Photo of the Month: September 2009

September 8, 2009 / no comments

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Back to School with Architectural Photography

How does one successfully photograph a piece of architecture? Do you need the widest lens available to capture as much as possible? Or the latest and most expensive digital equipment to produce the sharpest images? Sure, it helps to have the right equipment, but that is just the start.

Any successful architectural photograph should articulate and balance three key elements: form, color, and movement.

The forms being photographed define the composition of the image. The edge of a building, a row of windows, a pattern in the floor tiles… in 2D these elements are transformed into visual cues that draw our eyes around the image.

How the forms in an image are communicated to the viewer is enhanced by varying intensities of color, which in turn arise through variation in light quality and intensity. Brighter portions of an image bring out and enhance the shadows and silhouettes that occur elsewhere in the scene. Areas of contrasting light and darkness create interest and keep an image from looking gloomy or monotonous.

Dusk is the “magic hour” for taking pictures. As the sun sets below the horizon, the sky turns a rich shade of blue, clouds are transformed in orange and pink, and the colors of objects suddenly come alive. Under full sunlight, colors are washed out, but at dusk they become fully saturated and fascinating. Light from various directions begins to come into play as the daylight dims down and the electric lights come on. Well-placed lighting can reveal interesting details of architecture that go unnoticed in the daytime, and create hierarchy and structure in an image.

Movement can be anything that gives the impression of direction or fluidity. This could be, for instance, a curving wall that leads your eye across the image, or it can be something actually moving, like the trees in this image, which are blurred by the wind and the shutter delay of the camera. This tension between static and dymanic elements is often what makes an image breathe.

In this photograph, taken out on the second-floor terrace of the new Northeastern University dormitory, we pulled all these elements together to try and convey our work on the lighting design. The glow below the bench and the grain of the floorboards draw the eye diagonally into the scene to the multi-story lobby space beyond. The bright downlights and white ceilings form a smooth vertical element that eventually breaks the border of the image. A pattern of regular square windows beyond are accented by spill light catching the edges, giving depth to the saturated deep-orange façade. The deep blue sky in the corner provides a splash of complementary color. Windswept trees, lit from below in the planter beds sway gently, and the faceless person sitting on the bench gives the terrace a purpose.

Photo Credit: Nathanael C. Doak / Lam Partners

Photo of the Month: August 2009

August 3, 2009 / no comments

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One of my favorite local beaches is Coffin’s Beach on Boston’s North Shore. It’s a spectacular flat arc of sand about 1-1/3 miles long and, at mid-tide, about 120 yards wide. Here’s a thought experiment to illustrate the incredible adaptability of human vision. On a nice, sunny July day around noon, the daylight on the beach measures 10,000 footcandles. It’s a little uncomfortable without sunglasses, but I can read a newspaper with some squinting.

My beach towel is 30 inches wide and 5 feet long. Let’s imagine that I spread it out on the beach and collect the daylight falling on the towel at that moment. I come back at midnight, and spread that same “towelful” of daylight illumination evenly over the entire area of the beach, about 2.5 million square feet, more than 57 acres. That will give me enough light to still read the paper. Yup. The headlines are easy, the article text is a little slow, but I can make it out. Wanna bet? That towelful of light will give us about 0.05 footcandles over the entire beach, which is the ASHRAE/IES recommended minimum for a walk in the park.

So I can read the newspaper over an illuminance ratio of about 200,000 to 1. We can actually see over a still greater range. For just walking around, my eyes aren’t even trying hard at 0.05 footcandles. In fact, I still have some sense of color vision, and my colorless night vision is just beginning to kick in. In order to get my night vision to take over completely, I’d have to spread my towelful of light over a hundred Coffin’s beaches – almost 60,000 acres.

Photo Credit: Google

Photo of the Month: July 2009

July 6, 2009 / no comments

Christian Science Center

The Christian Science Center in Boston is a distinctive example of the idea of architecture and light executed together as a single element.

The plaza’s expression of volume and space is a direct product of light connecting with the structure to create shadow, depth, and visual highlights. As a visitor moves through the space the forms are progressively revealed. The art of lighting and architecture collectively creates vivid, usable, and, perhaps most importantly, stimulating environments.

The reflecting pool is a dynamic example of how light can vary the features of a space. The pool has a strong presence in the plaza, both in daylight and in the evenings under electric light, which enables a third dimension of communication between the surrounding structures as they are reflected in the water. To the visitor, this is an intriguing expression, produced simply by the reflection of light – and changing by the hour and every day, in contrast to the rigidity of the built form itself.

The electric lighting of the arcade clarifies wayfinding and highlights the architectural content and intent of use. The light fixtures themselves serve to scale down the oversized structure to a proportion corresponding to human height; the datum line of the fixtures is established just above head height, in order to create a spatial relationship to the passerby that is comfortable and useful. The lighting also announces the proposed path down the colonnade and accentuates the orderly rhythm of the pilasters.

Lighting is sometimes perceived as something that happens after the architecture is built, but to appreciate the mutually interdependent, enigmatic relationship between the two is to connect form and light in a way that describes and defines space.

Photo Credit: Amber Hepner / Lam Partners Inc

Photo of the Month: June 2009

June 14, 2009 / no comments

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Pantheon, Rome, Italy

The Emperor Hadrian, who commissioned Rome’s Pantheon (completed around 126 AD), was an architectural enthusiast. The building incorporated amazingly innovative technologies, so it’s not surprising that it also used the best available lighting technology of the day: daylight.

With the exception of a little light coming through the doorway, all of the daylight in the space enters through a single oculus at the peak of the dome. It’s about 30 feet in diameter, which sounds big, but if we take that as a fraction of the floor area below (142 feet in diameter), the oculus works out to be about 4.5% of the floor area. And that provides very comfortable levels of interior daylighting, in a space that’s also 142 feet high.

There’s no glass in the aperture – it’s open to the sky – so if we corrected for modern low-E insulating glass at 70% light transmission we’d get the same amount of daylight from an aperture of about 6.5% of the floor area. To also account for absorption by lightshelves, baffles, lightwells, etc., we might double it, to around 15%. That’s not a bad rough starting point for thinking about a modern daylighted building. And by the way, Rome’s not in “the south”: it’s at virtually the same latitude as Boston, so the sun-angles there would be the same also.

If Hadrian could have built an all-glass building, would he have chosen that instead? Would that have been better? We’ll never know, but I know my vote…

Photo Credit: stanrandom