Performance Anxiety

This post was prompted by a comment a reader made in response to last week’s post, Associative Design. Thanks KT!

I’ve disliked flashy architectural graphics for as long as I can remember. I could always sketch and, in my undergraduate course with its life drawing and sketching excursions I had occasional successes such as a pencil sketch of a garden next to our studio and a pastel sketch of a coastal landscape. Imagining what something might look like on a site was never a problem and I could always get the message across. I must have seen those Yale images from Paul Rudolph’s studio in some book because, back then, the only way we could be shown images was if they’d been photographed by the faculty assistant, made into 35mm slides and put into a Kodak carousel. It was the teaching equivalent of a Powerpoint file. Nevertheless, our instructors knew of these heroic Yale inkings and expected them of us because this was how architecture was communicated in the 20th century. [These next few images are all taken from a post called Ignorance is Bliss.]

I particularly like this artists’ impression of a mixed-used building in Milan, designed by Gustavo e Vito Letis (1953-1955). [via] Whoever is responsible for this artists’ impression was confident the building would appear far better in real life, and that the client was also equally confident it would too.

I see this as evidence of clients with a high degree of design literacy, and of architects who designed for what the building was going to be like when it was experienced by real people as a built object. The idea of architecture as something that has to be practiced in an international media circus was still nascent in the 1950s and wasn’t to become the preferred way of practicing architecture for a couple of decades yet.

Of course, if you go to Milan’s via Filipo Turati you will see that the real building (still) looks far better than the image of it. This is of course how it should be, and it is characteristic of many Italian mid-20th century buildings.

Images like these were called artists’ impressions because that’s what they were, although the term probably doubled as legal disclaimer. Doubts about the ethics of these ink wash and watercolour worlds existed even in the 1970s and continue today except that we don’t talk about them. At school, we saw that some of us were good at architectural graphics and some of us weren’t. The best we reasonably aspired to was something like this commercial artist’s impression from a decade or two earlier, and even this is in the style of those Ralph Rapson images for the only Case Study House that wasn’t built.

If a student didn’t have a way with people or trees but had the money there was always Letraset. This was the name of the company and its eponymous product. Letraset made sheets of lettering in various fonts, as well as people, trees and all manner of graphic hatches and decorations. They came fixed to plastic sheets and you’d press (“dry-rub”) to transfer your chosen graphic to your drawing. Today we’d call their product an image library purchased page by page. You can find the children and grandchildren of Letraset people in Sketchup.

Students were envious of the ones who used Letraset to make their artist’s impressions look more “professional”. This was a symptom of Performance Anxiety.

Retro graphics still have their place and it’s usually to evoke images of a quieter, gentler world. This one I did many years later for a small job in the Hampshire countryside.

This one (not mine) was for an embassy client.

Diplomatic clients don’t want the vibrantly and diversely populated worlds of computer-generated imagery. They want calm. Having said that, these next two contemporary watercolors are more seductive than the reality they enabled.

About 1995 I discovered ArchiCAD and its integrated graphics engine but, as a person used to sketching, I’d never regarded its 3D window as anything other than a tool to confirm design decisions already made and to help communicate those ideas to others. Knowing how to use it did get me my first three positions with this BIM application that was niche even then. I produced photo-renderings like these which, circa 2000 weren’t that horrible. At the time, I was exporting files, placing lamps, mapping textures and generally wasting a lot of computer time and my own, sleeping intermittently as the render filled the screen from the bottom up as was the way with ArtLantis. Photorendering and post production weren’t things I wanted to get good at. I didn’t.

I discovered that clients familiar with the process of commissioning buildings react better to sketches because they remind them they have the agency to suggest changes. I produced images like these with inky shadows on ArchiCAD’s flat colour.

In 2004 I was working at a different company and, although it was a trial having to use AutoCAD 2000, I developed a cartoony image style with closed black lines that could be quickly filled with Photoshop colour. Some project managers thought it unprofessional but, as far as I knew, no clients did. If clients familiar with the process of procuring buildings are completely at ease with a hand sketch then, at the other end of the spectrum, clients who only want to approve and delegate will demand the most real visualization possible. This might because they lack the imagination or it might be because the image is all that matters anyway.

Just as Reinier de Graaf said the other week, rich rulers and board-of-directors clients don’t want to be distracted with theory or insulted with sketches. They want to see a shiny image of what it their new bauble is going to be like and, even before it is built, they want to show people what they are going to get built. They like the image of a perfect reality and this is why architects bend over backwards [forwards?] to give them. Performance anxiety is rampant in architecture schools because students are exposed to those images at a formative age. They think this is how architecture operates, and maybe even that it’s what architecture is. They’re partially right, at least for one very small but vocal section of the profession that has hijacked the image of the architect.

Education is usually criticized for insufficiently following the needs of the industry but this emphasis on imagery is a case of it following the “industry’s” needs all too well. The problem is that the part of the industry education is following is the least representative one that has come to represent it anyway. I expect that all a business development manager has to do these days is just gift a potential client an iPad Pro pre-loaded with images.

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Meanwhile, students are appalled at my unprofessional collages and lo-effort imagery.

These ones below are as good as it gets. and nor am I shy of using screengrabs. It puts an offhand work-in-progress sketchiness back into computing. Someone else can do the fancy images but I’d appreciate it if they kept them to themselves or just shared them in secret with their potential clients.

Another problem I have with photo-renders is that they can never be perfect. This next one’s been done professionally but, even so, there’s something not right about the position of the moon relative to the sun in this early morning view with the sun low in the east. Also, the buildings are too shiny in all the wrong places. You won’t see coconut palm trees in the UAE let alone four-story tall ones so close to salt water. And they won’t all bitmap the same. These are common errors. I know that birds are obligatory in photo-renders but I don’t mind these because not only are birds active at sunrise but also because many species of birds pass through the UAE on their way to winter in Africa. Students find it very difficult to resist the gloss of images that are the new dark arts. I try to help students overcome their need to produce them.

And now we have animations that not only make little attempt to inform but, for their duration, kill all discussion and, for students, give an extra dimension to performance anxiety.

“Just as tablet computers opened up the market for computing to people who couldn’t type, in 2013 with its Yes Is More comic book, BIG opened up the market for the disssemination of architectural thought to the functionally illiterate.

ZHA/MIR have moved it on with this architectural cartoon and opened up the market for the dissemination of architectural thought to the totally illiterate and, perhaps of more value to a global enterprise, the differently-languaged. “


39 seconds into the animation from which this still was grabbed, you will see the sun set in the south. Or possibly the north if this animation was made when the same proposal was mirrored to the other side of the road – presumably because it wouldn’t look so great with a mountain of disused automobile tires behind it, even though this non co–located recycling presumably helped in the sustainability report.