Can You Believe This Isn't Real?

In the era of architectural renderings, if you have to ask, it probably isn’t.

A chartered helicopter whisked the photographer through the sky above Manhattan. He was charged with the task of taking multiple images of the future views across the city from a skyscraper that didn’t yet exist. Those soaring vistas would be crucial to selling the luxury apartments in a soon-to-be 76-story resi­den­tial tower. Eight Spruce Street, which opened in 2011, was the first such skyscraper in New York from Frank Gehry, but it wasn’t the architect who hired this helicopter; rather, it was a local company, DBOX, a firm that specializes in renderings, those glossy images now so crucial to selling buildings and, increasingly, dreams. The process turns sketches like those by Gehry into splashy simulations any would-be buyer can appreciate.

The names of these outfits—aside from DBOX, top-tier talents include Neoscape, Luxigon and Methanoia—­are unfamiliar to all but the architec­tural elite. Think of them as the industry’s equivalent of the backup singers featured in the recent Oscar-winning­ documentary 20 Feet from Stardom: They ensure that the front men and women look good, harmonizing with their ideas and making them stand out. It’s an intimate, if rarely spotlit, relationship, as renowned architect Annabelle Selldorf explains. “Ideally, I like to work with the same renderer every time,” she says. “It’s a language, and the better you know one another, the more you can talk in shorthand.”

The concept of renderings began in the 1800s and was popularized in 1920s New York, when architect Hugh Ferriss turned to illustrating others’ designs. With a focus on evoking narrative, he often depicted buildings at night, dreamily lit by floodlights or in swirls of fog. Though most work now is done digitally, Ferriss’s obsession with the plot remains central. “You have to invent a story around the building,” says Eric de Broche des Combes, architect and founder of Luxigon. “Imagine­ taking a picture of the building but hearing the noise of the city in the background, the wind in the trees. It’s a moment when you become part of the image itself.”

Really, nothing has affected the profile of renderings more than the turbocharged processing power of everyday computers. Software such as V-Ray is impressive enough to be used to create towering buildings and other visual effects like the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier in the movie Captain America: The Winter­ Soldier, thanks to its precise calculations of light and materials. Few details are impossible to render photo-realistically now, says Neoscape chief creative officer Rodrigo Lopez; organic features like hair, plants and trees, which would have stumped designers just a decade ago, are straightforward. Even water, once so troublesome with its semitransparent, undulating surface, is now simple to simulate. Given those advances, says Lon Grohs, chief commercial officer of V-Ray maker Chaos Group, it should be less than 18 months until a developer combines such software with hardware like Oculus Rift glasses to create an immersive 3-D virtual-reality rendering that a buyer could experience in his own home.

The rise of digital isn’t the only major shift that has occurred in the field of renderings over the past decade. Where once Luxigon et al might have focused almost entirely on commercial spaces, many renderers now find that the majority of their work centers on high-end residential projects. “Almost everybody who has looked through a magazine has seen a rendering, whether they knew it or not,” says Lopez, referring to the pre-construction condo ads whose imageries are created by people like him who evoke, rather than document, the final building.

The move toward residential developments has occurred for many reasons. The rise of architects like Selldorf and Gehry has been impactful, according to Corcoran broker Julie Pham. “People don’t want to spend millions on something and have it be the product of their imagination,” she says. “They need something super concrete to understand exactly what they’re buying.” The acceleration of the purchasing cycle has contributed, too; after all, buying off of a plan is now commonplace—and it’s reassuring to see a clear idea of the final building when signing a contract perhaps two years or more before its completion.

Globalization of high-end real estate also has promoted the use of renderings. Should a buyer in Moscow­ want to invest in a New York pied-à-terre without sally­ing forth on a special trip, it’s common for agents to show an apartment via FaceTime or Skype. In the case of pre-construction, digital renderings are an ideal proxy. An untrained eye can easily appreciate a rendering, says Selldorf, while “reading architectural drawings is a slightly exclusive activity and makes you stretch your imagination.”

Relying on renderings, however, isn’t without risks. After all, these are the digital equivalent of staging, the discreet industry practice that tasks interior designers to spin stories in a space using rented furniture to help it sell more quickly or at a higher price. Indeed, sometimes stagers are even tapped in the rendering process to amp up the appeal of virtual spaces. “They might employ a stylist to specify the furniture or rugs, say which jar goes on what shelf, right down to the types or color of flowers,” says renderer Jonathan Chambers, of The Chamber. If computers can depict scenarios with a precision that outpaces real life, of course, renderings can be more than staged—they can be misleading.

Unfortunately, at the moment there is no legal constraint or control over such images, so it’s best to think of a building’s digital avatar like an online dating profile, with equal potential for sleight of hand. Architecture and design critic Alexandra Lange has documented the commonest devices. Adjoining buildings are often omitted to suggest space, she says, while the so-called “Vegas effect” depicts de­­vel­opments at night to evoke energy and glamour. Leafy foliage on open plazas might mislead, too—in certain climates trees might flourish for just a few warm months, yet they can bloom eter­nally in images. For residential towers, renderers often opt for an elevated-angle point of view: With images that are executed from 50 feet above the sidewalk, the soaring high-rise seems less monolithic. But the commonest chicanery centers on glass. “In renderings it often looks like a glass skyscraper is blending into the sky,” says Lange. “But in real life it’s not a perfect mirror but often a dirty solid.”

Nothing better sums up the gap between rendering and reality than a notorious case from last year. The Flint Public Art Project, in Michigan, announced British design studio Two Islands as the winner of its contest to build a temporary pavilion downtown. The computer-generated preview showed a shimmering, mirrored, Tudor-style house perched on a pedestal, sunset clouds reflecting off its walls. The clunky reality more resembled a Lego house that an eager six-year-old had rushed to swathe in recycled aluminum foil from her family kitchen.

In the wake of such digital manipulation, a backlash is emerging. CLOG magazine editor Kyle May has noticed some firms, such as Mansilla + Tuñón in Spain and Office Kersten Geers David Van Severen in Belgium, championing “a return to abstraction and flatness. They’re trying not to show too much too early, to retain creative freedom later.” DBOX partner and director Brian Lindvall agrees. “In this age of mostly digitized illustration, the thing that stands out sometimes is whatever has been touched by hand—sketches like that make it clear that there’s been a lot of care put into the details.” It’s a nice thought, but of course the hand-drawing can be just as (if not more) easily manipulated as a digital rendering, even if it isn’t as hyperstylized. Ultimately, there may be no perfect way to preview a pre-construction property—until it’s built, all we have is a version of someone’s imagination.

Power to the People

Buildings may be the raison d’être for renderings, but populating those images stirs the greatest debate. Should a digital depiction include people, and if so, what kind? DBOX solves this quandary via its proprietary photo library of model tenants. “We have a casting call, a full crew with wardrobe, makeup, lighting, the whole nine yards,” says DBOX partner and director Brian Lindvall; one such individual might appear in a series of images to help evoke an intended implicit narrative.

Age, ethnicity and gen­der often provide clues to the target audience of a project. Marc Kushner, cofounder of, likens them to creative DNA: Former staffers of Rem Koolhaas’s firm, OMA, have been known to use the same models, one group that Kushner jokes was “too good-looking and well-dressed to make anything believable.” When Kyle May’s CLOG magazine surveyed the renderings produced on behalf of a passel of A-grade architects, it unearthed that more than a third of people in images from Foster + Partners were Middle Eastern, a nod perhaps to its density of work in that area.

Kushner recalls a project in which the rendering’s population was deliberately curated: a new social center at the Pines, the gay beach destination on Fire Island near New York. “We put in lots of shirtless guys,” he says, before noting an unanticipated misstep. “The criticism? One model’s haircut! I was told no one would have that look today.”