Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
A group of graduate students wants to make architectural renderings look more like an urban utopia—though they’ll settle for the real world.
Have you ever really looked at render people? Squint past the “occupied bridge,” the translucent canopies, the mushroom-shaped concrete columns, and there they are: the tiny, artfully dressed folks that convince prospective developers, prospective buyers, prospective whatevers that the places depicted could be real—and could actually be occupied by real people—one day.
The eminently cool-looking render people depicted in Swedish architecture student Teodor Javanaud Emdén’s Skalgubbar project can be a godsend for small architecture firms. Large design companies purchase and hoard their own collections of project-appropriate render people, but smaller ones often must photograph and crop images of employees into projects themselves. Busy architecture students, too, are in need of free, open source render people. Students sometimes barter with them—“I’ll give you my crawling baby for one of your cars”—collecting folders full of people when they can. From this perspective, Skalgubbar’s render people have gotten very popular because they are very free.
But the Skalgubbar project has another advantage: Its render people are also very hip. The cool Swedes are mostly young, often white, and always well-dressed. And Skalgubbars are often performing cool, creative class activities: biking, rollerblading, walking the toddler, walking the dog.
These are exactly the kinds of people many developers would like to see living, working, or playing in their envisioned projects, so it make dollars-and-sense to use the Swedish render people. But unlike working architects, graduate students don’t have to necessarily prioritize commercial viability. That gives them to freedom to fill their spaces with other kinds of inhabitants, ones that might actually be more appropriate for their envisioned worlds.
“We have to engage with bigger issues. There’s no excuse,” says Riley MacPhee, a student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, where a group of students is hard at work on NONSCANDINAVIA. It’s another open source, free render person project, but this one tries to put diversity at the center.
”Scandinavia is great, but other places are too,” the students write on their manifesto-like “about” page. “We believe that renderings reflect our aspirations as architects, and that our decisions about representation matter. Renderings should reflect the people in and around the site, and should project a future that values diversity and acceptance of all people.”
Renderings, as MacPhee acknowledges, are an indeterminate art. Are they advertisements, meant to make the places depicted look as appealing (read: young and hot) as possible? Or are they potential forces for social change, a “bridge” between the often ugly present and a more progressive future?
Of course, they’re something in between. If a student is doing a project about a building meant to combat homelessness, for example, MacPhee says it might be appropriate to use an image of a homeless person. But “if you’re dong a project that’s all about sustainable food on the rooftop of a building, showing homeless people could be seen as tactless or even offensive.”
MacPhee says he envisions mostly graduate students using his NONSCANDINAVIA people, in part because they’re in murky legal water. The students just grab and clip photographs of interesting people when they see them, license-free, and hope the project is covered under educational fair use laws. Commercial enterprises, however, should beware, though a commercial section of the site could be coming soon.
The Columbia students say that seeding critical thinking about representation in graduate school could be a launch pad for a larger, industry-wide change. “There are a lot of different components to structural racism,” MacPhee says, but he suspects that many graduate students are choosing just one kind of render person because they are the simplest to find and use.* What will architectural renderings look like if diversity is even easier? And—most critically—will the world follow suit?
*CORRECTION: This post has been updated to clarify a paraphrased quote from Riley MacPhee about structural racism.