Rendering Real(i)ty: Architectural Visualization, Real Estate and the Image of the Twenty-First Century City
Part of Vital Signs
Today, New York City is in the midst of a construction boom. “Supertall” skyscrapers and large-scale “megaprojects” are currently taking shape at rapid speed. While many of these projects may not yet exist, architectural hyper-renderings, ostensibly, provide us with ways of envisioning how they will unfold within the urban fabric. These hyper-renderings have helped popularize the image of architecture, being well suited to the highly visual media sphere emblematic of the digital age.
This research examines the relationship between architectural rendering and city building—or urban planning, architecture, and design—in the twenty-first century. What do renderings of major real estate projects tell us about the societal vision that the dominant structures of power wish to construct for the future? And what role does the production and dissemination of digital renderings play in the production of contemporary city building?
At a December 2012 press conference, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other high-ranking New York City officials shared a stage with real estate mogul Stephen Ross in a spirited display of public-private partnership.1 The occasion was the groundbreaking of Hudson Yards—the largest development to take place in New York City since Rockefeller Center.2 Described by one Forbes columnist as a “classic post-Robert Moses urban renewal saga,” Hudson Yards is perhaps the most prominent city-planning legacy of the 12-year Bloomberg administration.3 Comprising 17 million square feet of commercial and residential space, a bundle of state-of-the art skyscrapers, parks and a cultural center, the megadevelopment can be seen as a “city within a city”;4 according to its website, an anticipated 24 million people will visit Hudson Yards each year.5
As Bloomberg took the podium, a large digital rendering of the soon-to-be Hudson Yards served as his backdrop. The image depicted an unfamiliar skyline with uncanny photorealism: a cluster of glass towers rising along the Hudson River, glowing in a soothing dusk blue. “A writer once said that the New York skyline embodies our city’s grace and swagger, creativity and hard labor,” said Bloomberg. “It’s also a symbol of the fact that in the race for global competitiveness… New York stands alone.” Praising the future development for the transformational effects it will have on the City, Bloomberg declared Hudson Yards “the future of New York.”6
“We are now taking renderings to reality,” Ross decreed in equally grandiose rhetoric.7
For famed architect-turned-illustrator Hugh Ferriss, renderings did indeed become reality. In an article for the New York Times Book Review and Magazine, Ferriss presented perhaps the most iconic architectural images of the 1920s: a series of speculative drawings exploring ways in which the provisions of the 1916 zoning law could give way to a new urban aesthetic.8 That the forms articulated in his moody charcoal renderings would actually come to be realized is widely viewed as a testament to their profound influence in transforming New York’s architectural landscape.
In his influential book, Delirious New York, architect Rem Koolhaas discusses Hugh Ferriss’ role as the “great delineator” of Manhattan, writing that the City “would establish him, Ferriss the renderer, as its chief architect.”9 Yet, within the context of our post Fordist global capitalist system, the roles of the architect and the renderer have become increasingly commoditized and thus estranged from one another other. If renderers were once extensions of the architect’s “mind, hand, and heart,” they are now extensions of the developer’s.10
Today, architectural visualization firms have evolved into creative branding agencies that offer a suite of digital marketing services—for companies such as DBOX, Volley Studio and Visualhouse, real estate developers are the preferred clienteles. An employee at Volley Studio commented that from a renderer’s perspective, developer-led work is much more gratifying than architect-hired commissions, saying: “The projects [for architects] are usually very fast, done for cheap, and they don’t really care about the image as a whole, they really only care about how their building is reading.”11 Yet for Volley Studio, this type of work is decreasing—a phenomenon that can perhaps be attributed to the rise in quality of architects’ in-house rendering teams and the climbing prices of rendering companies.12 In addition, Chinese visualization firms have become more popular and better suited towards architect-led commissions given their low prices and fast turn around rates.13
An employee at a leading New York-based creative branding agency noted the architect’s diminished role in the creation of renderings for developer-led projects, commenting that “the architect is part of the team, but usually more on the purely informational/details side of things.”14 The same employee noted that when credit is flowing and construction is booming, the firm tends to do more marketing work, which entails full branding services including a full suite of 20-30 renderings, photography and collateral such as webpages, business cards, mailers, brochures, and sometimes even a film.15 With these commissions, developers and their broker teams usually have two main objectives: initial investment or later sales. Ultimately, developers are “selling a ‘dream’,” and so “visuals are led in the appropriate direction.”16
In 2015, Visualhouse released the latest image from its Future Skyline collection, a series of photorealistic renderings depicting how the cityscapes of New York, Miami and London will appear in the year 2030. Quite literally, the renderings cast a radiant light upon the cities’ newest architectural additions: an array of yet-to-exist glass skyscrapers seamlessly imagined within the existing urban fabric.
In the New York image, the skyline is seen from a soaring vantage point over the Hudson River—a rare and sweeping view of midtown Manhattan stretching from 57th Street down to Hudson Yards. Rendered from a drone-captured aerial photograph, the image evokes a floating sensation; the rarity and vastness of its viewpoint are both awe-inspiring and unattainable, lending to a certain mythic quality. It begs us to gaze into the future, to admire the new glass towers twinkling in a pre-sunset glow, and forces us to commit them to memory. Appearing so real it could be mistaken for a photograph, the rendering’s message becomes more permanent: this is the future of New York, the New York of desire.17
Visualhouse’s 2030 New York image fetishizes rather than informs. As described by Visualhouse CEO Rob Herrick, the rendering “shows the who’s who of modern architecture,” a list that includes Jean Nouvel, Rafael Viñoly, BIG, and Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF). Referring to the new skyscrapers as “modern day classics” that will be “the legacy for New Yorkers in 2030 and beyond,” Herrick’s promotional rhetoric underscores the spectacular nature of these high-profile architectural projects.18
The policies enacted during Michael Bloomberg’s twelve-year tenure as mayor made the City ripe for coveted international architects to break ground on a milieu of high-stake commissions. Prominent commercial and residential projects, such as the new skyscrapers featured in Visualhouse’s 2030 image, and megaprojects such as Hudson Yards, Domino Sugar Factory, and Hunters Point South, have become integral components of Bloomberg’s vision for 21st century New York City. For Bloomberg, the City’s success could be measured in global investment, even stating, “If we could get every billionaire around the world to move here, it would be a godsend…”19
Megaprojects have provided especially lucrative investment opportunities. Characterized by the revamping of large swaths of land and the creation of new neighborhoods comprising some blend of residential, commercial, and perhaps cultural spaces, these projects represent a new chapter in the evolution of city building and an interesting cross-pollination of the two fiercely opposing viewpoints of twentieth century city planning —those of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. Packaging Jacobs’ notion of the mixed-use neighborhoods in the form of top-down, large-scale private development, megaprojects signal a commodification of city building. Marketed as authentic, vibrant communities, these new developments have become a way to refashion the image of the City.
In the case of Hudson Yards, a host of architectural renderings and a robust marketing campaign have been vital in portraying an aspirational picture for potential stakeholders.20Featured on the project’s website are infographics, press releases, video testimonials, as well as dozens of renderings and promotional videos for download. Many of these renderings have been widely circulated, featured in a variety of both print and online sources such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Architectural Record, and the Associated Press, to name just a selection. According to Jessica Scaperotti, vice president of corporate communications at Related Companies, Hudson Yards’ marketing and public relations efforts represent a “very transparent process to keep anyone interested in the project aware of what’s happening.”21
The notion of mixed-use is central to the lexicon surrounding the project’s marketing. As Scaperotti put it: “If you look at the companies that are coming to Hudson Yards, it’s fashion, it’s beauty, it’s technology, it’s finance, it’s law…there’s true a mix of people—there’s something for everyone there…it’s really the best of the best.”22 Yet if the renderings are indeed a reflection of Related’s vision for Hudson Yards, Scaperotti’s idea of a “true mix of people” is visibly narrow. In a view of the public plaza, stylish women mill around while men in suits are pictured, ostensibly, walking to and from their places of work—an image that reinforces dated gender stereotypes rather than pushes a progressive 21st century agenda. An employee of Volley Studio commented on Related’s approach to rendering saying, “Their work can be a little dry sometimes in terms of the final image in the way that they always want it to be perfect weather, at the perfect time of day, with perfectly attractive people filling the image.”23
The scenes that provide context for a rendered architectural design—the “people and life,” or “entourage”24—largely contribute to the overheating of the rendering. Digital renderings are packed with such imagery, which are appropriated from (cut out from) various photographic images coming from shared or private catalogues. For renderings that are intended for marketing purposes, visualization firms or architects may buy images from Shutterstock or photograph models for use as “scalies,” a term used by writer Rob Walker to describe the people figures in renderings.25
The “copy-paste” aspect of digital rendering naturally leads to the repetition of particular entourage clichés. This is further fueled by the fact that entourages can at times be selected from the same web sources. Skalgubbar, a go-to blog for hip, youthful people cutouts is an especially popular example.26 Founded by young Swedish architect Teodor Javanaud Emden, Emden’s entourage comprises images of his friends, family and colleagues. Featured in his collection are mostly young Caucasian people dressed in hip clothing, partaking in various activities such as bicycling, playing sports or musical instruments, or walking pets. Emden keeps a log of the renderings in which people from his entourage are used—renderings he finds on design blogs representing international projects by names such as Zaha Hadid, Herzog de & de Meuron, Daniel Libeskind, and Bjarke Ingels Group.27
The example of Skalgubbar brings up an important polemical topic in the conversation of contemporary rendering: diversity. A study by Clog underscores this issue; in an analysis of ten recent projects from ten renowned international architectural practices, 72% of the scalies were found to be Caucasian.28 As a well-known scalie source, Emden says he gets around ten to twenty e-mails a month complaining about diversity, yet he doesn’t find it to be his responsibility to diversify the racial and ethnic demographic of his website;29 according to him, it is up to renderers to be mindful and to choose more representative entourage samples. Ultimately, for Emden, Skalgubbar is a reflection of his own Swedish world—one in which “there are not that many Black or Asian people.”30
Appropriating photographic images for use in renderings—whether they are of scalies or other “filler” elements—does more than suggest patterns of use and activity surrounding an architectural design. Details ranging from the scalie demographic to scalies’ sartorial preferences to the types of activities being engaged, all suggest a particular culture, mood, or socioeconomic status. These elements act as signifiers of meaning; their presence hints at a vision of society that builders and designers wish to construct for our future.
The photorealistic quality of renderings makes this message even more prescriptive. While hand-drawn renderings of the past also included people to depict a clear lifestyle and status, the move away from abstract representation to uncanny resemblance suggests a more aggressive assertion of how a future point in time will unfold. Perhaps more than ever, contemporary renderings do more to tell us about a certain lifestyle than to allow us to really comprehend an architectural project.
- Michael Bloomberg, Mayor Bloomberg Breaks Ground on 26-Acre Development at Hudson (2012, New York) 33 min., 46 sec., from Youtube.com https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LcffCUvxxLM (Accessed April 17, 2016).Stephen Ross is the CEO of Related Companies, the developer of Hudson Yards. ↩
- Rockefeller Center is, a mixed-use development in Midtown Manhattan. The vision of philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr., it opened in May 1933; it has been described as a “city within a city.” (https://www.rockefellercenter.com/art-and-history/history/). ↩
- Morgan Brennan, “Stephen Ross: The Billionaire who is Rebuilding New York,” Forbes, March 7, 2012, http://www., forbes.com/sites/morganbrennan/2012/03/07/stephen-ross-the-billionaire-who-is-rebuilding-new-york/#31aaf25f5c28 (Accessed April 17, 2016). Bloomberg was mayor from January 1, 2002-December 31, 2013. ↩
- The term “megaprojects,” is a commonly used term in the press to describe many of the current large-scale urban development projects currently being constructed in New York City, such as Hudson Yards, Essex Crossing, Atlantic Yards and the World Trade Center. As one Daily News reporter put it, these projects “will take some of the city’s last undeveloped swaths of land and remake them into shiny, designer neighborhoods, the likes of which have rarely been since John D. Rockefeller conceived of Rockefeller Center in the 1920s.” (http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/real-estate/new-megaprojects-remake-swaths-city-scatch-article-1.2119825) ↩
- Hudson Yards is estimated to be complete in around 2018. ↩
- Michael Bloomberg, Mayor Bloomberg Breaks Ground on 26-Acre Development at Hudson (2012, New York) 33 min., 46 sec., from Youtube.com https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LcffCUvxxLM (Accessed April 17, 2016). ↩
- Stephen Ross, Mayor Bloomberg Breaks Ground on 26-Acre Development at Hudson (2012, New York) 33 min., 46 sec., from Youtube.com https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LcffCUvxxLM (Accessed April 17, 2016). ↩
- The 1916 zoning resolution is often referred to as the nation’s first comprehensive zoning law. Architectural historian Carol Willis has noted that the 1916 zoning law was the first time there existed a real tool that could shape actual masses and spaces that applied to the entire city. (Willis, “A 3-D CBD: How the 1916 Zoning Law Shaped Manhattan’s Central Business Districts,” 22.) ↩
- Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York (New York: Monacelli Press, 1994), 114. ↩
- In 1926 article written by Irving K. Pond, who served as the president of the American Institute of Architects from 1910-1911, titled “The Relationship Between the Architect and the Draftsman,” Kane writes, “The drafstman is the extension of the architect’s mind, hand and heart. He should not be these things but the extension of them. Which means that the architect should work with and through the drafstman.” (Irving K. Pond, “The Relationship Between the Architect and the Draftsman,” Pencil Points 7, no.12 (December 1926) in Pencil Points Reader, ed. George E. Hartman and Jan Cigliano (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004), 16. ↩
- Volley Studio employee, e-mail message to author, March 7, 2016. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- In an essay written for Clog, architectural designer Adam Nathaniel Mayer writes of such Chinese specialization firms: “Stepping into one of these studios is much like walking into a factory (one office can employ upwards of one thousand people), but instead of workers assembling widgets along conveyer belts, rows of workers hunch over their desktop computers for hours on end, producing images to be used in presentations to high-level officials or real estate marketing brochures. Just as in a factory, workers are assigned to one specific task: three-dimensional modeling, rendering or post-production work in Adobe Photoshop—there is no overlap in roles.” (Adam Nathaniel Mayer, “Urban Fantasies in China: Architectural Visualization,” Clog: Rendering (August 2012): 30.) ↩
- Anonymous employee, e-mail message to author, February 26, 2016. ↩
- DBOX received an Emmy® Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Art Direction, Graphic Design & Visual Effects for ‘Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero’ ↩
- Anonymous employee, e-mail message to author, February 26, 2016. ↩
- Visualhouse’s motto is “We Envision Design and Evoke Desire.” ↩
- Rob Herrick quoted in an article published by 6sqft. (Dana Schulz, “Get a Look at the NYC Skyline in 2030!, 6sqft, December 18, 2015, http://www.6sqft.com/get-a-look-at-the-nyc-skyline-in-2030 (Accessed April 18, 2016). ↩
- This quote, which was said by Bloomberg in 2013 during one of his weekly radio sit-downs, was cited in an article from Observer. (Jill Colvin, “Mayor Bloomberg Wants City to Have Every Billionaire,” Observer, September 20, 2013. http://observer.com/2013/09/mayor-bloomberg-wants-city-to-have-every-billionaire/ (Accessed April 18, 2016)). ↩
- Related Companies commissioned a team of architectural visualization specialists to create a suite of renderings for the project. These firms include Volley Studio, Visualhouse and By-Encore. ↩
- Marketing efforts have included partnering with the Center for Architecture for a sold-out exhibition and speaker series called “Design(in) the Heart of New York,” and partnering with Open House New York for exhibit tours, among other events. (Jessica Scaperotti, in discussion with author, February 18, 2016). ↩
- Jessica Scaperotti, in discussion with author, February 18, 2016. ↩
- Volley Studio employee, e-mail message to author, March 7, 2016. ↩
- These terms are used in a case study published on architecture visualization firm Volley Studio’s website (http://volleystudio.us/architecture). ↩
- Rob Walker, “Go Figure,” in The New York Times, February 4, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/06/magazine/06fob-consumed-t.html?_r=0 (Accessed April 15, 2016). ↩
- Skalgubbar has been featured on popular industry blogs such as ArchDaily and Ronenbekerman.com. ↩
- As seen on the Skalgubbar website (http://skalgubbar.se). ↩
- “Entourage Demographics,” Clog: Rendering (August 2012): 52. ↩
- Teodor Javanaud Emdén, in discussion with the author, February 15, 2016. ↩
- Ibid. ↩