Computer renderings provide today's architects with an invaluable tool for presenting multiple photo-realistic views of their designs. Seemingly objective because they're machine generated, computer-rendered perspectives can be used to gauge quickly and precisely a building's impact on its surroundings–a serious consideration in the current climate of preservation consciousness and environmental-impact awareness.

So when the Pritzker Prize-winning architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron presented their plans for the new de Young Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, they used an expensively produced virtual tour replete with ambient sound track. Museum officials were braced for a strong public reaction to the startlingly modern design the drawings revealed. But what the museum and its architects weren't expecting was that a private citizen–and a layman at that–would use the same tools to critique what has proven [as reported by Metropolis in June 2000] to be the city's most controversial project in decades.

Alarmed at what he sees as the new museum's "monumental" impact on the park, Chris Duderstadt, a mechanical engineer who lives nearby, has generated his own renderings. They provide an unflattering–to put it mildly–view of Herzog and de Meuron's scheme. Duderstadt felt that the official presentation misrepresented the proposal, so he used a CAD (computer-aided design) program to extrapolate new renderings from the architects' published plans. He then imported data based on his own photographs of the surroundings and whatever aerial views he could get his hands on.

Many of Duderstadt's efforts have focused on providing an accurate portrayal of the new museum's massive tower. (The oddly shaped 14-story monolith has been a lightning rod for much of the debate over Herzog and de Meuron's design.) On his personal Web site ( Duderstadt has posted day and night views of the structure that contrast sharply with the official versions. The museum's renderings show the tower as a benign presence in the park, in Duderstadt's rendition it's a hulking monstrosity that would warm the heart of Darth Vader himself.

"I'm simply trying to represent the new museum as best I can," Duderstadt insists. Complicating his task is the tower's unconventional shape, a twisted polygon that appears either massive or slender, depending on your point of view. (Critics accuse the museum of favoring the tower's most flattering angle to downplay its size.) Further questions were raised in mid-August when the museum revealed that its published height estimates for the tower were 16 feet shorter than the actual design. In a public relations fiasco for museum officials, the shortfall made front-page news in the local dailies.

Although the new de Young's aesthetic merits are the subject of debate, other aspects of the project are turning out to be even more contentious. Newly elected city officials are questioning the building's design process. People for a New de Young, the grassroots organizers of opposition to the plan, have been challenging the project's Environmental Impact Report (EIR)–approved without the full consent of the city's board of supervisors–in court. And late in August the board sent the EIR back to the city planning department for further review–a significant setback for the museum, which had been on track for construction by 2005.

For his part, Duderstadt feels vindicated in the role of Citizen CAD if it means protecting the park. "In a hundred years all these buildings will be gone," he concludes. "The park is the only thing that'll still be here, yet we treat it with so little respect."–Ken Coupland
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