As part of the diverCity project I wrote a paper backing up the concept and presenting the topic through a number of different lenses. You can read it about the neoliberal city, the hyperrealism as well as the aestheticisation of urban lansdscape and its repercussions below.
It is also important to realise that the architectural renderings carry a certain ideological contradiction. While their aim is to promote a “place for the individual’s production of space”, the aim itself is achieved by a scrupulous “manipulation of meanings and perception in order to suggest specific prearranged ensembles of people and social goods”
VISUALISED ARCHITECTURE – A FEW THOUGHTS ON MODERN URBANISM
diverCity Matchmaking started off as a theoretical statement assuming, that the computer generated architectural visualisations – in attempt to promise a place – in reality promote a non-place.
This hypothesis based on the theory of Marc Augé quickly led to the exploration of various forces and processes involved in shaping the cityscape. It became vital to the project to be able to understand the relationship between investors, developers, urban planning authority, architects and 3D visualisers and the influence they have on each another in the process of creating architectural visualisations.
From a graphic design perspective, the ever-changing visual language of the city is a source of never-ending inspirations, but without having any training in architecture, it was quite difficult to understand what a good or bad visualisation is. After interviewing various groups and individuals including architecture students, practitioners working for well-known firms, freelancers etc., sketching out the design direction turned out to be very instinctive. Their diverse insights and encouragement worked as a motivation to overcome personal reservations and ground the project as a design critique.
One of the most important insights was the realisation that the computer generated ‘upgrade’ of the property attractiveness is a result of both: the actual imagery (e.g. elevation finishes, perspective, atmosphere, inhabitation) and the marketing language (wording) used in the advertising (e.g. Quintessentially Urban, Superior Specification, More Than Just Home).
The combination of both tends to portray the developments as strictly luxurious commodities making the architecture seem very exclusive and aspirational. diverCity aims to challenge that practice by drawing the problem to the attention of architects and to empower them to counteract.
The project has been selected and highlighted the London Festival of Architecture in June. It wouldn’t be possible without the skills and commitment of every single collaborator who supported and contributed to the development of the project.
A capitalist society ought to produce surplus product to create surplus value, which is then reinvested to generate more value (Harvey 2008). In economic terms, cities concentrate a surplus product (2008) and the modern urbanisation is a result of the development of capitalism, which “from the definition can never achieve equilibrium between production and consumption” (Kaminer et al. 2010).
Consequently, in the last 30 years the intensifying forces of globalisation and privatisation have turned the cities into neoliberal enclaves. In terms of property development these forces empowered those with the financial resources (developers and investors) to take over the property sector almost uncontrollably, creating even bigger gap between the wealthy and the less-privileged. The new developments “become things that are created primarily to be bought and sold in the market place” (Schneider et al. 2011). Their task is to make money for those investing in it (land owners, developers, banks). Built environment turned into commodity and it started to be advertised as one.
It’s an important insight for the project as it allows to demonstrate that the London’s socio-political diversity can be easily disregarded when it comes to place-marketing.
It is also important to realise that the architectural renderings carry a certain ideological contradiction. While their aim is to promote a “place for the individual’s production of space”, the aim itself is achieved by a scrupulous “manipulation of meanings and perception in order to suggest specific prearranged ensembles of people and social goods” (Berking et al. 2006).
CITY AS AN ASSET
Place-marketing is a combination of both: the actual computer generated imagery and the branding of the place including marketing jargon. The renderings are in the heart of ‘urban marketing’ – mainly because they transform the city into a seductive asset attracting human and financial capital.
Place-marketing becomes difficult in a globalised world, with communications technologies making the functional differences between places less important, while reducing the “quality of authentic places” to simple location factors (Hassenpflug in Berking et al. 2006), so greater effort is spent on differentiating them by increasing their symbolic value (Berking et al. 2006).
Place-marketing is closely linked to the economical speculation, hence developers often use ‘proven’ advertising techniques that worked somewhere else to try to limit the risk of their investment. Consequently, what diverCity is attempting to expose is that uniformity in the repetitive language and imagery of the architectural visualisations.
WHO IS THE AUDIENCE?
The luxury property visualisations are designed to appeal to the investors who are often based overseas (China, HK, Malaysia) (Wainwright 2017). The choice of imagery is a result of the investor’s or buyer’s own preconception e.g. “east-Asian clients are buying a piece of England which – for them – means blond-haired, blue-eyed Burberry models” (Wainwright 2017).
For an average Londoner, the ad of a luxury development in the Homes and Property supplement is nothing more than just an attempt to convince him that the city he lives in will benefit from it. On a personal level, he knows he cannot afford it, but he will somehow gain from it. The role of the visualisation is merely symbolic (Tripodi 2008).
The project aims to challenge the idea that the urban planning should be based on the perception and appearance of the city. Additionally, the investment context was important to the research as it enabled an understanding of the hierarchy – when it comes to property development – and the audience of the project.
The city historically has been the melting-pot of races, people and cultures (…) It has not only tolerated but rewarded individual differences. It has brought together people from the ends of the earth because they are different and thus useful to one another, rather than because they are homogeneous and like-minded (Tonkiss 2006).
As Tonkiss also states ‘a mixture of uses implies a mixture of people’ (2006). She suggests that the diversity shouldn’t be only understood as a cultural feature, but also as a functional, where people of various material status and background, occupying diverse buildings are a part of the city.
Consequently, diverCity argues that it’s rather a mixture of people that implies a mixture of uses. Unfortunately, in modern urban planning the mixture of uses only applies to ‘live/work spaces’ (Tonkiss 2006).
In the visualisations, the diversity is often reduced to an aesthetic sense. The socio-political context of the rendered place is disregarded and substituted by homogeneous enclaves – “cafe-lined streets inhabited by an almost entirely monocultural society of white thirtysomething” (Wainwright 2017). Consequently, diverCity is trying to bring attention to the fundamental value of heterogeneity that should characterise a modern city.
For an average Londoner, a £2m “boutique apartment” is unattainable. But the role of the visualisation as a marketing tool is also to present the development as an aspiration – “atmospheric images evoking a ‘dream world’” (Rose 2013). People do like to indulge in an eye-candy and the more realistic the vision the more convincing the scenario is.
Our senses are stimulated by the use of atmospheric lighting, perspective adding dynamism, nuances and details as well as idyllic scenes depicting families walking happily on an evergreen grass, children playing with balloons and women in high-heels having brunch. Adding people to the visualisations aims to legitimise the scene and emphasise the reality effect.
The hyperreal renderings often tend to distract their audience from the underworked elements and certain misrepresentations. What is more important and what diverCity is attempting to stress – as an audience – we should be more critical towards those visions.
There’s no supply without demand and what the audience buys into are the extremely exclusive standardised lifestyle templates and meaning of success that is synonymous to gentrification. Therefore, people tend to ‘associate architecture with luxury and exclusivity, instead of everyday social and public issues’ (Minkjan 2016).
New home construction in the last 18months went up by over 40% – right now there are 19,000 units being built in 30 inner London postcodes (Evans 2017).
A considerable percentage of those developments are advertised as luxury properties, especially in Tuesday’s Metro and Wednesday’s Evening Standard home supplements, hoardings and tube ads. Most of the visuals follow a strict set of guidelines set by the planning authority (e.g. verified views) which e.g. influence the angle at which the property is shown.
To set the scene – the elements such as people, greenery, cars and signage are brought together. These are “carefully selected, then cut-and-pasted like a montage from a variety of different sources” (Rose 2013), showing the intended uses of the future space. Unfortunately, the process of using template elements leads to the homogenisation of the visualisations, as well as to the manipulation of social contexts by creating new configurations (Houdart 2008).
It’s been argued that the role of urbanists and architects has been reduced to a ‘form of city-branding, addressing the packaging of buildings and cities rather than their social content” (Kaminer et al. 2010).
It is an important observation considering that this stage of a rendering design is almost entirely in the hands of the architects. diverCity explores that insight and takes a critical stance by putting the architects (audience) in a spotlight making them question their own responsibility.
RIGHT TO THE CITY
As discussed earlier the neoliberal policies tend to reduce the control of city inhabitants over their own future (Purcell 2002). Following Lefebvre, although diverCity doesn’t aim to radically “restructure the power relations” responsible for urban space production (Purcell 2002) it offers a platform inviting alternative strategies resisting the globalising forces and seeks to empower the audience.
“Empowerment is thus not about the transfer of decision-making power from ‘influential’ sectors to those previously disadvantaged or ‘other’ sections of society, but about these ‘others’ taking control and initiating different or ‘alternative’ spatial processes.” (Schneider et al. 2011).
The project in a broader sense is about redefining what modern urbanism is and finding out whether the current state of affairs is just “the result of pessimism regarding the human subject’s prowess or an acceptance of market dictates” (Kaminer et al. 2010).
Urban planning is based on strategic foresight (which includes visualisations). Nowadays the visualisations “serve as fantasies of urbanisation rather than true reflection of the urban condition” (Quirk, 2013) – so what if the change starts from the way we visualise our city?
Evans, J. (2017) “Prime London Sees 40% Rise In New Housebuilding”. Financial Times 2016.
Harvey, D. (2008) “The right to the city”. New Left Review.
Houdart, S. (2008) Copying, Cutting And Pasting Social Spheres: Computer Designers’ Participation In Architectural Projects.
Kaminer, T., Robles-Dran, M., and Sohn, H. (2011) Urban Asymetries. 1st ed. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers.
Minkjan, M. (2016) “What This MVRDV Rendering Says About Architecture And The Media”. Failed Architecture 12 Oct 2016.
Purcell, M. (2002) “Excavating Lefebvre: The right to the city and its urban politics of the inhabitant”. GeoJournal, special issue: Social Transformation, Citizenship, and the Right to the City. Springer.
Quirk, V. (2016) “Are Renderings Bad For Architecture?”. ArchDaily 30 Nov 2013.
Rose, G. (2016) Visualising Atmosphere: Digital Placemaking In The 21St Century. The Building Centre, 2013.
Schneider, T., Till, J. (2011) Spatial Agency. 1st ed. Abingdon, England: Routledge.
Stoetzer, S., Steets, S., Meier, L., Low, M., Frers, L., Frank, S. and Berking, H. (2006) Negotiating Urban Conflicts. Interaction, Space And Control. Bielefeld: Transcript.
Tonkiss, F. (2006) Space, The City And Social Theory: Social Relations And Urban Forms. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Tripodi, L. (2008) Space Of Exposure: Notes For A Vertical Urbanism. Bauhaus University.
Wainwright, O. (2017) “The Property Billboards That Reveal The Truth About Britain’s Luxury Housing Market”. The Guardian 6 Apr 2017.