Boston – Lighting the Way

I recently had the opportunity to revisit Boston, while attending the American Society of Architectural Illustrators Conference (ASAI). This late September getaway gave me the occasion to meet some of America’s most esteemed architectural illustrators, get to know several talented artists and expand my thinking about architectural illustration.  Over a five day period I was inspired by the conference speakers and their ideas, and took the opportunity to contextualize these ideas against real art and architectural examples in and around Boston.

Interior – Boston City Hall

The opening night lecture by Steve Oles was inspirational.  A showcase of his work, “Truth in Architecture:Works by Paul Stevenson Oles” housed at the Boston Society of Architects served an overview of his impressive career.  Oles recounted his professional experiences, as an illustrator who has collaborated with some of the best American architects of the 20th century.  On the showcase website I.M. Pei is quoted as having said “Steve Oles is an architect/artist who perceives the intellectual substance in the design intent and skillfully, rigorously, and with fidelity investigates design implications through drawings. He is a valued collaborator in the search for truth in architecture.” Early in my career as an architect, I had been intrigued with the field of architectural illustration, and recall thinking of Mr. Oles as one of the best in the profession.

Paul Stevenson Oles and me, at the Opening of “Truth in Architecture – 50 years of architecture in perspective drawing”

What I found fascinating about being in Boston was experiencing the link between architectural illustration as a profession and dynamic creativity that makes Boston such a hotbed of design.  Mr. Oles is an excellent example of this.  It was in large part a result of the significant architectural projects that were being completed in Boston by I. M. Pei and many other great architects, that resulted in so many outstanding American architectural illustrators setting up shop in the City on a Hill. This continues today with a new generation of Boston illustrators whose skills bridge both traditional hand rendering techniques and 21st century CGI solutions.

Frank Costantino, guiding the tours in Boston

Frank Costantino, who along with Paul Stevenson Oles (Steve Oles) founded the ASAI, were both on hand at the opening night festivities. In addition, Mr. Costantino provided conference attendees with guided tours of Boston. These urban explorations ventured through two areas of the city that have seen the most transformation over the past decade: the Port of Boston (one of the largest on the eastern seaboard) and the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway (which is located above the “Big Dig“).  The port area resembled cites where I have worked in China, in that it was like starting with a clean slate with each block currently under construction, or with a sign board describing the upcoming development.  The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway is a one mile linear park that replaced the elevated John F. Fitzgerald Expressway which was slammed through the city in the mid-1950’s and has since been placed underground in the project known as the “Big Dig”.  The objective of our tour was to identify a location where participants could produce their own observational sketches of the city, and its architecture.  From the outset, I had a specific goal in mind. Particularly, as I have been intrigued for quite some time with late deco skyscraper design – and chose to drive to Boston to observe some of the exceptional examples of the this typology in the small cities throughout upstate New York.

Conference Highlights

Possibly the most intriguing aspect of the ASAI Conference, was the opportunity to converse with the industry’s biggest names, and most prolific experts. The established and in some cases legendary professionals made themselves readily available to the newer members of the profession – who were eager to learn how they might translate their modern technical skills in a way that could capture the same sense of spirit that had been achieved so profoundly through more traditional illustration techniques.

Moshe Safdie with Jon Soules (above); Safdie with Howard (below)

Moshe Safdie addressed conference attendees in an intimate conversation. He discussed how the process of design has transformed over the years, as clients demand more visual representation of the design, sometimes even before the design has progressed enough to explain the actual building.

Listening to Rodrigo’s Lopez’s lecture, entitled “the Still Narrative” was also enlightening as he sited how he was inspired by Hugh Ferriss and other great artists who have depicted the built and natural world.  Immediately following this lecture, I crossed town to visit the Harvard University Gallery to observe the painting he had referenced.


Harvard Art Museums Atrium  – Renzo Piano architect

The recently renovated and expanded Harvard Art Museums, contain a magnificent and inspirational collection of art. I was particularly enthralled by several landscape paintings and city scenes.  The painting “Rocky Mountain” was done by Albert Bierstadt, a member of the Hudson River School. Bierstadt’s masterpiece captured my attention with his particularly deft use of detail in foreground, middle ground and background – all expressed in a perfect composition, where light is used to draw the observer deeper into the landscape. One might imagine traveling through the outer and darker perimeter, and into the illuminated center of the painting. While this area is the focus of the painting, it is fascinating that Bierstadt utilized broad brushstrokes to depict the meadow and stream illuminated through the opening of the brooding clouds above.


One of my personal highlights while visiting the museum’s 16th century collection was Giovanni Antonio Canaletto‘s “Piazza San Marco” painted in 1730.  I wanted to examine the groupings of people  in the painting which Rodrigo Lopez had earlier described as being perfect. In fact, each grouping positioned on the piazza San Marco, were engaged in their own intimate conversations which in turn gives the vast piazza a sense of life and vitality.


Lopez discussed the importance of light in art, and how this can create a sense of emotion.  I had the opportunity to reflect on my own illustration that I had submitted to the ASAI conference, and the challenges I encountered when executing it.  I had focused greatly on issues of composition, and depth – but had not capitalized on using light to give the drawing more drama.  Although it was a winning entry in the competition, I find myself thinking about how stronger contrasts between light and dark within the composition could have imparted a more emotional response to the house that I had designed and illustrated. I will certainly bring this critical thought, and important insight forward in future projects.


As the conference drew to an end, attendees assembled for the Annual Architecture in Perspective 31 Awards ceremony.  The silent auction, a perennial favorite, showcased the drawings prepared over the previous days.

Silent Auction of Sketches by ASAI Members


Exhibition of Architecture in Perspective 31, at Neoscape


Architecture in Perspective 31 Catalogue, featuring my winning entry

After the conference I traveled to the Back Bay Fens to visit one of my favorite American homes, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which is now under the expert leadership of Peggy Fogelman, the Norma Jean Calderwood Director of the museum.  I had visited the late Mrs. Gardner’s home in the 1980’s and returned to the newly renovated (R. Piano) mansion to discover a delightful and purposeful contrast between the historic interior and the greenhouse inspired addition. The 15th century Venetian style palace is a much loved Boston institution and repository of Mrs. Gardner’s extensive collection of art, literature and historic manuscripts.


The Atrium of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum


Entry reception & greenhouse at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

One of my favorites pieces in the Gardner collection is John Singer Sargent‘s “El Jaleo” which is located on the lower level of the home in an eclectic room that was designed specifically to accommodate the substantial painting. Sargent composed the figures to ensure the darkest elements of the painting were positioned to accentuate the main character, a protagonist captured in a dramatic moment of dance which commands the room.   The subject’s light dress, head and arms contrast against the darkness of the musicians in the background.  The source of the light, projected from the bottom of the painting adds a sense of mystery and theatricality. “El Jaleo” is framed by a Moorish arch which adds a new dimensional space and further emphasizes the exotic atmosphere that is the hallmark of the home.


Spanish Cloister in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum



“El Jaleo” (1882) by John Singer Sargent

Several of the paintings throughout the Gardner Museum epitomize the complete integration of art and architecture.  These compositional devises are utilized throughout the house, and create numerous “stage sets” of varying dramatic effect.  As I toured the Gardner Museum with its complex curation of art, decoration and found objects, I became increasingly aware of the effect of the natural light throughout the home. In order to capture this moment, I composed several photos where I was keenly aware of the effect of light within the frame . In many ways my time spent in Boston and at the ASAI conference has been illuminating, and has emphasized the importance of “light” in architecture and illustration as a means of conveying emotion.


From the Dutch Room looking toward atrium



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