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Built Images: on the Visual Aestheticization of Today's Architecture

Architecture and image have forever shared an intimate connection. A phase of imagination has always preceded the production of architecture, be it as drawings, diagrams, plans or perspectives, abstract or not. Architecture has always been thought in terms of, and communicated by means of, pictures. Nowadays, however, we increasingly encounter architecture that – consciously or unconsciously – seems to be preoccupied with its visual impact; an architecture moving ineluctably towards the mere production of enticing images, foregrounding its visual aestheticization. Whence does this development arise and how does this architecture disclose itself to us? How will this evolution influence the scope of activities for architects, what will be their future alternatives? An attempt at an answer follows below.

“Architects live and die by the images that are taken of their work, as these images alone are what most people see. For every person who visits a private house, there are maybe 10,000 who only view it as a photo.” This quote by Julius Shulman (1) is even more valid today since the Internet has joined the venerable print media of the post-war era as a far more potent distributor of images. The picture has doubtlessly become the most powerful medium for the distribution of visual content regardless of location. The growing use of the image is mirrored in the publication of architecture. Printed or online, the contents have become biased towards graphics and images. Taking pictures has become an integral part of the making of architecture.

Specialization and International Markets


The growing use of the image within architecture might be understood from an economic point of view, as a result of both the increasing specialization in building and planning industries, and the stablishment of international markets no longer bound by borders, as well as the ensuing intensified competition among architects.

The planning and building processes have doubtlessly increased in both intricacy and complexity, which entails a significant degree of specialization in the construction industry. Furthermore, general contractors have assumed the classic responsibilities of the architect, such as tendering, cost planning and construction management. Apart from the spatial organization as well as the consideration of materials and details, it seems the only discipline completely vested in the architect is the visualization of the building’s appearance. The architects of today tend to affirm this role and to predominantly engage in image production.

In an ever more competitive, supra-regional market, a “merely” well thought out project design will no longer do. Key Images are all the rage; they are to serve as an additional, effective and forceful carrier for the project. From the outset, imaging techniques are used to manage and monitor the project’s appearance, the visual potential is assessed and necessary adjustments are effected – everything is done to further enhance the project’s pictorial resonance in order to gain a competitive edge over the competitors’ entries. The fact that architecture is increasingly thought, developed and represented by means of images functioning on one plane is now also perceptible in our built environment.

Instant Seduction


Ours seems to be a narcissistic time, characterized by self-communication and self-promotion. The world is primarily conveyed via images, whose contents are exaggeratedly staged, often far removed from what is generally thought of as an objective reflection of reality.

Although we continuously surround ourselves (and are surrounded) by architecture, we tend to consume it mainly indirectly, by means of descriptive media such as images, texts or plans. The digitalization and online distribution of information has created a deluge of contents. Internet platforms compete against each other and are vying for our attention. The projects, whether built or not, are mostly conveyed by means of a condensed set of media based predominantly on graphics and images. Indeed, diagrams and plans – if offered at all – are often treated to a graphic refinement in order for their message to be more easily communicated. A written description of the project is often missing. If present, it will mostly contain project information only as meta-information, as a list of key words for key figures.

The recording of architecture is also subject to the basic mechanisms of image reception, as it is increasingly accessed via image-based media. In order for it to be memorable and to produce a long-lasting effect, architecture is nowadays being articulated using the vocabulary of simplified and eye-catching images. The pictogram or icon is probably the most powerful and most quickly recognisable of all of them. Linguistically and culturally neutral, it reduces the object to a simplified pictorial figure-cum-ground composition. It is therefore no coincidence that the most widely recognized and memorable architectures worldwide, because of their formal characteristics, can easily be translated into a simple, recognizable and graphical character, despite being uprooted from their place of origin. In addition to the well-known architectural icons, we now also encounter a large number of contemporary projects on a smaller scale that employ these simplified, exaggerated and formal image-object recognition mechanisms.

Of course, times are quite difficult for “quiet architecture”. Architecture that emerges from complex social and spatial contexts and is been less formally articulated does not easily communicate itself in single concise pictures. In the global dance for attention, it is often left behind.

Architectural Sculptures


Our society has undergone fundamental changes during the last decades. The architect has to try and meet the most varied needs of individuals and social groups with particular spatial requirements, which are also more difficult to predict because of accelerated social upheavals.

The architects seek refuge in providing functionally non-specific or multifunctional spaces, which try to accommodate disparate work-housing scenarios. Cooking and washing areas, the only remaining “requirement-constants”, are being reduced to compacted units, freeing up space for non-connoted spaces, unspecifically articulated. “Our aesthetic interest in architecture increases exponentially with the shrinking of the functional link between human and house”, to quote Gerd de Bruyn’s apposite words during a lecture in Weimar.

As a consequence, the architect is noticeably confronted with the planning and formulation of fundamental space-shaping building components. He artfully stacks, forms and layers the remaining primary design elements such as floor, wall and ceiling, thus joining, transforming and composing the parts into whole architectural sculptures. This way, he seems to share – if only indirectly – the ongoing development of the visual aestheticization of architecture.

Detached and Cropped


Images always show only excerpts. Their borders frame and also cut out. Built architecture, however, always operates in a spatial context. Architecture as image – put in a frame – emphasizes the objectuality and releases itself from its context.

If architecture is increasingly thought of and communicated with images, it will favour this circumstance. Many buildings today manifest themselves thus: object-oriented, self-centred and inward-looking, seemingly disinclined to establish (or seek) any neighbourly bonds. Buildings work according to their own design rules. Scale, material and form are no longer taken and developed from their surroundings. They detach themselves from the environment in which they are embedded and become more and more independent and interchangeable artefacts.

Key Frames


Images in general and, in particular, perspectives, show only sections and in the latter case, presuppose a position and a visual axis. Perspective provides a scale and shortens the objects depicted therein according to their rules of projection. In the case of an architecture that is thought of in terms of perspective, some parts are inevitably expressed in more detail and others are placed in the background; this architecture is thus no longer formulated as a homogeneous spatial whole.

Since this architecture has been visualized, checked and optically optimized during the planning phase several times over, as well as virtually staged visually on websites prior to its realization, the finally built examples hardly give rise to any surprises. Comparable to the digital animation technique, in which the motion sequence is achieved by means of individual key frames which are connected by filler or intermediate images (in-betweens), a similar phenomenon is in evidence in the perception of this image-architecture. These visual hooks – which were already drawn up by the architect before the realization, which usually made an appearance in architectural competitions or which were later created for self-promotion or marketing purposes – form the fixed visual anchor points of the project. The key frames, now projected into space and materially manifest, can be experienced only from very specific and predetermined points of view. They are the main visual hooks, whereas less cultured intermediate and transitional fragments serve as fillers – not very meaningful in-betweens – between them. Architecture does not unleash its force in its entire spatial extent, but is reduced to individual key frames with their predetermined viewing points.

Graphic Sampling


Nowadays architecture is predominantly finalized digitally, developed and designed using two-dimensional instruments. In earlier times, different parts of a picture had to be elaborately cut out and glued together to create architectural collages. Now, the new digital tools offer a far greater freedom in visual arrangements. More architectural projects are making growing use of these digital imaging possibilities: buildings whose façades are extensively covered with graphic patterns and photographic textures, or buildings that parade themselves in glaring, eye-popping colours.

All these buildings share one thing: they no longer speak to us through building materials, their construction and their natural colour resonance, but appear increasingly as graphically superimposed wallpaper, detached from their support. Thus, the perception of architecture as a three-dimensional construct ends up being relegated to a single plane and reduced to mere two-dimensionally modulated surfaces.



Obviously, arranging images and symbols in a plane ensures far greater design freedom than the arrangement of objects in space, bound as they are by the laws of physics. Static constraints can be cancelled out in an image. Projecting, floating, gravity-defying building constructs can be created. This can doubtlessly create difficulties; stating explicit design requirements with the use of image software which cannot (yet) be accomplished in reality or whose implementation proves to be economically unfeasible.

And yet we are confronted with an rising number of buildings that seem to be descended from expressive und exaggerated image constructs. Buildings with seriously overdone projections, volumes seemingly weightlessly stacked onto each other – buildings whose origin invariably seems to lie in pictorial fiction and which in reality present themselves to us equally as frozen and materialized image constructs.

Is that real?


Digital image software allows images to be designed in a way that can hardly be distinguished optically from photographs. This development has occurred at such a tremendous speed that crucial questions concerning the reception of such images, as well as the probing of the currently mage generation in architectural production, have been mostly left behind. The fact that photography and computer rendering – two utterly different imaging methods – can result in the creation of images that are no longer distinguishable constitutes a milestone in the history of image production that should not be underestimated. Fiction mingles increasingly with the distortion of our physical reality.

These digitally constructed images are powerful in so far as they allow the designers to reproduce their idealized visions as apparent (f)actual reality, far removed from “interfering” material constraints and without having to await the completion of the building. With escalating competition in magazines and on Internet platforms to ensnare our gift of attention through evermore spectacular, staged images, there will come a point in time (assuming that this trend will continue) when the photographic image of a constructed reality – on the level of visual staging – can no longer keep up with the artificially staged image. Even today it is possible to observe how architectural photography makes use of a rising number of individual image characteristics from computerized renderings. In a number of published photographs, for example, cleaned-up celestial spheres dance over the photographed buildings, in analogy to the lighting dome common in computer renderings.

Thus a built architecture that orients itself primarily towards its visual impact, captured in photographs, needs to be scrutinized more closely (in this context). An architecture that seeks to be perceived primarily by means of its image, and is increasingly discarding its functional, spatial and social functions, no longer necessarily needs to be built. It might be more honest if it kept on existing as image only, thus saving important resources.

Copy and Paste


The dissecting, extracting and recycling of content is now shaping many aspects of our digital culture. “Copy and paste” as a contemporary cultural technique has also taken root in architecture and so left its mark in the design process. This is most notably the case with visually based design approaches practiced by architects, who “specialize” in viewing, recording and incorporating fragments deemed visually stimulating. There used to be mostly sketches and plans on walls – nowadays they are covered with extensive wall collages – a potpourri of photographs and pictures from books, magazines and the Internet. A patchwork of reference images and inspirational pictures which have been uncoupled from their original sources to be reassembled and connected as design components.

The Internet as a world-wide distributor of images and as source of inspiration also gives rise to a more somber and sobering tendency: concurrently and in different locations all over the world, architects are incorporating the same trends, stylistic features and architectural characteristics into their ongoing designs. It is not surprising, therefore, that for the past decade, built designs have become increasingly interchangeable.

Image Stereotypes


This global tendency of an increasingly similar and interchangeable architecture is evident not only in realized buildings, but already in the imagery and visual vocabulary of visualized project designs, which are now increasingly being communicated by means of computer renderings.

As a matter of fact, the aesthetic of the imagery is basically handed over to the computer or the chosen render engine: the design is modeled in a 3D program, textures and light sources are applied to it and finally it is rendered into an image by means of a selected camera position. The computer or the rendering machine independently generates an image. The images thus calculated are well nigh indistinguishable from each other as far as their image aesthetics are concerned. This also translates into the rather uniform and stereotypical architectural visualizations of our time. And should there be any, these – to put it bluntly – can be traced back to the type of software used or to the computational model of the render engine applied.

What next?

We are experiencing profound changes and will be confronted with even more fundamental upheavals in the areas of technology, society and ecology. Environmental factors such as global warming, climate change and limited natural resources lead us to subject our current lifestyle to close scrutiny. Demographic factors like the global expansion of human population, its structure and migration patterns, will manifest themselves in ways that are increasingly difficult to anticipate. The ongoing evolution of information technology will in future probably define our lives in an even more pervasive manner. These, and certainly more factors, will decide how we will live, work and move and will have an impact as well in basic issues of architecture.

One thing seems certain: there will be no tried and tested solutions to many of the challenges to be faced. Creativity and inventiveness will be in high demand. Although digital platforms offer a plethora of instantly accessible bits of information, they cannot provide viable “best practice” recipes for future challenges.It is crucial for the current focus of knowledge acquisition to move towards connecting knowledge. This involves the ability to relate information or knowledge blocks, to (re)arrange them and place them into new contexts – and in this way, be able to articulate unconventional solutions when facing new challenges. In particular, this refers to experimental creativity techniques that are hardly taught in university contexts. Creativity is nurtured by a mentally agile, playful, sometimes near naive approach. This mental act, not always logical, mostly driven by intuition, is also of paramount importance because – in an environment characterized by rationally operating computers and machines – it is this non-rational and elusive tactic that will offer and secure a safe and irreplaceable place for us humans in future.

Architecture in our latitude nowadays has a problem of content. In a time characterized by substantial changes, it continues to promote the aestheticization of buildings, and to hide behind formal questions and built images. If today’s architect wants to play again an active and valuable role within the current radical upheavals, he would do well to face more fundamental questions: to search for scenarios, to articulate content, to formulate utopias and thus to create hypothetical exemplars for our changing society. The architect seems to be predestined for it: through sketches, plans or images, he always conveys fictitious content – from the idea for a work until its realization.


Quote from the documentary film „VISUAL ACOUSTICS – THE MODERNISM OF JULIAN SHULMAN“, Director: Eric Bricker, USA 2008


Image credits

(01)  Covers of contemporary architecture magazines

(02)  Website Guggenheim Helsinki Design Competition 2014. Key images of the 1715 competitors

(03)  Lady Gaga. Photograph by Hedi Slimane

(04)  Compilation – Contemporary Houses

(05)  Les Charmes du Paysage, 1928, René Magritte

(06)  Compilation – Graphic Sampling

(07)  Images Montages: Defense, Shalom 2, Tango 2, by Victor Enrich

(08)  Antwerp Port House, Belgium, 2016, Zaha Hadid Architects

(09)  Left: Rendering Architectural Exteriors vol. 12 | Right: Photograph by Iwan Baan, Galaxy Soho, Beijing, 2012, Zaha Hadid Architects
Source Rendering: | Source Photograph by Iwan Baan:

(10)  Architecture Office – Sampling

(11)  Compilation – Contemporary visualizations

(12) The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1490-1510, Tryptich by Hieronymus Bosch, Museo del Prado, Madrid

05.Apr.2017 9478 views
Philipp Schaerer

Philipp Schaerer is a visual artist and architect, specializing in the field of digital image processing. He explores image strategies which are thus able to reformulate the question of the differentiation between the real and the artificial. After graduating from the EPFL in 2000, he worked from 2000-06 as an architect and knowledge manager for Herzog & de Meuron. During this time he created many well-known architectural illustrations for the studio that substantially influenced the visual language of today’s established architectural visualizations. Until 2008, he was responsible for the Postgraduate Studies in CAAD at the Chair of Prof. Dr. Ludger Hovestadt at the ETHZ. Since 2008, he has been a lecturer at several universities and, from 2014, a visiting professor at the EPFL. His work has been widely published and exhibited and is represented in several public and private collections – among others in the collection of the MoMA; the ZKM Center for Art and Media Technology; the Canadian Center for Architecture; and the Fotomuseum Winterthur.
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