You reap what you render

In this post I’m going to adopt some extreme positions about realistic architectural renderings:

They are bad for our clients.

They are bad for architects.

We should not make them.

Don’t agree? OK, let’s talk.

First of all, let’s agree on what we mean by “realistic”. We’re talking about presenting the design of a work of architecture to a client. Realism should mean being like the finished project. But of course a rendering can’t be realistic in this sense; it can only be “realistic” in the sense of being like a photograph of the project. This raises two issues. First, renderings exploit the much-criticized tendency to judge works of architecture by looking at photographs of them. Second, if we ask clients to judge the experience of their projects based on simulated photographs, we may wind up designing images instead of buildings.

The fallacy of judging architecture from photographs has been discussed countless times, but I’ll summarize it here. Photographs can be manipulated by photographers to affect their viewers in specified ways. In the Photoshop era, this is truer than ever. The photographer controls framing, composition, lighting, exposure, depth of field, color balance and other variables to produce sought-for effects. All of these variables are aspects of photography, not real experience. In order to view a photograph as realistic, the viewer must also ignore the fact that it is two-dimensional, limited in its range and captures only a single instant.

Serta International Center_0002
Simulation or reality?

When we judge architecture from photographs or renderings, we are also neglecting the effects of time, movement and memory as well as our other senses on our experience of architecture. We usually ignore these things because we are so thoroughly accustomed to looking at photographs as representations of reality. When dealing with architecture, we need to remember they are not. Our clients need to be reminded that they are not. But why are we showing them renderings if not in the hope that they will see these images as experiences of the project? By showing clients realistic renderings of their projects, we’re capitalizing on the fallacy of judging architecture from photographs.

The second issue is an even more serious problem for architecture: we may end up designing images rather than actual experience. When realistic renderings are used to communicate the experience of a project, a client’s understanding of that experience becomes an  experience of images. Architects in turn are motivated to adopt the same attitude. We focus our attention on the renderings as the objects of our design- we design an image rather than the building. We may find ourselves reducing experience to images in our own minds.

An idea about the project- not its literal experience.
This drawing by Luis Barragan conveys an idea about the project- not its literal experience.

Contrast this situation with that prior to the advent of realistic renderings. No one could mistake even the best hand-drawn perspective for an experience of an actual building. In such drawings, the liberties taken by the draftsman were obvious, even celebrated. The qualities of the drawing itself were of great interest. The intention was to convey an idea about the project, and the drawings were viewed in that spirit. There was an implicit recognition that the experience of the completed project could not be represented: it was of a different order. The separation between representation and reality was guaranteed.

Simulating more aspects of experience make the problem worse- a STAR CAVE immersive VR environment

The more aspects of reality we try to simulate, the worse the problem becomes. The simulations grow increasingly seductive but still cannot reproduce experience. Animations and walk/fly-throughs give an experience of movement, but again their seeming realism deceives: they’re subject to even more manipulation than static images. Architects are now designing an animation instead of an image, but their attention is still on a simulation, not on actual experience. Virtual reality is just another step in this direction. If we design simulations, our built work will have the qualities of simulations.

Now that we have tools that can give the illusion of breaching the separation between image and reality, it is up to us as architects to maintain it. We cannot allow our understanding of architectural experience to be shaped by simulation. Given the appeal of simulations for our clients, unilateral disarmament (that is, individual firms renouncing the use of renderings and the like) is a bad business strategy. We must refuse to produce these artifacts as a profession, on the ethical grounds that they deceive our clients and make us less effective designers of the built environment. And we will incidentally be saving architecture from becoming endless simulation.

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4 thoughts on “You reap what you render”

  1. I’m in a design-build company. We need the best means possible convey a design to our clients. A sketch is great art – and more’s the pity that we are losing that capability – but if we’re trying to get people to understand what the design is, and discuss its challenges, then I’m all for ‘being real’. Getting accurate documentation as soon as possible matters most. The death of drawings is not a loss to the users or builders – it’s more a loss to architects and those who enjoy that artful expression of a proposed building’s form. It still has its place in design exploration, but it needs to be followed up ASAP with a building model and good construction docs.

    1. Very interesting comment. The differences among the needs of the designer, the user or client and the builder in the representation of a design are not often pointed out, but are important nonetheless. Obviously, the builder needs clear documentation. Maybe your firm is one of the few that use live models as construction documents. That’s great. My problem is with renderings, not explanatory models.
      When it comes to clients or users, they do indeed need to understand the project before they commit to building it. First, however, they need to be taken through the design process. This is about ideas, not images. Ideas are better expressed and understood in drawings. A drawing can address a specific design issue while leaving others aside, postponing their consideration until the appropriate time. This helps a client focus on the design decision at hand and make good decisions. 3D images and computer models can be useful at this stage as well if they are similarly focused. But even when the design is complete, my objection is to realistic renderings remains. These are inevitably misleading, and substitute a simulated photograph for real experience. You may say that this is the best we can do and better than impressionistic drawings. I’d reply that you are selling your work short by encouraging clients to judge it on the basis of a “photograph”. As you know, there is a huge difference between the appearance of a building in a photograph and the experience of it in real life. Better to leave some things to the client’s imagination.

  2. I think there is a distinction to be made in the timeline with these ideas. I am completely on board with showing the client loose drawings, hand sketches early in the process. Schematic Design. I will even hand sketch over my staff produced CAD drawings to then present to the client. It gives the impression to the client that they can still invoke change, things are not finalized. Late in the Design Development stage, especially if fundraising is a part of the process, pretty pictures and rotating models do help. Ideally at this point, the client is on board with conceptual ideas in the design. We are definitely moving towards building accurate Revit models for contractors to use during construction. A lot of construction superintendents are coming out of school with BIM training. I see printed CD’s eventually going away within 10-15 years in some cases. My generation (hand drafting/early Cad) will have to die off before it completely goes away.

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