In pen and ink, water colour paint or computer pixels, whether abstract, illustrative or so called ‘photo-real’, architectural visualisation of proposed, imagined or built structures has existed in some form since prehistoric cave drawings. It often appears to be a merely utilitarian communication or representation tool. But architectural visualisation plays a more influential role – from moving an audience emotionally to impacting, in some way, on future built
Past examples from great and influential image makers include Pirenesi, Chernikov, Boulee, Peter Cook and the years of paper architecture that define the early career of Zaha Hadid. All this imagery has done far more than simply depict built form. All vary in their representation of what most would agree as being ‘true’ or ‘real’. They often create works that do not adhere to a physical reality at all. These images are about ideas.
Established in 2006, FloodSlicer is an architectural visualisation studio specialising in the production of high quality still and moving imagery that is photo real, dramatic and emotionally evocative. Projects range in scale from small designer objects to cityscapes. Clients range from architects to artists, developers to government, project managers to marketing agencies. Most members of staff have design degrees, such as architecture, interior, landscape, industrial, graphic and multimedia. The firm’s two directors, myself and Daniel Flood, have architecture training. Our professional specialisation arises from being architecturally, visually and technologically literate storytellers.
The practice emerged from the photographic studio of John Gollings, whose powerful presence as a leading architectural photographer exerted a strong influence on our image making. Understanding how the built world translated into a single two dimensional depiction was a critical precursor to determining how this could be done in the virtual world. In a realm of pixels, vectors, and complex lighting algorithms, the imagery must find a way to capture and represent architecture that does not yet exist in a vital and humanistic way. What’s more, it must do this with buildings that are often in an embryonic design state, prior to many stages of detailed architectural development.
Only two decades ago, the technology to do this was rudimentary and the results were pretty basic, often produced with technically obscure and convoluted methods – particularly when looking to achieve the photo real depictions our imaginations aspired to. Now, with exponential increases in computing power and vast technical leaps in available software, the potential to produce convincing photo real images of the prebuilt environment is enormous.
But this new capacity comes with a perceptual problem as old as photography itself: the photo real state blurs boundaries between the actual, the real and the virtual. Hence it blurs the truth.
Editing of still and moving images amounts to a reconstructed reality or, in our case reconstructed pre-reality. What is produced is very much not the truth – no more true than it is real. This is where the photo real domain becomes conceptually confounding. Even our most scientifically rigorous and least creative work – the certified VCAT montage (a type of image submissible as a piece of court evidence) – manipulates the truth of that pre-reality. At its most fundamental, the very act of composing a view in a frame (and thus leaving out the full context) is an edit and manipulation of reality; an untruth.
When the finished, built work is photographed or filmed, a similar set of storytelling decisions will need to be made. Real world documentation will be just as constructed and edited as the prebuilt visualisation. The only ‘real’ reality is actual inhabitation. The image is just an image (don’t be fooled) and a photo real image is even more of an illusion than an abstract illustrative piece.
The photo real is a very powerful communication tool. You are in most cases asking an audience to place their conviction and often money, in an idea or a future reality. Seeing that idea depicted in full virtual reality becomes very persuasive. It is far easier to believe in, far more compelling to want, far more inviting to accept and embrace the dream.
For the purchaser of the dream, be it government, corporation, or an apartment buyer, this constructed reality is the closest they will get to experiencing their investment for quite some time, if not ever.
From the very beginning of our practice, we could not escape the impact that photo real imagery (artistry aside) has on the design process. Usually, for instance, it is the first time the client team has seen or fully understood what they have commissioned. Often this revelation will force design revisions.
We have also witnessed the rise of design via image; the practice of adjusting or designing for a particular point of view or angle. No doubt this practice existed previously in architectural design; the most visually prominent streetscape aspects of a building were always likely to be given greater detail and attention.
This photo real medium is thrust upon the architecture process much earlier than it is ready for. Evolution of the materiality, detailing – all the things that make a building great – take time to evolve. The quality and beauty of the photo real relies on detail, and lots of it. And someone needs to supply those details often without the opportunity to let these decisions evolve from the design concept in a truly integrated way.
At present, architects don’t have any choice but to engage with the demand for imagery in the design process. The seduction of the photo real and the completely tangible future it seems to offer is unlikely to dissipate. In fact, inevitably will become more demanding as rapidly developing virtual reality technologies offer to immerse our audiences in not only the photo real, but the spatially, sensory and experientially ‘real’ too.
Ensuring that architects are well trained both during and post university in the history and methods of architectural communication, including higher quality photo real techniques, can help ensure practices have in house capability, ability to make wise choices or at least an understanding of when outsourcing is required.
It is important to emphasise the relevance of external image makers at the pointy end of the design process. Just as a photographer brings a fresh, external perspective or interpretation to a completed building, so too does a visualisation specialist to a near complete design. At this point, architects and designers are often too close to their subject and can obsess over details, particularly architectural details that are of little relevance to the general public or the intended audience. High level image making skills separate the wood from the trees, clarifying the essence of a design and allowing its best and most memorable qualities to shine.
All images courtesy of FloodSlicer