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From vision to reality: Computer renderings are shaping Madison development
Can we trust them?
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Credit:Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle (primary architects), Potter Lawson Inc. (local architects), Arc Studio 3D (illustration) / Eric Tadsen

When John Martens read in the newspaper about plans to renovate the Edgewater Hotel, he was thrilled.

An illustration of the plans showed a grand public walkway extending from the hotel down to the shore of Lake Mendota -- and Martens has long advocated for more public access to the lakes.

But as he stared at the illustrations for a while, he began to notice some peculiarities. A developer who has been trained as an architect, Martens began doing his own investigation and decided that this vision of the future was suspect.

That stairway to Lake Mendota was shown as being about 30 feet wide, but Martens says there is only enough room for a stairway that is about 16 feet wide. When he began examining rendered views of the hotel and lake from the street, he realized that "you'd have to be about 18 feet tall to see the amount of lake they were showing," Martens says. "They raised the level of the lake significantly in order to show that much water." The developer later revised the plans.

Technology has made it possible to render nearly picture-perfect views, but determining their accuracy is not so easy.

"I don't trust them," says Ald. Ledell Zellers, who sits on the city's Plan Commission. "I'm not saying that all of them are faked. But there have been enough that have not been accurate for me to take them with a grain of salt."

Ald. David Ahrens would like to see the city impose standards on the illustrations it gets. He wants to require them to show how people would experience a building in the context of its surroundings.

"A bird's-eye or helicopter view of a building is not how people experience a building walking down the sidewalk," Ahrens says. "Developers use that view because it makes buildings look absolutely majestic."

Tools of the trade

Gary Brown, director of campus planning and landscape architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says computers began to have a greater presence in architectural design in the mid-'80s. The technology really began to take off about 10 years later. Today, the graphics can be phenomenal.

"It looks very realistic," he says. "In some cases when you're showing your illustration, people think it must already be built."

Computers haven't completely replaced hand illustrations. The UW often uses hand illustration when projects are in the formative fundraising stages.

"I like using [hand renderings] talking to lay people so they understand that the concept is not finished," Brown says. "People have a little more understanding that the project is more flexible when they see those [hand] renderings."

But when plans are formally submitted, UW's renderings become more high-tech. Some computer programs are used not just in the design phase, but also the building phase. For instance, when developers make a few quick design changes, they can instantly find out whether there are any conflicts -- say, water pipes running into an electrical conduit -- or calculate how many doors, windows and square feet of tile they'll need.

Programs such as SketchUp have made it possible for just about anybody to illustrate building concepts. Using Google data and maps, imagined buildings can be shown in real-world settings.

"Now that there's SketchUp, everyone thinks they can be a renderer too," says Rebecca Cnare, Madison's urban design planner.

A lack of artistic training is noticeable in some renderings, Cnare says. When she was a student, she learned basic illustration skills like using lineweights -- the strength or heaviness of a line compared to its background -- in order to show depth. "Now we get a lot of bad renderings because people don't know how to use lineweights."

"It makes it possible to put it in the hands of a minimally skilled person and achieve a drawing that looks fully cooked," says architect Elizabeth Cwik. "That task might be given to the most junior person in the office, to someone who is not an architect at all."

Cnare notices attempts to show proposals from a flattering view.

"All developers try to show their project in the best way possible. That's about picking certain views. Often they'll use bird's-eye views, which is the way that nobody ever sees a building, unless you're on a fifth story across the street. I'm guilty of that too because a bird's-eye view is really easy to understand."

But Cnare rarely sees outright fraud in illustrations. "It's so easy to get it right, why screw around and get it wrong?"

Stu Levitan, chairman of the city Landmarks Commission, says renderings are essential for citizen committees, whose members often don't have the ability to read technical building plans. Committees assume the illustrations are accurate but realize spin is involved.

"It's advertising, it's not a documentary," Levitan says. "We know it's advertising. We have to be smart enough to say, 'Okay, that's just part of the picture.'"

It can be unsettling when a rendering is challenged.

"It's a really awkward position for a reviewing body to get in when you're faced with an accusation that they're not accurate," he says. "The more controversial a project, the more likely the accusation will be raised."

Land of the architect people

When you look at renderings, it's hard not to notice the people who populate these imaginary cityscapes. They sit at coffee shops sipping lattes, walk hand-in-hand with spouses and children, head to important meetings dressed in business suits, and read books on park benches.

"They even put dogs in renderings now," says architect Dawn O'Kroley, a member of the city's Urban Design Commission. "There's architects who place their own families in renderings. You can have fun with it."

Ahrens calls these imaginary people "architect people" and notices they tend to be of a single demographic. "They are rarely people of color, they're never overweight," he says. "They're using the demographics to sell the building. They're always rich white people."

Architect Cwik says that having people in renderings is "absolutely necessary to show scale." But she and others say that the rendered people can be a distraction.

"It's all toward the goal of idealizing a project," Cwik says. "If you want to make a place look lively, you show lots of people in it with little kids picnicking. It can make the most bland architecture look inviting."

Cnare agrees: "Landscaping and people hanging out transforms you into the place, and maybe you don't realize they're using a lot of yucky materials [in the design]."

The feel of a space

Although Martens has criticized some renderings, he's done illustrations for his own projects, and understands that conveying a proposal isn't easy.

"Typically people will look at something and be impressed with the drawing, but they don't understand the scale. Let's say you draw a room with a window. When it gets built, they'll say, 'Oh, I didn't realize that window was that small,'" Martens says. "You can see what it looks like [in a drawing], but until you get in the space, you might not really grasp how it feels."

3D computer programs can give people a sense of how a new building might affect a space. This can be especially useful as people evaluate proposals that threaten to alter the skyline, block views of the lakes or shade existing buildings.

Cnare does renderings for city documents, like the Downtown Plan. She recently worked with a committee studying the Lamp House and its surroundings, just off the Capitol Square. During one meeting, she used SketchUp to create graphics on the fly, showing how proposed projects around the Frank Lloyd Wright building would alter views from the house and shade it during different times of the day.

"That's the best thing about [the 3D programs]," Cnare says. "For those of us who are trained, we can look at plans and elevations and understand it. But for people who aren't trained, the 3D models really help them understand."

The graphics Cnare created aren't detailed -- they show potential buildings as mere blocks. But Zellers found it immensely helpful in understanding how proposed masses (in this case, a hotel and an apartment project) would change the block.

"They did a fabulous job of showing views and shadow studies," Zellers says. "It was just so refreshing to really feel you could have confidence in what you're shown."

Adds Zellers: "Pretty pictures are nice, but I'd rather have accurate pictures."

Real scale at street level

Ahrens is still grappling with what to require from developers. In general, he wants uniformity in drawings. He wants rendered views to be accurate to scale and relevant to the public. This week, he is meeting with city planning staff to begin talking about how to fashion standards.

It's not just bird's-eye views that trouble him. He says some renderings are presented from a distance that's simply not possible. One rendering for the proposed Judge Doyle Square project, he argues, showed a view from across narrow Wilson Street as if it were 90 feet wide.

"It looked like you were staring across an incredible boulevard that doesn't exist."

Ahrens would like to require that renderings show a building's "real scale at street level. We rarely get the view of how people actually experience a building."

He also says some perspectives are not considered. He points to the Dane County Courthouse on South Hamilton Street, noting that no one thought about how it would alter the view of the skyline from John Nolen Drive.

"Given the quality of software that's available now, these are not difficult for architecture firms to produce. We're not asking a draftsman to redraw and redraw and redraw," he says.

Ahrens admits it's not possible to get views from every possible perspective. "But we could still make enormous improvements."

He'd also like to require shading and sight view renderings like those produced by Cnare for the Lamp block.

Martens agrees that multiple viewpoints of a project would be helpful -- and not that hard for developers to produce. "You can generate perspective drawings from any viewpoint" with 3D programs, he says. "To give all of us 3D viewpoints at eye level from all sides would be extremely helpful. And it only requires pressing a couple of buttons."

Levitan welcomes verification of illustrations. He recalls a meeting where one architect admitted renderings might not be completely accurate. He suggests that having a licensed architect certify renderings as accurate views might increase confidence in them.

"It would be comforting to the reviewing commission to know absolutely that we can trust a rendering as accurate," he says. "How you regulate that, how you devise a set of standards, I don't know."

Battle of the renderings

In the fall of 2011, Jerome Frautschi and Pleasant Rowland -- benefactors of the Overture Center -- announced plans for a private development on the 100 block of State Street. Initially, the plans called for razing two historic landmarks and another building that is treasured by preservationists but not yet a landmark. In their place, the couple proposed offices and retail whose revenue would fund the Overture Center.

A hallmark of the plan was a small garden area, carved out of the corner of Fairchild and Mifflin streets. Renderings for the proposals showed parents strolling hand-in-hand with their children through a lush urban garden.

Many people -- perhaps in deference to all the Frautschis have given to Madison -- immediately praised the vision and urged its speedy approval. Others were alarmed, not just by the loss of historic buildings, but also by the garden, which they said would look like a missing tooth on the face of the block.

But these preservationists had trouble getting their point across. "When you throw out words like garden and landscape and show these drawings, it leaves people helpless to argue against it," Cwik says.

To make their point, Cwik, the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation and Levitan took the unusual step of working with illustrator Dave Danforth on a series of alternate renderings for the block. In four renderings, they depicted different visions.

"It's a controversial thing to do. I had no client, no budget, I was just showing these renderings," Cwik says. "A lot of people might say it was not playing fair, but I felt like we had to fight fire with fire."

The Frautschis didn't embrace these rogue visions. But when it became clear that city officials were being swayed by it, they revised plans, saving all three of the buildings and abandoning the proposed garden. That vision is now under construction.

Cwik suspects there may be other rendering battles on high-profile projects in the future. "When a developer presents a rendering, they can only be countered effectively sometimes with another rendering."

The rush to build

Jim Anderson doesn't like the word "rendering."

"I like 'illustration,'" says Anderson, who has been illustrating building proposals for three decades. "It's an attempt to capture a vision of the future."

Anderson Illustration was one of the first companies to invest heavily in computer rendering technology in the 1990s. But as the technology became cheaper and more ubiquitous, he downsized and focused on the parts he really loves: the traditional craft of using pencil, ink and watercolor.

"Everybody else does the computer stuff," Anderson says. "I'm not interested in that. Not only do I not find it interesting, I find it shocking how consistently it shows a lack of art form.

"I concentrate on what's rare in the profession. Watercolor is very rare," he says. "I work on projects with clients who are primarily in fundraising mode and trying to find an emotional, evocative, conceptual presentation of the future."

Anderson says computers can be a powerful tool, but like others, he worries they're being used without training. He notes that many artistic skills are no longer taught to architecture students.

He also worries that computers have made it possible to design more quickly and cheaply. He says many architects are worried about the direction the industry is moving. "The profession has been driven to a very unfriendly place of tight budgets."

In the old days, building illustrations were done at the start of a long process that involved getting lots of feedback and refining ideas. Illustrators helped architects, clients and the public figure out what they wanted. But that's changed as budgets have tightened and developers are forced to get buy-in on projects very quickly.

"The life cycle of the process from beginning to end is speeding up incredibly," Anderson says. "There's much less interest in exploring alternative ideas. And it's all about money. You have to get this thing in the ground as fast as you can, so there's less design, less exploration of alternatives. If the client likes it, it goes.

"Every project is a series of opportunities," he adds. "The question is, how many opportunities will you see and explore? Every project is also a series of constraints. The challenge is, how do you turn constraints into opportunities? That takes time."

But are they accurate?

So are building renderings usually accurate or not? The answer, in some ways, is in the eye of the beholder.

Martens says definitive answers can be hard to reach. He notes that even accurate renderings are difficult to duplicate using a camera.

Pictures vary greatly depending on the focal length of the lens and where a photographer is standing and pointing the camera. Photographs are as subjective as an artist's eye and also open to manipulation.

Cnare says that renderings are "an art as well as a science. You try to do the best you can to determine what a project will look like."

The art may not be new, but the science is rapidly evolving, Martens says. "The way I see it, what the human race is going through is similar to Gutenberg's invention of the printing press. Suddenly, the technology is making a fundamental change in how we approach the world.

"If you have control over information, you can show it selectively," Martens adds. "This is such a young field that we're really just starting to understand the possibilities. And not all of the abuse is willful. Some of it is just wishful thinking."

[Editor's note: This article was clarified to note that the original plans for the renovation of the Edgewater Hotel were later revised.]

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