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Keeping it Real

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The capabilities of BIM continue to grow incrementally through improvements to algorithms and hardware. About this time last year, I wrote about how I thought BIM packages that offered the real-time estimation of energy performance, carbon impact or cost would be an incredibly useful for the verification of design decisions. Rather than that becoming a reality, ongoing advances in architectural visualization applications and increased computer processing power now enable the real-time visualization of building imagery. One of the more useful examples of this is the insertion of BIM or CAD models into a site context mapped from OpenStreetMap data. This lets important or critical viewpoints be identified and the proposal evaluated for its visual impact on those surroundings.

At the same time, it is becoming easier to select materials for mapping to a white model for render purposes. Materials libraries are becoming larger. Being able to edit these materials for colour, texture, reflections and transparency is standard.

“As well as being able to import materials directly from the Material Library into the … Material Editor, you can batch import and export material packages. This is particularly useful for individuals and teams who want to access certain pre-prepared materials from other projects.”

This technology can be used in two different ways, depending on the stage of the project workflow. In the design phase, it could be used by designers to verify a design and, depending on the project and client, could also be used to offer a client choice of options without too much additional work. However, in the later stages of a project, glossy visualizations are more likely to be used to gain the approval of a client board of directors.

In 2005 I was responsible for the overall design of a project for a pedestrian road linking a main village road to a cultural centre via a supermarket, restaurants, gym and miscellaneous retail, all within a perimeter of apartment buildings. The chief planning officer wanted one small pocket of open land to have the feeling of “a London square”. This was the drawing I showed him. He approved, and the £STG 60 mil. project progressed to the design stage.

In the next meeting, the municipality historian requested the development “tell stories of local history” so my initial sketch (below) included a “theme building” and a vertical axis wind turbine that symbolically replaced the windmill that had existed on the site until 100 years earlier. It looked like this.

The facade of the apartment building on the left alluded to the main local crop of wheat. This is the facade and on the right is a photograph I’m sure I used used when presenting it to the municipality historian. The historian approved and the design stage progressed.

Everyone around the table at project management meetings likes drawings like these next ones because they provide building information in a form that’s easily understood and communicated. Few words are necessary. Architects are entrusted with jobs because clients trust them to know what they are doing.

We all know the story of how Frank Lloyd Wright is said to have drawn all the drawings for Fallingwater in the evening before a visit at short notice by the client. The only visualization was this hand-drawn rendering that, because we don’t know who drew it, was probably not by Wright himself. Regardless of its shortcomings in accuracy and resolution, it was sufficient to convince the client to build the house.

My undergraduate instructors were educated in the 1960s so I was encouraged to produce ink drawings like those heroic Yale architecture school ink drawings from Paul Rudolph’s studio. This was just how architecture was communicated in the sixties. This drawing is of the US Embassy in Athens, completed in 1961 to a design by Walter Gropius and TAC.

This trust between architect and client lasted into the 1960s. I particularly like this artists’ impression of a mixed-used building in Milan, designed by Gustavo e Vito Letis (1953-1955). Whoever is responsible for this drawing impression was confident the building would appear far better in real life, and the client was also equally confident it would too.


Of course, if you go to Milan’s via Filipo Turati you’ll see how 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.

Both of these mid-20th century visualizations are stylizations for which the conventions were shared. They were understood as artists’ impressions and that the final reality of the building in its surroundings might differ. These next drawings are of Moore Ruble Young’s US Embassy in Berlin. The conservative nature of these watercolour renderings are evocative of a conservative era of international politics and with what the clients of embassy buildings usually want. The choice of rendering medium has been chosen to conform to client expectations.

In the early 2010s, architect sketches and drawings were sent to outside companies to produce “final approval” renders and animations such as these. These images are more photo-real than anything I’ve showed you so far but the choice of sky and people to “animate” the scene is still very stylized.

Virtual reality began with animations called walk-throughs and fly throughs but setting them up and rendering them to the desired resolution was time-consuming, expensive and usually outsourced. More powerful chips and algorithms mean it is now possible to generate real-time moving images so a client holding a powerful tablet computer can have a virtual walk-through. It is also possible to have more accurate texture mapping using large libraries of materials that can be edited for colour, texture, reflections, and transparency. And it is also possible to render reflections, vegetation and water more convincingly and all in something close to realtime. Improvements such as these are claimed to result in more accurate and realistic visualizations but these visualizations still need to be “signed off” by the client to prevent clients asking a court to rule on whether the built reality lives up to the expectations resulting from the virtual reality.

Computationally, real-time photo-rendering remains subject to the limits of processing power. One VR application manufacturer recommends a NVIDIA GeForce GTX1080 or Quadro P5000 as entry-level but the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 Ti/Titan or Quadro P6000 if the project is large or if the motion requires smooth movement and accurate lighting. Not all architects believe project presentations require motion at all, let alone whether that motion requires smooth movement or accurate lighting. Some situations might, although I can’t imagine what they would be. It’s even less easy to imagine why processor power-hungry features such as animated vegetation are required. 

Animated vegetation impresses clients and conveys solutions to audiences who might have trouble fully conceptualizing your ideas.

Manufacturers of BIM packages and extensions that provide these functionalities, emphasize their value for business development rather than their potential to facilitate design.

Virtual reality is the key for modern and innovative architects that want to add more value for clients. It’s more immersive and emotional than a presentation based on renderings alone. There is no better way for customers to perceive their projects up close.

Having said that, I quite like this next use of in-graphic motion even though its charm doesn’t come from being realistic of anything other than a manga. This graphic generates a lot of atmosphere from something as small and primitive as a gif. We should be wary of any first application of increases in processing power. As soon as it became possible for animators to have realistic depictions of the motion of feathers, flames, hair and fur, there came a slew of animated movies featuring feathers, flames, hair and fur. I’ve been reading reviews of Avatar: The Way of Water, and it seems the real star of the movie is its “realistic” depiction of underwater worlds. The real news is that avatars can now have children, presumably by functioning avatar genitalia. Somebody should tell Mark Zuckerberg. If he can nail, that then all of Meta’s problems will be over. Just don’t post any images of them.

Visual communication is devalued when it’s presented and intended to be understood as a perfect image of an imagined future reality. More to the point, design itself is devalued when the only qualities that require communicating are those which can be seen. A project manager may see a certain kind of beauty in a spreadsheet, a quantity surveyor in a bill of quantities, a structural consultant in a carbon analysis. Real-time virtual reality photo-renders may become a new but stylized means of communicating the visual aspects of an architectural idea to clients.

The commercial world will operate as it sees fit, but when universities attempt to equip their students for participation in that world, there is a danger that imagination and design skills will be devalued if students think they must develop an idea in virtual reality before presenting it for critical evaluation.


  • Thanks for this very concise review of recent visualisation!
    I’m quite astonished by the recent development in young offices and academia of making images that are ‘just not’ perfect. By now, most master’s students can make a photorealistic rendering with free open-source software.
    (For example, Aluminium has made a huge impression in European buildings, since it’s kind of the only material that can’t just be applied in photoshop and look convincing– it has to be rendered, with reflections. Bosses and clients love the ‘realness’ of it, and all of a sudden you see it everywhere.)

    But it seems that with the skill of making it look real, came the fatigue of trying to.
    We see designs where actual materials are applied like flimsy textures; distorted, weirdly arranged,confidently misused, or just rendered in pure primary colours.

    I hope that, after this phase in which we try to show a client as much of reality as possible before anything is built, we will have a back-to-the-basics moment where we just accept that the finished building is more than a VR walkthrough.

    • Yes, it’s a weird situation with all this pressure to produce images that look more “real” than reality ever will. It’s not that it’s even a real real but more like reality as we wish it were. And this is part of the problem with that “Avatar effect”. It’s said that the movie is so beautiful that people leave it depressed because the real world isn’t. Events are moving to set us up to accept the metaverse as preferable. I’ve always riled against post-modernism for fooling us into believing that a representation of something as better than the real thing. I see supra-photorealistic vizualizations and the metaverse as post-modernism circling around and coming for us again;.