Balloons and render ghosts

Long before buildings become physical entities, they enter the world as images — yet the messages implicit in these visualisations are rarely interrogated or decoded. James Bridle ventures into that realm of unachievable hyperreality that is architectural rendering.

This article was originally published in Domus 966 / February 2013

At the beginning of the 1990s, Norbert Kottmann erected a construction sign on the then wasteland of Potsdamer Platz, affirming it as the site of the future erection of Tatlin's Monument to the Third International. Tatlin's Tower was originally conceived as both the headquarters of, and monument to, the international socialist revolution, but it has long been deployed in art to denote a range of hopeful utopias. Kottmann named his version the "Parliament Building for the United Nations of Eurasia". Despite these visions, within a few years there arose instead the Sony Centre and its attendant, decidedly more commercial towers. While Tatlin's Tower is doomed to be reappropriated by artists forever, while remaining unbuilt, the renderings of today's architectural visualisations exist for the same, and frequently more successful purpose: to call into being, and physicality, the buildings of the imagination.

These renderings might also be considered the most visible public, legal, urban art of the 21st century. Displayed on hoardings throughout the metropolis, they confront us every day with a kind of digital futurism, a pixelated vision of what is to come. As such, an entire industry has sprung up within and alongside architecture and construction to facilitate their creation.
The London-based
architectural visualisation studio
Picture Plane creates images
that go beyond photorealistic
representation and create
painterly images that convey
something of the intangible.
Top:
the Darklass settlement in
Scotland, designed by Níall
McLaughlin Architects.
Above: a housing development in South
London, designed by John Smart
Architects
The London-based architectural visualisation studio Picture Plane creates images that go beyond photorealistic representation and create painterly images that convey something of the intangible. Top: the Darklass settlement in Scotland, designed by Níall McLaughlin Architects. Above: a housing development in South London, designed by John Smart Architects
Architecture has always had a relationship with visualisation, as separate from plans and schematics. While blueprints describe the functional requirements of a building, sketches and drawings convey an impression of the final structure which is as important in getting it built, negotiating not the material constraints of nuts, bolts and materials, but what Dan Hill calls the "dark matter" of planning, environmental and legal processes, and the unstable ground of public opinion. In a recent essay in The New York Times , Michael Graves wrote, "Drawings are not just end products: they are part of the thought process of architectural design. Drawings express the interaction of our minds, eyes and hands." What concerned Graves was that designing entirely digitally "is analogous to hearing the words of a novel read aloud, when reading them on paper allows us to daydream a little, to make associations beyond the literal sentences on the page". That something important is being lost to the computer is something a new generation of visualisation studios might contest.
A screenshot
from a design
presentation video
produced by Squint/
Opera, a London-based
agency with offices across
the globe. Squint/Opera’s
architectural communication
employs filmic and, to a
certain degree, advertising
language, with a preference
for moving and interactive
images
A screenshot from a design presentation video produced by Squint/ Opera, a London-based agency with offices across the globe. Squint/Opera’s architectural communication employs filmic and, to a certain degree, advertising language, with a preference for moving and interactive images
Visualisations are produced for a range of purposes, but it's almost by accident that they surface in public. Most often, they are commissioned at an early stage for competitions and briefs, to give clients a first idea of an architect's vision. Later, they may be produced to illustrate massing or sightlines, to prove the suitability and sympathy of a new building to its surroundings.

Jörg Majer of Picture Plane , a London-based architectural visualisation studio, trained as an architect himself before becoming interested in the possibilities of software to simulate the atmosphere of unbuilt buildings. Working with a range of techniques, Picture Plane produces imagery of a startling ethereality, with all the ambiguity of art.

Picture Plane's images are intentionally on the side of the aesthetic, and in many cases are intended to evoke mood and atmosphere rather than literal views. With the increased power and sophistication of 3D software, most renderings, says Majer, "aspire to the photograph, rather than the painting, but when you are creating spaces that do not yet exist, the painting is more powerful".

In a series of images of a proposed South London housing development by John Smart Architects , Majer first constructs the base buildings in 3ds Max and inks them with physically accurate material maps and lighting effects drawn from a range of libraries. There are libraries of trees, and people, too, with which to populate the surroundings and the street. But the rendered model is then moved into Photoshop, and the texture of the final image is taken from classic English landscape painting: the colour palette and the clouds in the sky are based on the paintings of George Stubbs; a cyclist stands astride his bicycle much as the romantic painter's horsemen do. Another image, produced for a proposed settlement in Scotland by Níall McLaughlin Architects , flattens out the perspective to produce an effect akin to naive painting, evoking innocence and a simplicity of living.
What was once the domain of the architect is now performed by the visualisation artist
Some of the imagery
leading up to the 2012
London Olympics, developed
from 2008 onwards by Squint/Opera. The
Squint/Opera film was
chosen by the leading
television broadcasters
(BBC, Sky, CNN) to show the
architectural project to the
public
Some of the imagery leading up to the 2012 London Olympics, developed from 2008 onwards by Squint/Opera. The Squint/Opera film was chosen by the leading television broadcasters (BBC, Sky, CNN) to show the architectural project to the public
Picture Plane's work is deliberately, explicitly painterly: the views are subjective and far from the "verified views" requested by planning departments, legally binding documents specifying the exact relationship of a new structure to its surroundings. Before a building is fully planned, it is necessary to suggest, rather than define, and the production of renderings involves much toing and froing between architect and visualiser to establish the correct mood. This process in turn feeds back into the architects' design, perhaps filling the gap in process that Graves identifies as being created by the death of drawing.

But many visualisations define the work even more strongly. As the power of the architect wanes, and planners and developers become more powerful in the process, the visualisation may come to form, shape and define the final outcome more than any sketch did before. The trend in visualisation is towards the photoreal, ever more achievable with software. And what was once considered the domain of the architect is now performed by the visualisation artist, or even by the software itself. Ryan Lintott, Associate Director at Squint/Opera , a "creative content and communications agency for brands and the built environment", describes how incidental material in large-scale visualisations bleeds through into the final design, and the world.

At the higher scales, visualisers work from barebones blueprints to fill master plans for malls and public squares with foliage and furniture in order to produce convincing walk- and fly-throughs for large multinational clients. But these images, populated with off-the-shelf details and default objects, are so convincing that they are hard to shake, and become fixed in the project, approved at every stage: a lorem ipsum architecture, or the visual equivalent of marketing-speak, strip-mined of meaning and value.
Views
of the Olympic Village in
Rio de Janeiro for the 2016
Games developed by Squint/Opera, commissioned by
AECOM, which entered and
won the competition for its
master plan
Views of the Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Games developed by Squint/Opera, commissioned by AECOM, which entered and won the competition for its master plan
Recognising the increasing importance of such visualisations, and the way they slip over into materiality, the Vitra furniture company offers free downloads of 3D models of its wares for use in rendered images, hoping that seeing them in their future offices will encourage companies to follow through and purchase the real thing. But with the increased prevalence of visualisation in the public sphere, there's also a growing awareness of how Perma Blue skies and sunshine are other tricks used to distract, if not to outright lie, in gaining approval for new buildings. Curbed NY , a website dedicated to architecture and real estate in New York, runs regular "Rendering Vs. Reality" features, which are rarely forgiving: cheap materials, unreal lighting and much reduced green space are recurring complaints.

While a little bit of Photoshopping is not unique to the architecture and construction industries, there is growing concern that visualisation and standardisation will increase the levels of "software determinism" in architecture. As architecture and planning become more integrated digitally, there is a movement towards Building Information Modeling (BIM) processes — complete digital records of facilities from conception to operation — which many believe will eventually become law. Many of these workflows formalise visualisations as part of the design process to such an extent they are drawing complaints from architects who feel that image-making is replacing creative and material rigour in building design. While Michael Graves worries that "something is lost when [students and staff] draw only on the computer", perhaps he should in fact be concerned that another kind of unachievable hyperreality is being born. James Bridle, writer and artist based in London

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