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A brief history of architectural visualization

Throughout history, architectural visualization has acted as the language between client and designer.

Throughout history, architectural visualization has acted as the language between client and designer. Without that tangible common ground, an architect’s work is left to being judged in numbers on a ledger. From the Pharaohs of Egypt and the Popes of Rome to the board of trustees and the family of four, architects have been tasked with telling a story that we can all understand. A story of space and light, materiality and texture.

Now I’d like to tell you a story. One of technology and the greatness of human achievement. This is a brief history of architectural visualization.

The Golden Age

The Egyptians. The Greeks. The Romans. These are the pioneers of significant architecture: building ambitious wonders of the world with ancient technology that we’re still trying to understand thousands of years later. Feats that were commissioned by Kings, conceived by master builders, and built with help from a brutal common practice of forced servitude. We don’t have to go there though.

How were these structures designed? In what ways were they communicated that are different than today?

You might think the pyramids just cropped up out of the desert one day, or ancient aliens were the key to the early achievements in architecture and engineering. While I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of an extra-terrestrial assist when it comes to such achievements, I can assure you a lot of design, planning, and logistical execution was required to make such monuments possible.

Of course it was, right?  In all honesty, the methods ancient architects and designers used to communicate their ideas weren’t that different than the ones used today, albeit a bit more primitive. Much like artists of the day, architects experimented with different pigments and mediums to achieve an aesthetic worthy of their respective monarchs. Remember, this was before the discovery of using perspective do represent realism, so drawings and reliefs were flat and void of any real experiential properties.

The Greeks and Romans weren’t all that different. The architecture itself advanced as technological innovations and sophistication of design and expression made leaps, however, the way speculative buildings were planned and presented didn’t evolve much despite hundreds of years passing between.

At this point in history, architects were artists by trade, only with their work planted firmly in the real. The history of architectural visualization can be traced by simply following the evolution of fine art itself. Technique got better, more realistic, but was still rooted in a similar flat representation as the Egyptians. Frankly, it’s amazing they were able to accomplish what they did considering their representational shortcomings. Oh yeah...slave labour...

Gaining Perspective

Fast forward 1500 years. Leave it to the Italians to make one of the most important discoveries in history. Not just the slice of art and architecture, but the entire history pie. In 1415 Renaissance man Fillipo Brunelleschi stunned the world when he painted the first example of linear perspective - a three dimensional depiction that utilized converging parallel lines to create a visual representation of how the human eye actually perceives the world. Can you say “game changer?”

You might recognize the name Brunelleschi. He has a very famous dome in Florence. What he and his pals discovered was the foothold artists and architect had been searching for: a mathematical solution aimed at grasping a realistic 2D depiction of our 3D world. While there is much debate to whether or not it was Brunelleschi himself who first discovered perspective, it was him who pioneered its use in analysing architecture. Masaccio, Leonardo, Raphael and the rest of the ninja turtles weren’t far behind. The Italian Renaissance earns humanity's first great breakthrough in architectural visualization.

Perspective added depth and space to paintings and drawings. Architects could finally communicate their grandiose designs into realistic portrayals - better convincing their clients in the church or the government of their validity (in most cases they were the same entity). Expensive and time consuming sculptures and models could be more easily replaced by sketches, saving valuable time and money.

Modern Family

It would be almost 500 years before visualization would take another substantial leap. The invention of linear perspective opened all kinds of doors that provided architects, engineers and artists with the proper visual tools to make their designs come to life - and it sustained the profession for centuries. At the turn of the 20th century, however, things were in for a monumental shift.

The modern architecture movement - originating in Germany in the 1910s with the Bauhaus - took visualization to new and interesting places. Architects at this point were less master builders and becoming a more specialized group, focusing their efforts on the expression and tectonics of crafting space. Form and space became the primary tools for design, leaving behind unnecessary ornamentation and flair.

As the architecture shifted to a simple geometric assembly of lines and volumes, so did the visualization. Historic designers like Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier were among the best at relaying design information in previously unthinkable ways.

Three dimensional spaces were overlapped and colour coded resulting in diagrammatic portrayals that said something about the program and the experience without simply drawing it realistically. Architects invented visual tools that allowed others to understand not just the ‘what,’ but the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ as well. It pulled back the curtain, so to speak, allowing the layman to see space as the architects themselves did.

Other architects followed suit. This revolution in design communication didn’t just change the way clients saw their projects, in marked a turning point in architecture itself. The Frank Lloyd Wrights and Louis Kahns of the world started designing buildings that suspended disbelief and elevated architecture to the greatness it enjoyed throughout antiquity. Buildings became important again, in part thanks to the new ways designs were being conceived.

You Can Pry My Drafting Board from my Cold Dead Fingers

Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak bring us to the present. The rapid advancements in computer technology over the last 30 years have breathed new life into the world of architecture. Not only has realistic rendering capabilities made it easy for designers to showcase their work, the business itself has become efficient in a way forcing us all to play catch up.

That doesn’t necessarily mean we are all adapting so smoothly. There are still - and probably (hopefully) always will be - a handful of ambitious young designers and architects who live outside the digital fortress. Hand drawing and sketching remains an important part of the architectural process and a vital tool when presenting conceptual ideas at a designs early stage. Technology in some ways stomps on an architect's ability to develop an idea properly, and can point directly to the finish line before the race has been completed.

Whichever side of that coin you might fall on, there’s no arguing the historic impact computer technology has had on design communication. Architects and artists can quickly transition between concept and concrete, making the refinement in design as much trial and error as anything else. Programs such as SketchUp, Rhino, VRay, Maxwell, Mental Ray and AutoCAD are the new tools, empowering design and dazzling clients with on demand results. As I mentioned, this can be dangerous to the integrity of the design. However, with the discipline and rigor displayed by successful architects of the past, those dangers can be readily sidestepped.

Okay, So What’s Next?

Only time will tell where the next 100 years might take us. As technology progresses, more and more of the design process will inevitably rely on automated processes. With that grows the danger that control will be relegated by emotionless machines, and the risk of losing the humanity of architecture and design. As with so many other fields, architecture is destined to a head on collision with technology, ending in an explosion could be as violent as it is progressive.

Here’s to hoping that never happens, and to hoping architecture and design remains solid in the hands of people. New, helpful tools are great, but only if wielded by people who know how to use them. That’s the only way to move forward intelligently.

So there you have it: a brief history and even briefer look to the future of architectural visualization. It’s exciting to be living in a time where meaningful strides are being made towards making our world a more ecologically responsible, aesthetically beautiful place to live. Innovations in design communication play an important part in that equation.

According to history, it always has.

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