The illusion and the reality: Drawing in architecture design

The history of architectural representation

Before the Italian Renaissance, the drawings in architecture were limited in 2D, and the drawings are nothing but tokens of three-dimensional objects. The perspective drawings were invented during the Italian Renaissance. The real world was able to be represented in a world of drawings. The drawings can be truthful representation of the real world. The architectural drawings become more representative of the real architecture. Due to the development of drawings, the architects’ status of working had changed. Architects become intellectual doing drawing rather than a group of craftsmen working on the construction site in the past. The drawings become a new mean of representation of architecture. Although there comes two kinds of trend in the architectural drawing: one indicates that drawing is an artistic activity distant from the material building, another one request the drawing to be the truthful representation of the building. (Jonathan 2006)

The ways of expressing ideas in architecture

Building is the oldest way of practice architecture. Architects express their ideas during building. After the first book about architecture: Ten Books on Architecture, architects begin to write about architecture, to summarise and express their ideas in the books. Drawing explored the ideas before it’s able to be built. Together, building, writing and drawing are used by architects to explore their ideas. Then there comes a question: how do we define a good architect? Generally, we call those who build good buildings good architects. Architects who write well are called good writers. There are also lots of architects who do excellent drawings, but can’t manage to build it. In the school of architecture, we can only practice our drawing and writing, the building is seldom practiced during our study of architecture, it would only practiced a lot once we had graduated and go to work. Together or independently, building, writing and drawing are good ways of practicing architecture. Very Little architects but the best ones do well in all building, writing and drawing as well.

Computer Aided Design

In the 20th century, after the emerge of computer, computer aided design was introduced into architecture practice. With the help of computers, the light, shape and texture of the building is able to be truthfully represented in the drawings. The drawings did by computer can be so realistic, that it is very close to the building that is going to be built. But the computer also provided architects the ability to do very unrealistic and beautified drawings. With little connection to the real environment, the drawings and renderings did by architects can be so different from the actual building in the future. The surrounding, texture, shape and climate could be so different from the reality in a computer aided rendering. Like the two trend after the invention of the perspective drawings, the computer aided drawing is leaded into two trends. One tried to represent the environment and building in a realistic way, another tried to push it into a surreal way of representing architecture. According to Bryan Lawson’s point of view, there are four roles of computer in design office (Lawson 1981): “Management Role, Information Processing Role, Solution Evaluation Role and the Solution Generation Role. In the Management Role, the designer just using computer to run his business, like sending e-mails and managing timetables. In the Information Processing Role, computers are used to produce drawings and design drawings. In the Solution Evaluation Role, the computer is used to model a proposal for the design, and help to evaluate the design. It is the stage when computer really have influence on the way how designers think. When we come to the final part of the Solution Generation Role, the computer is used to suggest part or all of a solution to the design.” The use of computer in architecture design provided both a new way of designing and a new way of drawing.

Renderings act as a communication tool between different characters in the design process

In today’s design process of architecture, the 3 dimensional drawing is so important that it becomes a communication tool between the architects and others involved in the building industry. As the buildings today are becoming very complicated, the 2 dimensional drawings of buildings are too difficult to be understood by the unprofessional. 2 dimensional drawings are used more often in the communication among professionals, such as architects, engineers and builders. It is used to guide the builders to build the building in an accurate way. But during the communication between professionals and unprofessional, the 3 dimensional drawings are used more often. 3 dimensional drawings are showed to the client public during the design process to collect opinions. Architects change the design according to the client’s feedback, and then new drawings are done. This process of changing design will be stopped once the architects had satisfied all the demand of the client. After this, the drawings are sent to the government to gain the permission of construction. The renderings are also displayed to the public to gain feedback. In the city council’s website, drawings of the new important development in the city are showed to the public. The influence of the project on the city’s appearance is considered and discussed by the government and the people. The 3 dimensional renderings are becoming the key component in the design process. As the most visualized drawings in the architectural drawings, it is also used in advertisement of the building. The seductive image is used to attract investors and consumers in the development of real estate companies. In interior design, the renderings are also showed in the construction site to guide the constructing. Give the workers a sense of the final appearance of the project and a sense of the colour and texture of the project, as the interior construction is more relied to the detail and appearance, the success of the project is more relied to the visualized part of the project.

The reason that why we do computer renderings

The original purpose for the invention of the perspective drawing technique and the computer aided renderings are very simple, that is to get the design more visualized, to predict the future appearance of the building. But there is a trend that the drawings are so unrealistic, it is out of the reality. In the image, the sky is always blue, the trees are always green, the landscape is beautiful no matter how awful it is in the real site, the building is beautified that it is fat from the real appearance in the future. For commercial reason, the images showed to the client and public are often highly beautified and seductive, in order to persuade them to accept the design.

The reason why we do computer renderings for the real project is to visualize the design, to provide a direct impression to the unprofessional. Not to beautify the scene, and hide the problem in the design. The problem should emerge from the drawings, so we can polish the design. The current situation of the architecture design industry is that all the drawings are so beautiful and unrealistic. It makes us believe that there is no problem or inappropriate in the design. Beautiful drawings are showed in the design competition, in the meetings with public, in the advertisement. The role of computer drawing changed from assistance of design to assistance of drawings.

The Thesis Project:


The project originated by the concern of the renderings and computer aided design that mentioned above. The St Paul’s Tower and Park Hill are chosen to be the sample of research into the topic, as the former is the highest building in Sheffield, and the latter is the largest building in Sheffield, they are typical as example of research. By analysing these two projects, labelling the differences between the renderings and the actual building, I summarized my own guideline of doing unrealistic renderings. After finished the guideline, I tried to draw the different world of renderings and reality, testing the guideline in a panorama from St Paul’s Tower to Park Hill.

Analysis of Two Projects

According to the concern of these topics mentioned before, I chose two ongoing projects in Sheffield as my sample of research: The St Paul’s Tower and the Park Hill. Located in the city centre, the St Paul’s Tower is designed to be the highest building in the future. Developed by the City Loft Group, designed by the Conran & Partners, the Tower is a modern looking 32 storey building. Expected to be complete in 2008, but after the financial crisis, the developer City Loft Group had gone into administration. The construction had stopped for a while. The Sheffield residential property market has been severely hit, so the developer decided to reduce the cost of construction. An already fitted cladding was replaced by a cheaper one; the spire was removed to reduce the cost. But the change of these components had affected the appearance of building. It is far from the original modern and elegant design. The renderings of the design had changed too. But the public refuse to accept the changes as it may affect the appearance of the city as it will be the highest building in the town. A debate of the changes to the design was carried out by the public and city council. Finally, the city council persuade the developer to reuse the original cladding, but with some changes to it. The renderings had changed two times during the whole process, the changes of the developer’s financial circumstance and the demand of the public was displayed in the renderings. The developer, the design practice, the public and the city council were all involved into the process of design and change. Renderings were used as a key tool of communication in the whole process.

Listed as a Grade 2 building, the Park Hill Estate is the largest listed building in Europe. Designed by two young modernists, built between 1957 and 1961, the estate is very successful at the beginning of its usage. Although initially popular and successful, over time the fabric of the building has decayed somewhat and some other disadvantages of the estate, such as poor noise insulation and easy getaway routes for muggers, have become apparent. It became so unpopular that the council have had difficulty finding tenants for the flats. The estate is located on the hill beside the Sheffield’s railway station, it had become the first impression of the city to travellers come to Sheffield. The large scale structure became a disused and ugly monster in the city. Now a part-privatisation scheme by the developer Urban Splash to turn the flats into upmarket apartments is under way. Part of estate had been cleaned; the interior wall had been demolished, waiting replacement. Because the estate is listed as Grade 2, the main structure of the building must be preserved. The structure will be maintained and painted with a protective coating. The renderings of the renewed estate outlined a beautiful picture of future for us. With a new facade that had more glazing and less wall, the unpopular building become a brand new modern apartment. The disordered and deserted district becomes a nice and well planted place.

Labelling the Differences between the Drawings and Reality

During the survey of the two projects, I tried to find the view point of the rendering, to get a closest view to the renderings. After finding the view point, I captured photos of four different times during the day. Pick out the picture that got the closest effect like the rendering as my sample. Then compare with the renderings. After doing this, I find it is impossible for all the two projects to get the same view point as the renderings. For the St Paul’s Tower, the view point of the rendering is a little higher than a people’s view level. And your view of the tower will be severely blocked by other buildings. So I moved to a point that is closest to that point, and captured my sample photos. The photo that is taken at midday got the closest appearance to the rendering. So the photo of midday becomes my sample that will be compared to the rendering. For the Park Hill, the view point of the rendering is much higher from a man’s view level, and it is much further to the site than the furthest point that I can get. In fact, the view point of the rendering is located in the air beyond the railway that is about 5 meters lower than the ground of the site. So the point where I took my photos is much different from the renderings. Among the four photos that I took, the one of dawn is the closest one to the rendering. So the photo of dawn becomes my sample that will be compared to the rendering.

In the comparison of the St Paul’s Tower’s case, the view of the tower is blocked by two buildings. But in the renderings, the building on the right and the car park next to the tower are ignored. The lower tower can be seen in the renderings, but it can’t be seen in the reality, because it is blocked by the car park. The spire of the tower in the rendering is removed to reduce the cost of construction. The stair tower is changed from the original design of the rendering. It had less glazing and more concrete. In the rendering, there are little plants around the building. The windows of the building in the rendering are different from the ones that are actually used in the construction. The windows in first edition of the rendering are fitted windows that cannot be opened. But the windows used in the facade of the building can be opened. In the second edition of the rendering, the windows can be partly opened. The final edition of the rendering, the windows can be fully opened. The location of the signpost and traffic lights in the renderings is different to the reality too. The road in front of the tower had a little slope, but the road in the rendering is flat.

In the comparison of the Park Hill’s case, the view of the building is very different from the rendering. The chimney in front of the building is higher than the building, but it is lower than the building in the rendering. The texture of the rough concrete is much smoother in the rendering, as the colour is reflected to blue by the dark sunlight of the dawn. The concrete seems much softer than the actual situation. But in the photo that I took, the colour of the concrete is yellow. And it is much rougher than the effect in the rendering. The new entrance of the estate in the rendering, a tunnel at the corner had not been cut out. There are lots of plants and trees in the rendering, that the community seems very nice and comfortable. In the image that the developer showed to us, a hilly road curved under the shelter of large trees. In the site, I found there are very little trees and the road is very straight and flat. Behind the building and the scene of the drawing, there has a hilly landscape with lots of nature elements, the houses in the picture is low and small. But in the reality, behind the building, lots of houses piled up high at the background. A white multiple-story apartment breaks the peaceful picture. Due to the block of the houses and the apartment, the hill in the distance cannot be seen in the real view point.

Guideline of Doing Unrealistic Renderings

After the analysis of the two projects, the labelling of the differences between the drawings and reality, I found some common methodology of doing unrealistic renderings. To summarise these methods, I made a guideline of doing unrealistic renderings.

The purpose of doing unrealistic renderings is to get the most beautiful image of the design. No matter it is realistic or fake. The two key point of doing this is: Hide the weak point, Exaggerate the good point. The method to achieve these two points is to: Simplify the scene, Beautify the scene, Get the best effect of the scene and get the best view of the scene. The specific tricks of simplify the scene include: Remove Barriers, in the example of St Paul’s Tower, the building around the tower is removed from the image. Few people if needed, the drawings and photos did by architects always have few people or no people in the scene, to promote the building as the main character in the image. Weaken the Unwanted Objects, similar to the previous trick, ugly objects in the scene are removed to emphasise the building itself. Unrealistic Landscape, the landscape in the renderings is always identical, mostly with trees at the front, low rise building at the middle and hazy hills at the background. Lots of Plants & Trees, plants and trees that do not exist on the site are bring into the scene to make a fine environment for the buildings. Blue Sky, the sky in the drawings by architects is mostly blue, with little cloud in the air, no matter actually the sunny day of the site is very limited, rainy and cloudy weather is the common situation there. Plane & Balloon, to make the sky in the image more interesting, planes and other aircraft are added to the scene. Absolute Tidy, in the world of architectural drawings, everything is so tidy that a messy community is represented as brand new. Perfect Sunlight, as the blue sky, the sunlight in the drawings is smooth and warm all the time. Add Artificial Light, artificial light will be added to the unclear part of the image to get a clear view of that part. Special elements in the scene that need emphasis will be added with more light. Unrealistic Texture, in the example of Park Hill, the rough exposed concrete on the wall is transformed to a smooth texture that does not look like concrete anymore, and it is blue in the renderings, not light brown as in the reality. Best Glazing Effect, the glazing of the building is emphasised, and got the best reflective effect that is able to reflect the building on the other side of the street. Transparent Air, the air in the renderings is totally transparent, so the scene can be seen clearly. Impossible view point, in the example of both St Paul’s Tower and Park Hill, the view point of the rendering is impossible to achieve from a man’s point of view. In the world of drawings and renderings, it is like a convention that not using man’s view point, by doing so, the building seems taller or looks better. Perfect Weather, no matter where the project is located, the weather in the renderings is always sunny and clear, the rendering in rainy Britain is just the same as the rendering in dry United Arab Emirates. Best Time of the Day, the best time for the expression of the project is chosen to get the best effect of the project. For the St Paul’s Tower, the best time is midday, for the Park Hill, the best time for it is dawn. Exaggerate Special Opponent, important opponent in the building or the best looking opponents will be exaggerated in the rendering, unusual field of view is used to get a dramatic view, highlight is used to emphasis the opponent that needs to be exaggerated. By these tricks and methods, the scene of the project will be highly polished and beautified, had an effect that is far from the real appearance in the future.

Testing the Guideline

To test the guideline, a draft drawing was drawn first, showing the different world of the reality and the architectural drawing. The draft drawing consisted two sections of the city, from St Paul’s Tower to Park Hill. The section above is supposed to show the world of reality. The one below is supposed to represent the world of the architect’s drawing. The purpose of the drawing is to show the difference of these two worlds in a conceptual way. The sky above is the typical sky of Sheffield, cloudy and gloomy. The sky below is a sunny sky with beautiful sunshine and little cloud, balloons and aircrafts flying in the air. Buildings in the imagined world is more simplified than the world below, unnecessary components and buildings are removed in the imagined world, to emphasis the primary character and shape of the main buildings. Barriers are removed from the scene. There are more trees and plants in the imagined world of architectural drawings. The section above is supposed to be in an autumn afternoon, but in the world below, it’s perfect summer midday. The world above had an urban landscape of Sheffield, had church towers and the Sheffield wheel at the background. In the world below, the landscape of the image is a typical nature landscape of Sheffield with hills, trees and low-rise houses. The difference of the two drawings is so dramatic that it seems it’s not in a same city. The drawing is supposed to show the big gaps between the real world and the imagined world.

Then I tested the guideline a little further. Taken a series of photos from the hill of Park Hill, I combined them into a panorama. It had an overview of the city. Like the conceptual draft drawing that I did before, I tried to apply the guideline into this panorama. By using the methods and tricks that I summarized in the guideline, I tried to change the real panorama into a perfect edition. The result is so dramatic that the two panoramas are so different and diverse. The guideline of doing unrealistic drawings is proved to be effective.

The Conclusion
After doing the thesis project, I had a deeper understanding of the common methods and tricks that are used in architecture representation. By researching into examples, and labelling the differences, I summarized my own guideline of doing unrealistic renderings. The guideline is tested in one conceptual drawing and a real panorama. And it is proved to be effective and typical.

No doubt that there are big gaps there between the drawings and reality, between the imagined world and the real world. The renderings are so unrealistic because of commercial reasons, because of the self-conceit of architects. In the drawings, the unperfected reality is ignored in some extent by the architects. Believed that the problems in reality will be automatically solved as in their imagined world, the architects tried to persuade others to believe it too, by showing them the beautiful renderings and drawings. The self-conceit of architects lead to lots of tragedy, the well-designed, claimed to be sustainable modern building, sometimes costs more energy than a old building which is built in a time, when sustainable is not a buzzword. As a key tool of communication in the design process, that can get people into participation, the rendering is so unrealistic and fake sometime, that it lose the value of reference. In my opinion, the drawings for a real project need to be realistic and serious. So they will have some contribution to the project. But in the case of imagined project and conceptual design, the drawings could be more unrealistic and beautified, because the fantasy of the future and the imagined world needs to exceed the limit of the reality. It is better to imagine a beautiful world rather than a dry future, as all man had a desire for a wonderful world. The two worlds of illusion and reality live together. The illusion may become the reality of the future. There is no right or wrong to do a realistic or unrealistic drawing, but we must know when to do the right choices.

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