TEXT Shannon Moore
A common challenge faced by architects is the inability to present their designs in an intuitive manner. While traditional drawings and models are able to convey a design to other consultants, they can be difficult for clients to comprehend. Photographs capture the beauty of finished structures but often default to eye-level views that fail to present the full range of a building’s spaces. Today, new types of imaging technology—some borrowed from the world of gaming—are allowing architects to communicate their ideas in a broader range of ways.
Virtual reality goggles are one form of technology that architects have begun experimenting with. Canadian design firm DIALOG recently used Oculus Rift—a headset that allows users to explore a virtual reality environment in three dimensions—for a project in Calgary. The technology helped move plans for the sports and recreation centre forward with stakeholders and donors. As marketing manager Carol Choi explains, “We used Oculus Rift to help our client understand what our vision was.”
Using goggles and a gamepad, individuals were able to walk through a virtual representation of the project, experiencing its scale, layout and finishes. “This was particularly helpful for the client to get a sense of the space and helped to get the buy-in we needed to move forward,” says Choi. The virtual visit introduced users to a series of unconventional spaces, such as a hilly indoor play field topped with a wooden ceiling and elliptical skylights. “Oculus Rift really advanced our ability to share our architectural experience with our client,” adds Marion LaRue, principal in charge of the project.
In Toronto, architectural graphics specialist Norm Li also uses gaming technology to provide intuitive virtual tours for his clients. He argues that the aesthetics of the 3D goggles are in need of improvement—“the hardware is still a bit premature and has a lot of issues to work out”—preferring to use large-scale 55-inch touchscreens for interactive tours. “We basically took the controls that everyone is familiar with from iPads and scaled them up,” Li says.
Li used the technology to bring Kohn Partnership Architects’ Remington Centre to life. When completed, the 800,000-square-foot project in Markham, Ontario will be the largest Asian-themed shopping mall outside of Asia. Located in the presentation centre, virtual walkthroughs on touchscreens allow potential investors to better understand the proposed space, including its 700 retail units, condominium tower and outdoor public plaza. “The biggest problem was that people couldn’t imagine where their units were,” Li says. “With our system, you could walk every last inch of that 800,000 square feet.”
In addition to helping the public understand design, Li says that the use of gaming technology is forcing architects to pay closer attention to the design of interior spaces. “At one point, architects just designed based on the sketch of the exterior,” he said. “Now, if they can use these tools and explore the spaces interactively, there’s a more comprehensive thought process that goes into reviewing the interior design of the building.”
“The gaming technology allows you to really examine the nitty-gritty parts that you don’t normally think of,” he adds.
Photographer Greg van Riel likes to highlight these nitty-gritty details from a different perspective. In addition to traditional cameras, he has begun using drones to photograph architecture from impressive heights, capturing the beauty of structures from a variety of angles. Similar to the virtual walkthrough, the drone provides a new kind of viewing experience for the architect and client.
The process can be quite lengthy—including pre-production site visits, careful planning of the shots, security and insurance considerations, as well as filming and editing. The final product is usually a mix of still photography, video footage and time-lapse sequences. When combined, they tell a visual story about a building in a unique way.
“It’s a form of artistic expression,” van Riel says. “It’s about showing architecture in ways that you normally wouldn’t get to see it, or highlighting certain aspects of the architecture that you might not even be aware of from the ground.”
This is evident in van Riel’s footage of the Bridgepoint Active Healthcare facility in Toronto, designed by Stantec Architecture/KPMB Architects (PDC Architects) with HDR Architecture/Diamond Schmitt Architects (DBFM Architects). The drone was able to capture images of the rooftop garden, designed to provide patients with a magnificent, exclusive view of the city. For van Riel, this project epitomized the most satisfying aspect of drone photography. “I love architecture—so to be able to see something really come to life and deliver what the architect had in mind, that’s really fulfilling as a photographer and videographer.”
For Li, the satisfaction of working with different imaging methods comes from witnessing their contribution to the experience of architecture and design. “Despite all of the other great things, the advancement of technology and seeing where my industry is headed—that’s where the real excitement comes from.”
Says LaRue of DIALOG, “It’s just another step in evolving architectural design.”
Shannon Moore is a Master of Journalism student at Carleton University. She is currently completing a research project on sustainable design.