Tag Archives: the philosophy of render

Keeping it Real

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.

[via ordinearchitetti.mi.it]

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.

The Emotional Layer

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?

• • • 

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.