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22 January 2020

The successful architectural visualiser is a translator, communicator and facilitator, drawing together all elements of a project to create renderings that both reflect and promote an architect's vision. But to what extent is this role misunderstood, and can bad renderings create bad architecture? Abi Millar talks to critic Aaron Betsky, Neoscape founding partner Robert MacLeod and Darcstudio director Troy Hodgson.

It goes without saying that renderings are essential to architecture. For as long as architects have dreamed up buildings, they’ve also required ways in which to communicate those dreams – a reference point for whichever king, pharaoh, pope or real-estate developer commissioned them. At least since the Renaissance, when artists learned how to adopt linear perspective, the holy grail of rendering has been accuracy. Renderings, whether they offer a photorealist depiction or something more abstract and diagrammatic, are often judged against how closely they resemble the finished project.

On the other hand, renderings are, at base, a marketing tool created to sell an idea. As Aaron Betsky, an architectural critic and president of the School of Architecture at Taliesin, points out, there’s no such things as truth in advertising or truth in representation. “If a building is a building, then the architectural rendering attempts to represent what makes it more than just a building,” he says. “What makes it attractive, what makes it sellable, what makes it integrated into its context or surroundings? You should judge a rendering by how accurately it says what it wants to say.”

Robert MacLeod, founding partner and principal at Boston-based creative studio Neoscape, adds that this will vary from one project to the next. “If we’re doing something that’s a competition, something that’s more open-ended, I think there’s more latitude for being imaginative or having the renderings migrate towards that fantasy space,” he says. “The other end of the spectrum is something that would be more of a simulation. Those two things to me are completely different deliverables.”

It’s a tension that underpins many of the debates we see about rendering – and this debate has been going on for some time. In 2013, Oliver Wainwright reported on his experience judging the final projects of architectural students. He said: “Time and again, the projects seemed intent on fleeing the real world of people and places, scale and context, retreating instead into fantasy realms of convoluted forms with no seeming purpose.”

Architect Belmont Freeman, in an essay entitled ‘Digital Deception’, claims: “The graphic representation of architecture has moved beyond an exercise in persuasion; it has become an exercise in deception.” And set designer Es Devlin has attacked the discrepancies between renderings and realised projects, calling them “weirdly psychedelic”.

Betsky himself has critiqued what he calls the “Rhino monkeys and Photoshop slaves” whose images mirror our existing world, albeit in a “slicker, cleaned-up and refined manner”. However, he explains that his real objection is not with computergenerated imagery and its notional deceptiveness, but rather towards renderings that lack ambition.

“It’s a myth that somehow because of the seeming photorealism of computer-based rendering, we’ve now entered an age of falsehood,” he remarks. “As early as the 18th century, people were complaining that the representations of architecture were different than what wound up being constructed, and that always will be the case. The question, rather, is who is paying for the rendering and what are they seeking to do with it?”

Challenges of visualisation

Darcstudio director Troy Hodgson points out that the visualiser’s main role is to communicate an idea – and ideas are constantly in flux. “I’m always quick to tell clients that our images are ‘how we see’ and how we filter architecture through our eyes, rather than an exercise in realism,” he says. “Imagery should be viewed more as a modern form of drawing that can track the progress and refinement of a project.”

Hodgson’s studio typically produces design and presentation imagery at a stage before details are resolved to give an idea of mood, light, form and colour, without passing comment on things such as door handles.

“Our work is rich in atmosphere but purposefully ambiguous, like a memory,” he says. “It invites the viewer in to participate and fill in the gaps. Our workflow is not typical for our industry, in that 3D and rendering software is secondary to crafting images with the hand and eye in Photoshop. The actual rendering is just a canvas to paint, layer and montage over – this gives us much more creative licence and gives the imagery our distinctive mood.”

MacLeod feels that architectural visualisation should be viewed in exactly the same light as other forms of visual storytelling – not to mention credited accordingly. “We always start with studying how traditional illustrators, architectural photographers, filmmakers and advertising companies tell stories,” he says. “We look to other industries for inspiration because we don’t want to be completely literal – we want to have a solid foundation and layer the artistry on top of that.”

As he sees it, the visualiser and the photographer face many of the same kinds of challenges. Rather than striving for accuracy per se, they’re aiming to portray a building in the best light possible. They might decide to show it off at a certain time of day, from a certain angle or even from an aerial perspective. The only difference between the two is that, for the visualiser, the building has yet to be constructed. “I always tell my artists to think about it as if the project already exists, and you’re an architectural photographer who’s walking around examining it through the lens of your camera, “ he says. “That helps us to keep things grounded in reality.”

Even in the 18th century, people complained that representations of architecture were different than what was constructed.
- Aaron Betsky

This analogy holds for Hodgson, too. He points out that, given the plethora of rendering tools available, the barrier for entry is much lower than it was, and imagery is becoming easier to produce. “A lot of practices will soon have the tools to produce in-house, should they wish,” he says. “But what we do is an art. We all have cameras, but that doesn’t make us all good photographers. Similarly, the tools that we have will be common, but it is how we see that makes us unique.”

Good art equals good ideas

MacLeod believes there’s such a thing as a bad rendering; visualisers have an obligation to be as accurate as possible, and to nudge the client towards something more compelling if they request something unworkable. All this said, he thinks it’s largely unfair to look at a rendering and make a qualitative judgement. The artist could have had just two hours to complete the rendering, or patchy design information.

“I always try to think about, whatever this was designed to accomplish, did it accomplish that and did it help the process down the road?” he says. “That’s one way to measure success beyond ‘Is the architecture bad?’ or ‘Is the rendering technically flawed?’, because we don’t know the parameters around its creation.”

He thinks a good artist will convey the spirit of the architecture as opposed to nailing every detail. While one rendering could be hyper-realistic and another hyperconceptual, either one could spark the viewer’s imagination and give a sense of what it might be like to be there. “Maybe some of the bad renderings come about because people are relying on the computer to do the thinking for them,” he says. “To me, what we do is 75% artistry and 25% technical. The computer is the brawn and the artist is the brain, and I think when that formula is out of whack, you can get renderings that feel sterile.”

As for cases where people feel deceived by renderings, Betsky believes viewer discretion is advised – along with a healthy awareness of representation semiotics. “One of the great controversies in the early 19th century happened when competitions were decided based on Beaux-Arts renderings, and when the buildings were constructed, they found the buildings didn’t correspond to those renderings,” he says. “Right now, people buy high-priced condo units based on Photoshop renderings, and then find out what was Photoshopped out and what wasn’t represented. So as always it’s caveat emptor – let the buyer beware.”

From this perspective, discussions about rendering have a curiously ahistorical flavour. The tools used to produce an image – be that watercolour paints or real-time rendering engines – are less important than how well they reimagine reality.

Taking a more pragmatic standpoint, MacLeod says the last thing his firm wants to do is help the client sell a dream that they know is never going to be realised. “That’s not a business we’re interested in, and nor are our clients,” he says. “The challenge remains how can you do work that solves your client’s business challenges, and do it quickly and efficiently without losing the artistry. Our aim is create a compelling snapshot of what we hope the reality of the project will be.” 

An illustration of Hill House Visitor Centre in Helensburgh, UK, by Darcstudio.
Dominio de Pingus winery – visualised by Darcstudio.
The mixed-use complex at Jewel Changi Airport by Neoscape.
A Darstudio rendering of a project for Skapa in Oslo.

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