The Deceptive Nature of Architectural Renderings

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Periodical: Arch Daily

ThesisArchitects’ detail to digital production leads to misrepresentation of architectural projects.

Architects use many mediums to express their designs, ideas, and concepts. They use orthographic drawings  , physical models, as well as digital models. One common element amongst all these mediums is scale, a measurement of reality. What about when one considers architects’ abilities to render 3D images? How can we defferienciate between what is reality and what is a false and biased representation of a building? How about photographs of architecture?

When proposing a new design to clients, professors, or peers, an architect needs to find a way to express their ideas and sell them. One of the most successful ways to do this is to present a rendering, or photorealistic image of their project. This, however, has become a problem more recently with the advancement of digital technology in the 21st century with the introduction of 3D modeling, Photoshop, and CAD. Where in the past drawings by hand were clearly seen as “artistic” interpretations of a project, now we have images that are practically indistinguishable as either reality or make believe. This brings into question the validity of every rendering and photograph and whether it is pushed too far from reality or not.

Before the era of photography and CAD, architecture was an art that was practiced on paper with ink. The original notion to draw architecture in perspective or 3D views did not come about until the renaissance (Shkineva.) Throughout the years the progession of the field of architecture went from an idea of an imaging method, to a presentation method, which some may argue is synonymous with a deception method. In this presentation method, architects intentionally pick the most spectacular, brightly painted, lively views of their design to pitch to clients(Shkineva.) In this case, clients latch on to these limited and fantastical ideas and sometimes can blindly sign for projects.

More recently, as photography was brought into the world, photography became a new medium for architects to brand their buildings and present them. However, this sometimes became a very tedious task for the architect or designer when trying to get the perfect, or ideal, image across to illustrate their design intent. In order to get a beautiful picture , one had to clip out a design flaw with a tree branch, or get a shot at just the right angle. Photographers even use to take several shots with different exposures and focuses and overlay them on one another to mimic the reaction a human eye would have to a building, since a camera is not as precise as the eye (McGuigan.) However, now in the 21st century it is much easier to take quick photos on site and manipulate them even further to allow people to see what you want them to see. Between now and WWII photographs have transitioned from actual architecture to more theatric shots. Now images can be so re-touched that many people would not be able to depict if the image had been altered or not. These images come out just as fake as a rendering could. But what everyone needs to remember is that architecture cannot be fully understood in two dimensions. Architecture needs to be witnessed in all three dimensions (McGuian.) It is one form of deception that can trick people into seeing a beautiful design.

Of course then there is the deception of rendering three dimensional drawings through the of CAD. Many people now-a-days, especially students, get lost in this fantasy realm where they depict their designs as beautiful imaginations. Architects tend to find the most influential view of their design to work with. From there they adjust the image to what they want to make pop, fade, illuminate, and speak. Though some argue you cannot blame the architects for this because this is the nature of architecture’s natural obsession with its own image. The problem occurs though that the images became so muddy with artistic decisions that the project sometimes can be seen completely out of its context. Architects are in the same business as fashion designers and magazines. They are just as guilty for covering faults in their design for buildings as magazines are for Photoshopping out and touching up blemishes, as well as making models seemingly thinner than they truly are (Freeman.) With that in mind consider all the flack that those deceptive illustrators are receiving. It’s just as wrong for architectural illustrators to deceive their clients and the public, but it seems that no one is pointing fingers. Instead people are falling into the trap of these beautiful images.

An example of misrepresentation in architecture of a false reality can be seen in the renderings for the Barclays Center Arena drawings by SHoP Architects. The images below are renderings for a new arena in New York City on Atlantic and Flatbrush Avenues. There are many flaws to be contested in the images. The biggest question, though, is that of why 50% of the rendering is actually fast paced traffic. In actuality, the traffic on these avenues would be at a stand still. And how about when there are events going on in the arena? Would the traffic really be moving in such a fashion? The flow of traffic is even represented with a similar color scheme as the arena is represented, which is untrue as the two are separate entities. Furthermore, the rendering completely negates the fact that the project plans to shut down Fifth Avenue during events as well (Noticing New York.)

Rendering by SHoP Architects.­­­

Rendering with true traffic.


The other large deceptive element in this rendering is the use of light. The arena is lit up so brilliantly and colorfully as are the cars moving by (only on Atlantic and Flatbrush Avenues.) The rest of the city is completely ignored and greyed out. There are no lights, no activity, its as if the whole city has turned their lights out just for the arena. Were this to be accurately represented, the lights from the surrounding context would make an overall affect on the aesthetic of the arena and communicate its relationship better with its context. It may even make the building pop more (Noticing New York.)

These may seem like harsh criticisms of architectural rendering, but with the advancement in technologies it is only getting easier to trick our clients into believing in a false reality. It’s not that architects want to be deceptive, but rather that they want to illustrate to clients what they see. Sometimes this can be taken too literally by clients, and in return they may feel deceived when the finished project is done.

The irony of this debate is that the realism of a rendering depends on that context in which it is presented. For instance, in competitions where firms are competing amongst each other, architects must design quickly and inspire their clients. In this case the presentation of their project may more appropriately be fantastical and surreal. However, when you have a project and a client the final presentation of renderings should be as accurate as the architect can make them. What falls in between these two end points on the spectrum of reality is ultimately up to the architect and the firm, most having a particular style of representation. As the profession moves forward architects need to find a better way to bridge the gap between artistic representations and built reality.


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Asanowicz, Alexander. “Computer Renderings- “Reality Is Overrated”” Web. 17 Mar. 2015.

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Hopper, Tristan. “Architectural Illustrators Use Toolbox of Tricks to ‘manipulate’ the Way We Look at Buildings.” National Post Architectural Illustrators Use Toolbox of Tricks to Manipulate the Way We Look Atbuildings Comments. 9 Nov. 2012. Web. 8 Feb. 2015. <>.

McGuigan, Cathleen. “Picture Perfect.”Picture Perfect. Web. 8 Feb. 2015.

“Noticing New York: The Surrounding Light Smears Ratner’s Atlantic Yards Arena.” Noticing New York: The Surrounding Light Smears Ratner’s Atlantic Yards Arena. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.

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Quirk, Vanessa. “Rendering / CLOG.”ArchDaily. 21 Dec. 2012. Web. 8 Feb. 2015. <>.

Shkineva, Natalija. “Computer Graphics as a Method of Self-Deception.” Web. 17 Mar. 2015.

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