The importance of visualizations in architecture

Having coming from an architectural education background that did not really encourage computer generated renders I am somewhat playing the devil’s advocate here in writing about their growing importance in the architectural discipline and industry. Though visualization is necessary tool for communication between designers and clients in many disciplines, there is a lot more at stake when communicating a spatial design, i.e. something that people will experience and occupy, rather than say, industrial or product design. The keyword here is spatial and therein lies the schism of representing a 3d experience as a 2d image, a point of contention between architects with those against it referring to the predominance of “the image” in our visual culture.

In this post however I will write about how the render has come to be a necessary evil in the architectural discipline and industry. It is important to remember that rendering is a double-edged sword that can be very useful or counter-productive in different situations. The two occasions where visualizations will be produced will be either during design development or in presentation and marketing, and in those situations the client and purpose will determine the type of render produced. 

The main strength of a render as a design and communication tool is in its accessibility to clients or the general public who often aren’t able to read traditional architectural drawings. In the design process renders can be effective for communicating a design intention to a client; it can also stimulate the design process by revealing unexpected qualities in a space, leading to further ideas. Even in the early design stages especially in architectural competitions or when practices are vying for a commission by a client, renders are required to sell a “vision”. This is also more than often required in second-hand situations, when the client is a developer marketing to prospective tenants or buyers. 

The fact that renders are produced by algorithms as in ray-tracing for example, mean they are at the basic level a simulation: of how materials will look and how light will interact with them in space with a precise form and scale. The fact that the render makes a design appear more resolved than it actually is becomes the double-edged sword. Different audiences can react very differently to this: I have seen it work in studio final presentations where students’ designs are naturally expected to have a high degree of finesse; a juror was able to pick up on the fact that the design wasn’t resolved, however this skill is credited it as a useful to have in practice. I suspect this would be for the case for competitions and winning commissions in China, where this juror’s current projects were situated. 

One pitfall of this however is that it can be very easy to lose sight of the concept for both the designer and client, with the dialogue tending to become distracted by detail.  Sometimes these renders are edited in Photoshop to make them appear more impressionistic as opposed to hyper-realistic, so as to either leave enough room for the development of the design or to focus the audience’s attention towards the driving concept or vision.

Below are two renders by colleagues, for a client’s house, one a V-ray working render and the other for presentation done on 3Ds Max Mentalray. One colleague states that, “The render helped by letting us and the client see what neither of us could imagine. We found that line drawings could define a space but couldn’t fully describe atmosphere. And a picture really does say a thousand words. The render also gave us confidence to make changes as well as confidence in the decisions we had already made, such as the location of the kitchen at the heart of the house.”

Working render for residence by Pyungwon Lee and Frankie Lau
Presentation render for residence by Pyungwon Lee and Frankie Lau

As a tool to sell a vision of a building to an audience it can have the power to inspire, appease or incite criticism. Perhaps improved render technology and its conduciveness to mass-media (given the popularity of websites such as Archdaily) point towards a future of a democratized architecture and design process. We live in a visual culture, and architectural visualizations are a necessary tool in reaching out to a wide audience whose daily lives revolve around spaces and buildings. In that sense architectural visualizations can be reduced to propaganda; especially when the image and a particular render aesthetic becomes more important than the building itself. But this is no different to when atmospheric qualities in perspective drawing were achieved by hand. It is important to distinguish rendering as a tool and an art in itself; and as a tool it is important to use it with a clear purpose and depicting a level of detail fit for the purpose.