The Future of Architecture Visualization: An Interview with Morean Digital Realities and Zaha Hadid Architects

Above: The final presentation video for Zaha Hadid Architects' Danjiang Bridge entry, with construction sequences provided by morean digital realities and atmospheric shots provided by Studio MIR

In this age of lightning fast response rate, it is more important than ever for architects to be able to provide clients with a clear idea of what is to be built. Luckily for us, there are firms out there that specialize in aiding that process. Take morean digital realities, for example, a visualization firm that works in conjunction with architects to create renderings and animations that help explain how a project will work. These visualizations can be geared toward clients, competitions or used as material for fundraising. Their recent work includes a video for the Danjiang Bridge Competition, in which morean provided a dramatic construction animation accompanied by atmospheric shots by another visualization company, Studio MIR. Together, these two visualization studios helped Zaha Hadid Architects come away with the project commission.

ArchDaily spoke to three members of the team on that project - Saman Saffarian, a Lead Designer at Zaha Hadid Architects; Karl Humpf, Director of International Bridges at Leonhardt, Andrä und Partner; and Gonzalo Portabella, Architect and Managing Director at morean digital realities - about the role of visualization within architecture and where the field may be headed.

Patrick Lynch: From the architect’s viewpoint, what do you expect in general from an animation studio? Are there varying requirements depending on the design and type of architecture?

Saman Saffarian: The initial selection criteria for choosing an animation company are quality and price. Nevertheless, flexibility is of equal importance, especially when production time is very limited. The ability to react quickly to design changes in a very limited time frame while maintaining the promise of quality is the biggest asset of a successful animation company. Obviously competitions tend to have a more intensive workflow than projects under development, and therefore require not only a proper visualization skill-set but also relevant management skills.

PL: In your perspective as structural engineer, how important is visual communications to explain the project?

Karl Humpf: It has became more important as the forms of infrastructure projects often are more complex than in the past. Today you have to give the public and/or a wide range of stakeholders, organisations etc. a comprehensive impression of what will be built in the coming years and visualization has become a selling tool for authorities or, especially important in competitions or similar procedures of design.

PL: What scale of project do you believe benefits most from an animation? Is there a minimum size for rendering to be worthwhile?

Saman Saffarian: This is not necessarily size dependent. Nevertheless, projects that are more complex could benefit more by relying on animations to convey the design intent, technical solution, and other aspects.

Concept Perspectives. Image Courtesy of Morean Digital Realities

PL: At which stage is the rendering and animation process brought into design? Do the images affect the final design product, and if so, how?

Saman Saffarian: It is generally good practice to initiate a feedback loop with the render company once the initial sketching and brainstorming has finished and design options have been narrowed down - ideally before the design is fully completed, as many times the input received in form of test previews or animations has the potential to inform the design process and make decision making more fluent. This however is not always possible mainly due to imposed time constraints.

PL: Are there different visual approaches depending on the kind of architecture or structures you are animating at morean?

Gonzalo Portabella: The approach is not only visual. Everything starts with a strong target-oriented concept. Our goal is always to carve out the central messages of a concept. Then we think about the best way to bring them to life. This can imply photo-realistic animations, life recordings, drone flights, diagrammatic animations, hand drawings or video interviews with the project’s stakeholders.

Storyboard Camera Positions. Image Courtesy of Morean Digital Realities

PL: How can technological and constructional refinement be conveyed by a 3D animation?

Karl Humpf: I do not think that this is possible nor needed by an animation. Our structures are basically static issues and only the construction process, the live loads in or on the structure are movie situations and can therefore be animated.

In the construction business it is expected that BIM may revolutionize the planning process, which will probably be the case for standardized solutions where at an early stage you get all the information together in one pool of data and in 3D. In special projects where you cannot use the typical standards the useful application of BIM will have to be still proven or BIM implementation developed further. For animation purposes however, it would be easy to take partial information out from BIM and get the application of individual structural elements animated. However often the animation will be requested earlier than the BIM model would be available.

Bridge Construction Time Table. Image Courtesy of Morean Digital Realities

PL: What is the desired value for your clients?

Saman Saffarian: Profound understanding of the project, and a clear message being conveyed.

PL: What information and data do you need from the architects and engineers to start working?

Gonzalo Portabella: The more information we get at the beginning of each project, the better. We always encourage our business partners to send us everything they have. There might be pictures taken accidentally, newspaper articles or cultural background information that helps us to create a good concept - besides precise technical data, of course. We always aim to have substantial conversations at the very beginning to prevent mistakes and misunderstandings at the end.

Above: An early conceptual storyboard produced by morean digital realities

PL: How much freedom did you have when developing the concept for the Danjiang Bridge film? What did your clients expect?

Gonzalo Portabella: After a kick-off with our clients we create concepts within our team. In this phase it is crucial for us to have maximum freedom to make creative proposals that allow us to think outside the box. In terms of the Danjiang Bridge project we were pleased that our clients liked the idea of a daily timelapse right away. When we do animations for competitions there is usually very little time. In these cases, it is even more important to come up with goal-driven concepts as fast as possible. I believe this individual consulting at the beginning of each project is what our clients expect. It broadens their horizon and saves them a great deal of work being already deeply involved in the project.

PL: How did the data and knowledge transfer between architects, engineers and animation studio work? Were there specific challenges in the communications between the project partners?

Saman Saffarian: Constant exchange of digital models, countless conference calls and screen-sharing sessions, long working hours, and a nonstop flow of emails defined the development process. This was absolutely necessary and inevitable in order to submit a well-coordinated and convincing competition entry. It certainly wasn't an easy task for any of the parties involved, but the end result is a testament to the successful collaborative effort.

PL: The construction sequence of the animation features new means of structural engineering. What specific technological knowledge on the part of the animation studio do you expect? Can you tell us something about the collaboration between the engineers, the architects and the visualization studio?

Karl Humpf: The animated construction process reflects a sequence of standard onshore and offshore construction features, but the combination in this case is somewhat unique.

The construction process was explained verbally, with the necessary construction equipment shown or looked up on the internet and morean's people in the studio were pretty sharp to understand quickly what was meant. For the film we had to prepare for this competition - and the film's given length - this was detailed enough. For other purposes a more detailed description of the process might be needed and there may be some face to face meetings to explain it to the people of the studio. At least some additional steps of revisions could be expected to achieve the final result.

Engineers' Comments, Pillar Foundation. Image Courtesy of Morean Digital Realities

PL: Were there boundaries between the technical complexity of the construction and its visual representation?

Karl Humpf: No, at least we have not perceived such boundaries. In many tasks it is only the amount of time you spent on the subject which limits the grade of detailing. To prepare the process in more or less detail, you might skip or simplify things. That makes a difference and depends on the goal or purpose of the visualization or animation.

We could imagine, as animation tools become more widespread, that in the future we could find sequences prepared by the construction industry like in Youtube, either being used directly and picked up in the animation or as general information to the people of the studio.

PL: What are the challenges and limitations when complex architectural designs and technically sophisticated construction processes are rendered in 3D animations?

Gonzalo Portabella: Of course it's very important that everybody is informed about the project and on the same page. Good coordination between all involved companies is crucial for the success of the project. Our architectural background helps us in that regard. The main challenge is to clarify the complexity of the project in a way that can be easily communicated to a broader audience, one that is not necessarily familiar with technical aspects. It is necessary to give priority to some parts of the project so the end result is also an exciting film that people enjoy watching.

PL: The Danjiang Bridge project was a submission in a competition. Was there a specific challenge or approach for the animation?

Saman Saffarian: The Danjiang bridge competition was a very specific project in terms of workflow and presentation strategy. We aimed to showcase not only the architectural intent with a context-specific design story but also the engineering aspects in the form of a detailed construction time-lapse. It was a challenging project considering that two animation companies were involved, and the storyline had to be coordinated with the three project partners and subsequently edited into one final video, with a seamless flow and a Taiwanese voiceover.

Storyboard Sequences Overview. Image Courtesy of Morean Digital Realities

PL: What do you foresee for the future of architectural visualization?

Karl Humpf: The visualization process has been sped up very much and so as architects and engineers we can put together alternative ideas and forms quickly for 3D comparisons, which become very useful in the concept stages, where the correct 3D impression might be important. Animation tools might become available even for "one time users," so more people can play with them, just as nowadays you put together your kitchen in the furniture store or download shareware for planning the inside of your new apartment.

Saman Saffarian: The discussion that this question opens can be most adequately addressed in a scientific paper, nevertheless I guess you can approach it from two ends.

From a technological point of view it is rather obvious that virtual reality is the next thing on the horizon! Architecture presentations have mostly depended on still imagery and renderings in the past, but today animations are a complimentary addition to most architectural competitions and can be considered as an industry standard. At the same time there is a vast amount of research and experiments being carried out on utilizing virtual reality for presentations, and it wouldn't take you long on Google to find many relevant examples that are paving the path for the industry to follow.

From a conceptual point of view no matter what medium, platform or technology is used to produce a presentation, some very critical aspects of the production remain technology independent. The art of story telling, framing, sense for scale, composition, rhythm, mood, light and music create the back bone of any presentation and the means to engage with our inner emotions to deliver a clear message or sensation. Only once these ingredients are in place can the story be conveyed using even the most futuristic technology.  

Gonzalo Portabella: We strongly believe that each different type of media has the right to exist among many others in order to convey an architectural idea. The hand drawing or technical drawing has its strength, just as the rendering or the animation does. The right mix is important and will stay important in the future. Since each project, each location and each client has highly individual needs, the mix will always be different. We think that animations & films will keep playing an important role because they allow us to show visions in motion including sound to a broad audience at the same time. We strongly believe that virtual reality will become highly important, too. The projects we realized so far with VR have created amazing "wow" effects. VR will soon be one new option within the basket of possibilities for visualizing ideas.

About this author
Cite: Patrick Lynch. "The Future of Architecture Visualization: An Interview with Morean Digital Realities and Zaha Hadid Architects" 19 Nov 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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