Michael Bierut | Essays

The Rendering and the Reality

The High Line competition entry, Field Operations and Diller, Scofidio & Renfro, 2004

The winner of the competition to transform New York City's High Line - an abandoned elevated freight track that winds among the buildings of lower Manhattan - has been announced: a team led by landscape architects Field Operations and architects and planners Diller, Scofidio & Renfro. (The extended team includes my partner Paula Scher, a long time consultant to Friends of the High Line.) And with the announcement comes a vision of what, presumably, we can expect. A rendering of the project viewed from street level at 23rd Street and Tenth Avenue reveals a dreamlike urban wonderland of skateboarders and film buffs, suspended above the sidewalks in magical equipoise beneath the climatic sequence from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Predictably, the team's renderings have come in for their share of criticism from cynical New Yorkers who claim with absolute assurance that whatever the finished product looks like, it will never look like this. But, for architects, the rendering has a completely different purpose than the blueprint. The latter governs the nitty-gritty of construction, the former is designed to excite the imagination.

Highlights, that magazine you may remember from your childhood visits to the dentist, had a feature called What's Wrong with this Picture? A child could play the same game with FO/DS&R's 23rd Street rendering. The auditorium seats for the outdoor cinema have no visible means of support. Neither does the movie screen itself. The elevator from street to High Line rises in a transparent glass shaft without the help of machinery. The graceful stairs have no handrails. The cinema has no projection booth.

And the whole thing looks incredibly cool, which is undoubtedly the point.

Architects have a real challenge. They have to make people believe in - and accept, and support, and pay for - a reality that lies far in the future. And that reality is built incrementally: all the renderings submitted for the High Line competition, no matter how convincing, are sketches to show general design intent rather than fully developed proposals. Unlike their lucky graphic designer cousins, architects can't show their clients a same-size prototype with every detail in place. That's why so many architects compensate with out-of-scale personalities: it takes real personal magnetism to make a bunch of suspicious people give you a lot of money to remake the world.

The architectural rendering is central to this process. Libeskind and Childs's design for Ground Zero's Freedom Tower is usually shown from far across New York Harbor, the better to emphasize the relationship of its assymetrical crown and the raised arm of the Statue of Liberty; this exotic viewpoint is the clearly the money shot. Philip Johnson's AT&T Building became a post-modern cause celebre because its Chippendale profile was presented, again and again, in point-blank Palladian elevation; no matter that no one has ever seen the real building that way, or ever will. Again and again, architects present their offerings in splendid isolation, editing out anything that inconveniently impedes the view, adding those props that support the rhetorical theme.

In some cases, the renderings themselves have acquired a life of their own. Michael Graves and Zaha Hadid became famous through what has been unfairly dismissed as "paper architecture." Before them loom artists like Claude-Nicolas Ledoux and Hugh Ferris. who created extraordinary - and imaginary - drawn environments that anticipated, influenced, and in some cases, superceded, reality.

"Make no small plans, for they have no magic to stir men's blood." There isn't an architect alive who can't recite Daniel Burnham's famous admonition. It's a long, torturous path from sketchpad to ribbon-cutting. It is the fever dream of the architectural rendering that sustains us on the journey.

Comments [14]

Architectural renderings have almost always left me cold. There's something of the ad-art in them that just really bothers me. All those happy couples, children (pointing), small tidy trees, projected lights and "festive elements." Far from inspiring my imagination, they usually stunt it. "Oh," I think, "Another one of those."

As for your High Line I was far more inspired by the photos I've seen over the past few years which have run in the New Yorker. That lonely-looking place in the city, the tracks overgrown with weeds. It looked like a secret garden to me. One of those things I wished could remain secret forever (even to me), and regretted the articles' having brought it to my attention.

Ah well, it was time the outdoor cinema was resurrected.
marian bantjes

To be fair the rendering could be of a digital movie screen, but yes there is just a wee bit of fantasy going on in that rendering. But to be fair architectural renderings like science fiction illustration and car ads show us what is idealized by society.
Michael Pinto

The great thing about the High Line is that its essential characteristics -- a separate reality, suspended above the city's streets and sidewalks, curving back and forth, in and around, unbeholden to the structure of the urban grid -- would make it too good to be true, not too mention completely unbuildable, if it wasn't already there.
Michael Bierut

Perhaps it's because I've just finished the chapter about runway shows Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon, but I'm starting to wonder whether architectural renderings have the same relationship to architecture that couture does to fashion. (In any event, I find that these kinds of Escheresque renderings produce in me the same head shaking as $800,000 beaded ballgowns.) Is it possible that it's no longer the role of the rendering to actually show the building, or even capture its essence in any explicit way, but rather to inspire, showcase provocative ideas, and advance the field?
Jonathan Hoefler

archigram really knew how to render. and . . . everything they rendered was already there.

Graham, I'm glad you mentioned Archigram because the High Line is exactly the kind of crazy architectural idea that was typical of their practice.

In my experience, architects themselves often prefer much more esoteric means of presentation -- sketches, diagrams, collages -- to the literalness and hyperbole of flashy "realistic" renderings. It's clients who prefer the surefire drama of the latter -- especially when the work has to be put before the mass public, who are thought to have little tolerance for ambiguity.
Michael Bierut

What I find interesting about most of the architectural renderings I have seen is that the most of the time, people in them are slightly out of proportion, stretched out of reality, a bit thinner and slightly taller. Jonathan, in response to your supposition, I think moreso that renderings are to buildings what fashion sketches are to to clothing...

Michael, as you were suggesting, it does remind me of the future, I think because I associate this particular style of rendering with a technologically advanced race, and with the fact that as time passes, people are getting taller (I'm suspending, for a moment, the fact that at least Americans seem to be getting fatter every year). Personally, I think i'm also responding to the fact that the beings in the renderings resemble something between human and alien... again, since aliens are often enough portrayed as tall, spindly (my recollection of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and more recent films such as Signs), and more often than not, aliens are harbingers of technology. Finally, the lighting of these kinds of renderings seem to be a lot like the lighting in giant matte paintings in sci-fi movies of my childhood.

This people-stretching trick seems a lot like what commercial radio does with its pop-music stations. They play their songs just a bit faster to squeeze a few more in an hour... the end result is, in addition to more ads, a more hyper sound. Oh, pop music utopia! Is it possible that renderers make everyone slightly out of proportion so that we're convinced we'll be living in a world where everyone is over six feet tall and heart-healthy?

I actually like looking at renderings like the example you provided. The scaling is a little more noticeable in the last of the four drawings from that set. The missing supports and railings don't bother me so much... of course, if the human population has evolved into such a fine, intelligent, healthy race, do we really need railings? And maybe everything is supported by giant electromagnets... or something else we don't know about yet. Either way, I welcome the future.
Andrew Twigg

Renderings aren't the only architectural documents that inspire contemplation of the possible rather than confrontation with the actual. The written brief offers a similarly prismatic representation of an architect's vision. For example, Daniel Libeskind's proposal for The Jewiish Museum Berlin weaves together Schönberg's opera "Moses and Aaron" and Walter Benjamin's "One Way Street." Libeskind does sketch out the buildilng, but he devotes most of the text to staking out an area of inquiry—a collection of resonances that one imagines are meant to inspire or provoke the client. I guess it worked: the $62million complex was completed in 1999.

Side Note: My one regret about being a graphic designer is that unlike architects we never get to build those nifty models of our projects! I wonder if architects even still build those cute models out of foamcore and balsa wood anymore. Those old school models have this wonderful doll house charm that CGI will just never have.

By the way thank you for mentioning Archigram - I never heard of them before and it was a pleasure googling them!
Michael Pinto

I'm sorry, I have to chime in from the cynical New Yorker/architecture user camp. What you're being all effusive about can also be called a "bait and switch."

If the media actually teed them up or the gen pop accepted renderings as evocative imagination-teasers, that'd be one thing. But I expect some degree of veracity, of concreteness from renderings; they inform and set my expectation of the experience and presence of the architecture.

Vinoly wasn't paying a compliment when he called Libeskind's master plan "architecture by graphic design." Those images have lodged in the public consciousness, never mind that what's on that graphic scrim now bears little or no relation to what's actually taking shape on the site.

Is the same thing gonna happen with the High line?

Greg, a few points.

First, I agree that the general public is likely to think that a proposal that looks real is meant to be taken as a literal proposal, quibbles about anti-gravity aside. That's one of the big disadvantages of hyperrealistic computer modeling programs. They lack the atmospheric character of, say, a Hugh Ferris rendering that allows a certain amount of imaginative wiggle room. As I've said upthread, the pressure to get hyperrealistic, in my experience, almost always comes from the client, who are convinced the gen pop has no tolerance for ambiguity.

That said, I think that bait-and-switch is a little too harsh an accusation to lodge against the architects. Libeskind is a very canny presenter, and understands better than most architects how to describe his work in terms that non-architects can engage with; ask anyone who was at the competition presentations. However, you can be sure that the last thing he intended was a b-and-s: it will be market forces and the vagueries of developers and politicians that lead to something getting built that was different than his vision, not any clever ruse on the architect's part.

Finally, it's telling that both the Libeskind and FO/DSR proposals are for master plans. I would submit that a master plan is a tricky thing to visualize in any vivid sort of way. If you keep it (accurately) general, people have no idea what you're proposing: this was the problem with the Fresh Kills proposals several years ago, just a lot of big diagrams and landscape architecture jargon. If you make it concrete -- if you did this, it might look something like this -- you draw a lot of stuff that is unlikely to get built. I would suggest when viewed this way that Libeskind's "graphic design" proposal was more understandable as a master plan than Vignoli/THINK's wireframe tower, which seemed much more like a proposal for a specific building.
Michael Bierut

Disclosure: architect commenting here...

Interesting to be here (via Kottke). What's interesting about renderings such as this is that they do smack of some representation of "reality" -- and one that is expected to some degree. They are at times accepted as realistic, as was noted above.

Yet this rendering is intended as no more realism than the Ferris renderings mentioned nor even a singular line-drawing Siza sketch: they are another level of representation that compliments plans, elevations, sections and physical models.

What we are missing is the presentation that goes with this: we are exposed only to what is all-too-often called the "artist's concept".

As a related aside, in architecture school, the whiz-band rendered project will be shot down quickly by critics if it is not backed up with supporting material -- they quickly recognize that which is important and are not cowed by the presentation. One only hopes that the jury or client in a real-world project has the same savvy. Sadly, I feel they often do not.
Richard Anderson

Adobe Photoshop: the 20th century's biggest contribution to architecture?

Has anyone noticed that architects aren't very good at 3D rendering? I would think that if your survival hinges on cool renderings, you'd get good at it. My younger brother going into video game graphics hasn't even started undergrad and he can blow these people away.
Rob Asumendi

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