CGIs are a valuable tool at the planning stages, but developments inevitably evolve and change, writes Jonny Anstead
Professor Mary Beard recently raised an important question when she asked ‘Do architectural models lie?’ in a piece for The Times Literary Supplement. She highlighted the difference between Formation Architects’ visualisation of Cambridge’s Station Square redevelopment and her experience of the elements of that scheme which have been delivered to date.
What annoyed Beard wasn’t so much what the CGI showed (a new section of the Station Square development that is currently under construction), but what it left out of frame: a super-sized taxi rank that that currently dominates the experience of anyone arriving at Cambridge station. It is this which has set the tone for much of the criticism the scheme has drawn. It isn’t the first CGI to be accused of misleading. Value engineering can lead to a delivered building being a pale imitation of the proposal. Some CGIs are scarcely believable. Beard’s article questions how we use CGIs and what it means to be honest in doing so.
Left out of frame: the large taxi rank of Station Square, Cambridge
Source: Jonny Anstead
CGIs bring architectural ideas to life. They help persuade people our plans deserve support. They’re a valuable communication tool: many struggle with plans, but everyone understands a picture. CGIs present schemes at their best: under not-quite-cloudless skies, with a well-placed bike or car and populated by the ever-present ‘render ghosts’. But what if plans change? Proposals evolve: does this make the original render a ‘lie’?
In 2015, together with Mole Architects, TOWN commissioned Darc Studio to prepare CGIs for Marmalade Lane, a co-housing development in Cambridge. We wanted to sell our vision to the landowner and future residents. But we also wanted something to inspire us.
This was to be TOWN’s first built development, and we wanted a sneak preview of how the theory might turn out. The images became a touchstone for the evolving design: were we doing what we said we would? If we changed things, was it for the better? Now complete, we see how it evolved over four years. The built form sees houses in different orders of size and brick colour. This is evidence of residents’ involvement in shaping the scheme through co-design.
K1 view 01 final
The gardens – intended as semi-enclosed areas for planting and conversation – evolved to accommodate bulky air-source heat pump enclosures. So there is less front garden, but cleaner energy: a design compromise, maybe, but a valid one, given the climate emergency.
Most noticeable are the changes to the landscaping. The planted mounds have given way to more formal, permeable paving, owing to a planning obligation reserving spare parking, should residents of the future abandon their commitment to cycling and car-pooling.
The grasscrete, identified by residents as impractical, was replaced in parts by asphalt. This felt like a compromise, but it’s better for scooters, rollerblades, ball games, space hoppers and chalk drawings, helping turn the lane into a playground.
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So, did the image lie? The development evolved, certainly. But, fundamentally, the CGI showed what Marmalade Lane has become: a street for people, a place to gather and for children to play.
Turning back to Mary Beard’s original criticism of Cambridge’s Station Square. Her comments may yet prove unjustified: the area’s next phase, incorporating new buildings and the portion of public space shown in Formation Architects’ CGI, is currently under way. But the real measure of its success won’t be in architectural quality or value engineering – resilient places can, and frequently do, tolerate poor or average buildings. It will be in how the new public realm element addresses the ‘lie’ at the heart of Beard’s criticism. Station Square promised to create a public realm for people, but so far has given it to motor vehicles.
Jonny Anstead is director of developer TOWN