Architectural visualisation as we know it today is a product of a rich history of transformation, both in concepts and technologies. Below, we trace the origins of the practice, from a statue found in ancient Mesopotamia to entire neighbourhoods rendered in virtual reality.
Mesopotamia: A plan set in stone
The earliest architectural drawing isn’t found on paper, but draped on the lap of a thousand-year old stone statue of Gudea, one of the most prominent rulers of ancient Mesopotamia. The statue, known as “The architect with a plan”, shows the prince holding plans for Eninnu, a temple dedicated to the god of the region.
Ancient Egypt: Rendering on reeds
Ancient Egyptian architects scribbled on papyri and made models from clay, which archeologists presume were used as prototypes for real structures. These models are some of the oldest examples of early architectural planning, and were highly intricate–they had to be. After all, the ancient architects were pitching to gods. Pharaohs often commissioned massive palaces and temples as a symbol of the strength and prosperity of their rule.
Ancient Greece: The writing on the wall
The Greeks, in their typical love for form and aesthetic, deliberately introduced little “imperfections” in their buildings that made the structure look more pleasing. The technique can be seen at work in the Parthenon, which looks crafted of perfectly straight lines and right angles. In reality the structure swells and bulges in places to correct the unpleasant optical illusions produced by straight lines.
Precisely how these ingenious design tricks were planned is lost to time–there are no surviving architectural plans from the Classical Greek era. The temple was seemingly built with no overarching architectural plan. What archeologists have found, however, were marks on the Parthenon itself: scale drawings down to 16th of a size, etched on surfaces throughout the structure. Experts theorise that builders and masons used these as references when building the actual structures.
The same etchings are found at the Temple of Apollo. The structure was never finished, largely preserving the scale drawings that guided ancient masons through design and construction challenges.
Ancient Rome: Dulce et utile
Out of the Roman era comes the De Architectura, the first book on architectural theory written by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, one of the most important architects in human history. In the document, he described various structures and equipment used in engineering, as well as referenced the use of architectural rendering.
Vitruvius stressed that a building should not be measured by the quality of its craftsmanship, rather by its sturdiness, beauty, and usefulness. The principle and emphasis on both the artistic and scientific elements of architecture underlined much of the structures of the Roman era and would influence architects like Filippo Brunelleschi, thousands of years after. His drawings also showed an understanding of perspective and depth that would not re-emerge until the Renaissance period.
Middle Ages: Drawings in the dark
Realistic architectural drawings were largely unknown in the Middle Ages. Plans and sketches often seem cryptic to the eye, more focused on the technical specifications of individual parts than an artistic representation of the whole. Drawings of buildings lacked accurate perspective representation, which was a concept medieval artists struggled with due to an oppressive religious culture that stymied the development of new techniques.
A sketchbook by Villard de Honnecourt is perhaps the only document out of the period that can give us a hint at how medieval architects represented structures. In it, he details numerous devices, equipment, and technical building instructions.
Renaissance: A new point of view
The Renaissance era saw the introduction of many concepts that created the foundations for architectural visualisation as a craft. The rediscovery of Vitruvius’ De Architectura sparked new interest in drawing according to rational and logical proportions. Brunelleschi, the father of Renaissance architecture, upturned both the world of architecture and art with linear perspective.
Andrea Pozzo, a Jesuit architect and scenographer, published a definitive treatise on architecture titled Perspectiva pictorum et architectorum, which tackled the theory of perspective and featured detailed sketches of how to represent structures such as altars and columns with proper depth and scale.
In this era we also find some of the first recorded instances of architects actively collaborating with patrons to create structures. The end of the medieval age ushered in the revival of Church architecture. Italian architects in Rome worked in consultation with popes, using paintings to showcase structures yet to be built.
19th Century: Enlightened techniques and materials
The Renaissance era taught artists and architects how to represent structures faithfully. Armed with the knowledge of proportion and perspective, the next centuries out of the age of rebirth saw artists pushing the boundaries of visualisation further with work that liberally deviated from realism for more artistic portrayals. Architectural structures were also commonly presented as flattened elevations, a style popularised by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
During this period we also see significant advancements in the medium of presentation. New techniques such as ink washes allowed artists to better manipulate contrast and shadows, which as we know immensely affects a rendering’s overall tone and ambiance. The 1800s also marked the first widespread use of colored inks.
20th Century: A progression of concepts
Thousands of years of the study of form, perspective, and materials paved the way for an explosion of rendering theories less concerned with materials and technique, but also of the “why” of how buildings are represented.
One of the most prominent and defining ideas to come out of this century is Le Corbusier’s Five Points of a New Architecture, which outlines how the beauty of a building comes through geometric structure and function. We see a new appreciation for the interior, supported by Walter Gropius’ concept of Gesamtkunstwerk. The iconic German architect saw a building as more than a facade, with everything inside it contributing as much to the design as the exterior.
Photography became a popular method of communicating an architect’s vision to the larger public. It set visualisation on the trajectory it is today, both a representation of a built structure and the possibilities of that space: “The facades and interior spaces are drawn with an eye towards their photographic reproducibility or they direct their design towards a newly found ability of architectural masses, materials and spaces to yield to the laws of the photographic surface in an endless process of transforming the tectonic and spatial into the spectacular,” wrote art historian Benjamin Buchloh.
21st Century: Bending reality
The dawn of the Internet and computer technology brings us to modern day visualisation. Architects no longer pitch to gods, but with the Internet as a platform, the whole world is the new audience.
In the past, construction and materials largely dictated architectural renderings. Today, 3D rendering techniques powered by arrays of powerful computers and ground breaking technology like virtual reality brings us to the closest we’ve ever come to real, whilst simultaneously allowing artists and architects to play with the boundaries of possibility with a few clicks.
Images are the lingua franca in the world of architecture. Architects have always used architectural visualisation to communicate their vision, from ancient Egyptians pitching to gods on Earth, to today’s architects selling riverside living along Barnstaple to potential homeowners. The medium may change, but the goal stays the same: to use technique and craft to bring a concept to reality.