On my visit to Stockholm we climbed a high hill to see the horizon at midnight on one of the shortest night of the year. It’s amazing how bright it is in the middle of the night. Midsommer is a big holiday in Sweden.
It’s a cold, dark night on the biggest shopping day of the year, and I’m hovering hundreds of feet above the city of Philadelphia. The world beneath my feet is glowing, the darkness pierced by pockets of light.
What am I doing here?
For three hours that night, we flew loops around Philadelphia in a small helicopter, capturing aerial photographs of cars at five different Walmarts to discover how large a parking lot should be.
Walmart had commissioned an engineering firm to study the capacity of their parking lots on their busiest sales day. My aerial photos would help them answer the classic Goldilocks dilemma — are existing parking lots too big, too small, or just right?
The answer is important: too large of a parking lot and money is being wasted, too small a parking lot and potential sales are lost due to customers not being able to park.
The next time you’re out shopping, remember that we’re out there too, working to make your life just a little easier through the magic of aerial photography.
Warehouses are a hidden but important part our modern economy.
Most products that end up in our lives pass through a warehouse or two. Boxes of cereal, gas grills, TV sets, baseball caps, blue jeans – you name it, the product has probably been brought to and distributed through a warehouse.
I’ve had a hard time coming up with an exact figure, but I think there is at least 1 billion square feet of warehouse space in the United States. In 2010, the 20 largest warehouse firms had 514 million square feet of space.
The size of many warehouses boggles the mind. One warehouse that I photographed was 1 million square feet–so big that 17 football fields would fit inside it. A walk around the outside is a one mile trip.
I was asked to photograph this warehouse for the owner, Dermody, so they could promote it to new tenants. It is currently being used as a distribution space for h.h. gregg and also houses a UPS distribution center.
We don’t often think about where our stuff comes from, but the warehouse is a crucial part of the life of an item – from manufacturing to arriving at your front door.
Changing 17 clocks is a drag. Twice a year when daylight savings time starts or ends, I’ve got to adjust numerous clocks.
And I need to re-adjust my internal clock. I don’t understand why we still have this system. If I were king, I would keep the clocks the same all year long.
“I’m known as a light artist. But rather than be known as someone who depicted light, or painted light in some way, I wanted to have the work be light.” —James Turrell
James Turrell manipulates light for a living.
Turrell is an artist famous for his installations that deal with light and perception. For the past five decades he has been creating structures and artworks that make viewers think about the way they experience space and reality itself.
I first encountered his work, Meeting, at the art space PS1 in Brooklyn. I remember on a cold winter day going into a room on the top floor and being surprised that the ceiling was missing and thus, the room was open to the sky. I remember sitting on a bench and watching the sky darken as day turned to night.
Turrell is also a Quaker, and when the Quaker meeting in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood decided to build a new meetinghouse from the ground up, they tapped Turrell to design a Skyspace for the structure. I had the pleasure of photographing the building shortly before it opened to the public. E. Allen Reeves, a long time client built the new meetinghouse.
The Skyspace is an aperture in the roof of the meetinghouse that slides back to reveal the sky above. A series of lights around the ceiling further manipulate the light to create different moods and feelings.
I have attended Quaker meetings at a meetinghouse near my home, in Havertown, Pennsylvania. Much of the meeting is set aside for quiet meditation. After spending just a few minutes inside Chestnut Hill’s new space, I could understand how Turrell’s vision of a space open to the sky and the elements becomes an inextricable part of the experience itself.
While Turrell makes art from light, Philips Lighting takes a scientific approach to light. For alternate take on light, read my post, Is This a Set for a Devo Video?
A new addition to Philadelphia’s streetscape is the Shimmer Wall at the Franklin Institute.
Last week I shot and put together this video. Thanks to my son, Paul Benson for his editing chops.
The Curtis Center was built in 1910, by publishing magnate Cyrus Curtis. His publishing empire included The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies’ Home Journal.
The almost one-million-square-foot building was a self-contained magazine factory. The entire process of creating a magazine – from writing and illustration to printing – took place in this building that covers an entire city block. The Curtis Center even had its own electrical generators, since public electricity was too unreliable.
By the 1980s the building had deteriorated. A real estate developer decided to revitalize it, converting the central exterior space into a covered atrium with a decorative marble floor and fountain.
Today, the building combines a classic look with modern functionality. It is home to ergonomic office chairs in wood-paneled conference rooms, and MacBooks underneath hanging chandeliers. I was particularly struck by the historic wood pediment framing the doorway to one of the current tenants, the digital brand management company Brand.com.
When the Curtis Center was renovated in 1987, I documented the renovation for the developer. Last month the building was put on the market, and I was commissioned to document it for CB Richard Ellis, the commercial real estate broker.
The Singh Center is not your grandmother’s research lab. The $80-million nanotechnology center, located on the University of Pennsylvania campus, will appeal to science geeks and architecture fans alike. During the design stage, architects consulted with engineers to measure the precise specifications for the labs inside. During construction, the Dean of Engineering was often seen standing outside with a stopwatch, measuring the length of time that pedestrians spent admiring the exterior.
Nanotechnology is the process of manipulating matter on an atomic and molecular scale. Researchers have used nanotechnology to improve everything from medicine to tennis balls, and the potential applications are endless.
The Singh Center houses laboratories for studying and engineering these very small structures. It is one of a few buildings in the country that boasts multiple electron microscopes, each performing a different and complementary function – an all-in-one nanotechnology wonderland.
The nucleus of the building is a small room that houses an extremely sensitive electron microscope, where engineers can study the movements of individual atoms under water. The entire structure was designed around the room’s precise coordinates. University Architect David Hollenberg told the Pennsylvania Gazette that the room is “the core out of which everything else spirals… if this were a Gothic cathedral, this is where the saint’s bones would be.”
The Singh Center distinguishes itself from other engineering buildings with its stunning and ultramodern design. The public face of the building is a transparent glass structure that allows passersby to peer inside. A cantilevered section that juts out the side creates an illusion of weightlessness that makes pedestrians below catch their breath.
Inside the building, extensive public spaces provide a place for scientists and students to study, relax or exchange notes. The Philadelphia Inquirer referred to the open terraces as “nightclub-like lounges.”
Overall, the Singh Center has an exuberant atmosphere, bringing the light from outdoors inside and displaying a glowing interior at night.
It was a pleasure to finally get an up-close view of this architectural marvel, and to learn about the daily miracles that occur inside. The Singh Center will change our idea of what a laboratory can look like, fitting for a field of study that is changing the way we interact with the world we live in.
- “A Big Step for Small Science”, Pennsylvania Gazette, October 28, 2013, illustrated with Greg’s photographs.
- University of Pennsylvania’s Website: http://www.nano.upenn.edu
- “Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology”, Architectural Record, November 2013
My wife and I recently completed a total renovation of the bathroom in our 1927 Dutch Colonial house in the suburbs of Philadelphia. In a twist on my day job, my wife and I became amateur interior designers and general contractors. Working on this project gave me a new appreciation for what architects, interior designers, and contractors do on a daily basis.
Before the renovation, the bathroom still featured the original white subway tiles and 86-year old cast iron tub. The old-fashioned tub still functioned, but with the tiles and calking starting to fail, it was time redo the room.
Even though our bathroom is small, it has many distinct elements. Bev and I spent much of our time making decisions on the choice of finishes, fixtures and details.
The experience gave me a crash course in stone and tile. I love the look and feel of real stone, but modern porcelain ceramics are more practical in the damp environment of a bathroom. We ultimately settled on large porcelain ceramic tiles by Roca, an Italian tile company. The sales reps at Mark Galdo Tile in Lansdowne, PA, were also more than generous with their time and advice.
We decided to go with a simple, modern design with large tiles covering the walls and floor. We also replaced the original hinged door with a pocket door, which is a major space saver.
Our contractor, George Feeser, with his experience and attention to detail, was able to build and create the bathroom that Bev and I imagined. The floors had settled so he had to create a new, level one. We preserved or re-created the original Arts and Crafts door and window trim. Finally, we saved space by replacing our old, bulky cast iron radiator with a sleeker, modern one.
While I won’t be alive in 86 years, I hope that my new bathroom lasts for as long as the old one – until it’s time to renovate again.
The world looks different from 750 feet. It is one thing to peer down past the wing of an airplane, viewing an entire city in miniature. It is quite another to hover just above the tallest skyscrapers in a two-man helicopter, close enough to see the texture of a stone, far enough to take in whole structures and spaces as never before.
This gallery on my website showcases some of my aerial photography.
My commercial real estate clients love to have aerial photos of their buildings. For my part, I love flying in a helicopter with the door removed to get the clearest view and the most flexibility in shooting angle. To see and photograph buildings from the air is a visual treat. To me, flying in a helicopter is better than any amusement park ride.
The high cost of renting a helicopter puts a premium on efficiency. With the engine often burning a gallon of gas every few minutes, it is even more important than usual to know where the sun will be, and which spots will afford you the best views of a building from on high.
Planning for an aerial shoot involves studying the site on Google satellite view, finding a good weather day, and coordinating closely with the pilot. Pre-planning and good communication with your pilot make for successful photos and a safe flight.
For more helicopter shots, see my previous blog post on using a helicopter to document an urban university’s new park and athletic fields.
I look forward to my next trip to the clouds. From up in the air, you begin to understand that architects and city planners are no different than we were as children, playing with Lincoln Logs, planning homes and offices for the people below.