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From Sketch Pad to Mouse Pad: The Entertainment Industry Enhances Architectural Design

J. Paul Peszko investigates the growing uses of 3D software in architectural design.

The highly anticipated Freedom Tower as seen in a night view with the Statue of Liberty and with the Brooklyn Bridge. Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP. Rendering: dbox.

Sears Tower, Trump Tower, New Yorks Museum of Modern Art, Londons Natural History Museum, IBM World Headquarters, Sothebys Worldwide Headquarters, buildings at Yale University and the University of Chicago and the newly planned Freedom Tower in New York City?

What do all of these places have in common?

Like many examples of todays finest architectural design, they have the motion picture industry to thank for their construction coming to fruition. All of the above structures were designed using 3D imaging software programs that were created specifically for the film industry so that clients of architectural designers could better visualize the final product.

Architectural firms all over the world are finding that in order to keep up their competitive edge, win new commissions and secure approval for high-profile design contracts they cannot live without 3D imaging software. Accomplished designers from such firms as Arup, Perkins & Will, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, Kohn Pederson Fox, Ellerbe Becket and Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum employ a range of design visualization solutions from Autodesk and its motion picture division, Discreet.

Autodesk VIZ, which is used for design concept exploration, photorealistic renderings and fly-through animations was primarily created for design visualization. Discreets 3ds max and combustion software, on the other hand, were designed specifically for motion picture professionals and motion picture-quality 3D content. In fact, 3ds max has the largest install base of any 3D animation software in the world, topping 280,000 installed users. This number includes many architectural designers who are using it to create a client presentation that is packed with stunning realism. In addition to VIZs capabilities, with 3ds max and combustion designers get sophisticated character animation and environmental forces such as gravity and wind. They can perform sub-object animation for life-like actions from curtains swaying in the breeze to an earthquake simulation, and they can show event-driven particles that mimic environmental effects such as rain, snow, dense fog and cascading fountains.

3ds maxs main focus is on entertainment, suggests Dave Campbell, product marketing manager for animation at Discreet. It was actually designed for film-based customers while Autodesk VIZs development emphasis is to solve those problems specific to design visualization. It so happens that there is a little bit of overlap.

Design firms are discovering that they cant live without 3D imaging software. Courtesy of Autodesk® VIZ/Discreet.

Michael Woodcox, product manager for VIZ software, states that VIZ and Discreet 3ds max, are branches of the same application. 3ds max just adds additional animation features. So, if you really need to give cinematic presentations, 3ds max is definitely the thing thats going to be able to deliver that for you. VIZ is just a version of 3ds max with limited animation features. Its really intended more for the designers who are creating buildings so that theyll have the same level of rendering capabilities (as 3ds max users) and its a little easier for them to deal with.

Both of these solutions from Autodesk and Discreet allow our customers clients to immerse themselves into a space virtually before committing to a plan, adds Marc Petit, vp of product development.

It can be said that the demands of the motion picture industry actuated the development of both programs. According to Campbell, The very rendering core of Autodesk VIZ as well as 3ds max are both heavily influenced by the needs of the film industry, particularly now because its based on mental ray, which is one of the two legacy renderers that have really pushed the film industry to the heights it has gotten to today in terms of fidelity.

Since architects can be just as demanding as motion picture animators in terms of the levels of quality they desire from their renderings, the choice was made to incorporate mental ray into Autodesk VIZ. Sure, its a shader-based language, and its very complicated, states Campbell, but we actually found a way to present it to architects so that it was useful to them. And now theyre finding that they can get larger renderings and more fidelity out of their renderings because of the technology that was developed only for the film industry.

Campbell explains that the fundamental difference in architectural usage is in the sales process. Its all a part of getting the buy off in the customers mind. The closer it [the rendering] is to reality and the closer It actually looks to how it [the structure] will look when its actually built makes them see the light a whole lot faster. And this can include trees blowing in the wind, and people walking through buildings and fountains outside with water gushing out. And even for taking a million dollar mill you want to build and visualizing it within the factory of a client, you really get it when you see a great visualization. Its something you can interact with. You can say, Hey, whats it look like from over there? And what if the lights are blue?

Autodesk VIZ is used for design visualization while Discreets 3ds max and combustion fill the need for motion-picture-quality 3D content. Courtesy of Autodesk® VIZ/Discreet.

Kohn Pedersen Foxs strong body of work has earned the firm recognition as one of the most respected architectural design firms in the world. KPF has been the recipient of numerous awards recognizing their wide range of design and technical accomplishments. Its varied projects for clients in both the public and private sectors have included design and planning on such facilities as IBM World Headquarters, Capital Cities/ABC Headquarters, the Shanghai World Financial Center, Munich Airport, Philadelphia International Airport and the World Trade Center Redevelopment to name but a very few.

Thomas Brown, design technologies manager at KPF, points out how Discreets software has given his firm a competitive advantage when it comes to client presentations. KPF chose Discreet 3ds max and combustion software to give us a design tool to allow us to explore our designs in a way that is consistent with our vision, the competitive advantage when helping our clients and new business prospects visualize their project, and giving them great insight into what our talented architects and designers can do.

There are also practical aspects to design visualization software other than client presentation. Any project will benefit from having design visualization, Campbell says, but it certainly becomes important when you have complex buildings or projects that are on very sensitive sites, where, for instance, the community is very concerned about how tall a building is and how large a shadow its going to cast on adjacent structures. Or, if youve got unusual geometry like Frank Gerrys architecture. Its becoming so commonplace these days that almost every project thats being proposed is presented with visualization software. You almost never see water color and pencil sketches any more.

Like 3ds max, combustion is another outgrowth of the film industry that allows a designer to make alterations without totally re-rendering. combustion is a very mature workflow that enables you to compartmentalize your renders so that you do not have to re-render the whole thing when you want to make a change, Campbell explains. Lets say, for example, I wanted to take one particular building and change the material on it slightly. Well, using combustion with either Autodesk VIZ or 3ds max, Im able to keep my background plate as it is. Im able to keep the other buildings Ive got in the compound already rendered, and re-render that one building only and comp it back into the rendering. combustion will work seamlessly with either 3ds max or VIZ.

Design visualization software has replaced watercolor and pencil sketches in architectural firms. The software is especially important for complex buildings and projects that affect a community. Courtesy of Autodesk® VIZ/Discreet.

KPFs Brown explains how this has saved his firm a great deal of time. We are able to help our clients really visualize design options with Discreets 3ds max software with a quality of light and expression that best represents our vision, and then take it into combustion compositing software, where we can add painted textures, motion graphics or particle tweaks to the design to further enhance our presentations without having to re-render. This saves us a tremendous amount of time and allows us to explore different design options with the client, options we wouldnt be able to present without using 3ds max and combustion.

One of the high-profile structures where the Autodesk family of design products is being used extensively is the new Freedom Tower in New York City. The first building to rise on the World Trade Center site, Freedom Tower not only recaptures the skyline but also establishes a new civic icon for New York City. Extending the long tradition of American ingenuity and innovation in skyscraper construction, Freedom Tower incorporates the highest standards of design, safety, quality and technology in what will be the tallest building in the world.

Known for its unparalleled expertise in designing skyscrapers such as Sears Tower, the John Hancock Center, Trump Tower and the China World Trade Center, Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill (SOM), the design architect of Freedom Tower, is responsible for developing the clear and logical relationship of all of the structures parts. Clad in shimmering glass, the asymmetrical form of the tower evokes the dynamic twisting form of the Statue of Liberty. The towers soaring offset spire further evokes the Statues profile and marks the symbolic height of 1,776 feet above ground.

Its parallelogram-shaped base conforms to the street grid of the lower Manhattan site. Its innovative structural system includes a cable-net structure, which recalls the form of the Brooklyn Bridge and encloses wind turbines that serve as a wind farm to collect energy one of the buildings many sustainable design features.

Discreets 3ds max software allows design firms and clients to save time because different design options can be presented quickly.

The complex geometries of the buildings design are testing our ability to describe form in conventional two-dimensional terms, offers Jeffrey Holmes, senior designer on the project and associate partner in design at SOM. Autodesk is helping us to implement integrated three-dimensional design tools that allow a great number of people to work simultaneously while communicating in a realtime three-dimensional environment.

AutoCAD software serves as the projects primary 2D and 3D design and documentation tool. Because AutoCAD is a highly customizable application, SOM has been able to create tools in AutoCAD to facilitate modeling the complex building geometry as well as design variations, and to coordinate different aspects of the Freedom Tower design. The team is also using the Autodesk Revit building information modeling platform on the whole building, including complex sub-grade levels. Autodesk Architectural Desktop is being employed for energy analysis with a third-party application and Discreets 3ds max software is being used for design visualization and creation of 3D renderings and animations.

Working with SOM to implement our building information modeling platform and collaboration services on a project of this stature and complexity helps us to discover new and better ways to serve businesses across the construction industry, says Phil Bernstein, FAIA, vp of Autodesks Building Solutions Division.

Working with SOM to implement our building information modeling platform and collaboration services on a project of this stature and complexity helps us to discover new and better ways to serve businesses across the construction industry, says Phil Bernstein, FAIA, vp of Autodesks Building Solutions Division.

Another way the entertainment industry has enhanced architectural design is through the fusion of gaming technology with design visualization. A perfect example of this is the new Fulton Street Transit Center complex in Lower Manhattan. The central entrance, a newly engineered structure along Broadway between Fulton and John Streets, will provide Lower Manhattan commuters, residents and visitors with an identifiable improvement to the transportation system and urban environment.

The global design firm of Arup, which has designed such varied structures as the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank, Allianz Stadum in Munich, Beijing National Stadium and facilities at Londons Heathrow Airport, is the lead consultant for the project. According to project director David Palmer of Arup, The designs for the new transit center will enhance both the transit system and urban life for Lower Manhattan, bring 21st century amenities and preserve the heritage at the site. The FSTC [Fulton Station Transit Center] complex as a whole will play a major part in making Downtown one of the most accessible business districts in the world and one of the best places to work, visit and live in New York City.

Jeffrey Holmes, senior designer on the Freedom Tower and an associate partner at SOM, finds that Autodesk allows his team to work simultaneously in a 3D realtime environment. Courtesy of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP.

One of the busiest underground interchanges in New York City, the Centers six interlinked stations now serve nine subway lines. The design reworks the existing system into one streamlined Transit Center serving 12 subway lines for more than 100 million annual riders, providing access to and from the core of Lower Manhattan. As part of the presentation to their clients, Arup designers took another page from the entertainment industry and went realtime.

Campbell notes how they cross-pollinated technology between different markets. They used the Criterion engine, which is a games engine used for such games as Grand Theft Auto 3 and other popular titles. They used that engine to actually do the visualization, and they were able to deliver that to the client so the client could then use a very interactive game play style approach to walking around the plan. They could even jump on a train and go to the next station. And because its in a realtime environment like a game, they were able to do it at their own leisure and take a close look at every aspect of the design. Its a very exciting development for the architectural world because its realtime visualization. Thats what I like to call it.

One other interesting aspect of all this is the way designers and engineers at firms such as Arup that are involved in the designing of auditoriums can use the special capabilities of 3ds max for sub-object animation in order to analyze other aspects of building design. For example, they can used maxs sub-object animation feature in to see how sound particles propagate in an auditorium thats being designed for a symphony orchestra. It allows them to actually visualize the way an acoustics phenomenon performs.

So, from computer-generated animation to gaming technology, the entertainment industrys hunger for innovation and quality has certainly improved the way architects and their clients do business and put projects such as the Freedom Tower and the Fulton Street Transit Center on a fast-track to completion. No doubt further strides in entertainment technology will have a pronounced effect on product designers in all fields as they come to rely on their mouse pads even more than their sketchpads.

J. Paul Peszko is a freelance writer and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He writes various features and reviews as well as short fiction. He has a feature comedy in development and has just completed his second novel. When he isnt writing, he teaches communications courses.