Fake plastic trees

Stock photos, pesky plants and commodifying architectural renders

Mug shots of photoshop stock imagery — generic trees

Repeat Offenders

I find something slightly unnerving about architectural renders. Maybe its perfect shade of blue used for the sky, with the textured cirrus clouds or the occasional hot-air balloon wafting past. It could be the wink of a lens flare or the MX5 parked in front of a luxury apartment. Or my pet hate, the ubiquitous foliage and photoshopped trees that populate their digital landscape. Not trees, but weeds. They are easily identifiable, resilient, prolific and persistent.

There is an ongoing fascination with these boulevards of beautiful, well manicured, photoshopped trees, with just the right number of leaves, Fibonacci splayed branches and if you’re lucky, some non-seasonal fruit hanging generously from its branches. Copy, cropped, resized and pasted liberally around the featured architecture. They blossom online, in magazines, billboards and brochures. Pictured below we have an impressive and monumental project in its own right — yet, at stage left we spot our repeat offenders.

Stage left— our fake plastic trees

There is something painfully generic about these renders. I am not referring to the architectural project’s intrinsic design qualities, its programme and functional requirements. I am referring to how these soon-to-be-built buildings are idealised as virtual objects before their bold entrance into the physical world. The way visual elements are depicted by digital technologies seem devoid of any subjective, experiential qualities as the technology at hand gives us a really close approximation of actual site conditions. But alas, dragging us back into non-reality, is our guest star, the two dimensional, photoshopped, stock image tree.

The Money Shot

Typically, digital designers make use of a plethora of programs to realise their digital dreams. These range from Photoshop, Illustrator, Rhino, Revit, Archicad or Grasshopper, and as architectural graduate, I am well versed in the visual requirements a render should satisfy for potential (and paying) client. Ideally, a render should give not just a realistic depiction of what the built product will look like, but also, set a bar for the strong aesthetic standard your work must meet. It needs to look attractive enough to persuade a client, property developer or future occupant to invest in it. If we follow this path towards the render’s sale value and its most aesthetically favourable characteristics, there is potential for the fictional work to not represent a virtual reality, and instead, something better — a hyper reality! Things look too good to be true, though at times, a far cry from a realistic depiction of actual site conditions. The non-seasonal fruit is a dead giveaway.

Commercial building occupying a public plaza
Evening render of a residential building, flanked with photoshop trees

These examples, which I admit, are both beautiful and interesting, fall guilty of the same charges: photoshopped trees, luxury vehicles, and stock imagery of a mother and exuberant child skipping excitedly towards the featured building. What I find interesting, is that considering the variety of programs being used to make digital renders, the vast number of artists or architects producing works of this calibre, then, accounting for the almost infinite combinations and permutations human creativity has on offer, then — ideally design complexity and uniqueness is completely within our reach. Though, it appears that we settling for the same images, the same stock photos, the same photoshopping tips and tricks. We are all painting from the same pallet, with the same colours. The question remains — why?

I don’t feel this is a divisive or radical statement. I am also suggesting there is a certain art to compelling and beautiful architectural renders. In saying this, it is curious that today with incredibly diversity of not only digital software, and visual media to contextualise and bend to our artistic will, that generic visual products are being created. Perhaps this can be partially because of the role the render plays in a commercial market. It is technically a fungible object: to be bought, sold, distributed, appropriated, branded and importantly, replicated across contemporary architectural renders.

She looks like the real thing

In my previous article on the Uncanny Valley (check out Not quite perfect if you haven’t already), I discussed the limitations of CGI and digital software in creating realising depictions of both people and buildings. The issue was not that we are not slowly closing that gap between the virtual and the real. The problem lies in the nature of what we are creating — it looks almost real, but not quite, and sometimes just a little unnerving. We have digital technology that allows us to represent shadows and sun paths with painstaking accuracy, as well as a rich estimation of material textures and colours. Where I take issue is that, apart from our fake, plastic friends, these images look startlingly real, and occasionally, it actually quite difficult to recognise it as a purely virtual representation.

But how do these renders give us a sense of the subjective and affecting qualities of the space being envisioned? Is it that the buildings look too real, that they don’t leave much up to the imagination? Or is it that due to the reality of the architectural render, we are content with what we see. What we see is probably what we will get, and anything which pertains to how we may feel and personally engage with the space, well — the building will have to be built in order to find that out.

Front and centre, and precariously balanced on level 3

Money does grow on photoshop trees — but should it?

It is understandable that market demands play a significant role in what types of projects are being built in any city, as well as expectations from clients and developers about what time of “image” they envision for the highly lucrative commercial investments. Time pressures, available media and digital software also tie into how an architectural render is being pumped out before a deadline. However, with these visions of future architectural works, that ideally, will be a spectacular public work, on paper, they are still virtual objects. I argue that as an unrealised architectural work, the render is the final point of difference and maybe resistance, against the demands and restrictions of reality. Reality can wait. The render should not simply represent what the end product will look like, but still have some freedom afforded to it: to be a platform for visual experimentation, variety, and who knows, a set of affective qualities that would truly inspire one to build.

I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t be making use of available digital tools to make a visual products that not only work, but are beautiful and affecting. I am however urging visual designers to take their artistic integrity seriously and make something something engaging, affecting, and most of all, unique. Go outside, look at a real tree if you can find one: analyse it, sketch it or photograph it. But do not settle for the same, ubiquitous stock imagery that circulates architecture renders everywhere. And don’t play ball with the easily commodified and distributable market that architectural renders are becoming increasingly trapped by— where not just renders, but artistic merit and creativity are reduced to generic, replicable objects, to be bought and sold to the highest bidder.

It wears me out…

References.

  1. CCN Group. 2017. Olympia on Russell. http://olympiaonrussell.com.au/
  2. Andreas Lassker. 2012. White. http://www.cgarchitect.com/2012/04/johanneberg-science-park
  3. John M. Wilyat. 2013. https://johnmwilyat.wordpress.com/2013/12/05/architectural-rendering-with-photoshop/
  4. Village Central Nundah. 2015. http://villagecentralnundah.com.au/home-new/