Tricks of the Trade

Nova Centre under construction (photo from CBC News)

Have you walked past the new Nova Centre? Like everyone else, you must be shocked by the enormous mass it has become in the middle of downtown. You didn’t expect that, did you? But the developer – in this case, supported by municipal and provincial officials – can reply that everything was shown in the renderings, so you shouldn’t be surprised. It’s your fault for not noticing. Therefore, let’s go back to the renderings to see where you went wrong.

OK, to be honest, that’s not really fair. Instead, let’s go back to the renderings to see how you were fooled.

First, let’s acknowledge that the developer and supporters were trying to sell us a product. The colourful renderings of Nova Centre were a form of advertising, comparable to TV commercials from Big Pharma drug companies in the United States that charm us with images of middle-aged men doing cannonball dives into swimming pools and middle-aged couples frollicking on the beach. Meanwhile, the announcer casually mentions the side effects that were discovered during the clinical trials: “This development may increase wind. It may cause urban congestion. Reduced solar exposure may be treated with vitamin D. Elevated property taxes may cause local businesses to evacuate. Construction lasting more than four years requires immediate economic attention. Some cities experienced extreme loss of character.” The commercial ends with a bubbly “Ask your family architect if Nova Centre is right for you!”

Unlike Big Pharma, “Big Developa” isn’t obliged to describe the side effects of its projects, so we’re seeing only the bubbly side. To learn how architectural renderings can fool us, let’s go behind the scenes to see some tricks of the trade.

 1. Cropping the View

nova_centre_1This perspective of Nova Centre was generated from a digital model, so its geometry is liable to be internally accurate. The trick here is in the tight cropping of the image. It shows only the building, so you’d never know it’s in the middle of historic Halifax, near the Grand Parade, or that its building mass is much larger than anything else downtown. To estimate its height, you could count the number of storeys, but there are no neighbouring buildings to help you understand what that means.

Did you notice the leaves in the upper left corner? That’s a common trick of renderers. The tree doesn’t exist, of course. This is downtown, not a pastoral landscape where buildings are lower than trees.

2. Altering the View


Here’s a rendering of Nova Centre that includes some neighbouring buildings. We can recognize the brick-clad Marriott hotel on the left and the 1960s Centennial Building on the right. But wait – both of them have been moved away half a block so that we can see the whole Nova Centre. This composition suggests that its urban surroundings are spacious, not the narrow city streets of Halifax.

Now have a closer look at the ground level below. It shows how the renderer tried to cover up this graphic lie with another graphic lie, by adding two wide pedestrian malls along the south side of Sackville Street (on the left) and the east side of Argyle Street (on the right). In fact, these malls don’t exist and they aren’t part of the Nova Centre project.


3. Creating an Impossible Viewpoint

A striking formal composition is what architectural renderers call “the killer view”: the one we’d buy on postcards. To achieve this, some liberties may be necessary. In all of the images above, we’re stationed a quarter-mile away, so Nova Centre fits within a 60-degree cone of vision and doesn’t appear monstrously distorted. Of course, this view wouldn’t be possible without tearing down another city block in the foreground.

Architectural renderings are often composed as bird’s-eye views. Who wouldn’t want to be a bird, soaring through the city and looking down? Meanwhile, our human-eye view is at street level, looking up, so it’s fair to ask why that viewpoint wasn’t included in the renderings.

4. Misdirecting the Audience

In the images above, look at the top of the tower. Its outline resembles the bow of a ship or an arrow pointing toward the future. These positive associations attempt to sell the product. The trick here involves misdirection, the classic ploy of stage magicians. The audience’s attention is drawn to something up high while the real action is happening down below. But don’t blame yourself; everyone falls for this.

5. Over-populating the Rendering

nova_centre_4The perspective above looks through the middle of Nova Centre, the covered route that used to be Grafton Street. This trick is what nineteenth-century Beaux Arts architects called “entourage.” In this view, the building comes with its own lively entourage: gesturing people, colourful balloons, banners, spotlights, and sculptures. If we buy the building, these extras would be included, right?

6. Manipulating the Lighting

Borrowing techniques from stage design, the image above combines different light sources, each to its own advantage: shiny balloons, people with no shadows, sculptures illuminated from within, etc. Cosmetic improvements are easy with Photoshop.

Now have another look at the lighting in the second image above. Twilight is the most seductive time of day. The sun is setting and there’s just enough daylight for reflections and silhouettes. Soft, warm interior lighting anticipates evening. If you buy this building, it will improve your sex life.

7. Manipulating the Materials

Sparkly, voluptuous surfaces are sexier than flat, uniform surfaces. Glass is already reflective, but concrete needs some clever lighting and polishing in Photoshop. A skilled graphic magician can render buildings to appear transparent and weightless, like clouds and crystals. Who could resist such magic?

8. Adjusting the Colour

Have you noticed that distant things in reality appear hazier and less colourful than nearby things? This is an optical condition caused by ambient dust and humidity. The high contrast and colour saturation in the renderings above make Nova Centre seem smaller, more toy-like, and less ominous. When it’s eventually finished, let’s take some photos and compare them to the renderings.

9. Improving the Weather

All architectural renderings are located in California, where the sky is clear, the sun is shining, and it’s warm all year round. Who wouldn’t want to live there, instead of rainy, slushy, overcast Halifax? If we buy the building, is the weather included?

10. Eliminating Traffic

In the rendering world, cars are for decoration. Trucks don’t exist and there is no traffic backed up at the lights. In fact, there are no traffic lights or overhead wires. Who wouldn’t want that?

11. Celebrating on Opening Day

Renderings show the finished building on opening day. They don’t show the building under construction, nor after ten years of use. A phased project wouldn’t be shown incomplete, as that would raise doubts about its success.

On opening day, everything is clean and tidy. If an interior view is shown, the graphic stagers have selected a few choice pieces of furniture to complement the building design. The exterior views suggest that the building will always look brand new.

12. Preventing Movement

The oblique two-point-perspective renderings of Nova Centre resemble eighteenth-century Italian stage sets, facing the audience. Meanwhile, the other sides of the building – the back stage – remain hidden. What’s going on back there? Unlike proscenium stages, city blocks are always in-the-round. As mobile creatures, we want to walk around on our own and explore a building from different sides, including its inside and its backside. We want to understand how it would fit into the city and how it would appear from near and far. Digital models, walk-through animations, and even Google Street View permit movement, but a perspective pins us down to one spot.

A cleverly chosen perspective viewpoint can also hide a contentious part of a project – especially a large or tall building mass – by keeping it in the background, where it appears smaller and can be camouflaged by its surroundings.

13. Masking Other Senses

Images are apprehended by our most distant sense, sight. When we look at a photorealistic rendering, we believe we’re there, but this is only a very limited understanding. When we encounter a building in the flesh, we use more of our senses and muscles. In a rendering there are no materials to touch or tap. There are no surfaces to climb. There are no wind tunnels or wind chill. There are no cold shadows. There is no traffic noise or wind noise. Drawings can’t convey these phenomena, so we have to rely on skepticism and memory to fill the gaps.

14. Hiding the Numbers

When surrounded by colourful renderings, we’re less liable to look at the black and white architectural line drawings of the building’s plans, sections, and elevations. They include important information, but decoding them requires some architectural education. As a member of the public, you can be forgiven for skipping over them. When faced with seductive renderings, it’s hard to focus instead on non-visual, quantitative, and temporal things: for example,

  • How long would construction take?
  • How would the local area be affected during construction?
  • Has an independent wind study been done to measure its impact at street level?
  • Is there really a demand for this building?
  • Would other buildings lose tenants when this new building becomes available?
  • How much would the property tax for nearby buildings increase?
  • Would this prompt less affluent residents and businesses to move to the suburbs?
  • Which by-laws is this development breaking?
  • How much profit is the developer making from the extra development rights?
  • Is the city getting anything in return, such as affordable housing or public amenities?
  • What are we giving up so that this can be built?


Now It’s Your Turn!

Now that you’ve learned some tricks of the trade, see how many you can spot in these renderings of other proposed or approved buildings in Halifax.


Above is the nine-storey Mythos Developments proposal for North and Oxford. If you answered “cropping the view,” you’d be right. This building could be anywhere in the world. Who would guess it’s in Halifax and surrounded by two-storey houses? If you answered “preventing movement,” you’d also be right. The opposite side of the building faces the residential neighbourhood on Seaforth Street, but you wouldn’t know that from the developer’s presentation, which includes just this one rendering.


Above is the Southwest Properties 16-storey Pavilion building at South Park and Sackville (formerly the CBC and YMCA sites). Here you could have scored points with many different answers, including “cropping the view” and “altering the view” (removing all of the neighbouring buildings and presenting the building as a freestanding pavilion in a park); “manipulating the lighting” (is that sunlight coming from the north?); and especially “manipulating the materials” (making the upper two-thirds of the building seem as transparent and weightless as the clouds in the sky).


This is part of the Westwood Developments proposal for the city block bounded by Spring Garden, Queen, Doyle, and Brunswick Streets. The landscaped roof garden in Westwood’s latest slideshow looks voluptuous – but you weren’t fooled, were you? If you guessed “creating an impossible viewpoint,” you were right. This bird’s-eye view would be seen only by birds. From all other nearby buildings – including the civic living room at the top of the Library – this roof would be hidden, as it’s at a higher level. There is no access to the roof and no railing around the edge, so no one who lives in the building would see it, either.

If you guessed “over-populating the rendering,” you’d also be right. Those swooping earth berms, subtle colour variations, and other mini-golf features on the roof wouldn’t really exist. According to the roof plan in the developer’s same presentation, the roof has just a flat green mat of sedum. This layer of vegetation (shown below) would be practical, but its flat green graphics wouldn’t help seduce the public into buying the building.



Above is Dino Capital’s project for Wellington Street, with Gorsebrook Park on the left. If you guessed “cropping the view” or “altering the view,” you’d be right again. This rendering shows the two existing towers next door (in blue), but doesn’t show that the rest of Wellington Street consists mainly of two-storey houses.

If you guessed “celebrating on opening day,” score bonus points! Amidst the many renderings and drawings in the 28-page presentation of this project, only one drawing – a plan – indicates that the developer wants to build the project in two phases, as a financial safety net. If the second phase is never built, Wellington Street would be left with a half-completed building with a blank south wall and a blank parking garage roof. The developer chose not to show Phase 1 in the renderings, but an observant local citizen decided to do so, using Photoshop to remove the cosmetics.



What About Ethics?

Isn’t it unethical for Big Developa to try to fool the public? Unfortunately, we’ve come to expect this sales paradigm: a seller, a buyer, a product, and a sales pitch that promotes certain features while hiding – or even lying about – the rest. The primary motivation, of course, is profit. If we accept this paradigm as the way things are done, our only recourse is to adopt a defensive position: “Buyer beware.”

Big Pharma – at least, in the States – uses the same sales paradigm but has to convince two buyers: the patient and the doctor. Fortunately, the doctor is bound ethically by the Hippocratic oath to do no harm, so this provides some resistance. Consumer groups – think Consumer Reports – provide an extra layer of protection.

Unfortunately, there is no ethical gatekeeper to protect the public from Big Developa. The architect (or architectural renderer) who was hired by the developer to produce the renderings is complicit. The only gatekeeper left is city hall, which is expected to apply municipal by-laws and collective wisdom. If the by-laws are set aside and wisdom is in short supply, the public is no longer protected. As a last resort, citizens’ groups can raise a red flag, but they risk harassment and lawsuits from Big Developa.

It doesn’t have to be this way. History includes other paradigms for developing a city. In our case, city hall can respect the by-laws and use its collective wisdom to define and protect the public good. Developers can avoid the sales paradigm by placing public good before private profit. Architects who work for developers can uphold their obligation to professional ethics by representing projects in a comprehensive way that avoids graphic deception.

Steve Parcell / 8 April 2016 / last modified 11 April 2016