Until recently, the only options for providing clients and the public with visualizations of what a prospective building would look like were almost exclusively hand drawn renderings, or scale models built by hand. Both of these practices are still in use today, but now there is a much wider range of options with 3D modeling software providing the bulk of renderings, the growing presence of 3D printing, and even video fly-throughs with special effects that rival the latest Hollywood action movie. This 16mm film created by architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) in 1984, and digitized by illustrator Peter Little, reminded us of what the early days of digital 3D modeling looked like.
The film, created using software SOM developed, shows wire-frame models of nine different US cities, showing SOM projects in each cityscape in a bright bluish-white color. Highlights of SOM’s work in the film include 9 West 57th Street in New York, Wells Fargo Center and City National Plaza in Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Symphony. Of course the model of Chicago appears as though nearly half the buildings were designed by SOM, prominently featuring both the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower), and the John Hancock Center. Although the film looks rudimentary compared to the highly realistic renderings the industry has become accustomed to, at the time it was on the cutting edge. As Little mentions in the video description, the models in the film bearing a striking resemblance to an image of the Death Star in Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi, released a year earlier in 1983.
Although the film appears (and sounds) dated, certain elements continue to play a role in architectural visualizations today. When Bjarke Ingles Group (BIG) was announced as the new architect for 2 World Trade Center for example, a highly advanced video introduced the design for the building with realistic visualizations populated with actual humans acting out the day-to-day life of the future skyscraper (shown below). But on closer inspection, a wire-frame conceptual illustration of the tower, and even the classical music soundtrack, hearken back to the 30-year-old SOM film. Despite all of the technological advances, and photorealistic renderings, there is still strong illustrative power in using just a few lines.