Discussions about the best approaches to the digital archviz demand an answer to the question – what purpose does visualization serve in the architecture of today? The simplest answer would be that architectural visualization illustrates and explains the design proposal. It conveys information about the architect’s idea, the appearance, and the layout of the project. It aims to represent the future reality in the most adequate form.
This strict definition doesn’t examine the social and cultural dimensions of digital archviz as well as their role in the development of architecture as a discipline. However, achitecture criticics discuss the role of digital archviz plays in contemporary architecture and society as a whole.
Some architecture critics argue that digital visualization has lost its cultural and architectural significance. Sam Jacob believes that digital archviz has been reduced to mere advertising: “Digital culture, up to now at least, has categorized drawings as either technical or illustrative, as building information or money shot”. In his opinion, archviz has become detached from the design process: “the drawing’s role as an exploratory, inquiring design tool has diminished”.
In 2017 Sam Jacob believed that ‘post-digital’ architectural collage – a type of the neo-analog approach – may become an integral part of experimental architecture. But by 2018 post-digital or neo-analog had shifted from avant-garde design to commercial rendering. At the same time, numerous visionary projects are presented via realistic renders. When well-executed, all three approaches: photorealism, hyperrealism, and neo-analog – may influence design decisions and co-create space along with architects.
Illustration: an overly glossy rendering may feel more like advertising rather than informative visualization. "Vessel" by Thomas Heatherwick.
Critics point out that digital visualization is often disengaged from socially impactful projects. Mark Minkjan believes that commercial archviz may even prevent society from participating in decision-making on architecture: “because of this visual deluge, people associate architecture with luxury and exclusivity, instead of everyday social and public issues. This diminishes the societal relevance of the profession”.
Minkjan writes about the need for socially-oriented archviz: “We should pay attention to the design of the world we want to live in… how architecture can contribute to that… We should not let digital delusions mislead us.” To push socially impactful architecture, Aaron Betsky argues, “architectural renderings that sell fantasy need to be grounded in ambitions for improving the world, rather than sugar-coated versions of reality“.
In our opinion, this criticism of digital archviz is misguided. Visualization is indeed a powerful tool that may help back up highly impactful projects that benefit the public. But in projects where renderings are inseparable from the design concept, visualization still remains a narrator of the architect’s vision. And architects, on the other hand, are bound by policymakers and funding. ‘’The ambition to improve the world” is a question of political and societal action. Within this scope, architecture and architectural visualization are resources with limited possibilities.
Digital archviz becomes a tool of soft power within architectural decision-making. In the most basic sense, the archviz community may influence policy in architecture by making the best visualizations for the most impactful projects. Archviz may concentrate on making thoughtful images that inspire actively engaged perception of the world rather than “seductive digital delusions” for passive consumption. Well-made visualizations on their own inspire critical thinking in the architecture community, the client, and the public.
Another benchmark would be to answer the question “what to visualize?” rather than “how to visualize?”. The easy path to make a difference is to decline the projects that seem unethical and exploitative and engage with experimental community-based design. However, those universal solutions are not specific to architecture or architectural visualization. They apply to any discipline from chemistry to fashion and do not require the resources of the digital archviz.
Illustration: "Combined Park" by Iddqd Studio depicts signs of wear on the structure and represents a less idealized but lively use of space by the community.
Digital visualization captures the monuments lost to a man-made or natural disaster in models and renderings. Visualization also preserves unbuilt experimental design. It is often the most ambitious and visionary projects that don’t get the green light. Those important avant-garde proposals are either on the verge of the available technology or their aesthetics is too forward-looking for the current taste. Many of those ideas are worth preserving as historical documents of the era.
With proper storage, experimental projects will be kept in digital form for future generations to learn from. Visualizations convey the spirit of the age when they were made much better than technical documentation or architecture photography. Architecture researchers study the work of the strongest visionaries from Claude-Nicolas Ledoux to Archigram or Lars Spuybroek through their visualizations. Those images are often outstanding on their own, irrespective of the architecture they depict. Visually striking representations underline the timeless value of the visions they capture. This is why high-quality digital visualization has not only commercial but social and cultural value.
Header illustration: "Combined Park" by Iddqd Studio.