Bigelow and Fifth
August 30, 5:45 PM
I first went to Bigelow and Fifth during rush hour, at around 5:45 pm. It was busy — people everywhere, buses were rolling by nonstop, and there was a general air of activity and frenzy.
The first thing that struck me was the amount of people. I was running into students leaving and going to class at every corner, which wasn’t surprising since the intersection is near the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. Almost all of the people were young college students, quickly moving through the overall space, which lent a healthy energy to the place.
In addition to the young demographic, the intersection was extremely well-manicured and decorated. The large lawn by Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall was freshly trimmed. The cannon decorating the lawn was preserved well. The buildings nearby were all built in a dated, decorative style, which reflected the area’s historical significance (The University of Pittsburgh was founded in 1787, after all).
Litter was nowhere to be found. If there was vandalism, it was promptly covered up. Not a single thing looked out of place.
There were also extraneous objects that hinted at the intersection’s importance, such as:
- fencing lining the sidewalk between the sidewalk and the street
- flowers and shrubs planted alongside the sidewalk
- uniformly planted trees embedded in the sidewalk
Trees densely populated two adjacent corners of the intersection, providing shaded areas for students to rest. I also noticed city signage pointing out local points of interest. This is probably one of Pittsburgh’s most high-profile landmark intersections, as it draws a lot of visiting motor and foot traffic.
One of the most obvious sights at Bigelow and Fifth is the towering sight of the Cathedral of Learning.
In addition to just aesthetic flourishes, the intersection is very functional. It contains green bike lanes (a rare sight in Pittsburgh based on my limited experience), and is serviced by plenty of buses in the Port Authority and Pitt bus systems. The large lawn provides an informal recreational space, where students were playing frisbee. It’s a tight, narrow, and busy intersection, but the lawn at one corner gives the impression of an open space. I can imagine the freeing feeling students must experience once they walk out of the cathedral and step into a panoramic view of Soldiers and Sailors Hall, especially during the soft late afternoon light.
In addition, the abundant greenery, public-use bikes/bike lanes, and public transporation help signify that Pittsburgh (or at least this part of Pittsburgh) is environmentally conscious.
I left Bigelow and Fifth with the impression that this was probably one of the most attractive and well-maintained intersections in the city of Pittsburgh. I never felt unsafe. In fact, surrounded by people just like me, I felt quite welcome. With eating options and comfortable shaded areas nearby, the intersection felt like a homely destination. At the same time, the hustle and bustle reminded me that ultimately, intersections are working spaces. Intersections are for trucks and cars and bikes and people to pass through, just like I ultimately did.
August 31, 8:30 PM
I went again a day later. This time it was dark and sprinkling lightly. I had an entirely different perspective of the intersection.
While the intersection was still active and busy, it lost most of the charisma it had a day earlier. A lot of the intersection’s defining features were gone due to darkness. For example, the memorial hall was completely dark.
And the Cathedral? Just a few lights.
Because these two defining landmarks of the intersection were lit inadequately, the intersection seemed far more somber and perhaps ordinary. With no light to interact between the different spaces, the intersection lost a lot of dimension. During the late afternoon/early evening, light peeked behind each building, reflected off the cars, and its absence in the shaded areas gave the area a rich visual texture. In the dark, everything is overshadowed by bright motor headlights.
Choosing the Right Photo
In choosing the right photo, I wanted to work with something with a lot of perspective and dimension.
But looking at this photo above some more and trying some crops, I decided that there was too much negative space in the photo. The photo only showed a very narrow part of the entire intersection, and didn’t have enough detail or character that represented Fifth and Bigelow.
I decided to try another photo:
This image showed a nice depth, with subjects in the foreground, midground, and background. In addition, the amount of objects lent movement to the scene and made it feel more alive. It also gives the most context. You can see the street, the pedestrians, the greenery, the buildings, and the neighborhood a few blocks away.
I played around with different crops. I decided to keep the entire picture intact, so the perspective of the buildings on either side of the photo would be shown.
After I chose a picture, I traced it on a piece of letter paper:
And then I started cutting. I decided to approach it in a layered way so the perspective of the scene would be more obvious. I started with the layer at the very back (aside from the sky).
As I cut each layer, I moved from the background to the foreground of the scene. This is what it looked like as I progressed through the layers:
For the trees, I tried ripping paper to give them added dimension and texture.
I also shortened the stoplight because it made the entire scene too busy on the left side.
Here is the final one I came up with for this attempt:
September 7, 2016 — Second Attempt
For the second attempt, I made some tweaks to my initial technique. I had to choose between 7" x 7" and 8" x 6". I decided on a square crop because I felt like that aspect ratio showed the most concise amount of information. On either side, there are just a lot of trees and the edge of a relatively nondescript boring. A square crop would concentrate the composition.
At first, I just started by creating what was essentially a crop of my first project. I didn’t shrink the proportions of the image at all. After I started cutting, I realized that the elements of the photo were a bit too large for the smaller seven-inch frame. It felt cramped.
I composed the image in InDesign so I could shrink the image and print out a perfect seven-inch square:
Then I extended the edge of the image to give me “wiggle room”. The final print out looked like this:
I also chose a different paper. The original paper I chose was much thicker and had a warm tint to it. I agreed with what another student said during our first crits; that the cream color was distracting. The paper I used for this attempt was a more standard drawing paper, and I think I enjoyed using it more. In some ways it was both easier and harder to work with.
I also took some of my peers’ feedback into consideration, as well as my own thoughts.
In the first attempt,
- the ground looks disconnected from the buildings (I kept them on the same layer this time).
- the two buses look connected (the crop later removed the second bus entirely).
- The crosswalk was distracting and gave the street too much value (Got rid of it).
- The torn edges of the trees were distracting from the overall composition (Switched entirely to cut edges).
I also used Stacie and Steve’s tips on craftsmanship, which improved my work a lot. For example, I cut everything backwards to avoid pencil marks.
Next to my older attempt, overall, the shapes look more defined. The torn edges in the trees are no longer distracting the overall composition, and I think the purer white also helps. While I scaled the image smaller, I also added more detail in certain areas and removed some in other areas. Finally, I also fixed some perspective issues. I had a lot of fun!
After I showed this attempt to Steve, he immediately identified some problems with it.
- He noted that the perspective was off. There was a mathematical way to how I calculated the angles of objects in relation to the frame. It made the entire thing look unrealistic and unbelievable. For example, in the photo, the top edge of the apartment building on the left isn’t completely parallel to the edge of the photo. But in my last paper attempt, the top edge of the building was parallel, making it inaccurate.
- The bottom half of the composition wasn’t busy enough. It didn’t fully reflect the busyness that I encountered in the intersection.
- The cars on the left side were glued strangely and overlapped.
- The sidewalk on the right side resembled a bush.
- The apartment building on the right side lacked detail, rendering it flat and lifeless.
September 10: Third time’s the charm (?)
After taking in some problems with my piece, I revisited it, making some changes along the way. I still constructed the piece in a very similar way to my first two attempts, but I paid far more attention the form of the different objects.
Instead of making the sidewalk its own piece, I just added some thin borders, as well as adding additional human sihoulettes to signal that that section was a sidewalk, and not an ambiguous bush-like form. I also added additional cars to show that the intersection was busy. I ended up liking it a lot more than my previous attempt and certainly a lot more than my first attempt.
Monday, September 12: Gray!
I decided to jump right into the gray project. I wanted to use the gray to simulate depth, because my photo has a really deep range of perspective. I layered it just like my previous attempts, wondering what it would turn out like.
For the closest elements to the viewer, I made them dark, while the elements furthest away were made out of the lightest paper.
I did like the overall effect that this gave the composition…
I didn’t make the street dark because I felt that when a viewer looked at the scene in real life, they would focus more on the objects on the street rather than the street itself, so I used contrast to differentiate the forms.
After I finished it though, I realized that the foreground was too uniform. For the next attempt, I’m going to start incorporating light and dark elements throughout the entire scene, especially the foreground, just to give it more detail. The dark-on-dark relief doesn’t quite work, esepcially from a distance.
I put the “gray” one aside to work on the color one. I started by scanning little snippets of all the different colors. Then I mocked up the compositions in Photoshop.
I first decided on which part to replace with the color. Because I use large swaths of uniform color in my composition, almost every change was overpowering. The only one that worked was if I changed the second-to-last background layer:
I also reworked the details. Because the foreground was all one color in the gray attempt, I decided to include more colors, partially disregarding depth to give my composition more contrast.
The final color one and the revised gray one look like this:
All in all, I’m happy with my compositions. I didn’t include as much painstaking detail as some of my peers, but Steve pointed that out as a strength and I agree. I also am happy with the yellow, which reflects the liveliness of the street in a fair yet understated way.
Here are some of my takeaways, or what I learned from this project:
- Craftsmanship (or as Tammar put it, “crapsmanship”). I really improved my cutting skills, glueing skills, and I think I can work more efficiently with physical tools now.
- Shapes. I now consider forms more carefully. Not just in a 2D context, but in relief (slight 3D), as well as in the contexts of color and shade. It helped me look at objects more critically and see how they affected one another.
- Using digital tools. Using Photoshop and a scanner really helped me with this project, because it’s hard to visualize objects that are detailed.
- Communication. What were the most important points of the intersection? How would I choose the photo to best represent the spirit of the location/overall locale? What things would I omit or change?
- Process. Writing this medium post and taking lots of photos really helped me document my process and (wow!) it made me feel almost like a real designer! I feel more comfortable talking about my work now and can approach problems in a more considered manner.
Thanks for reading!