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When do CGIs become CG lies?


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.

Colannade (main)

Colannade (main)

CGI of forthcoming elements of Station Square, Cambridge, by Formation Architects, (currently under construction)

Img 4691

Left out of frame: the large taxi rank of Station Square, Cambridge

Source: Jonny Anstead

Left out of frame: the large taxi rank of Station Square, Cambridge

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

K1 view 01 final

Visualisation of Marmalade Lane by Mole Architects by Darc Studio

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.

20190411 marmalade lane 0214

20190411 marmalade lane 0214

Marmalade Lane completed

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


Readers' comments (6)

  • Hopefully Formation Architects are suitably embarrassed, but the Marmalade Lane visualisation is a real surprise - didn't it occur to anyone that grasscrete is fine for fire engines but not much else?
    It's utterly impractical for anything with small wheels, and really not that great for pedestrians - but it was left for the residents to point that out?

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  • It would probably help if the Station Square photo and CGI were of the same plots. They are not. The photo is plot A1 (One Station Square). The CGI is showing plots I1 and K1, on the other side of Station Road (but still, due to its inordinate length, opposite the station itself).

    It's an easy mistake - plot I1 and A1 look almost identical at first glance, and personally, I'm not a fan of either.

    If nothing else, it's evidence of the problems with both CB1 and with CGIs in general.

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  • CGI's mark a moment in time of the design, to compare them with built photos is a little unfair as designs change and evolve.

    CB1 however is an awful design which doesn't cater at all well to the car or the pedestrian, allowed due to Cambridge's planning department rubber stamping anything in buff brick, has created a beige bore-strosity than envelops much of the station area.

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  • The discussion about the promise of CGi’s and how they stand up against reality is live and valid.
    Architects and their clients should be called upon their promise if it is not delivered.
    But AJ : do your homework!
    Mary Beard compares the reality of the northern half of Station Square with our CGI.
    Where’s the catch?
    She is comparing the reality of the northern half of station square with the southern half of the square – which is not even built yet!
    The northern half was always intended to accommodate a taxi rank, a drop off and disabled parking - as expected from a station square. It delivers on its promise.
    The southern half will be for pedestrians and cyclists only - and a bus route, just as the image suggests.
    Station Square will - when it is finished - deliver what it promised: it will be a welcoming public space with shops and cafes and outside seating around the perimeter, high quality architecture, and yes a busy interchange between trains, buses, taxis and cars to serve the sustainable public transport location.
    And AJ: you have given Jonny the forum to defend his CGI’s. The article reads as if he was a journalists for AJ until it becomes clear that Jonny is the developer.
    Should we or indeed our client not have been given the opportunity to respond before publishing?
    And Jonny: I congratulate you and Mole on the brilliant Marmalade Lane project.
    But please don’t just perpetuate Mary Beards flawed case under the AJ banner or indeed here at LinkedIn without checking with your fellow professionals first.
    CB1 and Station Square are an exemplar case for urban development. Richard Rogers’ and Cambridge City’s vision will be delivered as promised.

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  • ...and Robert, I hope you are suitability embarrassed to perpetuate a flawed case without checking the facts first.
    Michael Richter
    Formation Architects

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  • Michael - I can see why you're not embarrassed, but I'm not, either, because I expect the AJ to be careful with the facts, and the drift of the comment.
    It would appear that the phrase 'out of frame' should be approached with caution - indeed there is a bus in your CGI, just in frame and indicative, perhaps, that buses will only occasionally disturb the tranquility of this space? Good luck with the high quality architecture.

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