Written by: Travis J. Mathews, Director, ASLA, LEED AP
The aroma of Chartpak markers consumed my office as I sat hunched over my drafting table applying swirls of color to a site plan. Outside my open door, I could hear the grumblings of associates as they expressed their displeasure for the toxic fumes that were wafting about the office. Through the dizzying haze and commentary, I pressed on, determined to impress our client with the “grand vision” we had for their project. A hand drawn site plan, with intermingled blotches of color bleeding across black line work . . . this was my tool to communicate that vision.
Before computers and sophisticated software transformed how we deliver our ideas to our clients, design concepts were proposed with man made illustrations or with three dimensional, scaled models. Creating these were huge endeavors and, depending on the skill of the artist, the end results could be very difficult to understand. But these were the tools of the trade in an era when computers were just emerging as a powerful design tool.
Architects and designers spend hours planning, modifying and refining the best design for a project. They have this incredible ability to visualize a project with utmost accuracy before it’s even built. But our clients do not always possess the same ability to visualize the project as we might. In the past, if you wanted to communicate a complex design idea to a person who is not from the architectural field, you might exert a lot of effort in explaining the details. Forcing comprehension of a design through 2D hand drawn sketches is a time consuming affair and often ends with mixed results or lost opportunities.
However, with the advancements in the field of virtual reality and 3D animation, even the layman can gain a better understanding of their project. A well-executed computer generated rendering can capture and convey the poetic essence of a design. It can showcase a moment of beauty and illustrate the functionality of the design. It can elicit an emotional response and help to crystallize your client’s vision . . . but beware– it can also be a sticky trap for designers.
Manually drawn perspective views and hand-drawn renderings are often times perceived as passé, as clients are increasingly making demands for computer generated images that look like real photographs taken of the finished project. As a result, digital renderings are often idealized and embellished by designers to try and “sell” an idea to a client– in which case a bit of “artistic license” is the necessary evil.
The proliferation of such stylized images can lead the client and the public at large to expect a degree of perfection that is impossible to deliver in the real word. The danger of this is that, in the end, the digital rendering exists independent of what is pragmatic or practical.
Once that idea is sold, however, what happens when a more realistic rendering, one that shows as truthfully as possible how the project will look, is presented? In an age in which the computer generated rendering has already set expectations far higher than reality can achieve, is a hand drawn sketch or a more conservative rendering (forgive the pun) rendered useless? Could an idealized computer generated rendering—one that embellishes an outcome through photo-realistic artistry– actually be bad for the project because it misrepresents reality?
Chartpak P-120, affectingly known as “Willow Green,” spilled across my paper like blood swirling down a shower drain in a low budget B rated horror film . . . crude but effective. My meeting with the client was only an hour away so I scrambled to put the finishing touches on my masterpiece. Still reeking of solvent, I rolled up the drawing and headed out for the big sales pitch. Many years have passed since that faithful day, but in the end that rudimentary drawing, along with a bit of eloquent lip service, sealed the deal. We landed on a design concept that everybody loved. The “grand vision” for the project ultimately memorialized– not in digital pixels, but in “bricks and mortar.”
The next time you’re blown away by a sophisticated computer generated rendering, ask yourself this . . . Is this image grounded in reality or is it simply the artistic expression of an uncompromising vision born by the designer?