I Can See Right Through You

What is it about transparency that excites us so much? Why are we addicted to seeing the insides of things? Years ago I heard someone present a fascinating argument that the iMac G3, Apple’s first translucently clad creation, signaled a new development in the Melvillian desire to conquer the unknown. By exposing a view into the black box of the personal computer, the argument went, we’re given the comfort of visual access and thus the possibility of knowledge.


It was a clever argument but it’s out of date now. In the intervening years our devices have grown much more complex and ever present. Our lives are now augmented by this coterie of magical things by default. We all have informational prostheses and we can’t live without them. Are you able to remember phone numbers any more? I can’t.

The translucent, transparent, and X-ray methods of seeing are fading due to their lack of explanatory power. As the stakes raise, so too does our interest in the specific nature of these black boxes. In this transition the translucent and the transparent, with their claims of depicting the Real and the Natural, are being replaced by the modeled and the visualized. “Rendering” has returned to its root meaning “to give or to put” as the default way in which we construct the world around us. The milk in that cereal commercial? Rendered. A car on a Billboard ad? Rendered. Movies, TV, nanoscience, and genomics? All of them rendered: put into this world through the fabrication of an image where one did not exist before. Renderings are not fictions but new realities, a way of making visible and knowable the otherwise inaccessible. Peter Galison and Lorraine Daston’s history of Objectivity in scientific visualization is particularly rich in the way that they illustrate the history of how we come to believe what we see.

Now that we’re enjoying a moment when imagery is constructed, we should really savor the opportunity at hand. As in this commercial for Honda where the familiar technique of section is applied to a vehicle, revealing an interior that is stuffed with ideas. Is this not an accurate way of Slicing into the Accord? If all of these ideas exposed to us in the animated section cut and the care that they represent are not embedded inside the composition of that vehicle then what exactly is the value proposition of the commercial? How is the Honda any different from a Ford?

We’ve reached the point where a first year graduate student in architecture can produce photo realistic renderings using off the shelf software without any prior training. For years, photorealism was the holy grail – achieving such an image was the result of dedication and skill. But when this is a default ability we have to ask new questions. For me, the question has changed from what would it look like to what world do we want to create?


Judging from this collection of images borrowed from the archives of Dezeen, new architecture, regardless of location or client, lives in a perfect world of consistent 80 degree temperatures and sunny weather. Surely, deep down inside even the most hardened architect is an optimist but this is a bit much, don’t you think? These architectural representations are in the useless mode of transparency described above. In seeking to render for us a vision presumed to be truthful they fail to take advantage of the opportunity at hand to manifest a new world. As architects put more and more weight on photo realistic images at the expense of the diagram and the drawing, the profession grows less and less able to maintain its claims of resistance within a culture of capital. Even before convincing anyone to build, the ability of the architect has always been to visualize a new world and to share that vision with others. If we are not careful, the “Dezeen-ification” of architecture could be the final assault on a limping discipline.

Metro de Madrid: “Transparente” from shin_matsuda on Vimeo.

Although they may appear to be cheap tricks, these renderings of the otherwise invisible help us see the world and its possible alternatives in a palpable manner. Whether the complex interactions flowing through a city (as in the commercial above), the interrelationship of individuals in a piece of literature, or the intricate workings of the market, what these representations share is an optimistic belief that images may be used to ask new questions. The task now is to start thinking about these opaque images as part of our reality rather than merely just special effects. It’s a new world out there, if you’re willing to see it that way.

4 Comments so far

  1. son1 on October 23rd, 2008

    I will confess, your genomics link kinda made me rage, a little bit…
    Too many popularizations of genomics fail to make a distinction between visualization that is driven by aesthetic goals, versus that which is driven by research and understanding. Hell, probably too many actual genomics articles fail to make the same distinction.
    It’s the “hairy ball” syndrome, where we see these massive (unlabeled) high-resolution pictures of graphs that represent protein interactions or gene regulatory interactions or whatever. None of these are informative in the slightest! I wonder if there’s an analogy to be made with other types of visualization…

  2. johnsnavely on October 25th, 2008

    What, no mention of Damien Hirst?
    Seriously, tho, I’ve always felt that architecture (in school anyway) was out of step with the realities of representation. We were forced to take a class on how to make diagrams, but make “fake” diagrams, which was helpful in that I knew what I wanted to reject for the rest of my brief architectural career.
    Your output was a diagram, a model, some drawings, and perspectives, maybe a movie. Sometimes I just wanted to pick one (the right one) and do just that.

  3. bryan on October 25th, 2008

    yeah, so, comments: fixed. Thanks to Tim for the tip that you have to preview first. I won’t bore you with the details except to say that web CMSes are still a pain in the ass and that’s sad.
    “Fake” diagrams- this kills me too, but I don’t think it’s a lost cause. It would help if students were actually held accountable for the content of their drawings rather than the quantity.
    All movies all the time! I am loving he work of squint/opera who manage to convey emotion and mood through architectural ideas rather than simply along side architecture. This and this are nice examples, even if the architecture therein is not so great.

  4. johnsnavely on October 25th, 2008

    squint/opera’s pretty cool. And yeah, the architecture isn’t the greatest, but it’ll get there.
    I’m really into “bad” architecture. Speaking of which, I’m pretty excited to go see this.

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