Architectural stories / by Kim Baumann Larsen


Architectural stories

For all of my close to a quarter century as a professional working mostly in the architecture and building industry I have used images to communicate my own and others design, that be 2D or 3D illustrations, photographs, films, interactive experiences, AR and VR. Most of those visual expressions of architecture would tell stories, and I believe all architects are inherently storytellers consciously or not. We create fictional narratives of how people will use the buildings when we explain how the design was (hopefully) the result of a process to best meet the future needs of said people.

In the days of old most every architect would be the champion of his or her architectural story crafting beautiful imaginative perspective illustrations of mostly realistic and sometimes very dreamy future places. Seminal architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn to name a few. There was a literal, close connection between the idea of the architecture to how that architectural idea was communicated visually from the hand of the very same architect.

An emerging industry
Today architecture visualisation has become a profession in its own right and while the advancement of it as an industry was greatly helped by the personal computer and 3D and 2D software arriving with force in the 1990s, professional architectural illustration has a long tradition. An early famous proponent was American architect, illustrator, and poet Hugh Ferriss. His dramatic black and white high contrast images explored the psychological condition of modern urban life and inspired a generation of architects and influenced popular culture like Batman’s Gotham City. Artists like Ferriss illustrating architecture were called architectural renderers and another fine proponent was Helmut Jacoby. He set the standard for ink and ink spray renderings and propelled the designs of architects like Philip Johnson, Eero Saarinen, and I.M. Pei into the public eye in North America during the 1950s and 1960s.

More of the digital same
Today the ease of use of computer tools, built in rendering capabilities in 3D design software, online tutorials and forums, and cheap and readily available 2D and 3D entourage libraries means that the individual artistic expressions that once made projects stand apart is much less prevalent in architectural rendering. The use of the same and similar types of rendering software (I am looking at you V-Ray and Corona) and indeed online entourage libraries has resulted in images of buildings from all over the world looking very similar. You could also say that architecture itself has become more similar world wide and much less rooted to the place or the genius loci. In what way CAD and digital visualisation has influenced world wide architectural design however is a discussion I will leave for another time and place.

Transitioning to 3D
While many early CAD systems like AutoCad and MicroStation had 3D capabilities few architects crafted 3D models and left it to professional 3D artists to create digital 3D illustrations of their designs. Even when most architects had switched to 3D CAD and BIM, making compelling visualisations still required specialised software and skills. I belive this has clearly changed today where built in visualisation tools in BIM software and the automated processes of transferring such models into visualisation tools like Lumion and Twinmotion result in many more architects producing digital illustrations than before.

A new reality
There are a good few highly skilled individual talents and architecture visualisation studios around the world that are able to truly understand other architects designs, and can communicate it well using images with great lighting, color, composition and storytelling and unique styles, like Norwegian MIR, French Luxigon and Arqui9 Visualisation to name three of my favourites. Studios like these are the exception though.

The before mentioned ease of use of 3D and visualisation tools also means that many architects are content with quicker, simpler and often more generic illustrations of their own designs. Even very famous architect studios whose names shall not be mentioned resort to such images that rarely are able to capture the essence of the architecture nor convey compelling stories of their future use.

Future stories
While I have no doubt that the amount of automation and increase of use of simulation tools in architecture software will propel the use of more realistic and thus more similar looking visualisations produced by architects themselves, the very same technological advancement will also increase similarities in images produced by architecture visualisation professionals. The only real big differentiator available to architects and architectural renderers alike will be storytelling using great framing, composition, lighting, colours and action to tell a story, fantastical or not about what sets this building apart from others.

I am hoping that the importance of great storytelling in architectural images is not lost on the current and future generation of architects and architectural illustrators and that architects will step up to the plate and take control of their own architectural stories.

My highly speculative conceptual design and visualization for a future metro at Grunerløkka in Oslo, the casual every-day story contrasting the once-a-year sports event portrayed in the Bislet image at the top of this post.

My highly speculative conceptual design and visualization for a future metro at Grunerløkka in Oslo, the casual every-day story contrasting the once-a-year sports event portrayed in the Bislet image at the top of this post.