Architectural atmospheres, branding and the social: the role of digital visualizing technologies in contemporary architectural practice

Lead Research Organisation: Open University
Department Name: Geography


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Title Architectural Atmospheres: Digital Placemaking in the Twenty-First Century 
Description This was an exhibition that ran from 19 to 31 August 2013 at the Building Centre in London. It explored the production of digital visualisations using the project's case study materials. It was accompanied by a free booklet, which summarised the project's findings. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2013 
Impact Comments made in the visitors' book indicated that visitors valued the insights into the production process of the visualisations that the exhibition offered. 
Description Architects today have to design and sell their buildings in a competitive global market. More and more often they use digital visualizations in order to generate certain types of attractive atmosphere and mood for a particular project. As well as showing buildings, however, these new technologies are key to the imagining, or 'scripting', of specific forms of social use onto proposed buildings and urban environments. Although such images are now pervasive in the design and marketing of new buildings, very little was known about their impacts on the design process or about the sorts of urban living they visualise.

This project followed the production and use of a wide range of digitual visualisations created as part of a large urban redevelopment project in Doha, Qatar. We found that such digital visualisations were understood to be a powerful means to convey what it will feel like to be in an urban space once it has been built. The creation of 'atmospheric' images was thus as important as projecting attractive buildings and a leisured urban lifestyle. Thus a good deal of attention was paid - by the architects but also by the visualisers and the developer - to what sort of place these images evoke, especially in terms of the sensory experience of place.

In terms of their impact on design processes, the visualisations are created iteratively, with the design architects, the master planners, the visualisers, and the developer all contributing their views. Each thus had to engage with each other to an unusual degree, and the visualisations were the means by which they did this. We discovered that this did indeed entail some change to architects' design practice, as modifications based on the visualisations were requested; more significantly, it also meant engaging with a complex and extensive system of storage, versioning and commenting on different versions of these highly malleable and mobile digital visualisations.

In more detail, the project has four key findings:

1. The project has confirmed and specified the importance of 'atmosphere' to digital visualisations of unbuilt urban development projects. The project has grounded the theoretical claims of Bohme on the 'aesthetic economy', and Thrift on the necessity of 'glamour' to contemporary capitalism, by examining how a specific form of glamorous atmosphere is created in order to sell new building projects. It is multisensory, but relies in particular on a range of light effects.

2. The project has contributed to understanding how visualisation software packages are enabling the creation of specific forms of 'atmosphere'. The software used to create digital visualisations allows visualisers to create images with an intense atmospheric glow; the ability to change them also allows input from a wide range of stakeholders in the urban development that they picture (though this process is also tightly managed).

3. The project has examined the specific forms of social life pictured in its case study's visualisations, and argued that the visualisations are sites at which different visions of social life can be negotiated. In our case study, the developer wanted the visualisations to look 'Qatari', and the architects and visualisers on occasion struggled to work out how to picture that. The case study thus provided insights into how a range of global actors with different kinds of cultural expertise negotiated the visual representation of a particular place.

4. The project has begun to build on the findings of its specific case study and theoretical context, towards contributing to the theorisation of digital images more generally. Digital visualisations allow us to identify five key characteristics of images in contemporary visual culture: they are immersive, mass, mutable, multi-medial and mobile. They are also networked. Digital images should therefore be seen less as cultural objects and more as interfaces.
Exploitation Route Urban studies scholars should consider more carefully the ways in which new technologies are shaping not just the infrastructures of urban management, but also the representation of urban spaces.

Scholarship on digital technologies should shift to include more work looking at the impact of digital technologies on design professions and cultural expression.

Digital technologies have an interesting global reach: extensive but quite selective. Further work could unpack the particular dynamics of specific global creative networks that these technologies enable.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Other

Description Our project was significant in opening up a space for discussion and reflection between architects, visualisers and client representatives about the use, costs, and effects (both postive and negative) of digital resources and image production on large-scale urban development projects which are radically reshaping cities around the world. It created a singular opportunity for the participants to demonstrate and speak openly about the opportunities and problems which arise from the increasingly ubiquitous use of digital visualising technologies in professional practice. In terms of societal impact, our exhibition provided an opportunity for the public to gain some valuable insights into how such images are produced and to question their role in shaping and accelerating new urban developments. While we cannot expect the research to achieve economic and societal impact immediately, it is steadily attracting interest beyond academia and has specifically been recognised as 'an important addition to the discourse on Doha's growth' (Rami el-Samahy, architect).
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Other
Impact Types Cultural,Economic

Description presentation at the Future City: Doha conference, organised by Mathaf and the LIverpool Biennale 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The audience of planners, architects and heritage consultants engaged in a lively debate about the role of visualisations in the Doha context specifically.

Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Description two short essays in the Urban Pamphleteer published by UCL Urban Lab 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The pamphlet is distributed to a wide audience of practitioners, professionals and policy makers.

Dr Melhuish was the guest editor of this edition of the Urban Pamphleteer, which was on heritage and renewal in Doha. Its production further cemented links between this project and a range of architects, planners and heritage professionals in Doha.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description workshop with architects and visualisers 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Participants in your research and patient groups
Results and Impact This was a workshop with project participants, to share our interim results and gain more information on their views about digital visualisations. There was a vigorous discussion between and among the architects and visualisers present, which was a rare opportunity for them to hear each other's views. Feedback on the event was very positive as a result.

No direct impacts, but research participants continued to engage very positively with our project for its duration.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012