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Shades of Grey: SCORCHED EARTH - TAKE 1

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    Shades of Grey: SCORCHED EARTH - TAKE 1

    The first thing I did when I got to St Louis for #BILTNA was to take a stroll down town to see the Wainwright Building. In the flesh, the balance between plain surfaces and luxuriant terracotta reliefs is quite impressive.

    I will have more to say about this building in a future post. For now the focus is on terracotta as a building material, and how best to represent these kinds of elements in Revit. It's an LOD issue and I don't think we have any definitive answers at this point. But Paul Aubin posted an interesting contribution to the debate at the end of the conference.

    His session had been about Reality Capture, and he used photogrammetry in this case and displayed the results in the Recap cloud. I responded to his tweet with a suggestion to process the mesh to hide edges and use the results in a line-based family... Which he did in the blink of an eye, and shared the family so I could also have a play.

    This technique evokes the texture of the original terracotta material very successfully in realistic views. It's OK in shaded views, or even hidden line with shadows. But without shadows the decorative motif doesn't pick up at all

    I decided to make a native Revit version for comparison. The result is very crisp and impressive in hidden line elevations, but doesn't really evoke the particular texture of well crafted terracotta.

    In my mind, this is an ongoing debate, closely connected to my attempts to model classical elements in a BIM friendly way. It's also a debate that is central to thinking about the role of Art in the modern world. Abstraction and representation: are the opposite poles? or aspects of the same process of exploring reality?

    The terracotta element that Paul captured was part of the amazing displays at the City Museum which was opened up to the BiLT delegates on.... Night. More of a cross between an art exhibit and an adventure playground than a traditional museum, but full of fascinating salvaged bits and pieces. George Elmslie was responsible for much of the terracotta that enlivened Sullivan's buildings. Examples of his work were piled up in great heaps and interspersed with his delicate pencil design sketches.

    I can't help feeling that we have lost something magical. Imagine skilled artisans using those pencil sketches to guide their muscular fingers and thumbs as they shaped wet clay into flowing foliage. With Sullivan in the judging the balance between bold massing and expressive detail.
    Last night I started to sketch over another image from the museum. It's an interesting challenge to translate these convoluted forms into flat extrusions, and it may well be the key to creating placeholder objects within a BIM model.

    Surely the wild, twisting forms were a rebellion against the ordered formalism of classicism. There is a refusal to submit to mechanical order, a revelling in the fluid ambiguities of wet clay, a return to the primitive entanglements of celtic art. History tells us that mechanical purity won out. Art Nouveau and Expressionism ran out of steam in a way that abstraction and minimalism never have. But still there is an emptiness in the mechanical solution that so often leads us back to the trap of nostalgia.

    Maybe there was something to be said to the measured tones of a classical language after all. I can't help feeling that the charm of the Wainwright Building lies in the fact that, although it flirts with wild, decorative excess while embracing new, disruptive technologies that presaged the skyscraper age; it actually lies within the classical tradition. Essentially it is a highly abstracted Corinthian column, complete with plinth, fluted shaft, and luxuriant capital.

    The closing keynote at BiLT featured Sabin Howard talking about maintaining the human touch while using cutting edge technology to support the production of monumental sculpture. It's a challenge that resonates with me and echoes through the pages of this blog at regular intervals.

    A lutta continua. The struggle continues.

    Click here to view the entire blog post.

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