Transcript from video recording of the presentation session. First published in Art, Architecture and Digital Design Media, ed E Ng, Singapore.

Sept 1996

***** Text only *****

Beyond Photorealism


Edward Ng


(Showing 1st slide- 010101 binary)

Now, one thing that contrast to what I have been doing officially which is to strike for photorealism. I have always been aware of the need for abstraction, namely design abstraction. I believe designers’ minds do not work in realistic kind of pictures, they really work in a kind of abstraction that somehow makes sense to a particular designer himself. For example, this one is an abstraction that makes sense only to the computer and does not make sense to anybody else.

(Showing 2nd slide- Thinking & Feeling)

As a teacher, and in particular as a keen designer, I have always believe that nowadays a lot of time as we are teaching and researching, we try to rationalise a lot of things. We try to cultivate intellectual specialisation and try to objectify everything to the extend that Giedion has already warned us many years ago that the cultivation of feeling has been left untrained. So much so that it is much easier to obtain knowledge than to have feeling. I think that is very much true for a designer or artist who must find ways to overcome this specialisation.

(Showing 3rd slide- Wonder of the Information Revolution)

The problem with obtaining knowledge is that it will tell you that it can perform wonders. Every hardware or software vendor will tell you that their software/hardware can perform wonders. Indeed during their demonstrations they will show you something wonderful. But when you obtain the box at great cost, you will find that they do not tell you what to do. I think that is the problem we are facing here. We are too obsessed with the fun end and forget that what we are trying to do is not guided by the media.

(Showing 4th slide- Active Studio v1.0)

(Showing 5th slide- The Electronics Atelier)

This is actually to propose a counter-thesis of the then newly invented digital video. A lot of junk has been out and not a lot of careful thought has been put in to collate the sound, music, movement and especially in this case, we are keen on creating the rhythm of moving through a building. We do not believe at that time flying through a building is the best way to experience it. In this case, we were very careful to time ourselves to create the rhythm. Even making use of the limitation of the hardware at that time. 12 frames per second to time the steps of the person moving through the building. Using slow merge techniques, we try to convey the feeling of the building rather than trying to fly through it and co-ordinating it with music, lyric, poetry and conceptualise it with the media.

So that was the first attempt at digital video. Bear in mind that at that time we were using a 286 computer.

(Showing 6th slide- Active Studio v1.1)

We then acquired this software called FormZ and we were very keen to explore the possibilities that it can offer in terms of solid modelling. So this is our first attempt in trying out the software and as usual every time we try out something. We enter a competition. We believe that the value of design does not come from the media but comes from the purpose and the purpose is very real. In this case we entered a RIBA organised competition to design a business centre in Wales. This is the context and some of the site plans.

(Showing 7th slide- Active Studio v1.1 "A castle in the Park")

This is the first attempt I did which is completely digital. Starting from the very first sketch done on Photoshop using a mouse and later on we acquired a sketchpad. To the little sketch that formed the volumetric composition of the building.

(Showing 8th slide- Active Studio v1.1 "The Central Space")

(Showing 9th slide- Active Studio v1.1 "The interior Space")

(Showing 10th slide- Active Studio v1.1 "The Design")

The ability of the solid modelling to subtract and add volumes and mass to each other has been the one we had been exploring in this design competition. The walls are formed partly by the context of where the building is going to be situated, which is in Wales, the land of castles. Partly by the ability of the software to manipulate solid objects and create layers one to the other. So this layering of spaces are actually been formed very rapidly with the solid modelling software cutting and pulling apart solids and casting holes and forming geometry. These are very easy to do on that software. We maximise it and try to create space by taking advantage of the software.

(Showing 11th slide- The Virtual Sketcher)

After that we believe that the tool has sometimes something to inform us. This is the program that I wrote. Apart from speaking English and Chinese, I also speak a bit of Basic and C. We believe there is a need for sketch. But as opposed to the traditional way of sketching we believe that there is a new digital way of sketching. This is what we call the time-based drawing board. Its concept is very simple. On a very plain drawing board is a very simple toolbar, which we borrowed from the Macintosh toolbox. What you do is to keep on sketching and the drawing keep on fading. If you are too lazy and stop for 5 minutes the whole drawing is gone. You can adjust the speed. You have to keep on churning out sketches and modifying your buildings very quickly. Using your previous sketch as a template to overlay your new ideas onto it extremely quickly. So a building from nothing to a certain or final form can result in less than 5 minutes. We believe that design activity is a very intense one and you cannot concentrate on design for more than ten minutes. All the best design come from within a very short burst of time. You must develop a tool to capture that. This is the one that we wrote to try to accelerate the process of us overlaying the drawing onto the old one and keep on going. The roof of the drawing is that it starts off with a line and slowly becomes a solid. The ground also starts off with a straight line and slowly modelled. Unfortunately, this is only a 2D tool and we find it difficult to plot it onto 3D but we will try it later.

As part of the design process, we develop tools ourselves to accelerate our design thinking knowing the way that we want to design. This tool is very useful for me, may not be for you because I work backwards. So I developed the tool myself and I use it to sketch. So this is my intelligent or dynamic drawing board.

(Showing 12th slide - Active Studio v1.5)

Then we move onto information technology and information systems. We teamed up with a group of people who were trying to put the electronic "Harblib" project. It is a project where they were trying to catalogue some of the 17th century libraries of knowledge which have been passed through this publisher called "Harblib" based in London. A lot of manuscripts go through him before it is published and he has a huge catalogue of this. The team was trying to find a way to capture it electronically and they needed a building. We were at that time working with them on software development and also to design a building to that effect.

(Showing 13th slide- "The Harblib Museum")

This is the building we come up with. This is the first time that actually we try to use Radiosity and study more advanced lighting and visualisation techniques to model and to simulate buildings. As you can see, at that time it was not very good and still a little bit "dodgey" around the edge. But the potential is there and since a few years ago this technique is so common that every software has it now.

(Showing 14th slide- The Electronic Harblib Project)

We had some fun working with the team. These are some of the manuscripts that we captured and to superimpose on our building.

(Showing 15th slide- Electronic Harblib Project)

These are 2 images rendered using Radiosity and techniques to capture the atmosphere of the space, then later touched up using Photoshop.

(Showing 16th slide- Active Studio v1.51 "Zephyr International Design Competition")

So that was the first attempt that we try to harness the use of Radiosity and the use of diffused surface to compose a design. This is an energy design competition a number of years back where we were submitting for in Greece. We designed for a residential building and commercial building laid together with a public space. This part of it is simulated using some energy and daylighting software. With that kind of simulation technology, the study of sun path, the daylight and actual air movement, we were able to study that under the piazza is actually quite cool. The bulk of the mass outside is actually shading it from the heat.

(Showing 17th slide- Active Studio v1.51 "Zephyr International Design Competition")

So this was one of the first designs we did using simulation technology to guide the proportion of the devices, which are going to be used to condition the environment inside the public space.

(Showing 18th slide- Active Studio v1.51 "Zephyr International Design Competition")

Apart from that, we also have some fun trying to do little images. Blue means cool, so we try to convince the client that our building is cool inside and a bit hotter outside.

(Showing 19th slide- Active Studio v1.52 "National Glass Centre design Competition")

This is another one. We were trying to explore the possibility of transparency mapping using the computer. At that time we have found that a lot of the algorithm that the software people use are not quite correct. If you try to put different pieces of glass together, they give funny results because the software has not been written properly. We tried a number of software to subject this under the test of this design, which is a Glass Centre in Swindler. We overlaid the glass and tried to ray trace them and a lot of them cannot cope with that kind of overlaying and transparency effects. They give you false results.

(Showing 20th slide- Active Studio v1.60)

This one we worked with the architects and tried to do a bit of simple rendering. This picture is very interesting because on this picture, the architect somehow has this feeling that the building has to be very clean, metallic and simple in texture and in touch. It is no longer should I say brick or plaster. After this picture was rendered, the designer can see the building, almost taking inspiration from this picture and result from the rendering.

(Showing 21st slide- The Phoenix rises from the ashes)

This is the rendering and this is the real building. This is the original building before it is rebuilt and this is the final building. The kind of colour coding and the kind of material choice reflect the kind of visual image the designer got from the computer. So actually it works both ways, it is the designer has something in mind and then render it. It is that he is inspired by the very simplistic line and sharp edge of the building prior to designing his building.

(Showing 22nd slide- The Phoenix rises from the ashes)

So this is the very sharp and clean and computer colour kind of interior. Computer aided design they call it.

(Showing 23rd slide- The Phoenix rises from the ashes)

This building is again subjected to some energy and environmental simulation to test that the daylighting actually works and the heating load is not too high because of the tensile ceiling inside the building envelope. The zoning as well.

(Showing 24th slide- Cybermatrix: A Hypermedia Poem)

Contrary to popular belief, I do know a bit about urban design. This is a poetry that I wrote based on a computer program, which I also wrote to express my feeling of walking around Boston. This was first presented at Harvard PSD to a group of students. It is a foreigner’s way of negotiating urban spaces and his impression of how these spaces mean to him through the use of 2D graphical means to express that. Actually the live demonstration is still available. If I walk from here to there, I have another map appearing and this one disappears. It is my impression of the city that when once I go from one zone of the city to another, I forget about the previous one. But however when I go back. Another one appears. It means the city to me is dynamic and not constant. The poetry reinforces the kind of feeling.

(Showing 25th slide- A rapid Design Protocol)

So this is a way to use computer to write poetry. Now this one we did it with a professor at MIT. This is a very interesting attempt. We were speculating how fast a computer can help us to design. So we the design brief which is the Yokohama Harbour Terminal International Design Competition. And we sit on it for months without doing anything. We just toy on the idea during lunch and dinnertime. 3 days before the deadline, we started working. We were trying to test the ability of the computer to aid design in a certain direction because the only 3 days. You cannot afford to do it slowly and change things the way you want it. You have to go along with what the computer allows you to do. In this case, we chose a software that allowed us to do a lot of curves.

(Showing 26th slide- Yokohama Harbour Terminal)

This is the first conceptual drawing that we did. Again there is no sketch. The first drawing is this one. The "Floating Fish Tank" they call it.

(Showing 27th slide- Yokohama Harbour Terminal elevation)

This is the final offering with the 2 parts coming together and intercepting each other. The pedestrian part and the vehicular part and they cross over. In the computer, it is very easy to do the crossover. Better still to do the transparent cross over between one volume to the other.

(Showing 28th slide- Yokohama Harbour Terminal elevation from sea)

This is the elevation from the sea. This is one volume here cross over by the other volume. Based on the experience from the Glass Centre, we try to use transparency to explore the cross over or interception.

(Showing 29th slide- Yokohama Harbour Terminal interior view towards sea)

This is from the inside. I always believe this kind of thing tells you more than this and that.

(Showing 30th slide- The Missing Thing)

This is the one I did soon after I arrived here and soon after I got the huge grant from the university to do advanced lighting visualisation. We were entering this competition for the missing things. The brief was very simple. To encourage the use of public transport and what was missing. That was the brief. It is a competition organised by a bus company and the city council. So we thought of these gadgets and we coined on the idea of these free flow objects. All these were done using the "nerds" modeler, the one that is non-uniform. None of them is uniform with no straight line. Even the ladies are curvy.

(Showing 31st slide- Banana Museum and Opera House)

This is another competition, which we were attempting to simulate the layering of the old cities, which used one kind of texture to represent. The overlapping of another structure which is more modern looking with another texture but they are slightly transparent so that the reference between the old and the new are juxtaposition into each other. It is trying to fit a building into an existing urban landscape without using the traditional means of photomontage. This is our abstracted photomontage, which is all done on computers and is very colourful.

(Showing 32nd slide- Banana Museum and Opera House)

(Showing 33rd slide- Glass Doors)

After that, with all the experience in working with transparency on computer, I entered this locally organised competition to design glass doors for the St. Andrew’s Cathedral. There are 3 glass doors. At this point of time, I am very proficient with glass and transparency already.

(Showing 34th slide- Glass Doors)

This is a sketch of the details and the way that I conceptualised it as being the fusion of traditional technology, which are still this blow-glass technique and the spaceman. This metaphor that I extract to put the glass door.

(Showing 35th slide- Glass Doors)

This is a transparency mapping on the glass door with the texture bump onto it and cast against the sky to simulate the kind of effect the glass will appear.

(Showing 36th slide- Lighting Simulation)

This is a daylight simulation exercise for a certain building I cannot disclose. What I am interested in is not so much the quantitative data that they can give me but the colourful abstraction of what the design represents that interests me. To me, this is an interesting pretty picture, contains some data but that is useful for some other things. This level of abstraction into another way of thinking, I think it will be interesting in this digital design media age because it is so easy to do. If we do not look at it very carefully, we may miss the opportunity to see the beauty behind the quantitative data.

(Showing 37th slide- Vertical Urban Park)

This is the latest one but the result has yet been made known. I can reveal to you the design. These are the parks the concept comes from taking a walk down the reservoir some time back. I am not going to talk too much about it.

(Showing 38th slide- Vertical Urban Park)

This is the result using different kinds of software to model the different things. The trick is the composition to form a pretty picture to be fair, which means, something. We have certain purpose to it, which somehow seems to work. The concept is laid out, the justification and the sequence of explanation is laid out.

To be fair, we worked on this competition for 2 weeks using a traditional media with 3 students, working all over the week but nothing come out. We tried to make models and do drawings. This one was from scratch using the computer and finished in one afternoon. It told us a lot about some of the possibilities of mixing things and creates a very rich presentation with very little time indeed. That was another attempt to fast track the design process.

(Showing 39th slide- A Personal Manifestation)

This is the last one. In the background is one of the Chinese ancestral houses, which is the Hakka house. Design, I believe, is about the ability to see beyond reality. It is important in design to see beyond it and to see beyond what is commonly perceived. See beyond what the picture tells you.

Conceptualisation is about the construction in the mind-eye, a representation of design.

Creativity is about the realisation of what can be conceptualised.

I think that summaries some of my design thoughts and the push for digital design media in design.