Evolvo magazine 2018 Skyscraper competition

Is Virtual Architecture Inherently Disingenuous?

In the first few decades of the 20th century, photography as a fine art rode the cutting edge. The Industrial Revolution and then the aftermath of the first world war ushered in Modernism. Part of that new expression took full advantage of the improving technology of photography. As a result, precise two-dimensional control over the real world and its real-time messiness transformed how architecture was perceived. It was still reality-based, but fully composed. Designing for the photograph became a way to promote buildings.

Berenice Abbott, Ezra Stoller, Julius Shulman, and countless other visual masters had a profound and well-documented impact on architecture. These early Modernists reveled in the available technology, creating gorgeous images, often scale-free, colorless, and devoid of humans. It was an architecture of abstraction. There was no provenance necessary, as they were creating it new; no need for the understanding of context, except as a foil. In the hands of these photographers, it was undeniably Art.

We’re in an entirely different world of architectural representation. The pristine photos of the past, perfectly composed images of the real thing, feel almost quaint.

 

Today, we’re in an entirely different world of architectural representation. The pristine photos of the past, perfectly composed images of the real thing, feel almost quaint. An infinite number of software options can seductively render just about any design with the control of image manipulation available on your cellphone. The result is a plethora of pictures of somewhat mysterious origin, offered up as eye candy. It’s often impossible to determine the built from the unbuilt, renderings of actual projects from pure flights of fancy—and clarity is rarely offered. Sometimes the level of depiction is so convincing that I have to search an architect’s website to see if a project is real. 

And yet seductive drawings and renderings have always been part of the profession: think Paul Rudolph, Frank Lloyd Wright, Zaha Hadid. These new digital inventions, however, are so realistic that the hand of the maker is erased. There’s a flattening hyperreality that creates a fundamental confusion between image and reality, and it feels entirely intentional. Like pornography, many of these simulations are all trigger, no intimacy. Our eyes alone—with no other supporting senses—become portals to our brains in a synthetic experience that has all the thrill of flipping through a magazine or book 30 years ago, but this time with no separation between the fictional and the real. 

Perhaps, in a time of pandemic and sequestration, this may be enough. But is it? Is there a moral code that says journalism—or architecture, for that matter—should be about what it purports to be about? Absent a label identifying it as such, is virtual architecture inherently disingenuous? Or are we all now hip to the pretense? Much of what is offered is cynical manipulation of our self-indulged fantasies. If a building looks fantastic in a 2D world devoid of weather, materials, history, even gravity, is it architecture?

All of this is likely to evolve to the point where we put on goggles or tap a chip embedded in our temple to “see” and “experience” architecture. Perhaps there’s an analogy here with internet porn, which is also beginning to feel as quaint as still photos of real buildings. Robot and virtual-reality sex could render the physical act an unnecessarily messy burden. Why deal with the imperfections of the human body when you can control every aspect of the artificial encounter? The danger of the physical world argues for simulations of all kinds, porography included. Why get infected? Why get your heart broken? Why experience the excruciating pain of childbirth—or for architects, construction? If we experience pleasure in the simulation of intimacy, is that joy? Or joy enough?

For generations the focus of competitions, architecture school, and much of the profession has been about perfecting presentation skills. But what exactly are we perfecting, now that we can totally erase the line between the rendered and the real?

 

Will architecture evolve to this standard? Does it matter where a building is located? Does it matter how time affects it? Does the ability to sense its space around us, feel its materials, experience its microclimate, matter? Does existing in physical space matter? To many, it appears to matter much less. For generations the focus of competitions, architecture school, and much of the profession has been about perfecting presentation skills. But what exactly are we perfecting, now that we can totally erase the line between the rendered and the real? 

Sadly, the world may be coming around to this point of view, now that we have to teach and design and live much of our lives in the second-hand, indirect, untouched connection of a Zoom call or a Snapchat. The detached joy of virtual experience may be transforming our culture into a world of enforced simulation, rather than dynamic interaction. The triumph of effect over the vast window of experience in the physical world offers the control and power that matches the food in food porn, the profile pictures on dating sites, and the bodies and actions of internet porn. All of these count on triggering emotions as their singular measure of success—now similar to the way virtual architecture is presented in the 21st century. 

Is that a good thing? We need food to live; food porn satisfies only the eyes. Children are the essence of life for most humans: no pornography creates that meaning. In their direct embrace of humanity, buildings provide that meaning in ways no virtual observation can simulate. Our society seems to have a couple of choices: We can strive to define our values in a tangible world that everyone is collectively a part of, or we can break down into internet-connected tribes and affinity groups, singing to our respective choirs.

If some designers are content to live and create on screen, that might just be a plausible future. But actual buildings are there for all of us, because they are essential. We live and experience life in real time and real space. The joy that we experience through architecture in the here and now is deep and cultural, and it changes us. And as we are finding out in a time of forced isolation, change can be good. But reality is undeniable.

Featured image: Evolvo Magazine, 2018 Skyscraper Competition. 

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