The work of MASS Design Group and SAOTA shows that rendering can become a critical part of the design process
This sponsored feature was first published on Architectural Review, May 8 2023.
Slowly but surely, architectural visualisation is beginning to be appreciated not just as an optional extra for depicting designs, but as a powerful tool for concept development and communication.
When looking beyond the idea of perfected, photorealistic final images, a wealth of possibilities for visualisation in the conceptual and design phases become apparent.
The entry of new modes of representation into the process of architectural design has always necessitated a lengthy and contentious bedding-in process. Drawing, for example, not only changed design, but transformed the entire role of the architect when it began to be adopted in the 15th century. Likewise, the emergence of photography sparked the fear that architecture – or anything, for that matter – could become a privatised commodity.
It is no surprise, then, that the still relatively young technology of architectural visualisation has proven so controversial. Reconciling the power of the render to represent even an underdeveloped scheme as a finished product with the far more circuitous and messy process of design has presented a challenge since the technology first emerged. Over the last decade, this debate around rendering frequently featured in the architectural press. Visualisation was commonly called out for being deceptive or misleading – essentially, it was portrayed as being too successful at making things that were not yet finished or resolved look like they were.
In 2019, for example, Mexican architect Tatiana Bilbao vowed to stop producing renders, entirely on account of them being ‘dangerous and damaging’. Representational techniques like collage, she argued, were far more collaborative, expressive and accepting of mistakes, whereas computer renderings too quickly gave clients a fixed image that could then prove difficult to shift or develop. The year before, British designer Es Devlin called renderings ‘troublesome and problematic’, claiming that they too often gave a false impression of what a completed project would actually look like. These criticisms are not necessarily wrong; their target, however, seems to not be visualisation itself, but rather the pursuit of photorealistic perfection that has accompanied its emergence.
Commissioned by very different clients and using very different architectural languages, the work of SAOTA (above) and MASS Design Group (below) is the result of a similar approach: both practices use renderings at the design stage to analyse a site, communicate ideas, involve stakeholders in decision-making and visualise what the experience of the future building might look like.
While it is understood that other forms of representation – be they drawing, model‑making or even photography – can operate on many levels, from the more conceptual to the hyper-realistic, rendering has often simply been framed as an act of imitation, striving to look real or photographic. The pursuit of photorealism has, after all, driven much of visualisation’s technological development, and remains the predominant way in which people engage with it. The fact that achieving photorealism is now almost universally possible gives the false impression that visualisation’s end goal has been achieved. In reality, this is simply a small element of a much wider story.
What if we were now to afford visualisation the same chance as other modes of representation to be a little messier and more open to interpretation? What if it was no longer about pursuing the perfect, but appreciating what MASS Design Group refers to in the below interview as the ‘imperfect images’ visualisation is uniquely able to create? Certainly, architects should be aware of the power renders can have in giving authority to even the most embryonic design ideas, and the impact they can have on clients feeling invested in a process. But we can also, at the same time, be aware that this is not all there is to their creation or dissemination.
Shifting visualisation’s reputation as solely a means of producing fixed, final images is slow and difficult, but it is a crucial shift, and one that is natural for any maturing means of representation. In part, this change has been due to the increasing ability of software to become a more seamlessly integrated part of a design process. No longer is it necessary to wait for a proposal to be rendered overnight before it can be assessed. Results are now real-time and instantaneous, giving the unprecedented ability to see the impact of decisions and respond to them quickly and in detail.
In this piece, we look at the work of two practices that are indicative of this shift. Both demonstrate a more nuanced approach to using visualisation as an integral part of the design process, looking beyond the final and the perfected. The interview with MASS Design Group presents rendering as having a crucial role to play in the formulation and communication of projects, able to find a middle ground between the more intellectual and information-based side of architecture and the more emotional, experiential one.
The use of visualisation in the work of South African practice SAOTA is also considered, in particular the way in which it is used to understand the conditions of a site and aid in the creation of buildings that have a close relationship to their surrounding landscape. Challenging the idea of visualisation as something ‘fake’ which distracts from reality, the studio demonstrates how it is not only a case of recreating what already exists, but better understanding it through doing so. Both practices are at the forefront of understanding how architecture’s relationship to visualisation continues to grow and develop.
Rendering to reach consensus
Interview with MASS Design Group
Dedicated to supporting mission-driven partners to advance their impact through the built environment, MASS Design Group is a non-profit design and research practice with offices in Boston, MA; Poughkeepsie, NY; Santa Fe, NM; and Kigali, Rwanda. Using visualisations has proven invaluable to effectively gain consensus for a proposal, both among user groups and funders.
Here, senior designer Nadia Perlepe and principal Anton Larsen consider how the studio’s attitude to visualisation has evolved over time and how the technology might develop in future.
MASS Design Group recently completed a new entrepreneurship hub for the Norrsken Foundation in Rwanda. Looking to relate to Stockholm’s Norrsken House while also respecting and adapting to its location in Kigali, on the overgrown site of the 1965 École Belge, the Norrsken Kigali House is one of the first examples of adaptive reuse in the area.
How do you see the profession’s attitude towards visualisation as having changed and developed over the past decade?
Nadia Perlepe (NP): In the past, the creation of beautiful images, usually at the end of a phase, often had to be outsourced.
This created a gap between the design and its communication, meaning we did not have control over the narrative. Now that we, as architects, are able to easily visualise projects, we have more control and can craft narratives in collaboration with partners.
What is it that visualisation in particular offers when it comes to the development and communication of projects?
NP: When we design, we each have goals, ambitions and values that we want to express, and often it is hard to do this through still images. Traditional modes of representation have often locked us into specific views. It might be a beautiful plan or axonometric, but they are very rendered, artistic views, in which the architecture becomes an art object. At MASS, from the beginning we realised that we did not want to communicate our buildings just with photorealistic still images of empty spaces. We wanted to bring the user in. Lumion gives us the real-time ability to move around the building, to see it from a user’s perspective. It is no longer about this one view in which it looks perfect; it is about experiencing the building. This experience is not static, as it changes based on the time of day, year or location. Interacting with a future building in this way creates an emotion that is quite new.
Anton Larsen (AL): The use of video in particular gives us far more power than a single image. The way in which people experience space is almost always through motion. Being able to depict this early on really changes the user experience and the mindset of a designer; we are all getting ourselves into the space, putting ourselves in the shoes of the user more than it was ever possible before.
Like most architects working today, you use many different forms of representation. What is it that visualisation can do that you think is unique?
NP: I think it is the fact that it gives us the ability to create a full vision of what the future can be. When we can go to meetings with a community and show them what a project could look like on a specific site, we can get very real feedback from people who will be using the building. This can either lead to a better design, or it can help to build consensus around an idea. We often partner with individuals and organisations who have limited accesss to funding to implement their projects. Understanding their vision and imagining what a building could be, whether through images or film, also has a huge impact on their ability to fundraise.
AL: We believe that well‑crafted narratives can elevate design, showcase our values and really inspire people. In the Kigali studio we are currently at the early phase of several projects; we know they could have a big impact but require funds to be raised. Using visualisation tools early on in a project can inspire other people to invest or support it.
The Norrsken Kigali House includes a members’ lobby (above) and workspaces (below).
Visualisation was crucial from the outset, for the practice to understand the existing site and structure but also to demonstrate how the project would sensitively complement its context.
NP: In architecture school, every student is very excited to learn about all the tools and ways of representing a building, seeing what it looks like and testing materials. But once you move into architectural practice, I do think there is some scepticism about visualisation and the idea of photorealism, and whether visualisation is considered an ‘intellectual medium’ or not compared with alternatives such as collage. But I don’t think it is a case of either/or; I believe we can create content that merges the intellectual and the artistic. Lumion has a lot of effects that allow us to bring an image towards this in-between. In terms of the future at MASS, I would like us to integrate fully with our film department to create even more creative pieces, going beyond photorealism to explore the other aspects visualisation can offer. It might not be something every project needs, but some clients will be able to make really good use of it.
How do you see the use of visualisation changing in future?
NP: With visualisation, there is this tension between the ‘perfect’ and the ‘imperfect’ image. The supposedly perfect image is the one you produce at the end of the design phase to communicate intent. Lumion is brilliant for that because it is very easy to create atmosphere and immerse audiences in the finished building. But it is also a great tool for creating what I would call ‘imperfect’ images. Once a client realises that they can navigate through the model, they start asking to see more of the programme, they want to see and test options, and on a weekly basis we produce all these screenshots. They might be considered ‘imperfect images’, but they are fundamental in helping create the building. Visualisation is fully part of each stage of the design process.
‘We also modelled the landscape in Lumion, mapping the position of trees,’ explains Anton Larsen, principal at the Kigali office. ‘We tried to make explicit what should be preserved and what could be transformed, being respectful of the site as we found it, and it was important to communicate this to city officials’.
AL: In all our projects, we use Lumion as a design tool, in order to iterate, change and test. One of our main goals as architects is to better communicate our ideas and values, and in a way that anyone can understand. A lot of aspects in and around architecture, for example the climate conversation, are very technical and numerical. It is important to learn to translate some of this information into a visual or story-based form, so that the architecture itself becomes more approachable, more easily understood.
NP: I agree and think that this makes us better designers; we gather more information and receive far more detailed feedback from our teams and clients. Unless you can visualise a space, it can be very hard to assess it. You can judge certain things by numbers or details, but design is not a mathematical equation; it is eventually about the users and the people who are in direct contact with a space, once it is built. Lumion helps us imagine and communicate this future experience, making it the focus of design discussions.
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Rendering to shape experience
A case study with SAOTA
Founded in 1987, Cape Town architecture studio SAOTA has worked on projects across the world. Best known for high-end residential work, the practice also specialises in hospitality and commercial projects in diverse contexts and climates. Making visualisation an integral part of the design process is key for the studio. Rather than showcasing beautiful imagery, visualisation is used by SAOTA to consider possible experiences and understand how buildings will be integrated in a location.
The realistic depiction of a project and its surrounding landscape starts with the careful observation of a site. As SAOTA senior associate Philip Bartman explains, ‘We have developed an understanding of how the most interesting and important aspects of local context, from the site itself to the unique culture, heritage, materials, and craft of a place at a particular time, have the seeds of principles that would resonate anywhere in the world.’ Approaching sites with discretion, the South African practice believes in the idea of opening its designs to the beauty and mystery around them, letting their presence in without artifice and responding at a visceral level to the context – whether the project is situated on a cliff edge in South Africa, along the shoreline of a Swiss lake, on the west coast of the United States overlooking the Pacific, in a desertic landscape in the UAE, or in the vibrant city of Abidjan.
Based in Cape Town but delivering projects around the world, SAOTA prides itself on high-end design. Single-family homes constitute a significant part of their portfolio. Renders enable them to show clients what their future homes might look like, such as the bedroom of this luxury villa close to the port of Gustavia in Saint Barthélemy.
With their studio based in Cape Town, it is rarely possible for all those involved in a project to frequently visit a site in person, meaning that this close relationship to context presents a unique set of challenges when it comes to its representation and communication. This also means that discussions about a project will often take place on a conference call rather than around a table. Topographic surveys, photographs and videos can of course help to convey the atmosphere of a place, but demonstrating the role that a new building will play within the landscape has become a key consideration for the practice. This is where visualisation plays an important part.
When designing a resort in a semi-arid landscape on the outskirts of Dakar, the architects found the site populated with baobabs. The precise location of these baobabs played an important role in shaping the masterplan for La Réserve: the architects’ aim was to create ‘a dynamic and poetic relationship between these colossal trees and the resultant architecture’
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For the past eight years, SAOTA has been working on integrating Lumion into its design process to depict and understand projects and their locations. The approach of SAOTA prioritises the natural elements of a site; this might be how the wind travels across an open terrace, the angle of sunlight across a room or the way in which certain views are framed and enhanced by an architectural intervention. ‘We study all natural elements. Our designs embrace light, for example. Light creates the atmosphere or ambience of a building, marks the passage of time and the rhythms of nature, connecting the life of a building to the life on a planetary scale. It influences the orientation of the architecture and how the buildings open to receive light, as well as how we need to control it and provide shelter from it,’ explains Bartman.
‘To be able to show how the building relates to its environment realistically is very important,’ adds principal Phillippe Fouché. ‘You can give a sense of what it feels like to wake up in a space, what it feels like to work in a space, what it feels like to relax in a space, and how one will perceive the threshold between inside and outside.’
All the studio’s projects – at various scales and work stages – involve the creation of numerous images and videos using Lumion. What might begin as a means of showing the general massing or framing of a simple architectural gesture will develop to highlight a particular bespoke design element or texture. ‘We start off with something very simple and digestible,’ explains Bartman, ‘and over the course of the project we add detail and layering.’
Crucial to this is the detailed recreation of a project’s surrounding landscape, not only to give clients a realistic impression of the impact a project will have, but to allow the studio to understand and develop a design that effectively frames and speaks to this landscape. The architects will carefully create and import even the distant landscapes into their visualisations, allowing them to create fully immersive 360-degree views of their projects in situ – which, they say, has swung several competitions in their favour.
Many of La Réserve’s walls and berms are built with clay-rich earth sourced directly from the site. Renders of the resort show the horizontal striations of the rammed earth walls.
In a recent project in Dakar, Senegal, this relationship to the landscape became far more literal: the walls of the building were constructed out of rammed earth, using soil from the site. Visualisations depicted both the close-up texture and surface of this material, as well as how the walls it forms come together to create a dialogue with the surrounding desert.
Digitally recreating the experience and appearance of a natural landscape may initially seem counterintuitive, but for SAOTA, when used in tandem with in-person site visits and research, computer-generated scenes are a crucial part of the process of understanding a site. Here, the role of visualisation is not about mimicking the appearance of the landscape as a backdrop for a design image, but instead about helping both designer and client understand a building in its wider context, ensuring that this relationship is being considered from the very beginning of a project.
‘What’s been incredible in the more recent development of Lumion is that it has allowed us to really engage with the locations we work in: it is informative in placing trees in the correct positions, understanding where there is a possible view, grasping how the surrounding context will impact our design approach. This equips us to make better design decisions. From a client perspective, the realistic depiction of landscapes also brings a certain sense of familiarity,’ says Bartman.
For SAOTA, Lumion has enabled better decision-making when working in a global context. What the studio’s process demonstrates is that visualisation’s two roles – developing a response to a site and creating photorealistic depictions of a project – are not mutually exclusive.