  We choose views that may not show the space in the best ways, but show a feature we want to emphasize over others.  It’s a limit of non-physical models – you have a finite window onto the world, you are going to be careful about what you choose to show to show off what you want to be seen.  The problem is, we need a way to easily communicate to clients, and in forms other than physical models, and clients who have not been trained as designers get the best feel for a space through perspective drawings.

-Utopia?

So the issue becomes not graphics VS design, because it never really was outside of designers’ heads.  The issue is how can we make graphics that communicate effectively, and manage to not fire off alarm bells in designer’s and client’s brains.

Personally, I choose to concentrate on computer graphics over hand graphics not due to a lack of skill (believe me, if I put the time into drawing that I have put into rendering I’d be pretty good with a pencil), but because in my mind, it is the most honest form of representation.  If I model everything the way it is – which I can with no extra effort – I know exactly what I will see from a given view.  I can put a camera inside your eyes when you are sitting on a bench, and if you would actually see a sliver of that utility box, it’s going to be in the rendering.  The problem is, it would still set off alarm bells, all because of an effect that is becoming well-known in the media worlds of movies and video games.

The “Uncanny Valley” is an issue that became most well-known a few years ago when the movie “The Polar Express” came out.

The Uncanny Valley

It’s the theory that as things become more realistic, they become more familiar, but only to a certain point.  Once things become TOO realistic, small things that are wrong make us cringe and react negatively.  In “The Polar Express” the thing that set people off was the eyes.  For all the realism the characters had, from mannerisms created by directly copying from actors in Motion Capture suits, to careful texture work, the fact that the eyes didn’t glisten correctly gave them a dead look, and made some people instantly see, instead of a heartwarming children’s story, a movie about a train filled with zombies… (note to self – Make a movie about a train full of zombies.  “Brains on the Orient Express”?)

IGN.com

In the ensuing years movies, and video games, have dealt with this issue in one of two ways.  Some have gone the route of making themselves, while beautiful, purposefully unrealistic.  This brings thoughts of movies such as “Up”, and games such as “Little Big Planet 2”.  Neither of these tries to be realistic – the characters look like cartoons, but with realistic flesh-tones (or woven sack-tones in the case of Little Big Planet), elements.

Little Big Planet

The other method is to continue to push the boundaries of realism.  Movies like Avatar skirt this method by having realistic aliens that we have no internal reference for as digital characters.  Where true realism is pushed the hardest today is in gaming.  Games like Uncharted 2, Heavy Rain, and Read Dead Redemption push realism in gaming past where it has been before.  As some of the best looking games widely available, they all have one thing in common.

Grime.

Uncharted 3

None of these games are set in pristine areas.  They all are set in places that have been lived in, that have wear and tear, grease and grime, chips and gashes.  I think this is one of the essential things to making a convincing 3D rendering, and one that doesn’t make you think you are being tricked by graphics.  The splinters out of the wood crate, the dirt on the boots, the powder burns on the pistol, all give it a realistic feel.

Red Dead Redemption

If that detail is paired with a render engine that has more than 1/30th of a second to output, it would give amazing results.

And those are the kind of results that I think we, as designers/graphic artists have to work for.  Gone are the days of the pristine landscape with rows of identical, perfectly pruned trees.  If we want buy-in from clients, and from other designers, we need to show all the blemishes on the face of our designs.  Whether it’s the ugly light industrial building that is visible through the trees, or the mottled color in the bricks, these are some of the things that A) will affect the spirit of place and B) that will create a sense of life in our renderings.

Are hand graphics still valid? Of COURSE they are.  Neither hand graphics nor computer graphics is inherently “better”.  They are just different.  The grime and dirt of the world in computer graphics is no different then adding a little of every color to a tree in a Mike Lin style render.

BeLoose.com

It adds a little depth, and a spark of randomness that is what makes the world what it is.

Uncanny Vally image from http://ntlkdesign.co.uk/blog/

Little Big Planet 2 image from littlebigplanet.com

Mik Lin image from Beloose.com

All other images from IGN.com





An Advanced Course in PC Hardware: Choosing Components

8 01 2011

The first step in picking what components you want in your computer, whether you are building a custom setup, or buying one off the shelf, is looking at what software you expect to use.  I was looking for a rig that would work for Photoshop, AutoCAD, SketchUp, Thea Render (3D-Rendering Engine), and of course, games from time to time.  The next thing is to figure out what each one of these software packages rely on most heavily- Processor, RAM, or Graphics Card:

Photoshop: Here are the system requirements:

  • Intel® Pentium® 4 or AMD Athlon® 64 processor
  • 1GB of RAM
  • 1024×768 display (1280×800 recommended) with qualified hardware-accelerated OpenGL graphics card, 16-bit color, and 256MB of VRAM

The newer Photoshop versions make use of graphics cards more and more, but in bigger file sizes they also rely heavily on Processor and RAM.  The amount of layers, filters, and file sizes you normally work with will determine how much of either of these you need.  As I am looking to do plan graphics, printable high quality at 36″ x 48″, with many (40+) layers, I, in short, need a LOT of both RAM and Processor.

AutoCAD: The stated system requirements for 64-bit AutoCAD11 (2D) are:

  • AMD Athlon 64 with SSE2 technology, AMD Opteron® processor with SSE2 technology, Intel® Xeon® processor with Intel EM64T support and SSE2 technology, or Intel Pentium 4 with Intel EM64T support and SSE2 technology
  • 2 GB RAM
  • 2 GB free space for installation
  • 1,280 x 1,024 true color video display adapter 128 MB or greater, Microsoft® Direct3D®-capable workstation-class graphics card

First, you can run a PC at either 32-bit or 64-bit, 32-bit can only see up to 4 Gb of RAM.  Generally if you are building a new system you will go with 64-bit to increase the amount of RAM you can use now, or could upgrade to in the future.  None of these are amazing stats, but the RAM is slightly more powerful than the rest of the system- if all the components were equally important I would expect to see a Pentium 4 paired with 1 Gig of RAM and a 256 MB Graphics Card, or a P4 3.0 GHz (processor speed)/Dual Core Pentium 2.0GHz, 2 Gig RAM, 256 Meg Graphics Card.  This basically tells me that for 2D CAD the RAM is a bit more important than the Processor (which comes more into play with CAD’s modeling tools), and that while you need a Graphics Card, it does not need to be a great one by any means.

SketchUp: Recommended resources:

  • 2+ GHz processor.
  • 2+ GB RAM.
  • 3D class Video Card with 512+ MB of memory or higher. Please ensure that the video card driver supports OpenGL version 1.5 or higher and up to date.
    *SketchUp’s performance relies heavily the graphics card driver and it’s ability to support OpenGL 1.5 or higher. Historically, people have seen problems with Intel based cards with SketchUp. We don’t recommend using these graphics cards with SketchUp at this time.

While Processor and Graphics card are needed, RAM is the biggest limiting factor, in my experience, when you have large scale and or detailed models.

Thea Render: I could not find any system requirements, likely because the program is still in beta (testing phase), and while it currently only uses Processor and RAM, they are adding Graphics Card based rendering in a future update.

Games: For this I took the example of one of the newer PC games that has come out, and one that I wanted to be able to run at full bore- Civilization 5.

Minimum system requirements are:

  • Intel Core 2 Duo 1.8 GHz
  • 2 GB RAM
  • 256 MB nVidia or AMD Graphics Card

When running it with these specs on a laptop I could play it, but far from maximum settings.  The recommended settings are:

  • Quad Core 1.8 GHZ
  • 4 Gig RAM
  • 512 Graphics Card

Gaming is generally more Graphics Card intensive than productivity software, in part because the architecture of the graphics card is better at drawing faster – for better frame rates, while processors can do more math faster.  So in an enclosed system like a game where it is working with a small set of parameters, Graphics Cards shine.  But when you have many layers of images all affecting each other, the processor takes the lead back.

What am I left with after all this?  To get the best out of all my software, I need a good Processor, RAM, and Graphics Card- I can’t save on one to improve the others.  I also know I use a lot of this software more intensively than most, and I want to be future proof for a bit, so I need to exceed these system specs.  One place where I can save a little money now is in the RAM and Graphics Card.  That is because these are fairly easily upgradeable- with the right mother board you can add RAM to your existing RAM without replacing it.  Also, with the right Motherboard and Graphics Card, you can run in SLI or Crossfire – a method of tethering two Graphics Cards together in your system, and having them act like one, much more powerful card.  The nice thing both both of these is that you can spend, say $300 now on a Graphics Card, and in a year spend $200 on another card, and get nearly the same performance that you would have gotten by spending $700 now.

That being said these are the basic specifications for my new computer:

Processor- Intel Core i7 (Quad or 6 core) with a speed of at least 2.5 GHz and I want the ability to overclock in the future to upgrade slightly.

RAM – 6 Gig (Most motherboards can now handle in the range of 24-36! Talk about future proof!)

Graphics Card – 1 Gig at least, unsure of if I am going to go nVidia or AMD, it depends on the exact card (more later)

Hard Drive – 1TB I use some HUGE files (200 Megs for a single photoshop file), and I don’t want to worry about space for a while.  I may do a solid state boot drive down the road.

Optical Drive – DVD RW for sure, I probably don’t need a BluRay drive, as I could add one once burners get cheaper

Motherboard – Needs to fit my processor, and at least 2x my graphics card

Case – needs to fit everything, have great cooling, and have lots of room for additional Hard Drives, burners, and maybe even water cooling (if I overclock in the future).

Next time I’ll start looking at each individual item, and how I picked which to go with.

Ignoring the odd artifacting, this is what Civ 5 Looks like with the laptop:

And this is what it looks like with the new build:





An Advanced Course in PC Hardware: What goes into a Computer

3 01 2011

One of my first posts on this blog introduced the different computer components and what roles they play for a Landscape Architect/Designer in general.  Its time to re-hash the topic in a little more detail, and look at not just what components do what different software, but how you pick components, and how you can build your own system from scratch.

There are a few advantages to building your own machine.  For one thing, you know you get exactly what you want.  You can find the exact balance of power, size, and price that you want- you don’t have to work within the parameters of what Dell wants to offer you.  Also, you save a sizable amount of money.  I would say I paid roughly 60% market price for my PC, and I got higher end components then would have been in a pre-assembled system.

The downside is you have to do some leg work to ensure that your machine will work correctly, but if you take the time to do your research, you can get a great machine.  There are many resources around for building your own PC both in terms of research and purchasing.  I did most of my research at tomshardware.  They review individual components, and also have a series of PC builds they do each quarter that they write up that are a GREAT reference for finding the tech you want, for the price you want, in arrangements that will actually boot up.  In terms of purchasing my parts, I mostly relied on New Egg. They have some amazing deals on some great hardware, offer good support options, and ship fast and cheap for when your anxious to get your build going.  I also picked up a few items at Best Buy, as sometimes they will have sales or clearance items that will be tough for even New Egg to beat, and as I work there it was not exactly out of my way.

These are the basic pieces you need to make a fully functional PC:

1. Processor/Heat Sink

2. Graphics Card

3. RAM

4. Hard Drive

5. Motherboard

6. Optical Drive

7. Case

8. Misc. (Card Readers, Sound Cards, second Hard Drives)

9. Power Supply

Each of these items depends somewhat on each other for compatibility reasons, but what you want to do now, and in the future, productivity-wise is going to be the determining factor.  I ranked them in the general order of importance in terms of what you are trying to get out of your system.  For instance- the power supply doesn’t matter to you except that it is of good quality and gives enough power to your system for it to work without fail.  You can’t pick it until you pick everything else, but it doesn’t REALLY effect any of your other choices.

What I’m going to do is first describe what I wanted out of my system. I will then run through each of these components, describing what they do, what effect they have on the programs I wanted to run, and what exact product I ended up getting and why.

Once that is done, I’ll be writing another blog describing the step by step of how I took those components and made the system I am blogging on (while running a 3D model render in the background) right now.

For the time being, I’ll leave you with a photo of the international headquarters of Frank Varro Rendering.