In the introduction to Alan Gilchrist’s “Seeing Black and White,” the author establishes that his book will take an objective look at how we see the lights and darks of the world around us.  The foundational concepts upon which Gilchrist bases his theories lie primarily with light, the objects themselves, and, finally, our eyes.  Gilchrist asserts that what we see is based on established, ordered reality that is uniform for all who see it, and certain properties of objects and light hold true regardless of the perceptions of the observer.  This differs from behavioral theorists, who assert that what we see is entirely based on our eyes and mental perceptions of reality.   The book hits the ground running, defining some important concepts that help the reader understand what it is the author is proposing.

Gilchrist starts by looking at scientific properties of objects and the light they reflect.  Some essential terms include distal stimulus, proximal stimulus, and percept.  Distal stimulus refers to the object in the environment, completely disregarding the observer.  It could be a chair, or a fence, or a tree, but it is just that object, before the observer comes along and projects their observational standpoint on the object.  These objects are illuminated by a certain amount of light, called illuminance, and reflect a certain amount of light, called reflectance.  These are quantifiable properties — illuminance is an absolute value of light, expressed in such measurements as candles per square meter, and reflectance is a percentage based on how much of the illuminance an object reflects.  A black object, for instance, reflects 3% of the light hitting it, while a white object reflects 90% of the light.

Proximal stimulus, on the other hand, refers to the point when the reflected light from the object makes contact with the actual retinal cells in our eyes.  The intensity of light measured at each point on the retina, called luminance, can take into effect the illuminance and reflectance properties of the distal stimulus.  Now, once the light has made contact with us, we move to how our mind decodes this information.  This is the percept, and it is where things become subjective.  The example Gilchrist uses is that of the moon:  while the reflected light is close to black, we perceive it as white.

One more concept Gilchrist puts forth is the difference between two terms, lightness and brightness.  For many people, these are synonymous; however, the author distinguishes between the two.  He says that lightness is the perceived reflectance of an object.  If we perceive an object as black, with low reflectance, it has low lightness.  Brightness, on the other hand, is perceived luminance, or how intense the light appears to be when it hits our eye.  As you may recall, luminance is a combination of how much light an object actually reflects and how much light is cast on it.  This distinction is subtle, but necessary to understand for this book.

Gilchrist also goes a bit into the term contrast.  Firstly he defines it as another word for luminance ratio, that is, the perceived difference in luminance between two objects of surfaces.  However, he also says contrast can be an illusion – for instance, a black surface in light may appear to be a different tone of gray as a white surface in shadow.  Yet, when taking into account the difference of reflectance and illuminance, they are actually the same tone.  It is only because of the contrast of surrounding black or white squares, combined with the shadow which is cast on the white square, that the two appear different.  For an example of this, see this link:

A little while back in this class we defined tone as the neutrality of a color, or how gray it is.  After considering what Mr. Gilchrist had to say about contrast, I now think that tone is not a solid attribute of an object, but rather a perception based on other nearby objects.  Though an object may appear to have a lighter tone of red than another, it may just be caused by the “higher of two luminances at an edge” (Gilchrist, 2006); thus, even if two red vases with the same tone were next to each other and one were in shadow, the contrast can affect how we see the tone of them.  Tone is more subjective than I previously thought.

After having read the introduction to “Seeing Black and White,” I feel as if I have a stronger, if not completely clear, idea of how we see lights and darks in our reality.  The writing was clean, but the heady and scientific nature of the content made comprehension for me a bit difficult at times.  It was only after re-reading certain sections and coming up with my own words for the definitions that I grasped more of what Mr. Gilchrist had to say.  I like how he broke down the distal stimulus, or object, the proximal stimulus, or contact with our eye, and percept down into separate ideas, rather than one all-encompassing process of seeing.  If I have time, I may delve further in to the book.


Architectural Design

January 11, 2010

My assigned design discipline was architecture, which, to put it in basic terms, is the art and science of designing buildings or other structures.  It can, however, also encompass a broader range of related concepts, such as designing outdoor spaces, designing the flow of a web page, or designing any highly structured system.  For the purposes of this explanation, I’ll stick to buildings.

When designing a building, an architect’s job might include many aspects of design, from the actual look of the building, to the project planning, to cost estimation, to the supervising of construction.  Yet there can be much creative freedom in being an architect, depending on the needs of the building.  Sometimes a building needs to be functional and not pretty, such as a basic apartment building.  More often than not, though, an architect chooses the visual style, materials, and all the ingredients he needs to create his structure.  The ultimate goal is to have a building that is pleasing for those who will use it or see it, so many elements of design are utilized to execute this.

One important element of design is texture, the tactile or visual “feel” of a surface.  A Stone CottageThis can help a great deal when an architect wishes to elicit a particular reaction, such as with this stone cottage.  The rough, jagged stone arrangement, combined with the timber wood, conveys a sense of earthiness and a connection with nature, which is fitting for a forest cottage. Grass-covered BuildingConcrete would have seemed out of place here, to say the least.  Texture is also used to great extent with this “green” building on the left.  While the primary purpose was to create an eco-friendly building here, I would also argue that the architect specifically used the terraced grass effect to make the building seem more calm and inviting amidst a sea of steel and glass.  The fact that one entire, sloped side is covered in grass also reminds the viewer of a hill, and stirs up feelings of grass running between one’s fingers.  At least, it does for me.

Form is another element of design which can be used to great effect by architects.  While most buildings are indeed square, it is perhaps this pervasive box design that can cause an unusually-shaped building to stand out all the more.  My first example is the Sydney Opera House, on the right, the shape of which evokes majestic sails in the Sydney Harbor.  The progenitors of the Opera House project could have decided on a conventional design, but instead they wanted something different.  The result has come to symbolize Sydney, and, indeed, Australia.  Yet, as I said earlier, architecture is also about function, so those sail-shaped halls were also designed to provide a unique acoustic experience.

Secondly, I point to our own local Space Needle as an instance of an impressive use of form.  Built for the 1962 World’s Fair, the Needle contains Googie architectural elements, from the skinny main tower up to the observation deck/restaurant level, that create such a unique look that the Needle continues to define images of Seattle the world over.  Even with the World’s Fair come and gone, the Space Needle’s unmistakable profile remains as a major tourist attraction.

Value is also an element of design that architects utilize.  More often than not, this is done through choice of material, the different values of which can reveal character in a building.  Take the Empire State Building, for instance.  Seen up close, the different values of limestone, combined with the crisp, Art Deco lines of the style, make for a truly elegant building.

This church is also a great example of value.  Since the architect chose brick as his medium of construction, we can see different values of brick dotted throughout the facade.  Not only can we tell the relative age based on that fact, but it lends a certain character to this old building.  Look carefully at the sheer variety of values found here.  It really makes the building have an old, dusty look.

For a local architecture company, I chose MulvannyG2 Architecture, a well-known firm whose projects include Redmond City Hall and the Tacoma Convention and Trade Center.  Website:  Phone No.:  425-463-2000.