schmidt hammer lassen architects

Photorealistic design plans may help hype individual projects, but reality doesn't always deliver.

Last fall, a public art competition invited designers around the world to dream up a temporary summer pavilion that could inject some life into Flint, Michigan, a city regularly ranked as one of the U.S.'s "most dangerous" and still plagued by repercussions of the housing crisis. The winning entry was "Mark’s House," an elevated dwelling designed to reflect—quite literally, through a coating of mirror-like Mylar material—what the city has experienced.

Since it was completed in August, responses to "Mark's House" have been fairly negative. Residents are calling it a mess, or "an eyesore." And a big part of that reaction appears to be the direct result of just how different the finished product turned out compared to the original concept renderings. See for yourself:

At left, proposed renderings of "Mark's House," and at right, the project as built, courtesy The Flint Journal Facebook page

To be fair, architectural renderings never come with a guarantee that the finished construction will deliver everything seen in a concept drawing. Renderings of Art Deco skyscrapers in the 1920s and '30s, for example, tended to have idealized and futuristic skylines, says Adam Mayer, an architect at Steinberg Architects in San Francisco. But those were hand-drawn, and can’t be mistaken for anything but illustrations. The proliferation of 3D rendering technology has since given design visualizations incredible detail and realism.

In the process of perfecting a computer-assisted render, everything from details to the big picture can be manipulated. It starts with the harmless adding or subtracting of details, i.e. adding beautiful furniture, and extends to picking a flattering angle that’s hard to physically photograph, or to producing lighting conditions that can only exist in a fantasy world.

This rendering of the forthcoming "Green Valley" office complex in Shanghai has photorealistic qualities, but the angelic lighting probably won't exist in real life. (Courtesy of schmidt hammer lassen architects)

On a larger scale, the immediate surroundings of a design can be tweaked to set an appealing scene, i.e. inserting trees or hip young people doing yoga.

In this rendering vs. reality comparison of a new residential development in the Sydney suburb of Burwood, note the building's immediate surroundings. (Left image: screenshot from realestate.com.au, Right image courtesy of nathand80 on Flickr) 

On an even larger scale still, aspirational renderings can largely overlook how the proposed building will engage with the existing urban context.

In this rendering of China's Sky City, an 838-meter tall building to be constructed in 90 days, the building itself seems realistic, but the larger context of the building is hazy. (Screenshot via promotional video

Despite all the ways digital renderings may belie reality, they have become an extremely effective way to sell new buildings to a wide audience. More accessible for the non-architect, non-designer compared to diagrams or models, these slick images are often the public’s first exposure to a proposed project. Hundreds of visualizations flow through design sites like ArchDaily, Designboom, and Dezeen each week before getting picked up by more mainstream outlets. 

Guthrie's truly photorealistic rendering of the Tind house project by Claesson Koivisto Rune

. Courtesy of Peter Guthrie 

"Architects have commissioned me to visualize their projects purely for marketing purposes and not for the benefit of their own clients," says Peter Guthrie, a British artist who specializes in architectural renderings. Of course, the problem with using renderings to advertise is that the public can be easily fooled into thinking: What’s pictured is exactly what we're going to get.

In the case of "Mark’s House," the people of Flint didn't get the pavilion they were expecting thanks not only to purely digital tinkerings like angle and lighting, but also logistical constraints like timing and budget. The designers were forced to crowdfund an additional $10,000 to complete one part of the design, just for example, which suggests their desired materials may have ultimately proved unattainable.

As architecture and urban planning goes more and more "social"—more public votes, more Kickstarters, more real estate development and design blogs rabidly following every single proposal and plan—the rest of us will have to remember that renderings can't be blindly trusted. If designers want to sell urbanism, we should at least be savvy shoppers.

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