The montaged few: Owen Hatherley on the representation of people and place in the CGI building render

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David Holt, Royal Arsenal Riverside, flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Search for Woolwich Arsenal on a photographic database, or more easily on Google Images, and there are two kinds of images you might find.One of them will largely consist of photographs of industry, and the people working it – glimpses of a riverside munitions complex that once stretched across much of the south-eastern edges of London, grimy, dated and worn, images of what was for its time very high technology, now devolved into nostalgia or antiquarianism. The other images you might find show several of the same buildings, but everything else is different – shiny, optimistic, seductive; the perfect mix of modernity and heritage. Visit the place, or more specifically the gastropub at its heart, and you can find the photographs of the former Arsenal as ornaments in the new, stockbroker-oriented spaces of Royal Arsenal Riverside, as it is known. That’s all standard, by now, familiar juxtapositions created by the transfer of so many inner urban spaces from production to consumption. The alienation affect there is stranger, though. Enjoying a quiet drink once in these salubrious surroundings, a friend looked around and whispered ‘my God – these look like the people on the renders’.

“For that brief moment, we were participating in the production of that image – the space and the CGI had converged.”

No offence intended to the burghers of Royal Arsenal Riverside, but mostly London does not look like this. In most views you will see the elderly, the poor, the physically ungainly, or even people wearing unusual clothes; in short, people who do not seem to have recently changed into shabby-chic civvies after a hard day at the office. Looking round here, though, all of the above were as if magically disappeared, leaving only these people aged 25-35, with jobs, with disposable income (but not too much – their bosses at KPMG et al surely prefer Mayfair), with new flats (usually smaller and more cheaply-made than the average council-built flat for an Arsenal worker in the 1950s), and with very nice skin. Because of the unusually good weather, people were sitting outside, sitting on the grass, generally milling around and using the pseudo-public space in exactly the same way as ‘they’ do in computer-generated renders, those images that are used to promote every urban regeneration project, every new piece of architecture, every speculation on urban space. For that brief moment, we were participating in the production of that image – the space and the CGI had converged.

The semi-photographic renders that are so dominant today are not usually treated as high art, or really as art at all. They are not exhibited, and they are seldom published in their own right. Perhaps this is because they are too new to be treated in this manner; none of them have achieved any sense of age, history or temporal specificity, which is extremely unusual in such a retro-driven period as ours. In that, they are one of the very few genuine artefacts of the present, speaking vividly of a particular neoliberal ideal. They are not, strictly speaking, ‘photographs’, yet the works I will be referring to here are not quite the same as the common-or-garden renders that architects often knock up, which show a building and some silhouetted peoploids, thin outlines which are much more clearly just an extension of the familiar genre of architectural drawing. Rather, these include defined people, recognisable spaces, and are intended to give the illusion – to a degree – of actual space, depth and presence, just as much as the blue-screen world of CGI in action films markets itself on a weightless ‘realness’ away from the visible, uncanny clunk of stop-motion animation, or the physically perceptible artifice of puppetry. This genre is photographic, at least in a sense.

It is an outgrowth of photomontage, albeit a seamless new spin on it. Photomontage has been used in architecture for some considerable time; like so many aspects of architectural modernism, it derives itself from the central-east European avant-garde of the 1920s, when the likes of Mies van der Rohe or El Lissitsky, intimates of the Dadaists, adopted their practice of cutting and pasting by sticking drawings or paintings or models of their new buildings into photographs of existing cityscapes, enjoying the resultant combination of jarring and realistic. This is later used extensively in the 1960s, with a similar intent, to show the fantastic in various forms entering everyday life. In all of these cases a contrast is elicited, a tension, an uneasiness that comes from the fact that an ‘alien’ object has been forcibly inserted into a photograph of a real, mundane place; it is an act of montage in the fullest sense. In the quasi-photomontages of contemporary digital architecture, it has become something quite different, a self-sufficient artform that is often not even produced in-house by firms or developers themselves, but outsourced to companies that specialise in it.

“look into the distance and you find the three figures from Millet’s The Gleaners photoshopped in among the usual loft-living types – but you’d have to look closely to spot these working peasants slyly inserted into high-end 21st century leisure.”

The nearest thing to a book solely of these CGI photomontages-renders is Unbuilt Masterworks of the 21st Century, compiled by architectural journalist Will Jones. It’s limited by one very useful criterion – none of the buildings in the book have been or are going to be constructed. They must all have been cancelled, lost competitions, or remained purely speculative. That means that the buildings therein will never end up looking crap; their concrete will not spall, their cladding will not fall off, they will not be neighboured by ungainly blocks of luxury flats. The cover image is typical, showing the Cuidad del Motor, ‘designed to be the centrepiece of a world-class location for racing development in Alcaniz, Spain’, by architects UN Studio. Bulging, twisting ‘parametric’ forms of uncertain material provenance sweep across each other under a sky whose blueness is broken only by a lone helicopter. Visitors to the structure walk across some curiously immaterial asphalt and do the usual things. One is carrying a shopping bag, two people are unfurling a flag to cheer on the racing drivers therein, there are couples in each others’ arms, and the usual impression of a cheerful multiracial crowd where nobody is over 35 and everybody is fit and shiny. In the foreground, a boy is being given a piggy-back and points towards UN Studio’s building – his finger almost accidentally pointing to a woman in the background who appears to be walking on a catwalk. It seems likely that these are living models or actors that have been photoshopped in; people have been gesturing, Littlewoods-catalogue-style, in front of blue screens so that they could eventually end up here.

It’s farcical, maybe, in its blank conformity, but it matches the building perfectly. Modern, optimistic, computerised, blank, banal. Occasionally, the creators of the renders decide to have a little fun with the genre, as in the images of Arup’s Battersea West Hotel, one of the many, many unbuilt projects for the site of Battersea Power Station. On the partly-burnt (in London!) green and yellow grass of a high-line style walkway, the figures sitting, eating or talking on their mobile are made more intangible, more ethereal; look into the distance and you find the three figures from Millet’s The Gleaners photoshopped in among the usual loft-living types – but you’d have to look closely to spot these working peasants slyly inserted into high-end 21st century leisure.

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litherland, Detail of rendering by Zaha Hadid Architects output onto polypropylene mesh, flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

The role of people is one thing, but what of urban space itself? Renderers that can be scrupulous about their latte-drinking montaged New People often still leave the built surroundings of a putative structure empty, or in silhouette, something especially and tellingly prevalent in the work of Zaha Hadid (represented best here in their ‘New York 2012 Olympic Village’, where the actual New York skyline is merely ZHA’s sketchup backdrop). Elsewhere, ‘places’ are included more clearly. Here, for once, an effect of disjunction is produced, largely because, like any advertiser, architects need to differentiate the product being sold. In the rendered skylines, the new skyscrapers gleam in a different way to the old, even though they’re both equally computer-generated. In digital architecture, the result often transfers into actual completed buildings; so uninterested are they in such prosaic IRL matters as materials or any kind of haptic physicality, speculative structures can feel like computer renders even when built, as if to mirror the fictitious capital that got them built.

These examples can be treated indulgently because of their status as permanent dreams, structures that will never actually exist. But their more banal form can be found everywhere. Visit the website of Rogers Stirk Harbour, for instance, and you can find all these motifs used in buildings that have been or are being built. In their renders of Riverlight, a generic Thameside luxury flat complex, you can find the same unnervingly apocalyptic skies, the same sense of intangibility and placelessness, but the fact it inhabits a real space means that controversies can’t be entirely sidestepped. The development sits in front of, and has been accused of trying to hound out, a group of small houseboats being let out cheaply. In the renders, they play a game of now you see them, now you don’t, the architects (or the developers) evidently uncertain of whether the really existing Thames is a picturesque selling-point or something to be ruthlessly photoshopped out. It is a mistake, though, to contrast these montages too much with an alternative actuality. Like property speculation itself, they help create a very real space, one which is advancing ruthlessly across the capital; one which the lucky few can fit themselves into. 

Owen Hatherley is the author of among others A New Kind of Bleak – Journeys through Urban Britain (Verso, 2012) and an e-book, Across the Plaza (Strelka, 2012).

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