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Visualization and visionary architecture: why we need to preserve digital renderings
Visualization and visionary architecture: why we need to preserve digital renderings
Does visualization remain an integral part of architecture as a discipline?

Architecture critic Sam Jacob famously lamented in 2017 that the advent of digital archviz excluded the art of rendering and drawing from what constitutes the discipline of architecture. Historically, visualization was inseparable from the design process, as architects were thinking and drawing simultaneously. Because of that, architectural drawing played a much more significant role: Palladio’s books were a bigger influence on the development of European architecture than Palladio’s buildings. When architects started outsourcing visualization to rendering firms, it turned into a separate "inferior" field divorced from "real" architecture.


In Sam Jacob’s view, because of this split between visualization and architecture, visionary projects that heavily depended on representation have also died out. He believed that the only way to revive innovative architecture was to return to semi-manual rendering he called “post-digital.”


But this pessimistic view of digital archviz is also reductionist. We argue that contemporary digital archviz is more than a mere supplementary tool for making commercial renderings. Realistic digital renderings didn’t lose their fundamental ability to preserve the alternative reality of projects that didn’t reach completion and to represent utopian architecture. There is space for visionary renderings even in commercial design. 

Architectural images need preservation just as valuable buildings do

Just as much as the buildings themselves, their renderings document the whole set of ideas that roam the global collective unconscious of the architects: from practical ad hoc solutions to grand utopian visions. They encompass the very Zeitgeist of architecture and preserve it in historical memory.


If we view architecture as data, it is irrelevant whether we preserve a building or an image of a building that never came to be. Both leave an imprint on culture. Those projects are equal not just because we live in a world full of simulacra where illusion overpowers reality. Most types of digital archviz avoid making direct imitations of the physical world, so they are easy to distinguish from photographs. However, in 200-300 hundred years, it will not matter whether the building reaches completion, as most current construction is not designed to last. Masterpieces that pop up among the Serpentine gallery, Venice biennale, Burning man, or Expo pavilions rarely stay for more than a year, but their legacy is lasting.


Illustration: the Expo 2000 pavilion by MVRDV is now in ruins, but it still remains an iconic project that definied the course of architecture development in the early 2000s. Photo from 2000


Digital images can potentially last forever if we care about preserving them and upgrading file formats. Future scholars will be comparing digital photographs of long-gone buildings to digital renderings that never have been. Both will turn virtual, and there will be no more physical construction with ‘aura’ for reference. The only difference will be our knowledge that one of the buildings depicted in an image had once existed.

The four types of essential digital rendering

We distinguish four types of digital architecture renderings that contain essential information on the current state of architecture that is missing from the constructed buildings or architecture photography. We classify them on a spectrum from utilitarian to visionary:

1. Renderings of generic projects. They help to grasp the spirit of the age more easily than photographs of existing buildings. Many such images are created for Instagram and similar algorithm-driven platforms, so they often represent architectural trends in a condensed manner. 

2. Striking experimental projects with unconventional concepts that often lose at architecture competitions. As a rule, it is the more sophisticated and forward-looking projects that get rejected or remain unbuilt, because their construction technique or even appearance may turn out too avant-garde at the time of their design. Such projects never reach completion or get altered to a point when it is impossible to deduct the initial projects from the final result. 

3. Never-meant-to-be-realized architecture utopias and visionary projects with ideas that push the discipline forward and expand its boundaries. Those projects are crucial for studying the state-of-the-art architecture theories that prevailed in a particular period.

4. Visualization as a form of art and a vision in itself. Outstanding works of archviz can be viewed and preserved as works of art in their own right. 

Illustration: the four types of digital archviz to be preserved for future study (clockwise): generic, unrealized experimental, utopian, visualization as a self-sufficient work of art


All four directions of architectural visualization preserve data necessary for painting a complete and detailed picture of the architecture Zeitgeist. However, the last three contain information that does not exist in any form other than digital. Coincidentally, this information about avant-garde design projects is also some of the most revered by architecture scholars. Because of that, the preservation of digital archviz is not a vanity project but an essential tool for preserving architectural knowledge for future generations.


Header illustration: "Capitol" by Iddqd studio