Showing off

Marionette gives Origin Studios an extra tweak to Vectorworks for their designs for museum exhibitions

Having to design a complete museum and then dismantle it and re-erect it elsewhere raises some unique logistical problems, but the use by Origin Studios of Vectorworks Marionette to configure the layout of the exhibits, is altogether more interesting.

Linette Brown of Origin Studios, an exhibition design company located in Ottawa, Canada, was one of the presenters at the virtual Vectorworks Design Day in October, where a variety of interesting presentations were made by architectural and landscape designers who use Vectorworks as their core design application. Not only did Origin Studios' work provide a different slant on architectural design and the requirements for an unusual operator within the industry, but I was also intrigued by the discussion of Vectorworks Marionette in her presentation.

There are two main elements to any exhibition - the space in which the exhibition is presented and the purpose and content of the exhibition itself. Originally (no pun intended) the company produced 2D drawings for the exhibitions, a time-consuming and exacting process, as each of the individual displays had to be drawn in plan and elevation and given some artistic flourishes to provide the client with a visual impression of their brief. If any modifications needed to be made, the architectural and artistic representations had to be redrawn. In addition to the spaces and exhibitry, images representing the artefacts included in the exhibitions needed to be added to each elevation to simulate the views that visitors would see from multiple angles.

The adoption of 3D modelling using Vectorworks Architect has transformed the process completely, with its parametric and 3D capabilities allowing designs to be created much more simply, modified more effectively, and displayed or explored from any angle.

The starting point for Origin is obviously the client's brief and the venue for their exhibition, which could be a purpose built location, a temporary gallery, or even, as you will see from the case study in this article, a number of convenient nooks and crannies distributed throughout a working building. 3D architectural models may be available from the venues, created from scratch using Vectorworks Architect, or built up from a surveyed model using tools like LIDAR, which, depending on the client's budget, are usually provided by a third party company.

Effective Use of Space
I would imagine that it's quite a challenge for both the client and Origin Studios to try and fit everything they want in the available space. What's more, it has to be placed in accordance with the exhibition's narrative. This is where Vectorwork's Marionette comes in. Origin Studios has created a workflow using Marionette's algorithmic capabilities to create basic models of an entire exhibition's artifacts and objects, enabling Origin's designers to accurately predict and place sometimes hundreds of items in an exhibition. This, of course, has a substantial impact on the 3D exhibitry. Are the display cases big enough? Too big? What are the sightlines to "jewel" objects? How dense are the displays? etc.

Starting with the dimensions for each object in a spreadsheet, Brown imports the data - width, height, and depth - into Vectorworks and, using Marionette, creates a whole collection of individual artifacts that can then be placed in display cases, on shelves, or wherever they need to be. The 3D exhibitry is drawn by hand, though they do work with modular exhibitry as much as possible, and the objects also need to be placed manually, but Marionette lets Origin populate a gallery space with 'real' objects, and quickly.

The individual components for each of the displays are custom built as well. A panel unit, for instance, would be built from scratch, but it would be created on a separate layer with its own reference documents. This is done to provide it with more flexibility so that when it has to be repositioned within the display unit, the rest of the display is not affected and doesn't have to refresh to compensate. In addition, large format photos and other graphics, sometimes encompassing a whole section of a wall, can be attached to any surface but need to have a high enough resolution to maintain the quality of the image.

The ultimate aim is to provide the client with as lifelike a model as can possibly be achieved using Vectorworks modelling, material libraries, and rendering capabilities, so that they can navigate through the exhibition to get a feel for what visitors will see. This means that the items that are the focus of the exhibition, and any accompanying graphics, need to be included in the 3D model.

Many of the objects will be available from the client's own databases but where they are not, or where simpler representations can be used, Origin Studios has developed a number of tricks that will display 2D objects in a variety of angles that will mimic a fully populated display. Linette said that it is important to stress however that the focus is always on providing the highest levels of quality in the rendered scenes that they can create to provide clients with as close a sample as possible to what they will ultimately build. I can concur with this as I was unable to easily distinguish the difference between Origin Studios' rendered model and the installation photograph.

I asked Linette whether Origin Studios used Vectorworks Spotlight lighting design application for illuminating the exhibits, but she explained that using such powerful software would be overkill for the bulk of their work - but should the need arise and if the clients budget allowed it, a company with the appropriate expertise would be called in.

Travelling Displays
Now that you know what is involved in setting up a permanent exhibition, you can understand the extra complexity that comes from putting the exhibition on the road. Each of the displays has to be capable of being dismantled and re-erected in another location and in a different room, which may be smaller but still uses, as much as possible, the same material and the same organisation.

The graphics may also need to be moved round or reprinted to accommodate different configurations, and all of the space planning that is carried out for a permanent exhibition has to be replicated for each of the multiple sites in a travelling exhibition. In addition, the number of truck trailers required to move the exhibition has to be calculated and key exhibition staff need to know how to dismantle and install it on site.

The additional costs can therefore be substantial and are factored in by the client, who is able to mount exhibitions and display them to the public - probably an important factor in a country that spans six time zones! An interesting extra fact provided by Linette: the average lifespan of a travelling exhibition is around five years.

Mulroney Hall Case Study
The example of the permanent exhibition at Mulroney Hall at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada, was provided by Brown as part of her presentation. A distributed exhibition was created for the university building at the heart of the campus; it's a space where students spend four years studying public policy.

The exhibition was spread throughout the main atrium and hallways of the building in various alcoves and open spaces. Each display focuses on a particular aspect of Brian Mulroney's life and politics. He was Canada's 18th prime minister and an alumnus of the university.

The inspirational exhibits represented topics related to the courses they are studying. Brown worked with the project architect's architectural model, which was being designed and constructed at the same time as the exhibition was being designed, and placed exhibitry, graphics, objects and artifacts, created using Marionette, into her Vectorworks file.The parameters of the building may have changed throughout the project, but Brown's Marionette objects were stored safely on a layer waiting to be repositioned as the size of display cases changed.

This is another great example of a company that has been able to take advantage of the full range of Vectorworks capabilities, and I am indebted to Linette for explaining to me how Origin Studios uses Marionette - a versatile tool that is surprisingly easy to set up if you understand the logic of what you are trying to do.