“Mark’s House,” by the firm Two Islands, is the winning entry in the Flint, Michigan Flat Lot Competition. The architects’ submission included seductive renderings of the proposed design: a mirrored, floating abstraction of a Tudor house. Then the project was built and, sadly, the reality was far from the glossy beauty portrayed in the initial representation. Many have discussed the unfortunate results on blogs and other websites, and some local residents have expressed their disapproval (see here and here, for example). This prompts the question of who is to blame: the designers, for proposing something unrealizable, especially considering budgetary constraints? The competition judges or organizers, for selecting an unrealizable project or setting the budget so low in the first place? Additionally, what does this mean to the residents of Flint, who encounter this object in their daily lives?
And yet the image above presents photographic “evidence” of a successful execution of Mark’s House, an image of a built reality that approximates the effect shown in competition renderings. This image, however, is a heavily doctored photograph of the built project. It is fiction posing as fact, designed to bolster the project by showing a satisfying realization of the design intent. The most interesting aspect of this image is that it represents a reversal in the typical chronology of a project, in which rendering precedes photography. Instead of the rendering serving as only as a predictive visualization, the rendering assumes authority over the photograph. The rendering becomes the prototype not just for the project itself, but for the photographic image of the built work. If the built realization of such a project falls as far short as Mark’s House does, post-production may be used to actually re-render the project, allowing a more favorable comparison between initial rendering and documentary photograph.
These representations of Mark’s House indicate the priority of the image in architecture today. Which audience for the project is larger: the residents and visitors of Flint, Michigan, or the networked crowd of the blogosphere? Clearly it is the second group; their consumption is therefore prioritized. The potential success of this photograph-turned-rendering is only plausible because most viewers of this image will never encounter the built project. This image was factitiously created. It was designed to fool, to hide the truth of the crinkled aluminum foil. It is not the little white lie told by many images manipulated using Photoshop. It is instead a full blown fiction intended to hide the ugly truth that these temporary pavilion competitions often yield less than satisfactory results.
Not only does this image attempt to mask the failure of this project’s construction, it also represents a failure of rendering itself. Problematically, the photorealistic rendering provides an image that is both too believable and too ideal for reality to ever satisfy. While a concept diagram suggests what a project might be, the rendering promises an exact representation of what the built project will look like. How can anything we build live up to the rainbow-filled world of floating buildings made of seamless, shimmering mirrored surfaces? Of course the realized project falls short of the rendered promise. In the case of such extreme dissonance, re-rendering is the only way to bridge the gap between illustration and reality. This project can only end up as a representational snake eating its own tail.