Talk Like an Architect

Originally published in LOBBY No. 2 "Clairvoyance", Spring 2015

Let us pause, before we begin, to remember Pygmalion. Does that name ring a bell? In Greek mythology, Pygmalion was the master sculptor who created the most beautiful statue of a woman that he had ever imagined [should it be: a statue of the most beautiful woman he had ever imagined? - depends if it’s the woman or statue that is beautiful]—then fell in love with it. The allegory comes to conclusion when the powerful Aphrodite decides to let the man live out his fantasy by breathing life into the ivory sculpture. They lived happily ever after.

Pygmalion’s story should be taught—or re-taught—to every architecture student on his or her first day of architecture school, complete with a clear disclaimer that reads: “Aphrodite will not bring your creation to life.” Pygmalion must be turned into the poster child of architecture freshers across the world. Just imagine the radical turn that final project reviews would present if we abandoned the pygmalionic attitude towards our projects and agreed on accepting and discussing only the empirical evidence—if existing—that supports its conception. Would the project still come to life if we eliminated from its analysis all of the presumptions and assumptions that originated it?

For our aspiration of an empirical understanding about a contemporary architectural project to be successful, it is necessary to dissect the way through which we communicate it, in order to assess the impact of the medium itself on the message. What if we managed to develop a completely empirical project, but it failed due to a loophole of subjectivity in its communication artifacts? In architecture school we speak about bias in photography and we extrapolate the topic to discuss contemporary architectural rendering as a variant of it. However, the majority of the discussions are always concerned with the architect’s apparent intention with these images: how to make them clearer sets of instructions for the construction process, or how to transform the idea into a more seductive eye-candy for prospective clients or critics. It is here, when we shift our lens to look at how non-architects perceive our images, where we find one of architecture’s biggest loopholes of subjectivity: due to our misunderstanding of non-architect’s perception, we conjecture their responses just as amateur street-fair clairvoyants would do.

Clairvoyance, in this instance, is a term used to describe a form of precognition. In the strict etymology of the word, clairvoyants are ‘clear-seers’. Architects, on the contrary, repeatedly babble the same muddy facts that have convinced us that we understand how non-architects read our images. After all, it should not be very difficult: we were once one of them! We talk about the dangers of showing an image to a client, taking precautions and foreseeing that the client might get fixated on it as if it were a faithful representation of the end result because it is understood as a photograph. We laugh when a client’s feedback is about the red on the wall that we, all-knowing architects, are convinced will look better once constructed, and we get frustrated because they ‘just don’t get it’. Some architects would even avoid perspective renderings in the design process altogether, opting for the use of orthographic drawings that non-architects take more time to understand. Why is it so difficult for us to adapt our artifacts of communication in order to have more clear-seeing non-architects and start a fruitful conversation with them?

The truth is, despite what we like to think, our amateur clairvoyant episodes turn architecture into a discipline that relies on pseudoscientific claims in its decision-making processes. This is a big accusation, which means we better not be pseudo-clear about it. By definition, a pseudoscience is a collection of beliefs that is not based on scientific empirical data—and therefore lacks scientific status—but that is presented as if it were scientific. Remember those first-year students that were hoping Aphrodite would bring their projects to life? In their first semester, they will start to learn how to talk like an architect and, by the time they introduce their projects with phrases like ‘this image captures the instant that will draw everyone inside the lobby’, they will start being pseudoscientific. Did they test that claim? Can we reproduce those results?

There are some scholars that have looked at the topic of perception of architectural renderings from an empirical standpoint. Nada Bates-Brkljac’s inquiry “Assessing perceived credibility of traditional and computer-generated architectural representations” focused on how ‘credible’ image-producing techniques were perceived to be, including computer renderings, watercolor perspectives and hand-drawn perspectives. The study found, while also revealing drastic differences in the assessment between architects and non-architects, that the most credible form of representation is the ‘computer-generated photomontage’—the photorealistic rendering. Carmen Llinares and Susana Iñarra’s inquiry “Human factors in computer simulations of urban environment. Differences between architects and non-architects’ assessments” analysed people’s affective response to renderings, finding that both architects and non-architects relate the success of an image to its ability of evoking innovation and wellbeing. They found, however, that the understanding of both terms varies radically between the two groups—nostalgia, sensitivity, romanticism and vitality trigger these notions in architects, while tranquility, wellbeing, happiness and functionality trigger them in non-architects. Why are we not talking about these findings in our discussions? Why do we insist on the dangerous safety of our ignorant clairvoyance?

We should start selling disclaimer-engraved shirts to freshers. Maybe Aphrodite will bring their projects to life.