Architectural Visualisation: A Conflict with Reality?

As an architecture student at Edinburgh College of Art, my daily pilgrimage to the studio takes me across the Meadows and every day I witness my windswept, sleep deprived face staring blearily back at me from the spotless, sleek glass boxes of Foster+Partner’s Quartermile development.

A huge regeneration project almost 20 years in the making, Quartermile has established a dominant architectural presence for itself in the south side of the city centre and provides luxury apartments and corporate office space in the grounds of the former Royal Infirmary. Shadowy glass forms now line the north edge of the park, redefining the Edinburgh skyline from many viewpoints within the city and introducing a refreshing slice of unashamedly modern architecture into a context of ‘softly-softly’ urban development.

The project has earned Foster+Partners a shower of accolades from a variety of sources and has undoubtedly revived an area whose city centre location was being wasted; I have no intention of discussing the merits or flaws of the design,and my observations here have no reflection whatsoever on the success of the project. Rather, as somebody with an interest in architecture who passes through Quartermile on a regular basis, I am struck by the contrast between the imagery used to promote the development and the reality one finds there today.

A quick Google of ‘Quartermile Edinburgh’ reveals a goldmine of stock photos and concept sketches that illustrate this point. We see the sparkling new apartments against a backdrop of a suspiciously clear blue sky, with groups of young people gathered in the communal gardens enjoying picnics and reading novels in the shade (and not a can of Tennents in sight). A view of the development from Middle Meadow Walk depicts joggers and dog walkers passing by coffee shops full of young professionals and smiling elderly couples in the dappled sunlight; the polished world in which this image originates is apparently one where the less fortunate in society no longer need to take to the street to pay for a bed for the night, and where the dreaded skateboard has been banished from the public realm. Even the surrounding architecture has been adapted; it is very hard to find any promotional image that includes the concrete bulk of the Lauriston Place hospital building that lurks directly behind Quartermile.

Look how happy everyone looks in this bustling render. The reality? A cold, underused square surrounded by empty units. Lovely. © Foster & Partners

These are not criticisms of the architecture of the Quartermile project; it would be unreasonable to expect a new mixed-use development to immediately redefine life in the wider area, and not even Norman Foster can control the weather. Indeed, the development is still under construction and given time, perhaps the utopian ambitions conveyed in the imagery that supports the project will be realised. Yet the agenda of this imagery, reimagining the habits of the citizens of Edinburgh, improving the climate and removing undesirable buildings from the surrounding context in order to promote a design, amounts at best to a significant manipulation of the truth and, at worst, to false representation. This sharp contrast between the imagined world of architectural imagery and the reality of ordinary life is not confined to elite developments such as Quartermile however, and is symptomatic of a wider disregard for reality in visual representation in architecture.

The potential of architecture as a catalyst for social improvement, a means of improving life for ordinary people, or a step on the road to saving the planet is often emphasised, particularly by leaders in the industry; it seems odd, then, that the same industry is so willing to overlook the messy realities of human life for the sake of pleasing visual imagery. Superficially, one could argue that these images do little other than create a pleasing make-believe world for the client or the planning board, and simply help smooth the path towards getting a project built. Yet it is inevitable that if architects continually imagine their proposals in these artificial realities and encourage others to do so, the discipline will become increasingly distant from the people it seeks to help; how can buildings be designed for the real world when reality has been slowly pushed out of the architect’s studio? Recent advances in technology mean that architecture can be hyper-realistically modelled from the comfort of an office desk, and it is about time that the social and cultural context in which buildings are imagined gained a similar realism.

The rosy hue through which so much architectural imagery imagines the world, is helpful neither for the industry’s battle against marginalisation, nor the success in use of our built future.

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