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The Evolution of Visual Representation in Architecture (and How It Will Continue to Change)

The Evolution of Visual Representation in Architecture (and How It Will Continue to Change)

According to Howard Gardner, human intelligence can be classified into 8 different categories. One of these is spatial intelligence, which describes the ability to mentally create and imagine three-dimensional spaces. Architecture is one of many disciplines that benefits from this ability and in this article we will explore just how visual representation in architecture has evolved throughout history--from displaying the most brilliant of ideas to capturing the wildest of dreams.

Visual representation ultimately serves to bring an idea out into the open and to allow others to experience it. For centuries, architects have used and invented a variety of techniques to illustrate their ideas. What was once achieved with ink and paper is now done so with computers and virtual reality.  

In the 15th century, Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi combined mathematics with his own artistic mental projections of architecture to create linear perspective, a concept that, to this day, is taught in architecture, art, and design classes around the world. 

Linear perspective is the foundation for illustrating a completed project before the construction has even started. For the designer, the possibilities are limited only by their own imagination, not even the laws of physics or Vitruvius need be applied. A prime example of this was Étienne-Louis Boullée, who rejected the Vitruvian notion that architecture was the art of building. Instead, Boullée argued that, “in order to execute, it is first necessary to conceive." Conceive he did, as one of his most famous works was a spherical cenotaph dedicated to Isaac Newton, measuring 152 m in diameter and resting on a cylindrical base. Unfortunately, the structure was never built, but was brought to life by Boullée's many renderings and models.

Cenotaph for Newton by Boullée. Image via ChrisO- From w-en-Newton_memorial_boulle [wikipedia] bajo licencia [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Cenotaph for Newton by Boullée. Image via ChrisO- From w-en-Newton_memorial_boulle [wikipedia] bajo licencia [CC BY-SA 3.0]

In this sense, and many others, all images share this component of architecture. Perhaps because architecture, in essence, symbolizes the luxury of emblematic public buildings and the homes of the wealthy, its only natural that the grandiosity of those who imagined these spaces comes through in images. 

In this sense, it's interesting how Piranesi artistically illustrated the atmosphere found in prisons that, while lacking in the magnificence of other spaces, provided ample inspiration for someone who could imagine a different world within their walls. His "imaginary prisons" would come to be some of his most defining works. 

From the series Imaginary Prisons by Piranesi. Image via [wikipedia] bajo licencia [CC BY-SA 3.0]
From the series Imaginary Prisons by Piranesi. Image via [wikipedia] bajo licencia [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Centuries later, drawings would be the gateway for Frank Lloyd Wright to enter the architectural profession after graduating from university. The renowned American architect was known for his hand-drawn visualizations that proved to be extremely close to reality once built. 

A short time after, the German architect Helmut Jacoby, one of the foremost exponents of architectural visualization, created precise illustrations of interior and exterior spaces using a wide of array of techniques and tools, including rapidographs and airbrushes. Some of his illustrations came so close as to mimic the digital renderings of computers.

The Plug-In City / Peter Cook, Archigram. Image Cortesía de Peter Cook
The Plug-In City / Peter Cook, Archigram. Image Cortesía de Peter Cook

With the rapid advances in technology as well as trends, architectural rendering not only evolved in terms of technique, but also concept. In the 1960s, other radical schools of thought like Archigram, Superstudio, and Archizoom aired their criticisms of the methods used in design and architecture, saying that the current renderings more closely resembled comics than architectural publications.  

One of the means of representation born out of these ever-changing techniques and schools of thought was the collage. The principle of this technique was an image comprised of cut-out pieces of different origins, all combined to create a photo montage.  

FAU USP (1961), São Paulo - SP.. Image © Matías Kím
FAU USP (1961), São Paulo - SP.. Image © Matías Kím

It wouldn't be until the use of computers in design and 3D modelling, that architectural rendering would begin to use many of the tools that had been added to the realms of cinema, photography, and video games. Today, advances in CGI have brought architectural visualization into the realm of hyper-realism.  

Nanjing Zendai Himalayas Center. Image Cortesía de MAD Architects
Nanjing Zendai Himalayas Center. Image Cortesía de MAD Architects

estructura de realidad virtual que emula atmósferas del espacio exterior de Foster + PArtners. Image Cortesía de Immersive
estructura de realidad virtual que emula atmósferas del espacio exterior de Foster + PArtners. Image Cortesía de Immersive

Thanks to the newest trends, architectural rendering is heading increasingly towards Virtual and Augmented Reality, which depend on multi-sensory devices that allow users to enter and explore every facet of an architectural model. It is perhaps as close as we are ever going to get to being able to enter the mind of a project's creator; however, the simpler methods of pencil and paper and photo montages continue to be the tried and true methods of even the most recognized of architectural firms. It might even be safe to say that the artistic methods of yesterday will never really die, but simply accompany the technological vanguard that continuously shapes how we design and dream.  

Foto de maqueta del Serpetine Pavilion por Peter Zumthor. Image Cortesía de Museum Associates / LACMA
Foto de maqueta del Serpetine Pavilion por Peter Zumthor. Image Cortesía de Museum Associates / LACMA

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Visualizations. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics here. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.

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Cite: Baraya, Santiago. "The Evolution of Visual Representation in Architecture (and How It Will Continue to Change)" [La evolución de la representación visual en la arquitectura (y hacia dónde se dirige)] 10 Jul 2020. ArchDaily. (Trans. Johnson, Maggie) Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/942862/the-evolution-of-visual-representation-in-architecture-and-how-it-will-continue-to-change> ISSN 0719-8884
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