Constructed realities

Advances in technology have made sophisticated computer design and visualisation tools — once the preserve of the manufacturing industries — available to all at little cost. But what does this mean for the built environment we live in, or how we fit out our homes? Like the gale howling outside the lighthouse, the breakneck speed of technological progress has become such a feature of our lives that we barely notice it any more: the tape collection of recorded music that now fits on a flash drive smaller than your thumb, or the drawings, once painstakingly produced and rolled into tubes to be picked up by couriers, now outputted via PDF and sent over email.

Though the process may be subtle, the effects are not. In a short period of time the way we visualise and design our built environment has changed hugely as a result of developments in computer visualisation and computer-aided design. Across the world there are museums, cultural centres and opera houses with gymnastic contortions made possible by sophisticated computer enabled design techniques. A style – ‘parametricism’ – has been coined to describe the work of architects like Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher. The name comes from the ‘parameters’ set within the advanced mathematic iterations that help produce structures in which no one curve is the same – and that are (relatively) affordable to build.

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Render by Goss Visualisations of Staithe End, a private residence in Dorset designed by Henry Goss Architects (HDRi skies by Guthrie). More images at gossvisualisations.com and henrygossarchitects.com

The latest big shift in the computer’s effect on our built environment has come with Building Information Modelling (BIM). Conceived as a living model of a building which several trades and specialist consultants can all work from, BIM is also designed to get round a problem that has defined architects since they emerged as a discipline discreet from master builders in the late Renaissance period: going from drawing to building; making these lines and curves a reality of a muddy building site.

It’s a platform and technique that means complex packages can be passed between contractors and that structural engineers can simultaneously work in the same model – helping to avoid pain points and the time and financial costs associated with these transitions. Such is the belief in its power for efficiencies and cost savings that the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland and Norway now require the use of BIM on publicly-funded building projects and this approach is expected to be rolled out across other EU member states.

One of the questions that it’s perhaps too early to answer is whether BIM will produce an aesthetic of its own. Designers may consider their tools to be a mere conduit for realising their vision, but whether it’s bricks and mortar construction, reinforced concrete or building with stone, particular design tools and building methods have a tendency of enabling specific types of architecture. In the 1990s, early CAD capabilities chimed with an interest in Postmodernism and saw many simple geometric shapes – triangles, circles – find their way into architecture. Now the trend is for more fluid buildings with more complex geometries.
(It’s not to say that the tools invent an aesthetic, rather that they help it proliferate: Jorn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House of 1973 may share the same vocabulary as some of Zaha Hadid’s work, for example, but the complex geometries that are required from both the former and Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House have become much easier to make cost-effective.)

If BIM is the stuff of building, then Computer Generated Imagery is the stuff of selling the things. CGI has become an important tool in selling buildings to investors and buyers alike and the normalising of photorealistic renders has gone hand in hand with this work being outsourced to specialist providers outside of the architecture studio. The shift has helped talented and highly-sought after specialists like Henry Goss of Goss Visualisations and Peter Guthrie make renders their sole business. Trained as an architect, Goss made the decision to go full time into rendering – perhaps when he realised what money could be made. He’s not the only one to take that route and whole agencies – like Squint/Opera – have been spawned by former architects to make visualisations their core business.

Some architects bemoan that what you can gain in increased realism through renders, you can lose in hiding ambiguity – which can be a helpful aid during the design process. Indeed, for decades architectural drawings which evoked an atmosphere or a feeling of space might not actually tell you a great 2 3 deal about the plan and section. But now the world of visualisation is so developed that people like Goss are introducing imperfections such as moss or damp walls into their work as a means of conveying reality. Increasing sophistication means that it’s more and more difficult to divine which image is photographic and which is a render. This is something that the furniture retailer Ikea has capitalised on. In the late 2000s, it started exploring using renders as an alternative to costly photo-shoots. Its motivation was to minimise waste from shoots, speed up the process and save money. Now, most products you see online or in catalogues have been digitally produced. And what started as a desire to quickly mock-up individual furniture items has spread to creating whole room layouts.

Furthermore, Ikea and other retailers have helped normalise 3D modelling with their online and instore accounts that help buyers quickly mock-up what their kitchen will look like, a truly valuable tool that takes (some) of the stress from agonising over unit configuration. Another type of software which has proven popular with the public and within professional circles is SketchUp, a relatively simple modelling tool which is available for free. Although aimed at an unskilled user, the software is well respected by CGI professionals who make use of some of its abilities.

Other even more exciting developments where visualisation techniques can facilitate new ways of designing come from the fields of augmented and virtual reality. Augmented reality – the layering of computer-generated information onto a field of vision – can work in combination with virtual reality and mix the best of computer drawing with the immediacy of the hand-drawn. The Gravity Sketch, for example, created by Royal College of Art graduates and launched in Milan in 2014, is a means of taking CAD drawings and modifying them by hand with an intuitive sketching pad – and an Occulus Rift headset. This kind of technology brings the ease and transferability of digital files together with the benefits of the hand-drawn, without losing the precious nature of drawing skill and what Finnish architect and critic Juhani Pallasmaa calls ‘The Thinking Hand’.

So if we can all use SketchUp rather than reaching for the graph paper and pencils, does this mean we are now free to realise ambitious DIY goals or install a parametric kitchen? When the barriers to entry associated with a specific technology come down, often there follows an empowerment of the individual, who now equipped with tools that were once the preserve of professionals can produce in ways that were previously unthinkable. It’s fair to say that this moment of ‘disruption’ has yet to happen in the building industries, both in the consumer and trade markets. These are notoriously conservative and slow-moving professions, but the reality is that the means of manufacturing mass-market objects have yet to catch up with the ability to design one-offs. If you have a wild idea for a kitchen cabinet, you may be able to design it easily now, but you’ll struggle to buy it at Howdens, B&Q or Ikea. 3D printing and the prospect of neighbourhood ‘Fablabs’ or even domestic 3D printers, could change all this. Once both the the means of design and the means of production come closer to the consumer, then very exciting things can happen.

As ever though, and those familiar with airbrush art will remember, technical skill doesn’t neccesarily come with good taste, and the old saw of computer programmers remains: ‘Nonsense in. Nonsense Out.’

Visualisation of a private house in Dorset by Peter Guthrie for Ström Architects (made in collaboration with Henry Goss Architects). More at peterguthrie.net.
Visualisation of a private house in Dorset by Peter Guthrie for Ström Architects (made in collaboration with Henry Goss Architects). More at peterguthrie.net.

James Pallister is a London-based journalist. Drawn to the Future is at the Building Centre in London until 3 October. See 

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