Sunday, April 8, 2018


Too long between posts, and especially behind on reporting my Bank of England
work.  We've been plugging away steadily, but even with a three day weekend, time seems to run out before I can document the progress.

Waiting Room Court was due for an upgrade, including the loggia along the northern side.  Soane had a strong liking for processions of tall narrow arches.  We have come across this in his church at Walworth as well as the central corridor of the Board of Trade.  I think the loggia is one of his best variations on this theme.  The drama is heightened by the way it proceeds from the relative darkness of the Doric Portico, opens up into the courtyard, then closes up again.

In preparing this post I came to another of those "realisation moments" that make this work so addictive to me.  The paired, shallow, flat columns of the distinctive north façade of Waiting Room Court are not just one of Soane's mannerisms.  They are their because of his wish to combine an "enfilade" of arches down the length of the corridor while keeping the space open to the elements on the courtyard side.  On the internal side, the cross-walls that host the arches are framed by a pair of half-pilasters.  On the open side these half-pilasters wrap around to be expressed as those distinctive flat columns that make such an impression in Yerbury's record photos from c1930.

Another subtlety I quite enjoyed was the splitting of walls in section view to create the hint of an entablature resting on the pilasters.  Along with the two types of arches, come two arrangements of ceiling coffers, both quite elaborate and treated here as loadable Generic Model families.  The enscape3d image below was captured before creating the coffers families and the three images on the left record a developmental sequence, starting with an in-place extrusions, copy-pasted into a family template, then cut by voids.  Is this a Soane original design, or is it developed from a classical precedent?  Obviously stepped coffers, and oval coffers were not invented by Soane, but what about this combination.  I really don't know.  Perhaps someone will stumble across an answer.

It's important to remember that Waiting Room Court (WRC) is built at the junction of old and new.  Princes Street used to run diagonally across this space, until Soane straightened it on behalf of the Bank as it flexed its muscles over its former landlords the Grocers' Company, who owned the land where the loggia was built.  So the loggia represents the new regime: modern banking with shareholders and a board of directors, while the other 3 sides of the courtyard recall the older world of medieval guilds and hereditary occupations.  Whether consciously or not, Soane has expressed this transition in his architectural treatment.  And it's interesting to note that he maintains a balance between contrast and harmony.  The courtyard holds together despite the rather different elevational treatment of the loggia.  All four sides stand on the same rusticated base.  Britain managed its transition into modernity without the cataclysm of the French Revolution partly due to the moderating influence of the Bank of England.

It's almost embarrassing how easy it is to capture compelling images with Enscape3d.  Here you can see the two types of coffer and the two different arches.  Also on view is the higher ceiling in the central bay, which is still very crudely modelled.  I'm tempted to add some top lighting here, although the survey drawings suggest blind recesses rather than windows.  This is not definitive of course.  The survey also shows the narrow end bays as open, which is a change that was made later on by another architect.  Certainly it would be unusual for Soane to create this additional height without lighting it.  This was done before gas lighting remember. 

The WRC itself was long overdue for a facelift.  Window families were just simple openings in some cases.  The main cornice had been created as a wall sweep and kept coming apart at the corners.  Replaced with an in-place sweep. The basement story needed to be treated as a rusticated base so we made a start on that by fleshing out the large half-round windows.

It's clear that several of the windows are "blind" because they back on to the junction between rooms or, in one case overlap between the top corner of a vault and the ceiling void above.  To achieve the blind window effect, replace the cut opening with a void extrusion.

As the rustication proceeded it seemed appropriate to update the render appearance for the walls to a more stone-like material.  This led to some quite dramatic images, but ultimately the stone finish is not correct for the internal spaces, so I have begun to set up new wall types

All the same it does feel good to have additional richness in terms of material finishes.  We will have to look for other ways to achieve this moving forwards, maybe it will come in features like the fireplaces, and perhaps we can start to add furniture, carpets, etc. to bring spaces to life.

An interesting question that arises in my brain from time to time.  Why spend time creating seductive, dramatic images?  How does that relate to "historically accurate modelling" on the scale of aims and objectives?  My answer usually is: this is all about understanding, finding meaning in our built past.  Understanding doesn't always arise through conscious reasoning.  In fact the evidence is that our opinions are formed at a subconscious level and subjected to conscious reflection after the fact.

So I would say that it's a cyclical process, like anything in the creative realm you pour energy into an activity then stand back and review.  Emotions and reason intermingle to drive the whole thing forward.  Insights often come apparently from nowhere: those Eureka moments.  So while you are "waiting" for the next blinding insight, why not feed the brain with stimulating visual fodder?

Sunday, April 1, 2018


My trip to Volterra is looming and I wanted to do something to get me in the mood, so I started developing an approach to parametric modular windows of a particular Tuscan style.  Here is the first fruits of that venture.

The starting point was a parametric pointed arch. From there I went on to develop 3 more families with nested families for the stone "Insert" and the glazed timber "Window Unit".  The idea is to set up a modular system where you can swap out the Insert and the Window Unit for different versions without starting again from scratch.  By keeping the names constant, all the parameter linking remains intact.

I am using the nested planting family hack to easily scale the columns.  The intention being to allow for more complex capitals and base mouldings, while retaining ease of scaling.
All was fine until I checked out the windows in the plan view.  First of all the top part of the insert tends to show up, blocking everything else.  This is easily solved but I was still left with columns that don't react to the cut plane. 

The complexities of how window families interact with the cut plane are quite interesting, and I recounted my explorations of this, long ago.

As it happens, things get even more complicated when there are nested components of a different category.  Usually I keep all my nested families in the same category as the host family, so that subcategory visibility is predictable and consistent.  But the planting hack throws a spanner in those works.

I don't have time for a detailed analysis just now, but suffice to say I did a whole series of permutations to get the columns to cut nicely without success.  Strategies that seem fine in family editor don't pan out in the project environment.  Conversely families that look fine when placed directly in the project fail to cut when nested into a host window.

In the end I have opted for a shared family for the columns.  This is in the column category, with the "pre-cut" option unchecked.  Probaby a shared Generic Model would also work.  So there is an "inner" planting family, inside and "outer" planting family, inside a shared column family.  The height of the column family is an instance parameter so that it can be controlled from within the host.  You can't link type parameters for shared families because that would defeat the whole idea ... that the family acts as if it was placed directly in the project.

Maybe Paul Aubin has a better solution to this, or even a better approach to the whole business.  I'm sure we will talk that through when we meet up in Volterra in a couple of weeks time.  We won't have much time for making families during the workshop.  The focus will be on collecting data with various bits of reality capture kit. 

At the moment the families are based on a few rather grainy internet images.  It's a very interesting approach to windows I think.  Had never really thought it through before.  It's clear that there is a rectangular window with side-hung casements (must open inwards) and this is tucked behind a decorative stone "double arch within a larger arch"  I'm very keen to scan a few examples now to get the sizes and relationships right. Probably there are more surprises in store.  Internal shutters ?  Splayed internal reveals ?  Sill treatment ?

Then we could develop a range of parametric components which could be used to assemble urban settings like the main square in Volterra.  That's my basic premise anyway.  By the way, here is my solution to the pointed arch parametrics.  Didn't check out any other ideas, just decided to develop my own approach

Monday, March 19, 2018


Next month I head for Italy for a reality capture workshop and another serious think about European cities past and present.  I've been trying to record some ideas about my particular area of interest to share with the rest of the group.  One them that has long fascinated me is the way urban streets vary from city to city.  Take for example the Newari house.

I visited Kathmandu in 2006 and have had a couple of stabs at capturing the typical shop-houses form that enchanted me then.  Very vertical, jammed together with carved hardwood doors and windows, red clay bricks and tiles; propped, overhanging eaves.

The only Italian house-form I have attempted is the Trullo.  Shamelessly copied from Paul Oliver's books this presented an interesting challenge for a fledgling Revit user 10 years ago.  I used this as part of the introduction to one of my sessions at RTC Chicago: an example of trying to capture "organic" form using "clunky" Revit.

Another half-finished experiment arount the same period was my "African Hut", hommage to my 23 years spent living in that continent.  Again this was an interesting technical challenge at the time, but I never took it far enough to describe a way of life convincingly: kitchen, bedrooms, granary, household utensils, etc.  My life seems full of incomplete intentions.

The same criticism applies to my Dogon hut, also based on images from books and mostly about demonstrating tricks for emulating lumpy-bumpy materials like mud and thatch.  All the same it kept alive a dream that has been floating around my head for around 25 years now: a book called "The Way We Build" which explores responses to climate and culture alongside the nitty gritty of bricklaying techniques and eaves details.

In my day job I have had the opportunity to apply Revit to the business of recreating an urban tradition here in the Arabian Gulf: wind towers and courtyards, narrow winding streets, rhythmic rows of recesses.

My role on this project was to create a library of Revit families that could be used in different permutations and combinations to compose and entire urban district.  This is what I have in mind for Volterra also.  If we can capture a variety of typical elements: windows, doors, eaves, chimneys ... then recreate them as parametric families ... maybe students of Architecture could use these to study typical urban groupings. 

But this weekend I was drawn into another urban study that I began in 2007 when I visited a friend of mine in Saltaire.  Titus Salt was an industrialist who made a fortune by spotting an opportunity to convert a neglected raw material into a luxury product.  He took over his father's business in 1833, the year that Soane retired as architect to the Bank of England, and over the next twenty years built a huge business based around "Alpaca".

Saltaire is the urban village he built around his new mill on the outskirts of Bradford: an attempt to create a healthier environment for his workers, within walking distance of open countryside.  The design of the housing units was also substantially above the norm in terms of both form and function.  There was a serious attempt to find a balance between privacy of the family unit and communal facilities for the benefit of the community.

Oddly enough the architecture is inspired by northern Italy, but filtered through the mindset of Victorian England.  The tedium of rows of small terraced houses is relieved by creating 3 storey pavilions at the corners and adding simple decorative flourishes.  Round headed windows, sometimes grouped into threes, add just a hint of Italianate style.

The standard worker's house of the era was the back-to-back terrace, but these houses are more generous with small backyards offering a private outside WC and coal storage.  Full depth houses also provide better cross-ventilation of course.

I intended to just do a quick spruce up, then export a few images, but it turned into a whole weekend.  Quite revealing how far my ideas have progressed when it comes to making complex door and window families for example.  I enjoyed adapting my current modular system to round-headed versions.  This is all based on nested components with standardised names and linked parameter sets.

I previously developed a "Trim" profile for Project Soane which uses a simple "equalised grid" to scale a complex shape parametrically.  This proved very easy to adapt to the simpler mould used in Saltaire.  Didn't have to be parametric, but now that it is I can use it elsewhere with different proportions.

This modular "mix and match" system that have been developing (for doors, windows and classical columns at present) is an ongoing project.  I think the Volterra workshop will be a good opportunity to extend it further.  There are always new challenges when tackling components from a historical context.  Hopefully we can build up a useful "public library" of consistently modelled parametric families with interchangeable nested components.

I spent my childhood living in a terraced house in the north of England.  I think it's called "row housing" in the US.  There are very many variations on this theme and I have long wanted to create an in-depth "BIM pencil" study that explores the construction, functional arrangements and social context a representative selection.  Here is the ground floor plan of four units from a typical Saltaire row.  As you can see, the end pavilion comprised two dwellings (although they were altered in modern times and condensed into one)

That's about it for now.  I'm finishing this off at the office having arrived long before "opening time" to beat the traffic.  My last image uses "cutaway" views.  This was always one of my favourite features of Revit, so exciting a dozen years ago when I was still a novice.  Revisiting projects like this one has a special magic because of the "flashbacks" that occur in the recesses of my brain, remembering what it felt like to take those first faltering steps on my BIM journey.

One question here.  Not quite sure why there is coal storage in the cellar and also in the back yards.  Does it mean that some houses don't have cellars?  I have strong childhood memories of the coal man arriving and tipping sacks down a round hole in the pavement, cast iron covers with an internal chain as an anti-theft device.  So many little details of a bygone era that I would like to capture and share.