Interview with Philip M. Brown
Philip Michael Brown was a senior designer at Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates PC in New York and a design associate at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP in New York and started his firm Philip Michael Brown Studio in 1999. I first contacted Philip following the release of his book about Exterior Cladding Design Studies a few months ago and the fact there are many similarities in our workflow and focus on design. We kept in contact since then, discussing issues related to our industry and an Interview was born.
Philip has been able to develop a unique niche based on working relationships he formed with partners at the firms mentioned above and other large architecture and real estate development firms where his consulting work consists of collaboration on both the design and visualization of large projects, often for competitions or to go after new work or secure projects in the concept design phase for both client or public approval processes. He has several large building design projects for clients outside of New York City and has been able to build a successful design consulting firm based on what he perceives as a significant advantage over other larger firms not able to easily keep up to speed with the digital skills necessary to both design and communicate architectural ideas in the 21st century.
Recently, he published a 180 page book of exterior cladding design studies which is available at CGArchitect online shop entitled Philip Michael Brown Studio: Design Studies, Volume One.
Philip, Can you tell us a bit of your background and how you started your design consulting firm from working at a large architecture firm?
Ronen, let me first thank you for interviewing me. Your site is a great asset to the architectural visualization and design community. I think your readers will be interested in my story because I am now primarily a design consulting firm but I was able to start initially based on my skills at visualization.
This was of course perhaps easier 12 years ago then it would be today. Back then I was using Lightscape and nobody even knew what it was. They thought I had some kind of magic tricks when they saw my images because no one had really seen GI before. Now everybody knows the latest software and it’s pretty easy to use, so it really comes down to the depth of your artistic vision.
Here’s a few Lightscape images I did around 2001 which is a long time ago in rendering technology years but you can see we could do pretty nice work even though the workflow was labor intensive. Everything had to be modeled with explicit surfaces. My good friend Carlos Grande at Hypertecture was doing the most amazing work with Lightscape all the way back in 1996.
What was the trigger that made you go on your own way?
While I was a designer at KPF and SOM in the mid 90’s, a very competitive environment, I realized early on how big of an advantage it is to be able to communicate your ideas in a much more realistic and compelling way.
Even if you have the most amazing hand sketches and physical models, if you walk into a meeting with a few photorealistic images of your idea and it looks beautiful and the lighting and materials add even more to the architectural idea then it’s difficult for other people to criticize it in the usual way.
It did not take long and I found myself with all the different partners asking me to work on their projects…
Very soon after, I realized that because I had this new skill of making advanced digital simulations as well as my design skills that I could start my firm and work as an outside consultant for not only SOM but for many other firms where I now had contacts.
Can you share some of you insight of making a transition from being an employee to studio owner?
It’s important to note that I worked at these large firms for about 7 years after architecture graduate school, so you need some time to develop personal and business relationships and prove your abilities and that you are competent and people can work with you. Also, that my design approach is consistent or can be adjusted to be compatible with whoever I am working with on whatever kind of project. In other words – a certain amount of versatility.
I want to add that even if you are exceptionally amazing at making cg images and have a critical eye for design that it’s also really useful to have experience working within the field of architectural professional practice. Although it’s not necessary, it definitely helps because you have a better understanding of how things really work at a large firm and how decisions get made and what is the main goal of the presentation. Maybe what needs to be communicated to the client to keep the project rolling along or what is the big idea that the client is expecting to see based on the discussions and earlier presentations by the design team, the internal politics, etc.
if you don’t have this kind of previous experience it can often be easy to get frustrated with the process.
The fact that I collaborate on the design of the projects I work on for large corporate firms as well as give the presentation material is not a typical scenario and probably I am somewhat unique in this respect. I now have a few large building design projects I am working on outside of NYC and my intention is to continue along that path and get all new work solely as consultant for real estate development firms.
For these projects I act as a “building design consultant” and produce both images and drawings that I coordinate with a local architect of record. I usually come up with the big idea for the project and a variety of concept design options, I make public presentations about the design of the project to aid in the all the various review board and approval processes, I go to coordination meetings and review sessions and I visit the site to make sure progress and materials are going along according to the design intent. The key here is of course coming up initially with a successful big idea for the project that everybody likes and that’s where having the visualization skills also come into play as a major advantage.
Here are some of my design images for The Culver Road Armory project in upstate New York which is almost near completion. It’s an adaptive re-use of a First World War Armory into a mixed use development.
One aspect of the idea was to make it look more like a Museum of Contemporary Art than a mixed-use development. The design approach has been to integrate geometrically pure iconic sculptural elements into the overall historical massing of the building in a way which does not compete with but rather complements its character.
This is also achieved by placing a strong emphasis on materiality and the use of lighting to achieve a certain dramatic effect. The outcome of the design reflects a kind of “ready-made critical regionalism” in the sense that contemporary design elements are mediated by the historical vernacular of the existing building. It’s also one of the first examples of contemporary higher-end design in the entire region in which it is located.
Can you tell us about any difficulties you might have had in the early days starting the company? How is it different then working as an employee in a bigger studio?
For anyone starting a design or digital media firm an initial problem one might run into which definitely took me a few years to figure out is that every time the phone rings and someone says they have such and such a project for you and they give you the details you might have the tendency at first to superimpose onto what they are saying your own assumptions about how you want the project to play out.
In fact you need to have the ability to sense in advance if this is not the case.
For example, if a potential client calls you and says…
“we have this great project for you to work on, it’s for a big project in Russia and we are currently getting some additional information from the local associate firm in Moscow but we should have all of that by next week and the presentation is for the Prime Minister.”
“we have this project that is super politically complex and we won’t have even a site plan until 2 days before the deadline and if the Prime Minister doesn’t like it we won’t get paid and neither will you.”
What software do you use in your daily work? why did you pick those specifically and what do you like about them the most?
As I mentioned, I started out with Lightscape in 1998, then I switched to Cebas finalRender in 2003, then to V-Ray in 2007.
I loved finalRender for a while and the work I was doing with it for a few years was better than anything posted on the Chaos forum and gallery so I didn’t think of switching until I started seeing better examples of what artists are using V-Ray could do. Also, I should mention Lightscape had what I still would consider the best viewport navigation tools of all time.
For CAD I use Bentley Microstation which is amazingly superior to AutoCAD but Autodesk had the better marketing campaign in the mid 90’s. Engineers know that Microstation is awesome and a lot of engineering firms use it still.
For 3D Modeling I use 3ds Max with Npower PowerNurbs plug-in and various scripts. For parametric modeling I use Paracloud Modeler and Paracloud GEM. Also for years I have used Onyx but I try to avoid modeling and rendering foliage… I prefer to use photos and digital painting techniques. Here’s a decent tree test study I did with Onyx a few years ago. I think it’s still in the Onyx gallery.
Browsing your portfolio one cannot ignore the conceptual and dramatic feel it has. Projects seem “larger than life” at times. What can you tell us about your techniques in developing a visual?
I have developed a few different techniques to do images depending on the specific parameters of the project and the deadline, etc. My main preference and if the project allows is simply to do an image that looks like someone went out and just took a decent photo of the project – no fancy lighting effects or 3d grass and trees either. I need to focus my time more on tweaking the design ideas not on rendering trees and grass. This absolutely requires that I work with a good background photo plate and some proper reflection imagery. I realized early on that the most important thing is to have an awesome photo to work with. You can also make a method of working backwards from an amazing photo.
Another way if there is a short deadline and it’s a huge complex project with no great photography to work with (and this is usually the case with large corporate projects) is to do something a bit more dramatic with the lighting and to use digital painting techniques.
If you want to start learning digital painting techniques similar to what European Visualization Firms are doing these days, like Vyonyx and Luxigon, check out some of the training DVD’s at Gnomon Workshop – especially “The Techniques of Christian Lorenz Scheurer 1 : Introduction to Digital Painting in Photoshop”. It’s been around for years and it pretty much has everything you need to know to start experimenting with digital painting techniques.
One thing you will learn is how to “paint with light” using blending modes in Photoshop. And here’s the catch – most of these tricks work best with a dark background, so it helps significantly to do a dusk or nighttime shot. That’s why these guys have so many dusk and night time images. With daytime lighting you can’t blend content as easily so you need better photo content to work with at higher resolutions which is obviously more difficult to obtain.
For my book all the imagery is of the first type, simple with no fancy effects, just trying to look like a simple photo so all the attention can be focused on communicating the design intent. If the design idea is compelling this is all you need.
Of course the problem in most actual production deadline scenarios is the design is undercooked and there is little time to work it up properly so you need the help of effects and exaggerated dramatic lighting to fill in the gaps.
How do you do your marketing? or are you fully booked all the time by repeating clients and word of mouth ones?
I was booked solid from 1999 to 2008 with only 3-4 clients and I didn’t even have a business card. I only put up my website in the last few years to focus on design consulting for real estate development firms so they could see examples of my work and for marketing for my book project.
How much freedom do you have in your client work? I would guess a lot since your are the designer too. Is that correct? can you compare your workflow and benefits as opposed to a 3d rendering only firm?
“freedom” is a tricky term because you are always working with other people and with specific context and site parameters in architecture – not in a vacuum by yourself. If I am designing a stand-alone building for a developer client then I have a certain amount of freedom with the initial concept design studies but within the boundaries of what I perceive might be possible given the exigencies of the project.
But, when I am collaborating with a large architecture firm I gather as much information as I can about the project and then my primary goal is to as fast as possible show them a few images of some initial ideas to get them excited about something. Again this is where the professional visualization skills are a huge advantage. Then there is a gradual process of back and forth in a collaborative effort and working up of the design and presentation images.
Can you share more details about your typical client workflow from start to finish of a project? Do you follow the same approach for any client or is it different depending on that?
The workflow is very different for me for an architecture firm client than for a real estate development firm client.
For an architecture firm client the approach is to collaborate with them to solve the problems of what they need to show their client to make everyone happy and love the design and typically this needs to happen within a tight schedule.
For a real estate development client the schedule is not usually an issue – the real task is to come up with creative design ideas for the project, which is easier said than done obviously.
In this scenario it’s all on me and often ideas come to me when I am sleeping and I wake up in the morning and go sit down at my machines and start working. A few hours later there is something to work from and it is a process back and forth to refine the ideas.
Can you define the balance between Pure Render and Post Production in your work?
This seems to be the question of the moment and here is my answer – if you have an awesome design and have built a decent model of it and also have some great site photos to work with it can be 90% pure render and 10% post.
If you have a mediocre design which needs tons of help and no time to build a detailed model of anything and no site photos to work with its 20% render and 80% post.
What kind of hardware do you use?
I have all BOXXTECH machines for this main reason – Randall and Dan in the technical support department will actually answer the phone and solve your problem immediately and even ship you parts overnight. This is unprecedented and well worth the slightly higher cost of their machines if you are a professional firm.
Have you been trying the new GPU rendering solutions that are being offered these day?
Of course I’m using RT since the day it was available but for GPU main rendering solutions from what I see on the forums it’s not quite there yet and my workflow is non-problematic at the moment so I can wait until I hear otherwise. I have a friend who worked for Nvidia and he was explaining to me that this GPU technology has been available for more than 10 years but the reason we have had to wait is intellectual property rights issues and lawsuits.
How much time do you spend working on an image usually?
There are examples where I have produced famous images in a few hours and others where it takes weeks before all parties involved are happy.
Here’s a tower concept I came up with and did the images in about half a day and it was published next to an OMA project in A+U a few years back.
Who do you consider as a source of inspiration. Where do you go to find it?
In terms of seminal modern architecture, the work of Corbusier, Aalto, Niemeyer, Scarpa, Fehn, Utzon, Wright, and Kahn.
For contemporary design there is so much good work going on these days – especially in Japan and Spain, it’s impossible to name a few.
There are tons of blogs but nothing beats having monographs next to you on your bookshelf to pull out and flip through. I used to spend tons of money every year at Urban Center Book in NYC on my architectural library because I consider it absolutely necessary. Sadly they have closed and there is not one architectural book store left in NYC. I have to add that Dezeen makes me crazy – it’s like the best and worst aspects of the web combined. You could have Peter Zumthor anonymously post a project on Dezeen and they would probably publish a random negative quote about it from some kid somewhere like “Powerful yet naive”, or whatever… my point is I am kind of afraid of posting anything on there.
Can you share with us some interesting stories about memorable projects / famous project you been working on, some inside stories you can share (with images too if possible).
My track record with competitions when I collaborate with large architecture firms is strangely high for some reason I’m not really sure why. Maybe because my style achieves some simple but dramatic effect without the architecture looking too complicated or crazy and the images not looking either too abstract or too specific – somewhere in between ideally…
so many clients call me for competitions knowing that I can contribute to the design as well as do the final images – which is really useful to them because often the deadlines are very tight or they are understaffed and I can fill in the work of 2-3 people.
Here’s some examples…
The technological advances in hardware and software allow more people to enter the architectural visualization field with less effort and experience, Does that effect you in any way – or is the Design factor protecting you in that regard?
To an extent the design factor is protecting me but the question raises an interesting issue and one that a lot of people are probably overly worried about.
Historically there is no “architectural visualization” as a separate discourse from “architecture” for the reason that architects are traditionally trained to make representations of buildings as part of the design process.
Designing something requires that you make a representation of the idea so that you can communicate it to others – in the form of either a sketch or physical model. It is a phenomenon of the rise of cg rendering technologies in the past 15 years that “architectural visualization” has emerged as an autonomous field due to its complexity.
However it’s actually somewhat problematic within the discipline of architecture that “architectural visualization” even exists because it is symptomatic of architects losing touch with the ability to communicate their ideas themselves. Prior to cg visualization of course there was “architectural illustration”. The difference here is that advanced painting and other similar media skills are somewhat outside the scope of the education of an architect so it is understandable that firms would hire illustrators to paint scenes with their buildings in them.
These new advances in software and hardware are making it easier for architects themselves to produce images of their own buildings again. It’s maybe bad news for “architectural visualization” but good news for “architecture”. However having said that – as we all know making these images of buildings is not a simple process. It’s pretty complicated no matter how you try to break it down, so having new GPU technology or having more advanced rendering software is not really going to make a huge difference when you are talking about high end work. There’s a lot more to it than just that.
The specialized knowledge and skill required of making really good architectural images is similar to painting or photography or any other artistic media – it’s not really the tools that are the main thing it’s the depth of your artistic vision and abilities. Also the techniques that you appropriate with those tools…
Can you share some work in progress drafts or sketches for a single project, representing a start to finish cycle, as I’m sure that will be very interesting to see?
Here’s a few examples of workflow…
Tell us about your recent book project Design Studies, Volume One – what is the idea behind the book?
Every day, like many other designers, I spend a lot of time going through architecture source books and websites and blogs looking at ideas for inspiration, and significantly this is mainly for façade “texture” and exterior cladding ideas – because you usually already have the massing idea or it is severely restricted by zoning or perhaps it has been pre-determined by forces outside your control (especially in New York City). I wanted to make a book that would be very useful as a source book for other designers with the same problems.
I didn’t see any point in doing a book of cool whacky geometry ideas because you can’t translate that type of idiosyncratic geometry to another project. What you can translate, is cladding and façade ideas to many different contexts and geometries and even geographic locations despite obvious climate differences which can be dealt with as an added layer of thinking.
My intention is to produce a series of volumes over the next few years. This first volume I thought it made sense to keep the general typology low rise around three levels which is somewhat ubiquitous and can be easily reinterpreted as one or two or five levels with the same effect… also most tall building design is about the big geometry idea not the particulars of the cladding which is usually another layer.
It kind of works on that level as well. Of course this is a generalization and there are strict differences between performance of low-rise and high-rise wall systems but if we are talking about a screen system or solid to void relationship of unitized elements then you can pretty much map one onto the other.
Any one else here been using Lightscape? I'm feeling a bit of nostalgia ;) It was great fun to work with. I remember waiting to hit that running man toolbar button and watch them polys light up in red!
Would be interesting to gather up some lightscape generated images into a nice gallery. Let me know if you have some and I'll setup an upload page ;)
Yes Ronen. It's nice to hear about Lightscape again. I started as a beta tester for them while still in graduate school at UCLA in 1993 and then used the view independent nature of their radiosity implementation to launch what ultimately evolved into VIZRT. If you want to start a gallery I'm sure I could dig out some of the early images that made it into the original Lightscape marketing material.
Taking a look at Christian Lorenz Digital Painting training over at @gnomon_workshop as mentioned by Philip. He also does some actual Archviz work too... very nice to see.