The Ethics of Rendering: Permissible Lies When Anything is Possible

In my second or third undergraduate year, an architect was invited to give the class a workshop on architectural rendering. He instructed us on viewpoints and composition, and showed us how to apply watercolour sparingly yet effectively to outlines faintly pencilled onto cartridge paper. When he said the judicious addition of plants and foliage could make a building look better than it might ever appear in reality, someone asked, “But is that right?”  (Meaning ethical.)  His response, that it was only an “artist’s’ impression,” seemed unsatisfactory at the time but, now that I think about it, he was right.

Those impressions may have been optimistic, but the very look of them with their watercolour and various stylizations made it clear they were nothing more than what a reasonably skilled artist imagined something might resemble in the future. They were not intended, or meant to be understood, as reality. All they did was communicate an idea to the non-specialist stakeholders who would approve the project. That much hasn’t changed.

Two important things have changed, though. The first is the number and diversity of those stakeholders. Building proposals must now be run by an increasing number of people with a direct stake in the success or failure of the project, as well as those whose lives and businesses will somehow be indirectly affected by it. The opinions of these people are actively sought by local governments and will often influence their decision.

The other thing different now is the availability of technologies that can create images that appear to illustrate objects as if they were already real. This does away with the need for anyone, whether stakeholder or interested public, to ever imagine or interpret an image, let alone misinterpret one. These new pseudo-realistic images are called “visualizations.” This is disturbing, since it implies that we’ve all agreed to outsource our imaginations.


When judged against the standards of the past, this lack of ambiguity is a good thing because the chances of misinterpreting an artist’s impression are reduced. However, the chances of being presented with a representation that hasn’t been pimped in some way are practically nil. In the same way as sensationalist political statements can be used to generate instant and positive reactions from a broad mass of normally disinterested people, supercharged imagery is used to “communicate” proposals to persons with no interest in an architectural project beyond liking or disliking images of it. Taken to its logical and perhaps inevitable extreme, architecture becomes no more than the production of populist imagery, and evaluating worth is reduced to a thumbs-up or down evaluation of those images.


The level of awareness of architecture by the general public has grown exponentially. Even people casually surfing the internet will have opinions of buildings they’ve never visited or used. We no longer think of this as strange; it’s the field on which architecture is played these days. Famous architects are those who get the most arresting images in front of the most people and so communicate their proposals in the most simplistic ways possible. Added to this, images are being disseminated earlier. The life cycle of a project can now be traced via publicly released images. Early iterations test market response and, even if the project never comes to fruition, the public will nevertheless know the practice is still active. Such practices call themselves research-based practices. This dimension to architectural activity was first observed during the 1970s recession. There were no computers in architecture but much architectural artwork was produced and published.


Images are notoriously unreliable at conveying architectural ideas about theory, sustainability, energy performance or process, but excel at conveying shape, pattern and color. Producing such imagery is now the specialist task of a new breed of architectural consultancy called visualizers. These companies use what the architects have in mind as a basis to re-visualize it so you don’t have to. They assume your imagination is not up to the task as they leave nothing to it.


Last week while sitting waiting for a haircut, I was thumbing through a recent issue of British GQ, and stumbled on a piece about MIR,  the Norwegian company that produces visualizations for many of the big-name architecture houses, such as BIG and Zaha Hadid Architects. The article spoke glowingly of the company and its sophisticated work, suggesting theirs was a name worth dropping into conversation, and that their visualizations were works of “art” in and and of themselves. Astonishingly, all of that might be true.


This belatedly parallels the symbiotic relationship that has always existed between photographers and the world of fashion. Fashion photography and fashion news have come to represent the world of fashion more than the actual items of clothing being reported upon. In the same way as fashion has become the sum of communications about fashion, architecture imagery has become the sum of communications about architecture and, of those, the only ones that seem to matter as far as marketing, commerce and celebrity are concerned are those based on visualizations of buildings. We have no word for this yet. Some say it is architecture and they may be right. In the near future, we might need some other word to describe the activity of designing and constructing buildings for people to use.


Mannerist obsession with new technologies rarely produces anything of immediate worth. CGI is now a standard credit at the end of many movies but particularly so in the case of animations. In the same way that movies featuring birds, fire, monsters and maidens showcase advancements in depicting the realistic movement of feathers, flames, fur and hair, buildings feature curves not because they are newly imaginable but because it’s now possible to imagine them being built. In the field of architectural visualization, clouds and water, mirroring and transparency, have been mastered and new challengers are the lushness of vegetation and atmospheric effects, such as heat haze, morning mist and desert dust.


As the images become more realistic, their content becomes more fictional. The appearance of naturalness is everything, but the standard for this idealized state is not reality. It’s what is pleasant to see and what feels like the right thing to see. It is a curated, edited and sanitized hyper-reality. Reality itself is untidy, seasonal and includes many things we’d rather ignore. We live in a strange time where how real something looks is judged by how unreal it is.


The original rendering for the CityLife Milano Residential Complex, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, surely did not include the unsightly fence.


All this would be no different from judiciously placed watercolor greenery were it not for the fact that these visualizations come without disclaimers. In its news item credits, ArchDaily (a major internet site for architectural news) makes no distinction between visualizations of things that may be, and photographs of buildings that are. Everything is a “photograph”. This blurring is symptomatic of architecture’s dysfunction between image and reality. The desire to imagine new and better worlds is not new, nor is the desire to depict and communicate what they could be like. To depict and communicate a new and better world as an end in itself detaches the representation of architecture from actual buildings. No one even expects the real thing to look remotely like its visualization.

Buildings are still constructed and, in the case of well-known architects, people may even recall them once they’re completed. The life of a visualization ends when a building is finally done and a celebrity photographer photographs the building to look like the visualization by which it will continue to be judged. When buildings are designed to look like their own visualizations, the less-than-virtuous circle is complete.


Featured image: an architectural drawing for a mixed-used building in Milan, designed by Gustavo e Vito Letis (1953-1955), via ordinearchitetti.mi.it


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