Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Chronicles or Times? That was the question.

Here is my exchange with Valentin Diaconov regarding the name of this blog.

VD: Imagined a blog titled The Paperny Times.
VP: Why is Times better than Chronicles? Maybe I should change it to Chronicle so it doesn't sound like The Chronicles of Narnia and more like San Francisco Chronicle.
VD: There's a pun in The Paperny Times: it's both a newspaper and an era we live in. Remember that joke: "Brezhnev – a minor political figure of the Alla Pugacheva era."

Valentin, you have convinced me. I am changing it!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Architecture and Film: Thom Mayne talks with Elvis Mitchell and Frederick Elmes at LA Film Festival

The second day of the LA Film Festival (June 18-28, Westwood, CA) included a conversation between Thom Mayne (Pritzger prize-winning architect, founder of the Southern California Institute of Architecture and architectural firm Morphosis), Frederick Elmes (producer of such films as Wild at Heart, Night on Earth, Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Coffee and Cigarettes among others) and Elvis Mitchell (film critic, TV and radio host, producer).

For me the most interesting part was Mayne’s discussion of the final episode of Antonioni’s The Passenger (Professione: reporter). In this famous (12-minute long?) continuous shot, “the camera ran on a ceiling track in the hotel room and when it came outside the window, was meant to be picked up by a hook suspended from a giant crane nearly thirty meters high. A system of gyroscopes was fitted on the camera to steady it during the switch from this smooth indoor track to the crane outside. Meanwhile the bars on the window had been given hinges. When the camera reached the window and the bars were no longer in the field of view they were swung away to either side. At this time the camera's forward movement had to stop for a few seconds as the crane's hook grabbed onto it and took over from the track. To hide this, the lens was slowly and smoothly zoomed until the crane could pull the camera forward again” (Wikipedia).

In this shot “everything is taken place in the periphery,” said Thom Mayne. “The character in the center of the frame, the old man, he has nothing to with anything. There is a traditional notion of center, your eyes naturally go to this old man, and he has nothing to do with the story. Anything that is relevant is placed out of you field of vision, and the main event is taken place behind you. You are literally turning in your seat in the movie theater to see what’s happening behind you.”

I think that the same relation between center and periphery exists in Mayne's Caltrans building in Downtown Los Angeles.

See "The Passenger"'s final episode.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Coop Himmelb(l)au's High School No. 9 in Downtown Los Angeles

Wolf D. Prix loves teasing law-abiding Americans. He does not part with his signature cigar even in no-smoking places. On a construction site, when asked to put on a safety helmet, he puts it on backwards, like a teenager with a baseball cap. Unlike American architects, for whom going to a gym is almost a professional duty, he proudly carries around his non-athletic body. And, of course, statements like "lying and pretending is more interesting than truth" do not usually go well with the American audience.

Considering this, the fact that his High School No. 9 in downtown Los Angeles sometimes provokes a very negative reaction should perhaps please the architect. The Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez called the school “a towering absurdity”. I used to like Steve Lopez’ column, so I sent a letter to LA Times asking Steve if he preferred “provincial nondescript junk” of a standard LA high school. He replied that he perhaps should not have used the word “absurdity”.

The major victory of law-abiding Americans over the Austrian enfant terrible was the refusal of the fire and safety authorities to allow access to the observation point – the central element of Prix’ design. This observation box with its spiral walkway has become a mere ornament.

Meanwhile, Los Angelinos keep getting angrier. Here is a recent letter to LA Times (June 7): “Am I supposed to be happy that this is the result of the board spending more than $230 million of taxpayer money on a project budgeted at $87 million? I thought the school board's job was to educate our children. Instead, we have a palace to "the arts" and teachers who are being furloughed, schools that are virtually uninhabitable and a dropout rate of 35%. The real value of this monstrosity is that it is emblematic of the dysfunctional school board, providing little in the way of real education, and indifferent to budget overruns of appalling size.”

Prix with his Los Angeles structure has managed to provoke almost the same reaction as Eric Owen Moss did with his Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia.

See my interview with Wolf Prix

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sir John Soane Museum in London

Two of Sir John Soane’s lasting achievements.
  • One: the shape of the shallow dome he invented was used in the design of the classic London telephone booth.
  • Two: his house at No.13 Lincoln's Inn Fields in London is perhaps the most unusual museums in the world. See Virtual Tour.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Getty Research Institute presentation of Barbara Isenberg’s book “Conversations with Frank Gehry”

The June 4 presentation was a part of a book tour. Both Isenberg and Gehry were on stage, as well as the GRI moderator Wim de Wit. The previous appearance of Isenberg and Gehry was at the New York Public Library on May 13.

The interesting thing was that on both occasions Gehry with visible pleasure talked about “The Simplsons” episode, in which a famous architect “Frank Gehry” gets a letter from Marge who wants him to design a concert hall for Springfield. Gehry crumples the letter and tosses it on the ground then looks at it and says: “Frank Gehry you are a genius.” The construction process, as you can see in the pictures, involves a wrecking ball.

I discussed the theme of violence in Gehry's designs in the article "Modernism and Destruction in Architecture."

See NYPL presentation on YouTube

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Forest City Ratner Had Scrapped Frank Gehry’s Design For A Nets Arena in Central Brooklyn

The New York Times architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff says:
"Whatever you may have felt about Mr. Gehry’s design — too big, too flamboyant — there is little doubt that it was thoughtful architecture. His arena complex, in which the stadium was embedded in a matrix of towers resembling falling shards of glass, was a striking addition to the Brooklyn skyline; it was also a fervent effort to engage the life of the city below.

A new design by the firm Ellerbe Becket has no such ambitions. A colossal, spiritless box, it would fit more comfortably in a cornfield than at one of the busiest intersections of a vibrant metropolis. Its low-budget, no-frills design embodies the crass, bottom-line mentality that puts personal profit above the public good. If it is ever built, it will create a black hole in the heart of a vital neighborhood."
Another victim of the recession!

Selling To Architects: A Visual Approach

Architects think visually. In addition to technical data about your product, they need to see how it looks. The two major ways of presenting your products are still and moving images. First, I need to dispel a two prevailing myths.

Myth No. 1: “The new software allows me (or my nephew, or my secretary) to do everything ourselves; we don’t need professionals anymore.” This myth goes back to the time when Microsoft Word had acquired some layout capabilities, and the market immediately became flooded with terrible-looking, hard to read and highly inefficient fliers, ads and brochures. The second act of this drama was emergence of software allowing creating web page without any knowledge of HTML, such as FrontPage, GoLive or Dreamweaver. The result was a proliferation of bloated, slow loading, search engine unfriendly and ultimately very ugly web pages.

This era is coming to an end. The overcrowded and highly competitive Internet space has forced many advertisers to admit their own incompetence and to rely on professional designers and programmers.

Myth No. 2: “The new hardware allows me to shoot photos and videos at very high resolution. I don’t need photographers and videographers anymore.” What’s wrong with this myth? Two things.

  • High resolution is probably only 10% of the success of any photo and video production. Other factors include lighting, color balance, depth of field, geometrical distortions, noise reduction, compositional balance, etc.
  • More importantly, your still or moving images must be able to tell a story, and not just any story, they should convey your consistent marketing message. Professionals may be better equipped to do it.

Practical recommendations.

There are many cases when you may need to take pictures or video yourself. Make sure you use the right equipment.

  • Still cameras. As I mentioned above, resolution is only a small part of the story. It’s great if your camera can give 10 or more megapixels, this way your image theoretically can be used for a magazine cover. But equally important is the size and quality of the lens and the size and quality of the chip and image processor. To avoid geometrical distortions, use the highest quality lens. Unfortunately, the better the lens, the bigger and heavier it usually gets. Find a reasonable compromise. If you can spend around $3,000, get Canon EOS 5D Mark II. In addition to stunning still images, you will be able to shoot full HD 1920x1080 videos. For smaller budget, you may consider Canon EOS Rebel T1i, which also will let you shoot HD videos. If size, weight and price are important, consider Canon PowerShot SD990 IS. Other manufacturers (Nikon, Olympus and Pentax, for example) make similar products.
  • Video cameras. Even though some still cameras give you the video option, you may want to consider having a dedicated video camera, especially if you shoot a lot of video. Any universality usually results in lower efficiency. If you have a budget of $4,000 and need to shoot for both American and European markets, you may consider Sony HVR-Z1U, a semi-professional camcorder capable of shooting in both NTSC and PAL as well as in various HD formats. It also allows using external professional microphones. Remember, the quality of sound is what immediately betrays amateur recording, more than the image quality. There are many compact inexpensive HD camcorders on the market. Just make sure they have an external microphone jack.

Still image format and resolution.

If someone tells you they need an image with 300dpi, it means absolutely nothing unless they also give you the image size. A 4” x 5” image at 300dpi is virtually identical to a 16.7” x 20.8” image at 72dpi. What counts is the number of pixels, and in this example, the number of pixels is the same, 1200 x 1500. It is true, for high-quality printing, the images need to be 300dpi, which means that they need to have 300 pixels per inch. So, for an 8.5” x 11” page, the images must have (8.5 x 300) x (11 x 300) pixels, i.e. 2550 x 3300 pixels. The actual file size will depend on the color space. For Grayscale images it will make the file 8.03MB, for RGB, 24.1MB, for CMYK, 32.1MB.

RGB images are used for video and web. CMYK images are used for offset printing. In addition to color space, images can be saved in various formats: TIFF, EPS, PNG, GIF, JPG, etc.

Warning: JPG (or JPEG) format uses compression that degrades the image quality. It is OK to use JPG for the web (usually no lower than at 60% JPG quality). It is totally unacceptable to use JPG format for any high-quality printing. Always try to use TIF (or TIFF). There are rare cases when you need to send an image via email, and the TIF file is just too large. In that case, use free file uploading sites (such as yousendit.com, for example) or, if all else fails, use JPG but with at least 60% quality or higher.

Video formats.

Always keep your original raw video files untouched (either on tape or on disk), you may need them for another project one day. If you do video editing yourself, you probably know all the basic video formats. The important distinction to keep in mind is the difference between interlaced and progressive scanning, usually indicated by the letters “i” and “p” (as in 60i or 50p). Interlaced scanning was invented in the beginning of the TV era, when broadcasting equipment could not transmit all 480 horizontal lines at the same time, so the picture was broken into odd and even lines, and these was transmitted one after another. The TV receiver was designed to interlace odd and even lines to create a complete picture. This awkward system is still in place in standard definition TV even though there is no practical need for it other than many years of investment in equipment. The computer screen uses progressive scanning, which means that lines are not broken into even and odd and are transmitted in regular order.

Regardless of how the video was shot, exporting it for TV or DVD requires interlaced scanning. Exporting for web requires progressive scanning.

Where do we go from here?

In this brief article, we just touched the tip of the iceberg. Both photo and video production is both art and science. My final advice: if you need to impress architects with the way your product affects the environment and contributes to the interior or exterior space, hire a professional. It pays in the long run.

Vladimir Paperny, PhD