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Offices of Google, Boston: Proposed Concept

Many people might assume that a typical architectural rendering job comes about at the end of a project, when the design is fully realized, and all the elements have been determined and vetted.  In reality, I’d say that 90% of my work is at the other end of the process, in the very beginning, when very little is firmly decided upon.   In many cases, I’m involved in the design itself, or at least helping to flesh it out or develop iterations. This is generally what makes architectural illustration such a niche industry.  Akin to medical illustration, where the artist often has a degree and experience in the medical field, most of us that work as architectural illustrators have a professional degree and significant experience in architecture. We speak in a short hand language that allows us to work closely with the designer, and to literally “fill in the cracks” when there is a significant chunk of design information missing from the work.

A simple example of the kind of process involved when a project is not yet designed, yet suddenly requires a full-blown illustration or two to help move the project forward, is this pair of images I did for the Google, Boston offices back a couple years ago.

Open Work Spaces, Proposed, for Google-Boston

Open Work Spaces, Proposed, for Google-Boston

Communicating Stair, Proposed, Google-Boston

Communicating Stair, Proposed, Google-Boston

It was a typical scenario:  quick phone call from a potential client who had been referred by another client.  He had a problem. Google was looking to open a Boston office, and was in need of a significant amount of office space.  They would be arriving in Boston in six days or so, to tour potential spaces for lease, one of which was being renovated by my client.  The client’s desire was to show a conjectural idea of the potential for the space.  Not to present a firmly committed design, but to provide the potential tenants an opportunity to visualize the space in use, to imply flexibility, and to create a colorful, compelling, progressive and engaging image in their minds about what the space could be.  The problem was two-fold.  There was no design, and the space as it existed presently was in full chaos, gutted to the structure and nothing like the word-picture they were trying to paint for the touring group of Google executives.

The Space in its Then-current Condition, Entirely Gutted

The Space in its Then-current Condition, Entirely Gutted

In a day’s time, I shot back a couple conceptual sketches based on some design ideas that the client wanted to convey.  Among the ideas were: openness; flexibility; opportunity for collaboration and interaction; connection to the context outside; an identity that integrated “Boston” as a central theme or identifier; and most important, to show that the space would foster opportunities to work and engage in ways beyond the cubical-and-conference-room, but with some structure and zones for differing needs.  If the design, development, and rendering could take place in a span of three days, well, that would be ideal, too.

Fist thoughts were sketched over some existing photographs that were stitched together.  This got the idea on paper, and allowed the client to “see” what I was thinking, and to redirect or give things the ok.

My Concept Sketch with a page of My Comments for the "Open Office" Image

My Concept Sketch with a page of my comments for the "Open Office" Image

Concept Sketch for the "Communicating Stair", with My Comments

Concept Sketch for the "Communicating Stair", with My Comments

The charge is always the same.  Show as much as possible without showing anything.  Meaning: let’s convey a concept that speaks to the client’s (Google’s) need and ideology.  …but let’s not get so far ahead of the game that it looks too concrete, and implies that there is no chance to modify things, or to revisit the direction.  This is the mantra most every time when I’m asked to illustrate something that no one has designed, and which needs to be many things to many people without turning any of them away.  For me, that’s the challenge, and it’s often the part of my profession that most people would never realize was the real value in the work.  In a case like this, the go/no-go decision for a client often hinges on the images.  There are other considerations far more important (“what’s the rent?” chief among them in this case).  But it often seems like things can’t move forward until people can literally “see” what we’re talking about.

The idea behind the two spaces is pretty self-evident, but there are some things we wanted to definitely include or refer to:  the colors of Google; their unorthodox (yet very professional) style; touchstones from their other offices, like the “Top 100 Searches Right Now” screens; the ubiquitous colorful seat-balls that offer a chance to hang out and get work done without sitting around a conference table; hints of Boston (the google-maps carpet, the signage, the connection to China Town out the window, etc.).  Without belaboring it (perhaps too late for that), we needed to show that they could work here just as we understood they worked elsewhere, but that it would feel like Boston, not a copy-cat version of their home office.

Here are the final pieces with details…

Open Work Spaces, Google-Boston

Open Work Spaces, Google-Boston

Detail, Open Work Spaces

Detail, Open Work Spaces

When I work on an image, I always try to inject a little more interest to the people and entourage than simply downloading stock “Office People” from some sorry collection of generic entourage images on a CD.  When time permits, I will generally allow an entire day simply to developing the people in an image. I also try to give them a reason for being in the image.  I’m tired of so many renderings where the same three people are tucked into a corner, as if the illustrator and architect are petrified to overlap the building, and where trees, cars, and people are all a safe distance away.  It seems sometimes the rule is “Thou shalt not impinge upon the genius of the design”.  That can be very lackluster and static, in my opinion, and doesn’t serve the building well at all.  In this case, I tried to build the scene around a few vignettes.  In the back (this detail) there is (or was) a presentation being given.  What’s happening, exactly?  I’m not sure, but the two presenters in back seem a little perplexed, and are pausing a bit as the team they are presenting to revels in something.  Looks like maybe someone won a bet?  All that I’m sure of is people are working hard, and having fun while they do it.  That’s part of Google’s style.

Communicating Stair, Google-Boston

Communicating Stair, Google-Boston

Detail, Communicating Stair

Detail, Communicating Stair

The Communicating Stair image demonstrates the openness across five stories that the space was offering, top-lit by an existing skylight.  The Boston-themed Google sign is a nod to their tendency to play with their logo. Nothing is sacrosanct, but whatever is done, is done with purpose.  You might notice the colorful paper lanterns have been changed here to more modernist lamps.  I was partial to the colorful versions, but these here feel quite good in the space, too, and they allow the color of the Google sign to claim the top spot on the totem pole.

The images were developed to about 90% in Photoshop, then printed in waterproof archival ink onto Arches cold-press watercolor paper.  They were further touched up with opaque hilites in china-white, a flick or two of pencil to punch some aspects of linework, and painted with somewhat sedimentary watercolor paint to deepen the shadows and introduce contrast.  Originals are 11×17.

If you’ve read this far, I will simply add that the process of developing these images reminds me of an anecdote.  A homeowner calls the oil-burner repairman in a desperate need to get the burner running again.  The repairman arrives, takes a look around the oil-burner, and delivers a swift firm kick to the thing, whereupon it coughs to life and begins working.  The homeowner is shocked when he receives the bill for $200.  “What? two hundred dollars for you to just kick it? I want an itemized bill…”  The repairman takes the bill back, scribbles a bit, and hands it over again: “Kicking the Oil burner; $5.  Knowing where to kick the oil-burner; $195”.  It’s like that sometimes with architectural illustration.  The worth isn’t simply in the retail value of the artwork we deliver to the client, the value is often in the service we provide in developing the idea (or helping to develop it)  in the first place.

I had someone tell me that although they loved the work, they couldn’t afford my services, but really really really needed a rendering for a meeting Monday evening (it’s always “Monday evening”).  Would I possibly tell them how it was that I produced the renderings, so that he could try doing  it himself?  “Sure, I said, first go to architecture school for five or six years….”

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