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Feature article

The Art and artifice of Architectural Visualisation:

Does a picture tell a thousand words?

Architects depend on images to visualise their designs. In this way it is the language of an architect. As written language has evolved over time, so too have the methods of architectural visualisation from paintings and hand drawings to photography and CAD and everything in between. Architectural imagery is a process that begins with the conception of an idea for a building and continues to live beyond the life of the final physical form. But the image is never more than a snapshot in time constructed with a particular audience in mind. Within its life, a piece of architecture will be rewritten hundreds of times and each time will convey a different ‘truth’.

It is this notion of truth in architectural visualisation that we wanted to investigate in this edition of Architect Victoria. This is explored through a framework of time recognising that the image as an artefact of architecture is inherently temporal. We create a future for architecture through imagining what could exist, we visualise the present as a process of creation and we record and revisit the past through reimaged imagery through which we create a record of our cultural and aesthetic values.

In Thinking Architecture, Peter Zumthor says, ‘architectural drawings try to express as accurately as possible the aura of the building in its intended place’ 1. But visualisation of buildings and the built environment play a more important role than mere representation of physical actuality, future, present or past. While as architects and visualisers we may spend hours, days or weeks deliberating over the best way to represent a building, we don’t often stop to consider the relationship and significance of these images independently of their subject and their broader cultural role in creating a lasting impression and historical representation of place.

In our time, imagery has become the governing mode of communication and information sharing. In architecture this has manifest itself in photorealistic rendering and three dimensional fly throughs, allowing us to visualise unbuilt buildings in ever increasing ‘factual’ reality. Social media platforms have further changed the way we disseminate architecture enabling instant photography to be immediately and widely available. While these trends are partly a response to technological developments of traditional mediums, increasingly they are a response to a distant market place purchasing an architectural product.

The ability to visualise in absolutes provides an opportunity to test ideas and resolve detailing. Often however, the demand for this at an early stage becomes a disruptive aspect of the architectural process, encouraging a tendency to focus on the ‘image’ rather than a more holistic approach to the building’s spatial and experiential functions. The influence of technology and science in the development of virtual and augmented realities however, is resulting in a transformation in the way we represent and visualise buildings, re-imagining the entire platform for visual and spatial experience.

Visualisation, as captured in imagery and models physical or virtual, of buildings are our primary mechanism for conveying possible futures or reflecting on past creation while capturing the evolution and change of the present time. Exhibitions of architecture offer an opportunity to explore the possibilities of the built environment and provide a way for the broader community to understand the role of good design. In Australia we are still lacking community engagement with architecture. The few opportunities we do have to develop a discourse, outside the academic realm, arise through public competitions for which we rely on the media to communicate the scope of proposals. The presentation and exhibition of architectural imagery plays a fundamental role in conveying the intent, reason and logic behind a design, a fundamental part of architectural practice and education.

The battle between image and object, artist and subject, is never more alive than in the final representation of a building. The photographer attempts to capture the truth in architecture while limiting the distraction of reality. The hero shot is the title to the building, the cover page to the book, and often the dominant experience of a completed work. The process of distinguishing fact from fiction in architectural imagery becomes much like the struggle to discover the magician’s trick or reveal the workings of a stage set. We struggle to experience architecture through imagery because it is fundamentally physical.

Despite the age old saying, ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ no image will ever be a complete story.

A rather timely exhibition opening at the Barbican in London titled Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern World, attempts to explore the historic links between photography and architecture, aiming to bring together a range of work to demonstrate how the documentation of the built environment through photography can reveal ‘wider truths about society’ 2. It was also not so long ago that Architectural Record published Picture Perfect, an edition that reviewed the coupling of photography and architecture.

So it seems that the architectural image, in one sense or another, is on people’s minds. This is perhaps a result of the rapid development in new imaging technologies or a realisation of how image dependent our society has become. Needless to say, this is a topic which now demands greater reflection from those who shape our cities through imagery.

In this edition we invited architects and visualisers of the built environment to share their expertise and reflect on their experiences creating and critiquing architectural imagery.

1 Zumthor, Peter, Thinking Architecture, Birkauser, Basel, 1999, p13