As architects rely heavily on imagery to convey abstract information to a broad audience, there is a recurrent conversation on the role of visualizations in architecture and how they impact the general perception of the built environment.
The term architectural visualization encompasses a vast array of techniques, styles, tools and mediums, from highly realistic renderings, to the artistic use of digital methods, to collages, sketches and paintings. Some architects have embraced the representational possibilities of digital tools wholeheartedly; others have remained faithful to a more open-ended type of imagery. The following brings together points of view from the whole length of the spectrum, thus framing the conversation on architectural visualization within a broader context.
The promise of the rendering
Architects are highly aware of how visualizations influence the public's reception of future designs and how the proliferation of rendering capabilities brings an additional level of responsibility with regards to what is communicated.
Several years ago, in response to an article accusing the studio of misleading through their renderings, MVRDV detailed where they stand concerning the realism of visualizations and in the process made a compelling argument for the progressive role of renderings in architecture. MVRDV named renders a necessity, as with all their faults, they are the most effective means of conveying information about architecture to the general public. When the rendering is a tool to convince decision-makers, MVRDV stresses that within their practice, everything in the image is indeed a promise and that neither the studio nor the developer has any interest in producing imagery that is not firmly grounded in reality:
The suggestion that developers or architects might benefit from deliberately representing a project as more attractive than it will be in reality is short-sighted: the people who pay for architecture, as well as the people who live with it, will look at the images and protest if the reality does not live up to that promise.[...]Of course, the render is still an artist's impression: it has to be precise but is only an educated guess at reality.
In the same statement, MVRDV brings into the discussion a crucial argument in favour of renderings, that is their ability to create convincing narratives, push the boundaries of what a project could achieve and thus generate more architectural and urban quality. The example used to make this point is the Art Depot project, where the idea of a rooftop forest showcased in a rendering generated so much enthusiasm, that extra funding was allocated to build it.
There is always a gap between representation and reality, and that is true with hyper-realistic renderings as well, therefore is up to the viewer to bear in mind that the imagery accompanying a project is only an optimistic assumption of a reality to come. Nonetheless, this one studio bridges the gap by carefully curating its visualizations. Taking MVRDV's idea of accountability a step further, Dutch practice Mecanoo prides itself with the fantastic resemblance between the projets' renderings and the built object, much like the proof of a kept promise. The studio hosts a series titled Render vs Reality on their media pages, where renderings are put up against photographs of the design matching the same angle and viewpoint. With this social media project, Mecanoo emphasizes the studio's ability to deliver on its proposals up to the finest detail.
Forsaking renderings for digital collage
Sometimes architecture practices turn to digital collages either as a counteraction to hyper-realistic renderings, or simply because it can represent intention in design without formulating a specific image, and thus working with the imagination of the viewer within more flexibility.
In this conversation, now a decade old, David Chipperfield laments the fact that clients are not willing to wait for a design to unfold and mature and instead wish to see exactly how the building will look like from very early stages, thus freezing the design process:
When you’re just sketching an idea of how a building might be, […] the client wants to know precisely what is going to look like from every point of view. They are not even interested in the plans.
On the same lines, a few months ago, Tatiana Bilbao explained in an interview her decision to ban renderings from the studio's workflow, arguing that CGI imagery often gets in the way of the creative process, impeding the evolution of the design. The Mexican architect doesn't produce renderings of ongoing projects and instead makes use of collages, sketches and models to convey her work. The technique of the collage better suits the studio's approach to architecture, allowing for a more open-ended process. Tatiana Bilbao's work was showcased until recently at the Louisiana Museum, with the exhibition featuring almost exclusively collages and models.
Similarly, there are many offices whose visualizations make use of digital collage and sharing this approach is Fala Atelier, who developed a highly personal and recognizable visualization style. In this case, the resemblance between the image and the built object is surprisingly high, proving that digital collage can convey the qualities of the design, and translate technical drawings into an accurate depiction of the project just as well as a realistic rendering. Fala Atelier, along with two other practices embracing digital collage, has discussed its visualization style in this interview for Archdaily.
Model photography is also part of the architectural visualization realm, still cherished by architects like Peter Zumthor, or Caruso St. John and employed by several design studios at leading architecture schools like ETH. In recent years, Peter Zumthor has embraced a more open attitude towards media, and as such started showcasing renderings of the studio's ongoing projects. Nonetheless, the preferred mediums of presenting his work seem to remain model photography and sketches, to which Zumthor comes back time and time again in his lectures, the architect referencing them as the means to portray his design intent best.
These examples showcase a small part of the range of attitudes regarding architectural visualization and prove that the advantages and shortcomings of different means of expression weigh differently for distinct practices. With this in mind, the conversation around architectural visualization should move past whether renderings are good or bad for the profession and towards a more diverse and lighthearted understanding of architectural imagery.