An aye for detail

If you’re after great building illustrations, interactive work or even a website, look no further than Chiswick and Scots-led Hayes Davidson, says Sutherland Lyall

Alan Davidson of Hayes Davidson was asked to judge this year’s Construction Industry Computer Association (CICA) CAD prize. Embarrassingly for the askers, he has won it for the past three years and looks like doing so for the foreseeable future. Hayes Davidson? It’s not a name known only in the obscure world of architecture. If you read the nationals you will have seen examples of the company’s work: Foster and Partners, Richard Rogers, Nicholas Grimshaw and Future Systems are regular clients. And most of the major projects of the last decade from the South Bank to the Millennium tent are known because of Hayes Davidson’s illustrations. Any architect of style uses the company because it is not just the most outstanding in the UK but, if you’ve been following the best of international architectural presentation work, it’s quite certain that Hayes Davidson is best anywhere at what it does.

Hayes Davidson does three things. It illustrates buildings and building projects either as stills or animations; it does interactive stuff for marketing systems and exhibitions; and it is beginning to do on-line work in the form of web pages. The most recent of the latter is the new and very complete Richard Rogers site at richardrogers.co.uk. But of necessity, it is best known for the first lot because the main reason architects illustrate buildings is to sell the virtues of their design to clients and the public. What we see less of is the work the company does for leading developers, marketing operations and things such as the virtual building, the EcoDome, for the Richard Dawkins CD Evolution, produced by Notting Hill Publishing.

A couple of years ago you would have been correct in thinking of Hayes Davidson as softly-spoken Aberdonian Alan Davidson and a few Mac jocks. Hayes never existed: when he set up in 1989 Davidson invoked him in the name of corporate gravitas, but it wasn’t really needed. Now, a thousand building illustrations later, the company is Davidson plus eight or so staff crammed into a darkened room lit by flickering VDU tubes over a pub on London’s Chiswick High Street. It sounds ergonomically incorrect, but it seems to be the way heavy-duty 3D people prefer to work. And Davidson has the get-out that he’s currently looking for new offices.

He’s not an easy person to pin down when he doesn’t want to be pinned, inclined to slide off into thoughts on what artificial intelligence guru Marvin Minsky really said in 1982, which is seriously side-tracking when you really want to know how he got the rear light trails in that wonderful Rogers night-time image. The chances are that they were done by eye, probably by somebody in the team, perhaps the whole team, rather than being set up, which is cool beyond belief. By the time he’s finished you’ve forgotten the crucial question and are left wishing Minsky had never invented himself.

There’s a standard Davidson line about how the computer is but a tool. “Everybody has been getting off on the capacity of 3D modelling soft- and hardware, seduced by the glamour of the technology. There’s the promise that if you buy it it’ll make you an ace accountant, artist, designer or whatever. It’s a bit like the introduction of photocopying, which looked as though it would somehow open the doors to the world. You’d have to be pretty sad to get off on photocopying now,” observes Davidson. This is, of course, an extension of the observation about the crucial importance of the photographer’s eye rather than how technologically advanced his or her kit is. Naturally, it’s correct – and so is Davidson.

“When we interview staff here the key question is ‘why do you want to be an illustrator?’ Not computer graphics person but an illustrator.” Anybody from art school can use a mouse and Photoshop more or less competently. What Hayes Davidson does is produce stunningly persuasive images of buildings – and you need an eye for more than a nimble mouse wrist. “My heroes,” he says, “are not operations like [en vogue animator] Pixar, but 1920s commercial artists such as Hugh Ferris, who wielded a thick pencil to create amazing buildings and cities.”

We dicker a bit about whether Ferris’s vision was apocalyptic in the sense of, say, John Martin or perhaps the Futurists and settle uneasily for oxymoronic “optimistically apocalyptic”. Apocalyptic is the right word because although it is understood these days as being more to do with ending, it is also to do with the subsequent beginning, the establishment of the City of God. And Davidson has his own modest vision of the city of the future. He puts up on the screen an electronic montage of a London of towers with that sacred icon, St Paul’s Cathedral, nestling safely in their midst. He waits for you to look, wonder why you’re being shown what could be a photo taken from a tall building in Bermondsey – and for you then to take it in the fact that however familiar it looks, most of the towers don’t currently exist. He points out reasonably: “You’ve got English Heritage and its 100-foot maximum height rule for buildings in the City. But what does that really mean for the City? What does this rule look like? Until you create a visible, manipulable 3D image you’re missing a major tool for dealing with cities.” He would, of course, say that, but equally his is an unassailable logic. And we’ll be seeing more of the consequences of that thinking later in the year.

However much the Hayes Davidson people make their point about the illustrator’s eye, there is still a bit of the anorak in each of them. Amused, Davidson doesn’t deny the accusation, but points out that you have to understand the obscure corners of computer applications in order to make them run better and faster. And that you have to be comfortable with the physical technology – such as moving hard drives from computer to computer and not wasting time waving arms when something goes down.

Unusually, Davidson uses Macs and PCs indiscriminately – using all the available operating systems – and he doesn’t have any SGIs. It’s not so much the cost of kit as the price of SGI applications. No, it’s not as if Davidson stints on high-end and pricey PC and Mac applications such as Electric Image and AutoCad. Almost all the company’s stills work ends up being composited and titivated in Photoshop. It may have started off in any of the 3D modelling apps favoured by individual team people: Form Z, the ex-Amiga app Imagine, AutoCad or 3D Studio. It would then go via appropriate tweaking apps to Photoshop and the printer. Or, coming out of say 3D Studio, it would be DXFed into Electric Image and eventually output into Premiere for animations. But when you remember the stunning quality of the images thus produced you realise that Davidson has to be correct. The technology is interesting, sure, but it’s really all to do with the illustrator’s eye.

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