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Visualization and visionary architecture: the cultural value of rendering
Visualization and visionary architecture: the cultural value of rendering
Archviz offers insights into the architect’s vision

As anyone who has ever compared initial renderings to photographs of constructed buildings knows, there is often a certain discrepancy between what the building looks like in real life and what the architect originally envisioned. In the course of construction, projects undergo all kinds of alterations, simplifications, adaptations, and cost-cutting measures that may often render them unrecognizable.


For that unfortunate reason, visualization offers a unique and valuable perspective on the initial concept of the design. From an architecture historian’s perspective, how the architect wanted the building to turn out is just as important as how it turned out. An architecture scholar will dissect this difference from the grand vision of the design or the tiny things like where the architect originally placed the compositional highlights, and what type of window frames, colors, and materials got lost when the project underwent construction. This information is hardly ever displayed through other means of architectural representation: VR, AR, technical drawing, or even architecture photography.

Visualization to reality comparison as a tool of architecture criticism

Information on the initial architect’s vision may prove particularly useful for future architecture scholars. But currently, it is widely used in architecture criticism for making the “render vs. reality” comparisons that juxtapose projects to their physical embodiment in a not necessarily favorable manner.


In one of our articles, we discussed the case study of a rendering for MVRDV getting ridiculed by a famous Dutch architecture critic Mark Minkjan and many others. For good or for bad, the “Valley” development in Amsterdam turned nothing like the renderings promised it to be: much less spectacular and grandiose than could have been expected.




However, this type of criticism has a curious reverse side. As we have uncovered in the article “Visualization and visionary architecture: why we need to preserve digital renderings,” in a century, most contemporary buildings will disappear, as they were not intended to last longer. But the renderings and photos may potentially remain forever if stored properly. So, scholars in the future will end up comparing renderings to photographs without any chance of seeing the building in person. It poses the question, which one is a true representation of early 21st-century architecture: the boring reality of an imperfect construction or the virtual world of visions, fantasies, and aspirations?


Hyperreal archviz may tone down this contradiction to a certain point. Hyperreal visualization has proven to be less dreamy and glossy than other types of realistic renderings. Its sophistication and the tendency to represent projects with extra layers of meaning – both the good and the bad – leave room for critical analysis.

On the cultural value of the ugly render

The critique of the “Valley” complex had a peculiar undertone. The whole backlash against the project had started long before its construction began, for the sole reason its render was considered both aesthetically unpleasing and far removed from reality.


When speaking about the cultural value of architectural visualization, we imagine either highly artistic or generic and trendy but appealing images made to please the eye. But what about the tacky renders of the ugly buildings? The MVRDV controversy proves that it may be just as necessary to preserve some of those unfortunate renderings of dubious projects as it is to keep the best visualization masterpieces of the finest buildings.


The bad and the ugly render contains as much if not more critical information on the state of architecture as the ugly one. Architecture history follows an example of cultural studies. This discipline is preoccupied not with appreciating the works of beauty, but with an adequate description of global culture as it is today. Aesthetic qualities can hardly serve as objective criteria to decide which image is worth preservation. As Pierre Bourdieu taught us in “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste,” notions of taste and cultural value are classist instruments weaponized for keeping social hierarchies.


But most importantly, taste preferences are in constant motion and evolution. Legendary 19th-century British art critic John Ruskin famously hated Canaletto, a renowned mid-18th-century painter of tourist postcard Venice landscapes. And yet, thanks to Canaletto's paintings we are now able to study the architecture of 18th-century Venice. This historical value alone makes him an outstanding painter. But his artwork is also unironically displayed in the world’s most renowned museums and appreciated by museum-goers with sophisticated taste in art.



Illustration: The Entrance to the Grand Canal, Venice, around 1730, by Canaletto. If we were to believe John Ruskin, we probably wouldn’t be able to enjoy this landscape painting today. We would have also lost our chance to compare our favorite parts of Venice to their state from 250 years prior.

Header illustration: a visualization for the "Valley" complex for MVRDV