Last post I showed off a suspension bridge that I built in a 1.10.2 modded survival game. In this post, I want to focus on a handful of details that, I think, make the build a visually interesting one. These details illustrate six principles I have discovered that contribute to good design: wall texturing, limited palettes, symmetry and asymmetry, roofing, lighting, and non-straight lines.
Externally, each tower divides pretty naturally into four parts: the base (which extends two blocks below sea level), the main level, the upper room (the part with the stained glass), and the roof. Each segment has its own unique look, but the variation isn’t chaotic. Rather, a small number of design motifs tie the segment to each other and the outer towers to the middle tower.
The base segment and the main level are both characterized by vertical lines that have been created by alternating depths.
Because the upper room was going to have windows, I chose not to repeat the alternating block depth strategy to create vertical lines. Rather, on the north and south sides of the outer towers, I have used windows to create vertical lines, so stylistically it coheres even in this variation. The middle tower makes a contrast, but it still works because of harmonizing with other elements, both in itself as well as in relation to the outer towers.
Limited Number of Materials and Symmetry
I mentioned in my former post that the number of materials I had used was rather limited. The tower walls are made from just Stone Bricks (blocks, stairs, and slabs), Polished Andesite, Hardened Stone Bricks (from Environmental Tech), and a handful of Black Diamond Lamps (from Silent’s Gems). I used Dark Oak Planks and Sandstone for flooring in a couple of places. I have dressed this up in a few places with pieces of Tin Fence. Other than that, the windows are made from two kinds of glass: Green Enlightened Clear Glass (from Ender IO) and Green Stained Glass. Finally, the roofing is made of blocks of Nickel (from Base Metals), which has a greenish coloring (to match the windows), as well as Moldavite Lamps (again from Silent’s Gems), which are also a light green color.
In short, I have used a limited color palette mostly consisting of greys and greens (with the occasional splash of neutrals – white, brown, and tan). This simplicity is important. When a design uses too many materials, the result is often chaotic. A limited palette that achieves interest through block variation and patterns is most often more visually comprehensible, coherent, and satisfying.
The other aspect of the overall design that falls into the “simplicity” category is a basic tendency towards symmetry. For my younger readers, symmetry is the quality of things being the same on both sides. On the other hand, “asymmetry” or “asymmetrical” means not the same on both sides (the prefix “a” is comes from Greek and means “not”). In my towers, the north and south faces of each tower are identical, as are the east and west faces. The same thing holds inside my towers. Even the bridge taken as a whole is an example of symmetry.
Asymmetrical designs can work. In fact, I tend to really like well executed asymmetrical designs. The challenge is executing them well. And usually when they are executed well, there are other simplicities in the overall design to compensate for the inherent complexity of asymmetry. Organic designs are often asymmetrical (a perfectly symmetrical tree looks artificial). As a general rule, if you want things to look stately and majestic, aim for symmetry. On the other hand, if you want things to look dynamic, energetic, unstable, or organic, use splashes of asymmetrical design.
The top levels of the towers are inspired by London’s Tower Bridge, which is itself a suspension bridge. As a side note, I’ve actually ridden on a bus across the Tower Bridge on my way to the Tower of London (which sits on the north shore of the Thames river right next to the road coming off the bridge).
I originally built these towers with the idea of their tops being a flat, open air observation deck. But when I looked at the towers from a distance, it just seemed plain and uninteresting. Something seemed to be missing. So after looking at a few examples of real world suspension bridges I decided to follow the Tower Bridge’s excellent example and give my towers pyramidal roofs with corner spires.
The pyramid roofs are not solid, meaning you can actually go up to the top level and look up into the roofs. The main reason this is so is because I was using surplus blocks of metal, which, when they are accumulating in your chests because you have no use for them, seem like a huge number, but once you start building with them they disappear kind of fast. So I only placed blocks that would be visible from any reasonable angle.
I wanted to integrate lighting with the design and use as few torches as possible. The way I did this was largely through modded items – inverted gem lamps from Silent’s Gems and enlightened glass from Ender IO. This is actually a design principle I try to implement in most any build, unless torches make sense from an aesthetic point of view (dungeons, castles, desert culture sandstone structures). If I do use torches, I try to do so in an orderly way that makes sense. I also used Sea Lanterns. I have to say that Sea Lanterns are some of the prettiest blocks in vanilla Minecraft, and the process of harvesting the materials to finally make the suckers is extremely satisfying.
Emulating the Appearance of a Suspension Cable
One of the hardest parts of this bridge was designing the rise and fall of the suspension cables. You don’t want a simple diagonal line. Suspension cables tend to be parabolic because of the interplay of tension and gravity. So you want a curve that decreases in rate of curvature as you go from the tower to the mid-point and re-increases in rate of curvature as you go from mid-point to tower.
I was browsing the Terraria forums for building tips, and one thing I came across was the idea of using the Fibonacci series as the basis for natural looking curves to roofs. I saw this and thought that it looked like about the right rate of change of curvature for a suspension cable. My dimensions wouldn’t allow an exact Fibonacci series, but a slightly modified one produced an acceptable impression of a suspension cable succumbing to the effects of gravity, as far as I am concerned.
By the way, a Fibonacci series is a series wherein each number is the sum of the preceding two numbers in the series. So 1, 1 (= 0 + 1), 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, etc., is a Fibonacci series. The horizontal dimensions of my suspension cables are (starting from the tower and heading toward the midpoint between towers): 0.5 (meaning a descent of two blocks per 1 block horizontally), 0.5, 1, 2, 2, 2, 3, 3, 3, 5, 5, 7. The distance between towers is an odd number of blocks, so I drop the the block at the midpoint one block height.
Applying These Principles Elsewhere
As it may be obvious, each of the above principles can be taken and applied to builds of all sorts, not just suspension bridges, and not, actually, just in Minecraft. The same principles can help you in Terraria go from “wooden box” houses to “amazing, luxurious log mansions I would totally love to live in in real life”. In Minecraft, if you are trying to take a build from plain to interesting, consider using depth in your walls, a limited palette of materials and colors, and strategic use of symmetry and asymmetry. Think about your building’s roof and try to do something unusual with it. Consider the way your building is lit. Are you just putting up torches everywhere willy-nilly, or are you thinking about the aesthetics of lighting. Finally, consider finding ways to infuse your build’s lines with interest by using something other than just a straight and diagonal lines. Some of these principles will require your build to occupy more space than you might have originally intended. I know that I tend to think too small. Even when I think I’ve built something big, in retrospect I realize I could have made it bigger, and that would have given me more room to work with to make the build visually stimulating.