DEPARTURE AND ARRIVAL
In Canada, we talk about the weather all the time. It figures: we Canadians like to think of ourselves as reliable, and yet our weather is anything but. It’s an embarrassing outlier of Canadian orderliness. Like everything un-Canadian, it fascinates us endlessly.
So “going to California” in the wintertime is a welcome prospect. At least the weather is reliable: sunny and warm. My trip to Los Angeles at the end of March was preceded by eager anticipation.
As it happened, I left Toronto on an unusually mild (for Toronto) winter day – another indication of our unreliable climate: a week before, we had been suffering through an Arctic freeze. Arriving in Los Angeles a few hours later, I stepped out of LAX into an unusually chilly (for LA) – winter day. I was glad that I had taken my two Canadian travel staples, a sweater and a jacket, but a little disappointed that I had to wear them, and that the weather was once again a topic for discussion.
Happily, the reason for my brief trip involved staying mostly indoors, in the company of an eminent group of architectural art experts. The occasion, described as briefly as possible, was the American Society of Architectural Illustrators (ASAI) 33rd Annual Architecture in Perspective international jury (AIP33). We were here to pay tribute to the world’s best architectural illustrators.
Before jury day, a huge amount of organizational work had been done. ASAI Executive Director Tina Bryant had devoted long hours to collecting and cataloguing entries, preparing Excel spreadsheets, printing reference pages for the jury, and answering submitters’ questions about entry requirements, which somehow get more complicated every year, despite our honest attempts to simplify them. ASAI President Lon Grohs meanwhile had organized the jury, set up the jury room, and arranged for drinks, snacks and meals to be on hand, precisely when needed.
The full group included another frozen-northerner Tina Bryant, descended from Hebron, Maine. The remaining group, all Angelenos, consisted of Lon Grohs, whose Chaos Group boardroom served as our jury room, and our three judges: watercolour wizard Tom Schaller, digital illustrator Craig Shimihara and Gensler Design Director Gene Watanabe. ASAI members had submitted 425 illustrations, from which our jury would select approximately 15 observational drawings and 60 renderings, including the Hugh Ferriss Memorial Prize for the best illustration of the year.
Tina, Lon and I arrived at 8:30, to make sure everything was ready and at precisely 9:00 a.m., Saturday March 31, 2018, our jury session started – right on time.
But rather than launching into the judging process, as we normally would, the jury was eager to talk about architectural illustration, generally, and specifically, about the goals of our association and annual show. This was, for all of us, a refreshing and rare opportunity to talk about a subject that interests us deeply, but that we don’t get to discuss nearly enough. In fact, this was one of the very few times, that an AIP jury has wanted to talk at some length about ideas surrounding the event, before diving into it.
Unusual among international organizations these days, ASAI conducts its professional juries in a physical space, not a virtual one, with all jurors and facilitators in the same room at the same time. The cost and inconvenience of this process are more than outweighed by the fact that spontaneous, disorganized and sometimes unfocused conversation can take place. As intent as we are in selecting the best possible show, we are also committed to discussing why this might be the best possible show. What larger ideas do the drawings suggest – individually and as a group? Also, what ideas are floating around out there in the real world that might be important for our members to know about?
At dinner the previous night, we had been talking about films. Tom Schaller, being a huge movie fan guided the discussion toward film, and its ability to represent physical space – both built and natural – as a container for stories. Films are not normally about spaces, but about the things that occur in them. This is even true in animations and sci-fi adventures, where sets are often elaborate and outlandish – unnatural or relentlessly architectural. It’s all about the action.
Good two-dimensional illustration has the same “cinematic” capacity to introduce narrative and mood, and to suggest other sensations, such as implied sounds, atmospheric texture, weather conditions, etc. Some illustrations seem almost like still images snatched from a movie. During the course of the jury day, the subject of narrative and mood came up several times when evaluating illustrations.
Inevitably, the discussion about cinema led to a the subject of architectural animation – something that ASAI is currently not geared to jury, but is exploring. Architectural animations have an advantage over still illustrations in that they have a sound track and introduce the dimension of time. But they are unlike cinema in one important way: the forms and spaces are the actual subject; the figures and movable entourage are typically there to provide scale and movement.
This is a shortcoming of most architectural animations: in the absence of a storyline, (other than a “use narrative” that shows the path from A to Z) the cinematic experience is incomplete – cold and remote – since the viewer is merely a voyeur, without any engagement with the space. And so the shortcoming of many animations is similar to that of many illustrations: without involving the viewer in an experience, no connection is made. To quote the author John Steinbeck: “If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen.”
2. OTHER REALITIES
As a logical next step, we talked about augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) in the context of art vs. science. Both technologies open new pathways for simulating experiences in form and space that are immensely useful to architects in designing, developing, explaining and selling their creations. These are mesmerizing technologies, but what part does artistry play? Unlike animations, the VR “storyline” is controlled by the user, who is free to move wherever his or her curiosity may lead. There is artistry involved in the creation of the digital architecture, but other important elements such as composition and narrative are uncontrolled. Craig Shimihara, having considerable expertise in these areas – film, animation and VR – as well as digital illustration, described the aesthetic considerations that his studio employs in their work. It’s becoming increasingly possible for architects to communicate a message and a point of view within a VR or AR presentation that will help users to appreciate the intent and big picture issues of the design, not just the space-warp feeling of being in two different places at the same time. But there is still a lot of work to do in refining AR and VR experiences.
As a hint about what the near future may hold, we have only to look at video game design. In gaming environments, players are presented with multiple choices for spaces to experience and activities to engage in. All of these possibilities have been designed and scripted beforehand, including visual compositions, sound effects, possible activities and storylines. All of this requires considerable artistry that remains largely invisible, since the focus is on the action.
The gaming environment combines the best aspects of cinema, virtual reality and two dimensional drawing with the twin advantages of allowing the user to not only engage in the action, but also alter the outcome of the narrative. There is general agreement that, budgets someday permitting, it offers great promise for architectural representation.
In a roundabout way, this brings us back to the topic that actually kicked off the Saturday morning discussion: drawing categories. There has always been a sector of illustrators specializing in fantasy and futurist art, but more recently, the gaming and film industries have encouraged the expansion of this sector into a large and thriving community of conceptual artists. AIP shows have always included conceptual art, and AIP33 is no exception. But all three judges wondered why this group of illustrators wasn’t more strongly represented. Tom Schaller suggested that it might be time to introduce a new category for “non-commissioned” work that might encourage more conceptual artists to enter.
The discussion of categories has been a consistent theme among our members, over the years. Many category divisions have been proposed in the past: hand-done vs. digital, commissioned vs. non-commissioned, residential vs. commercial vs. institutional, etc. Since ASAI’s very beginnings, before VR existed1, we have stuck to a limit of two categories: Formal and Informal, holding to the principle that architectural art is architectural art. Regardless of medium or subject, there are simply two kinds of art, good art and the other kind.2
One question continues to be asked: How can a commercial rendering stand up to a romantic fantasy drawing, devoid of client demands, last-minute design changes and crushing deadlines? This distinction has been observed by other architectural art competitions, with great success, and maybe it’s time for ASAI to follow suit. Discussion on this topic is certain to follow.
THE JURY PROCESS
Following our two-hour discussion, we were finally geared up to start the jury process in earnest. At 11:05 a.m. the first round of Formal and Informal illustrations – the lightning round – began. A half-hour later, all of the images had been screened and the jurors had developed an overall sense of the field. After an ordered-in lunch two elimination rounds followed, spanning the afternoon, from 12:30 to 5:30. As sometimes happens, too many illustrations had been eliminated, so a fourth round was needed, to reinstate some of the previously overlooked images. By 6:30, the Rendering Section show had been assembled, including the special awards and the Ferriss Prize. After an ordered-in dinner, the Observational Section drawings were selected, using much the same procedure, but with fewer entries, taking only an hour-and-a-half.
By 9:00 p.m., fully 12 hours after we started, it was a wrap. Following tradition, Tina showed us the final selections. We all fixed our gaze on the large monitor, smiling with recognition as though we were greeting old friends. You might imagine that at the end of this marathon, we would all be exhausted – physically and emotionally – and maybe hoping never to see another architectural illustration as long as we lived. Instead, we were strangely invigorated by having viewed and discussed such a trove of great work, and creating something extraordinary in the form of AIP33.
By 9:30, the boardroom was back to normal, our notes had been collected and we walked into the slightly-too-cool evening air.
Our hotel bar was a welcome sight. After a full day of helping to separate great drawings from good drawings, I found it an easy task, scanning the whiskey shelf, to distinguish between a superior single malt and a bar scotch. Tina avoided having to make a decision by sticking to soda water, a healthier choice anyway. We talked about the day’s accomplishment and agreed it was a great jury and AIP33 will be a great show. All of you can be the judge. Keep an eye on asai.org for further details.
The next day, I met up with Tom Schaller. Tom and I had been good friends many years ago, but had drifted apart. When we met, 30-or-so years ago, we were both young illustrators and we served as president of ASAI (ASAP, then), in successive years. After that, we followed different professional paths – neither of us is a commercial illustrator anymore – but architectural illustration and writing still occupy our thoughts and a large part of our lives. As he and I sauntered beside the Venice canals and along the boardwalk of Venice Beach, the sun came out, and the years melted away.
In Los Angeles, on that chilly weekend, I was reminded of one very important thing. Architectural illustration isn’t just a collection of images, or a profession; it’s a way of seeing the world. Saturday morning’s discussion, my conversations with Tom, and the work I saw in the AIP33 jury confirmed this for me.
Think of it this way. Most people are happy to perceive the world as it is, with vague hopes for a future that is at least no worse than the present. Architects are sometimes seen as optimists because they work to design a better, happier future – a future that might exist, and should exist, if everything goes according to plan. Architectural illustrators are not just optimists, they are also magicians. Not only can they show you what that future will look and feel like, they can even invite you into it.
Back in Toronto on Monday morning, the weather was starting to turn cold again. By week’s end, snow was in the forecast. The month of April treated Toronto to spring showers, brief warm spells, snow squalls, freezing rain and ice storms, sometimes more than one of these on the same day. Weather-wise, there was plenty to talk about.
As for my trip to California, it would be a distant memory by now, if weren’t for the fact that (a) I’m writing this essay, (b) I’m keeping in touch with my old friend Tom and (c) the discussions we had and the drawings we looked at on that Saturday are still firmly lodged in my memory. Hopefully, they will stay there forever and lead to new discussions and new ways of appreciating architectural illustration.
1. ASAI was founded in 1986; Jared Lanier coined – or popularized – the term “virtual reality” a year later.
2. With apologies to Duke Ellington, who reportedly said: “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind … the only yardstick by which the result should be judged is simply that of how it sounds. If it sounds good it’s successful; if it doesn’t it has failed.”