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Oliver Cooke on visualisations: Why we shunned CGIs for oil painting

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Oliver Cooke of emerging practice Cooke Fawcett looks at the dilemmas of architectural visualisations ahead of Open City’s all-new Citymaking Sessions event in Peckham

Oliver cooke

One kind of architectural drawing rules over all the others: the computer-generated publicity image. And as growing processing power brings new possibilities in creating compelling images it also brings new challenges.

For example, does the hyper-realistic render so commonly in use now, fairly represent the building-to-be, and does it leave the design team enough room to shape the architectural vision during the construction process?

A detailed look at one of our projects offers a glimpse into our own dilemma dealing with visualisation.

Our recent competition-winning entry for a public art commission in Barton Park, Oxford, demanded a different approach to representation. In particular, we felt that neither the typical computer-generated architectural render or the hand-drawn ‘architectural sketch’ would work here.

We needed to draw the proposal in a way that communicated the project’s ambition and ideas but left space for community engagement and further conversations about scope and location. The brief at competition stage asked for sketch ideas for a public art commission rather than responses to a specific site.

Our proposal includes two components : Village Green, a planting strategy to introduce local species of flowering plants and hedging to Barton; and Green Room, a new outdoor community facility at the heart of the Barton Park development.

We felt neither the typical CGI render nor the hand-drawn ‘architectural sketch’ would work

As a practice, we are interested in representation being an integral part of our thinking rather than an afterthought to be completed once a design is finished, or a house style to be applied to each project.

For Barton, we wanted to find an evocative way of describing Green Room against the backdrop of Village Green. We needed a technique that spoke about layering new planting, activity and colour across the whole of Barton to describe the project and to test whether we felt the proposal was convincing and achievable.

The images needed to show our approach applied to existing and proposed green spaces without being too prescriptive. We wanted them to inspire a discussion with residents about plant types and management. The idea was that the views should be recognisable but not a foregone conclusion. 

The images were created by applying painted layers to existing photos of Barton and the developer’s aspirational CGIs of the Barton Park proposals. Desaturation of the background unified existing and new as one context – a literal canvas for the layers of our proposed planting strategy. Colour was then reintroduced in a deliberately abstract, painterly way to evoke potential without committing to specific planting locations or species of plants. Manipulation of layers in photoshop allowed us to adjust the relationship between the original view and our new painted layers.

Colour was reintroduced in a deliberately abstract, painterly way

To superimpose Green Room on the landscape we used collages of physical models with our paintings. The final images describe a public art project that treats the whole of Barton as one context, applying the same technique to axonometric aerial views to talk about the potential across the whole community.

Cf 140 pr 171227 001 barton

Cf 140 pr 171227 001 barton

Compared with other means of representation, the result of this process was a successful way to evoke the potential of a project at an early stage. The images articulate an exciting vision which different stakeholders can buy into, without being too prescriptive. It was important that the images were artistic, ambitious and conceptually clear while still recognisable as a starting point for further discussion.

It was important the images were artistic and conceptually clear while still a starting point for further discussion 

Having developed this technique, we are keen to use it for other projects. At the same time, we are hugely conscious that this approach developed from specific thinking particular to one unusual and strongly landscape-focused project. In many ways, it could be contradictory to apply it elsewhere.

We haven’t concluded whether this was just an attempt to break the mould for architectural visualisation or whether this project, its community, simply required a painterly approach. Either way, we’ve added to our toolkit.

OIL PAINTINGS OR CGIS: VISUALISING ARCHITECTURE TODAY with Oliver Cooke, director, Cooke Fawcett from 2.15pm at Citymaking Sessions, Bold Tendencies, Peckham Multi-storey Car Park, 27 June

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