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The Emotional Layer

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This first image is courtesy of Moon World Resorts, Ltd., a Canadian consortium proposing to build a moon-shaped hotel in Dubai. The image says just that. Moon-shape, Dubai. It could only say Dubai more if Burj Khalifa was also in the image but that’s impossible because moon building is exactly where Burj Khalifa was last time I saw it.

Don’t take my word for it. You can deduce this from this next photo which actually is the last time I saw Burj Khalifa

Now, moonworld is either a shameless attempt to deceive, or some photoreal depiction of an idea that was never going to happen in the manner it was depicted. I hope the future owners of the planned 300 boutique apartments will be given more accurate information. But this emphasis on resolution or a certain kind of fidelity seems to be diverting attention away from other qualities architectural renderings ought to have – an honest attempt to depict some future reality being an important one. This lowering of standards for representational honesty has been going on for some time now. Here are three examples that all happen to have the name Zaha Hadid Architects associated with them. Two of the three are for projects in the UAE – which could also be circumstantial.

First is ZHA’s Opus which had a prolonged opening after a prolonged gestation. Despite being a stone’s throw from Dubai Water Canal, the proposed view from the window of one of its hotel rooms was of Dubai Marina some 16km down the road. Design Boom places these images at May 2014.

Laurian Ghinitoiu’s photographs from the building’s eventual publication in ArchDaily etc in 2019 were far more evocative than my construction snaps.

This next image I’ve had in my downloads folder for some time now. It’s of a building in some leafy place with a tropical sky that turns out to be Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Here’s two views of the site from 2003 and 2021. While pleasant enough and possibly within the bounds of artistic license, a person not knowing the context would believe this representation of the site is typical of what surrounds it.

My third example is the relatively recently completed Bee’ah Headquaters in Sharjah, UAE. I’ve mentioned this before.

Notwithstanding, the April 2022 announcement of the building’s completion was accompanied by photographs by Hufton+Crow (link) that are simply unbelievable – at least to anyone who’s ever driven along Al Dhaid Road. It’s the most render-like building I’ve never seen.

Previously, this project had broken new ground with a cartoony animation silhouetted against the sun setting in the south (not the MIR animation with the sandstorm we saw earlier) although, to be fair, that could have been before the building was flipped onto a site the other side of the road where the building wouldn’t be seen against a mountain of car tires [since removed, it looks like]. Now the thing is there, it’s amazing how out of place the building looks, even from orbit. And what’s with the green?

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This caught my eye in the recent 2’nd Misfits Trienalle. It’s sponsored content but that doesn’t make it any different from non-sponsored content that does the same cheerleading. The premise is that photorenders are now too realistic and, as a result, cold and unmoving apart from being a bit unnerving. A later episode in this sponsored story arc told us how children watching a preview of some animated movie were upset because the animated heroine appeared too realistic despite the children knowing they were watching a movie. This led to the mind-bending conclusion that something so obviously unreal can suffer if it looks too real. I understand this work “suffer” to mean it can’t produce the desired suspension of reality. One suggested solution was to make photorealistic renders look less real by incorporating various graphic stylizations to reassure people they weren’t looking at a photo of something that actually exists.

I’ll have a stab at unpicking this. First, we’re being asked to recalibrate on the basis of a false premise. Photorenders were never that perfect. Just thinking back from examples I’ve seen, there was always an overabundance of supercars, of children with balloons, of birds in formation, of multiple trees with all identical branches, of the Sun or/and Moon in the wrong positions, of shadows not agreeing with latitude/orientation/time of day …. Simply having the same amount of pixels doesn’t make a photo rendering a photo. Photographs can and are used to mislead, but the scope for manipulation is less. We still accept them as a reliable source of information and this, I think, is why the word photorender is used as if it were an indicator of quality.

We have to accept that photorenders are no more or less a fiction than the old watercolor “artist’s impressions” of yesteryear. If we don’t accept this, then we have to accept that what the built building will actually look like isn’t what’s wanted. The photorender is the result of architects and clients suspending reality for a while to move the project forward. I can imagine different styles of renders being produced accordingto target different types of stakeholder, including the media-consuming public.

The sponsored content said that adding an emotional layer will create a sense of place and provide even more value to a project, firm, client and community. I’m not sure how this can add value to a project, client or community or, now I think about it, how it can even add value to a firm. Will clients notice if this metaphorical emotional “layer” is switched on or off as its name implies? And if they do, is it worth them paying a premium when it’s really just visualizers doing their job in accordance with the latest fashion?

It’s not so much a fashion but a new name for something that’s been around a long time. As far as my technical quibble layer is concerned, too many renderers fail to notice the sizable hill behind Fallingwater and it’s actually quite difficult to get some sky in the frame unless you go for the dramatic, now dated, view from below the first ledge. These next three images all have the same emotional layer of interior warmth but the render ups the emotion by adding a solitary bird. This render may even have the same dpi and degree of detail as the two photographs below it but the context has gone all moon hotel.

The cover photograph of the booklet on the right above seems to have its blues and yellows pushed and, though this is prettification rather than emotion, it does draw our attention to how the massing of the house from this angle is rotationally symmetrical with that of the stream and rocks. If you know your colour wheel, then the horizontal and vertical blue lines of the water satisfyingly balance the horizontal and vertical orange lines of light.

It’s time to remember that the hand-drawn render on the right below was the only visual in a package that at one time sufficiently impressed a client to build America’s most famous house ever. The rocks are incorrect and the waterfall too linear but it was enough for Mr. Kauffman to imagine this house on his land. There’s an emotional layer with a cosy domesticity implied by the plants and somebody beating a rug from the living room window. I only just noticed another rug on the upper terrace. A red one. This render isn’t attributed to anyone so it’s probably not by Wright although I remember reading that Wright added a few flourishes of colour to the finished drawing. so the rugs and hanging plants are probably his suggestions. Who else would dare?

Fallingwater didn’t need photorendering once it was completed because photographs such as the one above left shot around the world almost immediately as it had only just become possible for photographs to be internationally transmitted by wireless. Perhaps Fallingwater wouldn’t have been so sensational if renders, updated renders and final renders had been drip-fed to the international architectural press for months and years prior.

We’ve been here before. Post modernism encouraged us to relate to products and our architecture emotionally in order to shift more units. Now we’re being told to relate to images of buildings in much the same way. It’s the same coldhearted value-adding economic imperative. I’d like to dismiss all this talk of an emotional layer as some harmless way of generating a new type of kitsch but, since we live in a world where numbers of likes (or citations) is taken to indicate value, the more lasting damage will be caused by these very shallow definitions of emotion becoming the yardstick for quantifying the real thing felt by real persons in real buildings. “It’s just like the photorender!” will become the ultimate praise.