An architect does not make buildings, they make representations of buildings. Over the course of human history, as regular building practices and material technologies became more and more complex, the inevitable separation of the master builder’s multiplicity of jobs became necessary. In the contemporary world, it is not uncommon for most individuals, outside of the construction trade, to ask “so, what exactly does an architect do anyway?” Artist? Engineer? Construction manager? Urban planner? Landscaper? Interior designer? All, and none at the same time, but the primary role, of course, is the designer of physical space. Put in a more substantive way, architects create places out of space. It is rare however, that an architect actually builds anything themselves; instead, architects have developed means of conveying building designs before they actually get built, as representations, so that we can make informed design decisions before the first stone is proverbially carved into permanence.
Traditionally that means of representation was on paper, drafted at waist height, making the designer at level with their plan’s horizon line. A vertical plan became a section, and the exterior of the building became an elevation. This type of drawing was ideal for architects for centuries, but had its obvious disadvantages as well. Skip ahead to the contemporary world of computer-aided design, and many of those limitations have been lifted. However, those same advancements have come with a set of limitations and hindrances of their own. First off, the amount of time it takes to draft has drastically sped up, which is absolutely great for production, but this has also reduced the time and attention an architect would traditionally spend on design development, which translates to less refined works of architecture. The great masters from Brunellechi to Kahn often took years, sometimes decades, to design their works, and in that time they would get incredibly intimate with each and every project. Second, an architect no longer has to use their imagination in order to visualize their work, which is great for complex and abstracted design, but changes how architects think while they design, often focusing on the bigger moves while overlooking key details. Third, the architect has moved from a 2D artist, like a painter or poet, to a 3d artist, like a sculptor or musician. When an architect designs now, they look at and shape a computer model in a very similar fashion to that of a sculptor working on clay. This becomes obvious when you look at the built forms of the last two decades, and note how the architecture has become more and more sculpturesque in overall form and detailing. This is a very powerful means of architectural practice, but brings with it new challenges that were not present before, especially relating the work directly from the glowing screen to the actual human scale and corporeal condition.
None of this is new thought, of course, but a little background is necessary in order to talk about computer-aided representation and its effect on the built environment. The first part of this conversation begins with SketchUp, the unfortunate de facto design tool for many Portland firms. There are numerous architecture-specific programs available out there, from Revit to Rhino, but most designers only use those tools for construction documents or fabrication respectively, despite their superior features over SketchUp. Why then has this clumsy and overly simplified tool become so popular despite the availability of so many better options? SketchUp is free or cheap depending on which version you get, and nearly everyone, skilled or not, can use it. Which is exactly why it is problematic to use as a design tool. The very real limitations and idiosyncrasies of the program inform design choices through its user interface, choices that work around the program and not around the architecture that it helps create. If you understand how each individual program works in this way, it is easy to tell which buildings were designed by which software based on some of the major moves, material detailing, interior layout, or compositional choices that were made. Regardless, SketchUp’s ease-of-use appears to have Portland’s market cornered despite its constraints, and the recent built environment is reflective of that.
As an example we can look at the push/pull button as an example of computer impeding design. Most design software comes with a version of it, but SketchUp uses it as one of its primary drivers. When you look around Portland you will note how many buildings in the last decade have an oversized awning or balcony form that becomes a vertical fin or protrusion of similar proportion and material that eventually turns into a similarly-massed parapet or soffit above. It is obvious that this design move is used when you have less than five minutes to design a building and the client wants something “contemporary,” as the actual building behind it is almost always a program-driven, financially efficient box with a completely flat envelope, bar the occasional and almost useless Juliet balcony guard protruding mere inches from the facade. The internal volume of this move is usually an empty form that is unrelated to any thematic or contextual design scheme, and tends to age quickly as Portland’s damp climate makes for great drip lines and overflow stains on horizontal ledges.
SketchUp and other similar programs do have their uses, of course, especially when it comes to rendering perspectives and other visualizations. Many of the available plugins, such as V-Ray, and built-in rendering engines, like 3ds Max, are capable of creating hyper-realistic imagery, imagery that can be used for promotional uses or as visual aides during the design or permitting processes. This is where the second part of this conversation begins, as realistic imagery can have its drawbacks as well; it often shows too much information depending on the stage of design or renders materials in overly idealized, falsely perfect ways. Just recently, one of Portland’s most recognizable firms has become embroiled in controversy for this very thing: Skylab Architecture and their newly topped out 21-story Yard building at the Burnside Bridgehead.
The nearly-finished Yard project was one of the most anticipated projects in the city, being the first new midrise of substantial height to be built at the long-stalled and highly visible Burnside Bridgehead site. That anticipation came twofold: Skylab had yet to build a high profile building in its hometown, and the renderings released at the Design Review conferences were very energized and eye-catching. The presented imagery promised a unique, pixelated facade that would have a playful presence in the skyline. The realized reality is far less playful and is borderline dreary. Instead of a lofty, dissolving mirror to the sky, the built form is underwhelmingly simplistic, cheap looking, and much darker than previously conveyed. Some have called into question the legality of changing the design so drastically, but the reality is that the changes were approved through the necessary channels at the permit office even though some feel it should have triggered a re-review. The changes were not actually that drastic from the original design in plan and section, but the renderings were very misleading from the outset. The design team blames energy code, but the amount of glazing visualized, whether clear or spandrel, was not impossible to achieve, just higher in cost. Apparently, the clean reflectance of the hyper-realistic renderings was from a mix of glazing and digitally-glossed metal panels, a common and easy to produce trick in architectural visualization that makes projects look far better than reality, e.g. the Mirabella or Benson Tower.
Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your ideology, the city has already vowed to make changes so that this does not happen again, but realistically and philosophically, it should be an effort by architects to actually make change. Architects develop their relationships on trust, and creating false or misleading visions only serves to discredit the practice.
The intention here is not to cast blame on any particular individual or firm’s work, but rather to look at how things might change as we, in the practice, go forward. First, going back to SketchUp and similar software, if one chooses to use a program as a design tool, make sure the tool is not influencing your design decisions, or making them for you. The limitations of graphite on paper are very similar to the limitations of 3D modelling: both require pushing some of those limits past their point of standard convention, while simultaneously maintaining other limitations that have been traditionally used for spatial exploration. For example, if one is having difficulty with the human scale, try limiting yourself to 3D modelling from a person’s perspective on the ground, instead of hovering above and around as if by quadcopter where very few, if any, will actually see the built form from. Technology also allows us to walk through spaces visually before they are built, utilize that ability, but do not forget that seeing is only one of the senses architects are concerned with.
Sight, however, is our primary focus of representation, which leads us to renderings. Architectural renderings are never used to actually construct buildings, they are used to help visualize the idea of a building. Making that vision something that it is not can lessen the value of the architecture itself, and can potentially omit design issues important to the viewer, e.g. deep shadows or utility placement. Simple things matter, like the fact that nothing reflects light as a standard computer rendering does, so tone down all of the materials’ reflectivity, even the glass. One can also use the local light condition, the climate, and solar angle to make more honest renderings. Some designers even use cultural idiosyncrasies in their renderings to give a better sense of place. The technology behind these renderings are getting better and better every year, but with this, it is also becoming easier and easier to distort reality for a specific purpose. There is a long tradition of using flashy and expressive renderings to sell an architectural idea, but just to keep things in perspective, really great architecture rarely has or needs hyper-realistic imagery to sell itself.
Architecture is a complex and tricky dance, with absolutely no universal answers to any of its own questions, but architects have a very important role in society, one that should, at the very least, be respectful and truthful in its own artistry and craft.