Archiporn or Storylines? Creative Architectural Commercials as Challenges to the Communication and Marketing of Architecture

December 2, 2013

Essay by Mélanie van der Hoorn.


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Still from Vizcaya Pool video, 2010. © Estudio Luis Urculo.

In March 2009, in the course of my research on architecture comics, I travelled to Liverpool to interview Laurie Jones, then creative director at Uniform, a brand communications agency specialized, among others, in architectural visualizations. They had recently finished a movie entitled Nido: 22nd at the District (2008), in which they managed to combine three-dimensional computer-generated images (CGI) with a two-dimensional comic strip, drawn for that purpose by cartoonist Jamie McKelvie. Uniform had been commissioned by the Blackstone Group to realize an animation aimed at convincing prosperous exchange students of the benefits of staying in its luxury Nido student accommodation in Barcelona. They hoped that their target group would be able to identify with the hip lifestyle and aura of the characters created by McKelvie. According to Jones, with the exceptional importance attached to the storyline and staging of characters, their film was representative of recent developments in the architecture-animation sector in the early years of the third millennium, in particular of the increasing differentiation between design visualizations and marketing films. Until then, a “fly-through” was by far the most common form used for all kinds of architectural animations: a guided tour in which the spectator is first given a view of the exterior of the building, then enters it via the main entrance and subsequently “flies” through the building. This form used to be employed for both design visualizations and marketing films, although their intentions do essentially differ. Generally, a design visualization is commissioned by architects or project developers in a very early stage, to depict the visual impact of a project on its surroundings, in order to win the approval of potential clients or investors, or to help urban planners to assess the desirability of the project. Extra accessories and details are usually unnecessary. Marketing films, on the other hand, are generally commissioned at the end of the building stage. Project developers rely the films to arouse the interest of potential buyers or users, even when the building is not yet ready to be put on display. In the early third millennium, Jones and his professional colleagues realized that for marketing purposes, there were much more adequate means than the traditional fly-through. Just like Smoothe in Manchester and Neoscape in the United States, for instance, they began to devote comprehensive creative sessions to the brand and ambitions of their clients and to treat marketing films as commercials with their own storyline.

The emergence of marketing films within architecture and urban planning has to be understood against the background of two recent developments: first, the architectural world has started to overcome certain taboos regarding advertising, branding, and more generally, marketing, which—with few exceptions—have tended to be regarded rather suspiciously all through Western architectural history; and second, the appearance and prosperity of such videos has been induced by the digital turn in architecture—both in a positive and in a negative way. On the one hand, technological innovations (particularly ever more accessible and efficient software and cameras) have enabled their realization as well as their diversity, paving the way to the emergence of a new visual culture. On the other hand, the same technological developments have enabled the realization of evenmore sophisticated photorealistic computer-generated imagery, which in turn has given rise to a certain lassitude or critical stance from some professionals and stimulated them to search for alternatives that could communicate more than just an architectural design or planning concept in itself through highly sophisticated, but not necessarily meaningful, images.

In March 2013, I returned to Liverpool to speak to Laurie Jones, this time purposefully about what I had started to call “creative architectural commercials”: films that contain a clear narrative, more “lifestyle elements” than visualizations, and that display an awareness for the stories behind architecture such as its historic, cultural or social context as well as the identity of its (potential) users. The value of fly-throughs, I believed, was mainly to be sought in aesthetic or technological innovations, and thus of less interest to me. Creative architectural commercials merited closer attention because of their affinities to advertising, their depth in terms of content as well as their various levels of meaning. Yet I had not expected Jones to tell me that, since our previous meeting, things had, in a way, stagnated. For Jones, the development of architectural marketing films in his agency culminated in their movie Beyond Boundaries (2009), commissioned by the Jumeirah Group in the year following completion of Nido: 22nd at the District. At that point, computer generated visualization was still needed to explain the architecture and the spatial ends, but more and more, clients also expressed the wish for lifestyle and marketing elements. Beyond Boundaries, which promoted a brand of independent hotel boutiques, was very unique in that it was almost entirely hand sketched, except for a few shots. Uniform finished the film, but it was never used because in those years the whole property market (and, as a consequence, architecture and the visualization industry) was severely hit by the economic crash.

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Beyond Boundaries, Uniform, 2009. © Uniform.

Creative architectural commercials constitute a promising yet fragile niche. After some five to ten years of actively investigating and experimenting with the potentials of such films, companies returned, to some extent, to more conventional forms of visualization. This was partly due to the financial crisis, which resulted, since 2008, in less creative briefs from commissioners who wanted to “play it safe.” Yet despite this setback, visualization companies have continued to invest much effort into aspects of branding and storytelling—partly even integrating them into their standard working procedures—even if the proportion of these efforts is not always explicitly reflected in their most recent portfolio. In particular, it seems that creative architectural commercials have the capacity to bridge between traditionally distinctive areas of the architectural world, between a market-oriented architecture and a more visionary, artistically oriented architecture. What is it that makes such films so promising? What are they able to achieve and what hurdles continue to exist?

Architects and developers have not waited until the third millennium to start using short films as a means to present and promote their projects. For instance, in anticipation of the 1929 CIAM [Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne], Paul Wolff (a photographer) and Ernst May (an architect and urban planner) directed a series of four films about the ambitious New Frankfurt housing scheme. This was part of a larger campaign by May to use radio programs, guided tours, and a variety of educational programs to explain recent urban developments to an audience of non-architects. Among the four films, Die Frankfurter Küche stands out by the efficiency of its storyline, meticulously comparing the time and effort required for each of the housewife’s activities in, respectively, a traditional kitchen and in the one designed by Schütte-Lihotzky, in order to illustrate the influence that an architect can exert on one’s daily life. In the same period in France, the young journal L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui was experimenting with new means of communication and commissioned director Pierre Chenal to make three short films. The structure of Bâtir and L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui (1930) clearly demonstrates an early awareness for marketing strategies: they praise the advantages of modern architecture from a functional and aesthetic point of view and underpin this with comparisons between specific traditional and modern buildings. Both films end with a promotion of Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin as the most appropriate means to solve planning issues in Paris at that time. In recent years, architecture firms such as MVRDV, UN Studio, OMA and Zaha Hadid Architects played an important role as precursors, each approaching in their own way the opportunities offered by new means of visualization and, as such, stimulating others to do the same.

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Die Frankfurter Küche. Designed architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, 1926.

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Die Frankfurter Küche. Designed architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, 1926.

The UK, notably, proved to be a fertile soil for agencies such as Squint/Opera, created in 2001 (known for instance for Picture a City: Bradford or Gardens by the Bay); Uniform, since 1998 (Nido: 22nd at the District, Beyond Boundaries, Lister Mills); The Neighbourhood, since 2006 (Saxton film series Painting by Numbers, Grow Your Own, Love Your Neighbourhood, etc.); as well as Assembly Studios (formerly Smoothe), since 2009 (Cooling Towers, Stone’s Throw and Creeping Prow, Plumlife). Several of them benefited from repeated cooperation with innovative developers (such as Urban Splash) or architecture offices (such as Make Architects), who were not afraid of experiments. In other countries as well, a number of agencies have been operating in the same field: Neoscape, in Boston since 1995 (Harvard Allston Campus, Innovation and Design Building, BIM City); Brooklyn Digital Foundry, in New York since 1999 (Museum Plaza, Droog Town House, Architecture and the Unspeakable 1); Studio Aiko, in Ramat Gan since 2005 (Classroom Scene, Desert Villa); Placebo Effects, in Oslo since 1999 (Media City Bergen, Akersveien 26); Estudio Luis Úrculo, in Madrid since 2006 (Place des Cercles, AIC, Vizcaya Pool, Epsilon); and Simone Muscolino (Id-Lab), in Milan since 2005 (MongoPalace), to name just a few. And then, there are also architecture offices that have produced or commissioned a creative commercial of their own practice, such as Langarita-Navarro Arquitectos in Madrid (Langarita-Navarro, The Movie), Kube Architecture in Washington (Your House is Fantastic!), and Germerott Innenausbau near Hannover.

Parallel to the production of videos, several initiatives have contributed significantly to divulge them, stir up exchanges, debates and reflections, and indirectly contribute to further production. As early as 2002, the Catalan Architects Association organized a large exhibition entitled Architecturanimation, coupled with a festival, lectures, and debates—the richness of which was documented in a catalogue with the same name. A few years earlier, in 1997, Italian Marco Brizzi created Beyond Media: Festival for Architecture and Media, an event which “aims at promoting the emergence of a new agenda for contemporary architecture by means of a more widespread awareness of the role of the media of communication in the professional as well as in the didactic field.” The festival took place nine times between 1997 and 2009. Brizzi also created a company called Image, dedicated to “enhancing the design discourse by means of a wider knowledge of media issues in architecture.” One of its main activities consists in running an archive of architecture videos.

The apparent return to more conventional forms of visualization in recent years cannot solely be imputed to the financial crisis. Various creative directors depict most property developers, and even more so architects, as rather conservative and reluctant towards advertising. For Oliver Alsop, creative director at Squint/Opera, the “advertising culture” of architects has not evolved much since the 1950s, when even a Coca Cola advert solely consisted in showing a can and repeating, “Buy Coca Cola! Here it is! This is it!” Similarly, architects merely want to show wide shots of their building and keep hammering, “This is the building, this is the building.” John Humphreys, creative director at The Neighbourhood, also deplores this disproportional focus on the actual building. Architects, he says, treat architecture as an objective thing and merely give facts (“Here is the door, it’s got ten floors”), whereas they entirely fail to tell a story about that building, to focus on the beautiful elements and to build a bit of mystery and intrigue. The communication with architects and property developers about marketing films, thus, is not always easy. First, they seldom have a clear brand or brief in mind, so it often takes considerable effort to clarify these issues. Then, according to Nick Taylor, Alsop’s colleague at Squint/Opera, if there is any brief at all, it usually doesn’t excel at imaginativeness. “The typical brief from an architect would be, ‘We want a fly-through, it needs to start here and then the camera should go along there and it turns left there and you look at this and you go along there.’” Advertising experts and architects, in other words, strongly diverge regarding the type of information to be communicated in their films: the former are often selling a single concept of convenience or luxury, whereas the latter rather wish to get so many building details across that it hardly leaves any latitude for more narrative or so-called “lifestyle” elements. At Squint/Opera, they invented the notion of “archiporn” to denote extreme examples of films with “slowly moving cameras, showing very orchestrated empty spaces, lovingly caressing bits of architecture.”

The relationship between architecture and advertising has traditionally been an ambivalent one. Advertising agencies, for their part, have long started to recognize the marketing potentials of architecture: adopted for their attractive aura, architectural highlights are integrated in commercials for cars, perfume or ice creams. The figure of the architect is frequently portrayed as a tasteful, successful, and reliable person. Strangely enough, when it comes to advertising architecture itself, it seems that the attractively portrayed buildings are not able to sell themselves. That is, not only does advertising need architecture, but the insights from advertising can be very rewarding when making publicity for architecture. Yet architects and architectural organizations such as Chambers of Architects have not seldom exercised “restraint,” to say the least, towards advertising and branding—equating those with superficiality, uniformity, and mass consumption whereas architects rather like to be praised for their originality, inventiveness, and penetrating concepts. In certain countries, such as Belgium, Germany, or the US, architects’ capacity to make advertising for their own work has even been legally restrained.

Removing apprehensions for marketing is a long-lasting process. Alsop speaks about a sort of “keeping up with the Joneses” attitude from the clients, which prevents the Squint/Opera-team from exploring new, more creative ways. Jones summarizes it this way:

If one of our clients came to us and said we have £50,000 budget for a film and we said we are going to spend the first £7,500 on research, we wouldn’t get the job. That receptivity to trying something new isn’t there. Whereas branding clients, if you tell them you are going to spend the first £5,000 to £7,000 on research, it is often seen as a positive thing. They are much more receptive to trying new things. They know that’s how the market works, so much is about novelty.

Alsop tells about an ongoing battle with clients to convince them that, “[by] having some kind of genre in mind at the beginning of the project, you’re not putting their development on the back seat; actually you are creating a sort of identity for that place.” One of the major issues, he adds, is that lots of architects would rather keep their buildings empty. “There are lots of architects who don’t like their buildings ever being used. They like to represent their spaces completely clinical, empty and lifeless. A person, in one of those images, is like a bacteria.” If ever clients want to have real people in a visualization, Taylor adds, they strictly determine how those should look like. Those so-called “real” people are not much more than “space fillers;” they have to “be drinking and eating in the right cafés at the right time, walk towards specific places, be dressed in the right clothes and carry shopping bags to ensure that retailers will spend money.” Finally, a major concern that often stands in the way of creativity, is that clients continue to expect more sophisticated, photorealistic images. Moreover, this wish for photorealistic images is closely connected with a belief that these images represent reality exactly as it is, or will be. Taylor explains:

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that they are totally real because they look real. But especially in film there is much more marketing than in still images. What you do with the cameras and what you do with the nature of the shots and what happens in them can totally spin a tale in any direction. Even if you are working of architects’ plans and designs, it doesn’t mean that the thing is a scientific rendering or a portrayal of the truth—it is still impressionistic.

How, then, can branding and communication agencies counterbalance the lack of lifestyle and narrative in architectural presentations? The Neighbourhood clearly captures its contribution in its slogan, “Building worlds and telling stories.” In his agency, Humphreys explains, architecture is primarily seen from a subjective point of view as “a living entity that is about the people that are going to inhabit it or interact with it.” Lakeshore (2008) was one of their first movies in which characters played a leading part and architecture (a building from the 1970s, revamped by developer Urban Splash) became almost like a background element, indirectly presented in interaction with the characters. Inspired by the collection of pop art in the building, The Neighbourhood structured the film as a “chronological walk” through pop art style between the 1970s and 2010. A small milestone in the evolution of architectural film has probably been Squint/Opera’s Gardens by the Bay (2008), a film which is like a stylized documentary of the process that led to its making: an expression of the design process, the creativity, ideas, and action that were going into it. When the architects came to Squint/Opera a month before submission of their competition entry, they had hardly done any work yet. Squint/Opera proposed a kind of pin board technique and started to capture the design process from there, without having to wait for the architects to resolve all kinds of issues beforehand. A third, strongly narrative-driven architecture film that captures the spirit of a project and the intent of a design, is The Story of Straw (2011), for which Lee Mallett and Sara Muzio were commissioned by Make Architects. Mallett and Muzio are very concerned by the technical jargon that too often excludes people from understanding architecture and planning. Just like Squint/Opera, they consider it their task to make complex architectural concepts as simple and accessible to as wide-ranging an audience as possible. For The Story of Straw, they were in the exceptional situation to get precisely this as a brief. Make Architects had completed a building for the University of Nottingham with a very low carbon footprint; they wanted to share the environment-friendly building technology which they had developed for this purpose. Mallett, guided by what he calls his “indistinctive knowledge of other people’s communication needs,” successfully answered the brief, together with Muzio, in the form of a careful and funny adaptation of the fairytale of the Three Little Pigs.

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Gardens by the Bay, 2008. © Squint/Opera.

Realizing creative architectural commercials thus also consists in condensing an important quantity and density of information within a few-minute-long film. Sometimes there is so much to tell that it hardly seems possible in one film, in particular when different target groups have to be reached simultaneously. The Neighbourhood was confronted with these issues during an Urban Splash commission for a big development in Leeds. The developer wanted to show the allotments for the residents, the huge landscape gardens all around, elements of the design, social aspects, etc. Humphreys and his team decided that it would be too much for one film, especially if it had to be “nice and punchy.” They split it up in six concise and refreshing storylines: six fifty-second-long films to be launched on urban screens around the city. Assembly Studios did something similar for their project Two Kingdom Street (2010), except that their three films weren’t to be released simultaneously but as three subsequent stages in a marketing process. Ross Cunningham, creative director, explains that his agency seeks to distinguish itself from others in their understanding of architectural animation as a more filmic experience than traditional fly-throughs: something more dynamic and engaging for an end user, getting more information across in a shorter period of time. With Two Kingdom Street, it was the first time that Assembly Studios got the opportunity to work holistically on a campaign in the UK and that they could think about a film or series of films as a long-term marketing vision, within an entire campaign life cycle. Still according to Cunningham, short architectural films are generally a medley of contextual location filming to sell the area, computer generated fly-through to show the building to be, motion graphics to sketch the location or explain specific aspects, etc. For Two Kingdom Street, they decided to release bits of film over a longer period of time and to achieve those various goals in separate filmic entities. The first, Creeping Prow, is like a teaser to stir excitement for the project. It consists of a really dramatic scene in which a person is literally overrun by the identity of the building (embodied by the shadow of its very characteristic shape, also the logo of the project). Building brand and identity, here, are entirely blended. The second film, Two Kingdom Street, is a computer generated animation that explores the floor plan and gets across factual details; the third, Stone’s Throw, is a humorous piece of location filming to site the building, its amenities, and the benefits of the surrounding area. The fourth, Talking Heads, which was eventually not realized, would have staged local people, developers, architects, the project team and local clients talking about the project in an engaging way. The films were a success for all people involved. Cunningham and his team were able to realize them for a fraction of a commercial budget, without having to compromise a really strong message, and the developer was pleased because the overall campaign had a much longer duration than usual.

A major issue—or even hurdle—in the making of architectural marketing films with a plot exceeding the promotion of a building as such, is how to evoke human presence. In most of the cases, the architecture to be presented is still on the “drawing board” or at least under construction when the film is made. Long before completion would allow the shooting of live footage, computer generated imagery, with the unknown level of photorealism and sophistication that it has reached in the last decade, is able to show a building as if it were “there,” and to allow spectators to immerse themselves in its experience. The creation of virtual characters, however, or at least the mere suggestion of human presence in or around the building (without necessarily populating it with human figures), is a much tougher nut to crack.

Architects who articulate their dissatisfaction with the ubiquity of photorealistic computer visualizations often mention the meaningless silhouettes that are later added as scale indicators without further depth or significance. Specialists in three-dimensional architectural visualizations outline some of the reasons why people are so troublesome in architectural animations. Either you portray them as a component of the three-dimensional model, which often does not look at all convincing, or you spend a fortune on Hollywood effects to give them a realistic allure, but there is almost never sufficient budget to cover this. Or you can film people in a studio (employing so-called “blue screen” or “green screen” technique to remove the background and obtain images of the people solely) and assemble them in your animation, but that is also time-consuming and very expensive. There are some tricks to mask that virtual characters look like zombies, such as time lapses in which they can be blurred, abstract cutouts like in Alconbury Airfield by Squint/Opera (2011) or white cutouts such as in The High Line (2008) or Aberdeen City Garden (2011), both by the Brooklyn Digital Foundry. When these figures are two-dimensional, problems emerge as soon as you turn away from the flat surface and suddenly encounter very slender people as you move “just around the corner.” One option is to approach such hurdles openly instead of attempting to conceal them, and to explicitly stylize human figures with motion graphics. Uniform did so in Nido: 22nd at the District (2008), Squint/Opera in Gateshead (2011), Assembly Studios in Cooling Towers (2010) and Plumlife (2010). This approach harmonizes with the recent marketing impulse within which target groups are directly addressed, but it is not so self-evident with a less homogeneous or less precisely defined target group. Cartoon-inspired images are not suitable to every project. In Cooling Towers, they were a means to better target the audience in an emotional way, but for a different audience they could be entirely inappropriate. Finally, several agencies have found creative ways to allude to some kind of personality without showing people at all. For instance, light or crystals are staged as characters in, respectively, Uniform’s The Walbrook (2008) and Crystal – Trinity.EC3 (2007). In a film by Squint/Opera for Toyota that has not been disclosed yet, a car has been conferred a personality and is exploring the building while having a sort of conversation with it.

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Corby Cube, 2011. © The Neighbourhood.

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Corby Cube, 2011. © The Neighbourhood.

In some other examples, live action footage of the architect, developer, or other people involved is combined with computer generated images of the three-dimensional model or the building to be, for instance in Squint/Opera’s Cidade da copa (2012), Uniform’s Lister Mills (2011) and The Neighbourhood’s Corby Cube (2011). In the latter two, the architect, sitting at his desk, is enthusiastically talking about his concept when the model, as if by magic, emerges from the tabletop and allows him to present his thoughts even more convincingly. For Assembly Studios’ Talking Heads, the idea was to interview a variety people about the building to be, and to edit their answers without the corresponding questions, so as to generate excitement and suspense. In all these examples, people in flesh-and-blood confer the films a truly documentary character and a level of depth and significance that would still be very hard to reach, in the actual state of the art, with advanced augmented reality technology.

It is suggested here that creative architectural commercials form an innovative cross-fertilization between the fields of architecture and advertising and that they are able to reconcile commercially oriented and visionary architecture. Compared to traditional fly-throughs, creative architectural commercials are message based rather than technique based. They inject life into the buildings presented and narrate all kinds of stories behind the design. Interestingly, it seems that meanwhile architectural visualizations with a more “straightforward” storyline (principally aimed at showing the architecture or planning in itself) have started to benefit from the creative impulses in marketing films. This is illustrated, for instance, by some consciously stylized visualizations by Neoscape (The Lowell Plan, Pike & Rose Federal Realty), some others by The Neighbourhood (Two Snow Hill), Placebo Effects (Statoil Hydro), Simone Muscolino for Id-Lab (Yellow Fever) or Squint/Opera (Istanbul Seaport). In all cases, the moving image is a very suitable medium for telling a story. Nowadays it has a very flexible format that can be put on a desk, website, or screen somewhere and easily be shared.

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Saxton. Grow Your Own, 2008. © The Neighbourhood.

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Saxton. Painting by Numbers, 2008. © The Neighbourhood.

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Saxton. Green, 2008. © The Neighbourhood.

When I spoke with Jones the first time, in 2009, he told me that since software had become increasingly cheap and accessible, architects had started to produce three-dimensional design visualizations internally. According to Jones, it would take some time, however, before architects would start producing marketing films because these require enormous computer capacity, a time-consuming creative process, and intensive collaboration with others, which architects simply could not afford. For this reason, Uniform was experimenting with various styles, in the hope of capturing a niche market in which pure realism could be combined with extra dimensions and thus upgraded. Almost five years later, Cunningham still describes a similar situation, “the software has become so sophisticated that it still demands the same intense computing time and effort. It’s just that the quality of what you can do with the physics and geometry have continued to improve, so for an architect it’s too much effort to move into visualization as a fulltime discipline when there are so many other things to contend with. The architect would almost need two completely different skill sets.” In the near future, thus, the agencies mentioned in this text might pursue their work on creative architectural commercials and further develop this unique genre. For Jones, important breakthroughs are to be expected as soon as CGI will be able to provide credible characters against an affordable price. For other agencies such as The Neighbourhood, interesting innovations are to be sought in combination with other new media such as applications for mobile devices. Both agree that an important challenge is further to be found in what they—somewhat mysteriously—call “bringing the digital world back into the physical.”


This research was made possible with financial contribution from the Creative Industries Fund NL.