James Sanders pointed me at his new article at New York Times - and it's fascinating stuff. Viewing the presentation techniques of the WTC Memorial finalists, Sanders articulates a brief history of architectural imaging, from the École des Beaux-Arts' projets rendu to Hugh Ferriss' charcoal creations, through Gordon Cullen's 'storyboards' to today's CGI-rendered flythroughs.
"They also call attention to one of the oldest paradoxes of architectural practice: the techniques by which architects render their buildings, which you might imagine to be an afterthought to the actual process of design, have in fact had a powerful effect on the buildings themselves. Presentation doesn't just reveal the prevailing urban and architectural values of an era — surprisingly often, it helps to shape them."
As with most other professional design trades, architecture involves a lot of selling. I seem to remember a declaration - possibly in deliberately provocative Everyone Is A Designer 'manifest' [Amazon UK|US] - about the designer "being a performer" these days - that working with the client is all about your sales technique. Which is somewhat sad. And yet in a positive light, this is also the chance to engage the client, and the prospective users, in the project. With a project like the WTC Memorial, it's about consultation with a city of memories. So communicating the vision over and above the technical documentation is fundamentally important ... and here Sanders focuses on the models, the presentation techniques, the renderings, and now the flythroughs. All intended to portray the prospective building in the best possible light, and somehow evoke the surrounding city context. Thanks to the increasing sophistication of architectural thinking, this latter aspect is ever more important - yet even with a civic design project like no other, Sanders notes a reluctance to use modern systems which enable prospective users to view the building as they are likely to experience it.
"For all their high-tech gloss, the memorial sequences still hew to the traditional goal of all architectural rendering, which is to show a proposed design in the best possible light, not to simulate the actual experience of the completed project. Indeed, the presentations that most resemble films — a highly controlled sequence of images, laid out to a director's vision — are those that least mirror the common experience of making one's own way around an actual urban setting. The next step is to use three-dimensional computer modeling to create "random access" tours, allowing people to embark on their own virtual tour of a site, turning left or right as they choose, stopping to look around, doubling back or sitting down — in short, navigating the plans as they navigate the city itself. And that technology is already available ... Why can't evolving urban designs for the Trade Center site itself be shared with the public, not through pre-engineered animations but dynamic computer models allowing freedom of movement that would allow informed debate from those who will ultimately inhabit the area? Such a coordinated effort could mark the start of a thrilling era in architecture and planning, in which the newest, most advanced technology breaks through the barriers that have long separated the designer's dream from the citizen's vision."
New York Times: Taking the Memorial Designs for a Test Drive [reg. reqd. - free]