In perspective

Architecture visualisation has made great progress in the past decade, and the services offered by designers to communicate ideas can prove more valuable than spending big bucks on advertising. It’s about time architects woke up to what’s available, says Henrietta Thompson

A little more than ten years ago, an up-and-coming, but as yet unestablished architect called Zaha Hadid was giving a lecture about her work. Sitting in the audience, two architectural designers – Christian Grou and Tapio Snellman – were inspired, but frustrated. ‘The slides simply couldn’t demonstrate the power of her ideas,’ remembers Snellman.

They both approached Hadid after the event and offered their services on a collaborative basis. The rest was history/ Grou and Snellman are now well known for their visualisation company, Neutral, and they have since put together the visuals that helped to win funding for one of Hadid’s most important buildings, the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati.

Grou and Snellman first worked together in 1998, when they collaborated in Tokyo to produce the film Seek.01. They established Neutral with the mission to explore the realm of moving image and architecture through collaborations with other architects. Their work includes self-commissioned conceptual films dealing with urbanity, and commercial moving image and interactive digital work.

Despite their success, however, and despite being among the most respected in their line of work, much of the architecture world still doesn’t understand what Neutral and consultancies like it really do. Contrary to popular perception, what they do is not virtual reality, and it’s not rendering – it’s a far more sophisticated digital pitch altogether. But even with extensive exhibition work (last autumn, the Architecture Foundation staged the first retrospective of Neutral’s work for its final exhibition at the Yard Gallery in London) and countless lectures under the duo’s digital belts, architecture visualisation is still only exploited to the full by an enlightened but select few.

Admittedly, it is a relatively young field, but it’s one that is attracting increasing numbers into its digital folds. The problem, however, is that while architects remain ignorant of its power, clients willing to explore the boundaries of the medium are elusive.

Tino Schaedler is another who sees great potential in architecture visualisation. Having quit his position as an architect at Barkow Leibinger to pursue an interest in architectural representation by more cinematic means, he studied 3D animation and visual effects in Vancouver in Canada, before embarking on a career designing digital sets for Hollywood feature films – a recent project was the latest Harry Potter movie. But what if these skills were applied to real architecture projects instead of fantasy? Might we then see some rather more exciting architecture pass the planning application stages than we currently do?

Architecture visualisation is a sales and communication tool often taken care of in-house. But, as Schaedler explains, ‘Architects often lack an objectified distance to their designs. Some feel that they want to show every little detail of the building while others remain abstract so that the viewer can do his or her own interpretation. Both fail.’

The communications agency model might offer one analogy for the benefits an architect could gain from employing a graphic designer, he adds. ‘It’s about understanding how to attach emotional response and values to a product. Look at TV commercials – the products themselves are [often] hardly shown. [The impact lies more in] the atmosphere being created or the story that is being told, and that demands a rethinking of traditional architecture representation.’

Snellman agrees. ‘We have been criticised because our visuals are very seductive – there is a school of thought that believes this is manipulative,’ he says. ‘The “wow” factor is very important in architecture visualisation – that’s what makes it sell. Ultimately though, we look at the ethos of the architecture and the client, the architect. We are much more about communicating the cultural and atmospheric aspects of the architecture – not just about making it look shiny and sexy.’

‘We believe in communicating the process,’ explains Snellman. ‘In showing where ideas come from – it’s not just about the finished product. We often get involved in the design process and it can bring a lot of benefits to our clients. When you start telling the end story from the beginning, it can have a profound effect on the design process.’

Both Neutral and Schaedler agree that it makes sense for an architecture practice to develop a long-term relationship with a visualisation company. ‘As with all artistic things, it is important to get a feel for each other,’ says Schaedler. ‘At some point in the process, however, the architect needs to let go of trying to control everything. They should let the digital artist do their job.’

Daljit Singh, creative director of Digit, feels that his experience as a digital designer working alongside architects is much the same. Although his work is somewhat removed from architecture visualisation, Digit’s projects in the field have so far been ‘interesting conversations about how we can combine digital into the fabric of a building’, says Singh. ‘Unfortunately, the majority of the time they remain as conversations.’

Time and pace are the main reasons why these ideas never see the light of day, says Singh. ‘Digital and architecture move at totally different speeds – by the time a building has been built the technology has often become smaller or obsolete. I think egos also play a major part in the lack of collaboration – architects seem very uninterested in digital, and see its role as just another supply chain for building. Can it be changed? Yes I think so, it will take only one true collaboration where the digital contribution is equally recognised.’

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