on storytelling beyond visualizing
Stories are the principal medium we use to make meanings. In this edition, I argue against the skin-deep architectural visualization methods used today. As an alternative, I propose a more deliberate way to make images, through presenting stories.
The inherent story told by CAD software is a story in precision and numbers. Lines either meet or don’t, and all distances can be measured. No matter what software is used, the fundamental operation is still the same: points make up lines, which make up structures and objects such as windows and doors. When the model is ready for visualization, there are multiple different approaches, although in my experience the render-to-Photoshop -method is the royal king and queen.
The process is little something like this:
Make the CAD-model
Render an image
Add color, people, plants, textures, etc.
Final touches and voilà
Having the model in front of you, a logical next step is to visualize the project with photorealistic rendering engines.
And this is where we can run into trouble.
You see, realism isn’t interesting. The precise description does not make a good, engaging story. Telling a story is not about facts, it’s a way of working with surprises, build-ups, contrasts, and emotions. And if you’ve ever told the same story more than once, you know the story has nuanced changes each time around. And changing the story can be good: narrative therapy is a form of psychotherapy that aims to build new stories on person’s understanding of themselves, in order to feel more whole.
Now, I’m not saying you should re-visualize your designs each time you show them, but rather, that we need a frame of reference to stick to, and this is why stories have evergreen power. And this is why I find many modern architectural visualizations to be void of life, stories, moments, and situations. In short:
The stories computers tell are not the ones we need to hear
I think it is a result of convenience. Once you have the model, it makes sense to use it to its fullest extent. However, plans, sections, elevations, and especially visualizations are not objective representations of the design — they aim to communicate specific aspects of architecture. Similarly, musical notation is the instruction to produce the music, but it is not the music in itself. And so, communicating the building with the same set of drawings you construct it with, diminishes architecture’s role and capability to give structure to our lives.
Further, we use what we know, and in my experience, more experimental visualizations are disapproved in the architecture school in favor of more realistic depictions. As such, these visualization methods are less about design and more about a technical process. The render-based workflows have become the modus operandi for architectural visualizations, and deviations from the norm need to be explained by a choice, rather than by limitation from a lack of computer skills.
cutouts, cut out from context
In the third step of the process above, we have our rendered image, into which we breathe life through cutouts of people, trees, and so on. To this end, sites like Skalgubbar have risen in popularity, not only because of the high quality, free price, and interesting characters. The Scandinavian name surely helps as well. As stated on the site it’s “made to bring visualizations of unbuilt architecture to life.”
Platforms like these are a logical answer to the ghost-town results of rendered visualizations. And they do have their place, don’t get me wrong. However, the issue is that they come quite late in the process. In writing a story, there needs to be a deliberate choice of what situation you want to express. What characters do you want to present? What are they doing? How are they feeling? Are they just-arrived-a-minute-ago-and-sat-down-for-a-coffee -stiff, or a second-hour-email-sending-procrastination-and-tapping-for-funny-stuff-on-the-phone -nonchalant? And so, rarely there is a cutout that fits perfectly. But if there is one, there is a good chance someone else has seen that character in another story, in another visualization. Further, the characters might look the part but face an unnatural direction or resist the perspective dictated by the render.
The pictorial quality of cutouts is often quite specific as well. They represent quite an aesthetically pleasing and digestible style, as a sign of the times. This is maybe a symptom of the overall cultural focus on images. Instagram and Pinterest trend towards the sleek, consumable, and instant. In contrast, the awkward and wrinkly situations are less focused on. As such, the image is a powerful mirror through which we understand our desires. However, there is a valley between authentic images and uncanny stock photos.
And so, many offices and architects subscribe to the appealing notion of the human scale but don’t visualize human stories. The characters are removed from their context and placed into a new one, with a simple click and flick of the mouse. Like another cutout-vendor, NONSCANDINAVIA put it: “renderings should reflect the people in and around the site, and should project a future that values diversity and acceptance of all people.” In other words, the stories we portray in our visualizations play a part in how we understand the target audience of architecture, and what life is portrayed.
telling a story
Now, I substitute the earlier visualization process with the following one:
Choose a space in your design
Come up with an interesting situation (who are there? what are they doing? why are they here? how are they feeling?)
Choose an appropriate visualization method (out of all image-making options not limited to rendering!)
Specifically, I find that thinking through a conflict helps to design an interesting situation. And by conflict, I mean a dynamic interaction with the characters or the environment that makes you try to figure out what is going on, that is, engage actively with the visualization. You won’t find a cutout where a person trips on the phone-immersed dog-walker’s leash, sending them to the arms of a stranger. Similarly, humor plays well into creating an engaging story.
And so, we see that CAD models can serve a meaningful role in visualizing architecture, however, it needs to be through a deliberate choice. For example, in a recent project, I designed a spa/sauna experience, and to visualize it I used SketchUp to create all the forms, freehanded the drawings over printouts, and drew the final touches digitally.
Further, the render-based visualization definitely has its place as well. However, as it suggests realism, any added human characters need to be carefully placed. The image below combines the life-affirming and charming hand-drawn sketches on top of the soft, mellow renders to express an atmosphere and story.
For a fitting complement to this text, check out the following video by Mark Brown on Game Maker’s Toolkit, on environmental storytelling in video games. Granted, architectural visualization is not about gamified interaction (but it could be?), however, there is a shared interest in making meaningful representations of spaces.
Second, in the talk below, the architect Ole Scheeren emphasizes the narrative qualities of architecture as a whole, not only through visualizations. High-rise buildings have an inherent hierarchical structure, and a story where higher is better, and the bottom is bad.
Of special interest is the part at 6:25, where Ole presents the Beijing CCTV building and jokes that the place has become a popular wedding photo backdrop, to the laughter of the audience. The laughter along with the couple on the right kissing through their masks, mixed in my head as a humorous sign of the times. Then I noticed the video was uploaded in 2016. The photo that initially highlighted the Beijing smog, I now colored through the lens of the pandemic. Same photo, two stories.
That’s that, go watch and read images. See you in the next one 😶🌫️
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