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The "Big Idea" Image

For our last project in Urban Design Skills, completed December 2014, I partnered up with Catie Ferrara and Benjamin Gillies to design an infill redevelopment for one of the last shopping areas in Cambridge, Massachusetts oriented around a surface parking lot.  My greatest challenge by far was taking on the "Big Idea" visualization - in this case, a 3D aerial rendering of the site. The perspective we took for this was roughly this angle (site outlined in red):

Memorial Plaza in Cambridge, MA - Google Earth image

Catie and Ben worked out most of the technical requirements of our proposal (i.e. how much square footage and parking spaces would be required for existing retail, additional retail, and new housing units), and collaboratively we finessed the jigsaw puzzle of fitting everything around a cozy "main street" that we believed this community badly needed in order to be truly mixed use.  

Our overall idea was to mask the fact that this was a new development by blending from the existing architecture (mostly Victorian-style duplexes and brick apartment buildings) into a similar vernacular for the housing developments. As we'd get closer to the river, we'd segue into more modern mixed use buildings by positioning them behind a 19th-century style street front (i.e. many and diverse openings into the buildings). 

By continuing to focus on hand drawing (so that I could avoid dorking around endlessly in Illustrator), I discovered a wonderful secret that I'm sure many designers have used since the advent of 3D computer modeling and Photoshop: construct the basics in the computer, but do the detailed "designing" by hand. This method works so brilliantly, I was blown away.  All we had to do was construct accurate but basic shapes using Google Sketchup - which Catie became a whiz at - print out a screenshot, and start tracing in the details. Once the outlines were finished, I colored different objects in multiple layers, as if doing a woodblock print (where each color is carved and printed separately), scanned everything separately, and combined it all in Photoshop. 

"Big Idea" Sketchup model

The main thing that I focused on up until this point was the design of the "main street" and the public spaces, trying to provide a sensible pedestrian-oriented environment with lots of different amenities (see if you can find the rooftop garden plots and the playground in the drawing below). For the design of the modern buildings I tried to draw from this neighborhood's maritime past by creating a "sail" theme out of their edges as well as - and this might have been too easy - wave-like balconies that reference Jeanne Gang's design of the Aqua building in Chicago.

"Big Idea" Final Composite

This hand-drawn method with simple coloring works wonders with audiences. I'm not sure why so many clients require glossy 3D renderings, or why design firms feel they need to provide photorealistic perfection to their clients, when hand drawings can communicate a feeling and a grit that takes forever to achieve in the computer.

Main Street perspective - Sketchup base

I only had a chance to polish off one of our two perspective drawings, but I'm glad I spend time on this one. I started with a Sketchup screenshot as a base, and using the same method I ended up with something pretty cool.  Catie drew the awesome pedestrians.

Main Street perspective - final composite

While this process was a cool discovery, the greater lesson I learned from this project was the prevailing principle of time management. I sunk most of my time and energy into these drawings and the illustrative plan, which I feel cost us precious time near the end where we could have made sure all of our schematics, plans and perspectives spoke to each other better on the final presentation board.  Lesson for creative professionals (and I know it's kind of cliché, but it's important): you can't just focus on a singular Big Idea image; you've gotta keep the BIG PICTURE in perspective.