Representing architecture

Conversation between Cyrille Weiner, et Gaël Nys, graphic designer co-founder of RSI Studio (Paris).

By Laure Becdelièvre

Two artists, two perspectives. Two ways of interpreting and visualising architecture: one in digital form, the other in reality; a dream and its realisation. These outside critical points of view are essential for an architect. They help him find the path towards the truth — if there is one — of his buildings.
Cyrille Weiner, who works at 27 rue Barbès, witnesses the work of NL*A at close quarters. The photographer’s sensitive, unconventional eye provides valuable insight into the buildings designed by the architects, as well as shedding light on projects that are still at the design stage.
Gaël Nys has worked with NL*A for several years. The 3D images made by RSI Studio show buildings that are “more real than real”, imbued with a strong, vibrant, highly material presence — just like the designs produced by Dimitri Roussel and Nicolas Laisné.


Photographic perspectives
CW – The first time I worked for an architect was in 2005, for an exhibition on Patrick Bouchain organised by the Villa Noailles. I was given carte blanche to photograph his work; it was the start of a close collaboration that is still going ten years on. It gave me a taste for working with architects and I work more and more with young architects from the same generation as NL*A.
GN – I set up RSI Studio in 2007, after I graduated in interior design at the Ecole Camondo in Paris. Originally, my 3D graphics studio — RSI stands for Réel Symbolique Imaginaire — set out to make computer-generated images belonging to the three registers identified by Lacan. My clients gradually led me to specialise in realistic images of architecture, but my technical and aesthetic research has never been restricted to that.
CW – I find your images very photographic; there’s something very poetic about them. There’s a sense that you have a photographic culture. You don’t restrict yourself to technical performance but you manage to subtly bring something extra into your work.
GN – Yes, our work is intended to be quite close to realistic photography. We use software to simulate all the characteristics of photography: format, resolution, focal length, aperture, framing… We also work a lot on atmosphere, textures, light, natural elements, and materials. In France, for example, we innovated by showing vegetation in 3D instead of 2D.
CW – I can identify well with your style, which I would refer to as atmospheric, in both senses of the word: both ambiance and weather conditions. As a photographer I use the same type of approach: focusing on the way we occupy, experience, appropriate and transform spaces. The formal aspect of buildings interests me less: I respect their intentions and proportions, but I prefer to capture atmospheres, stories and ways of integrating into a city or a landscape.


Production, idealisation, confusion
GN – There’s a grey area between crystal-clear digital photographs that look more and more like 3D images, and 3D images that are becoming more and more photo-realistic…
CW – I try to clearly mark the boundary between the two, by choosing particular viewpoints or photographic atmospheres. But sometimes I get taken in by CG images.
GN – Another tendency of 3D images is to appropriate photographic effects such as chromatic aberration, distorted perspective, flare, and shift; and to adopt post-production tools designed for cinema, especially for calibration.
CW – This is the case for many architecture photographers, who tend to make use of exaggeration, saturation, and spectacular effects. So their distorted, all-over images are very effective. As for me — but this is also because I don’t only photograph architecture — I prefer accurate perspectives and reproduce chromatic scales that refer to certain types of traditional camera film…
GN – In photography, as in 3D visualisation, people too often try to idealise the way architecture is depicted. Of course the idea is to highlight the buildings architects dream up, but not so much as to disembody them. I prefer the little flaws that exist in reality: signs of the premature aging of materials, irregularities, dirty concrete… These imperfections help give a sense of realism to digital images.
CW – You accept reality, that’s what I like about your work. I try to retouch my pictures as little as possible because I think “flaws” are part of the image, and that the photographer’s work involves trying to make them meaningful: you have to be innovative in terms of viewpoint. Photographing sleek modern buildings involves looking at architecture in a very formal way, which brings you down to a few recurrent viewpoints that have become iconic. I’m pretty much against this: a building is experienced by its users from countless angles, so why focus on one rather than another? I prefer to look for unexpected, unconventional angles. I even find it interesting to photograph a setting without even showing the building itself …
GN – But then your approach corresponds to a precise moment in the life of an architectural project: the building is complete, it exists and is being used. Bringing a sense of life and naturalness at the digital image stage involves fictional representation; it’s much more tricky.


Functions of the architectural image
GN – Images undeniably have a more and more decisive part to play in the outcome of architecture competitions. Studios such as ours play a key role in the competition and project promotion process.
CW – That’s true. Having recently taken part in a competition jury, I can’t say, as a photographer, that the quality of the images didn’t influence me…
GN – And yet a good architectural image can’t be reduced to its promotional function. Our profession has inherited twenty years of narrative and illustrative perspectives, trying at all costs to divert attention from the buildings; it still bears traces of that. At RSI, we react to that heritage, which was often rife with imposture, and even though we make realistic images we are not content with just illustrating things as they are; we always put our eye to work.
CW – That’s why photographing empty buildings is of less interest to me: to my mind, a space will be much more meaningful if it is furnished and has people in it. Having said this, people only appear in my pictures when they express something about the architecture around them. I often only show traces of their presence: many of my images are empty, but they’re always inhabited or embodied.
GN – I find that’s the most difficult aspect to integrate into CG images. Photography seems to be much more mature than 3D in this respect. But we’re working on that. In the image we made for Hardel-Lebihan (which was lucky enough to win an award at the CGarchitect Architectural 3D Awards 2013), we created a mise en abyme where the architectural project, with its railway vocabulary, responds to its environment.
CW – Images can even have a political dimension: when you decide to widen the field of a CG image or a photograph so that you look at a building from a distance, showing it in its context, that doesn’t express the same thing as when you show it as a formal construction. The former type of image has the advantage of addressing not only architects but also the general public, involving people in the process of experiencing and transforming the city. That’s where showing architecture in public media plays a role.
Revealing dialogue
GN – With experience, I’ve noticed that the quality of an image largely depends on one’s state of mind: on the time spent talking to the architect, on how reciprocal that dialogue is, and on the freedom of expression we’re allowed… That’s what I like about working with NL*A or Marc Barani. Unlike architects who see us as mere service providers, they give us full involvement in their projects, making us into people who visualise or “reveal” their ideas.
CW – I like spending time talking to architects too. I like going with them to building sites to see how light interacts with forms and materials. It’s really interesting to act as a “revealer” at that point. There can be some unintentionally severe criticism when the architect looks at the photos and discovers things he hadn’t anticipated: the image abruptly brings him face to face with the reality of his project.
GN – We also find that architects are sometimes surprised when they see the pictures of their buildings: they have a mental image but they hadn’t foreseen all the details, the angle of vision, the overall effect… But unlike with photography, the graphic designer looks at projects that are still work in progress: they can still be fine-tuned, as can the images. If our work can then have an influence, it mainly relates to the materiality of the projects. On the other hand we prefer to keep away from volumetric aspects.
CW – I find that NL*A is unusually open-minded on these subjects: the firm is so accepting of criticism that sometimes, at the design stage, they ask me to give my opinion on images received from RSI: concerning the framing, the focal length, the light… It’s a fascinating way of interacting.
GN – Nevertheless, when working for competitions with very tight deadlines, there’s not always enough time for such discussions. When this happens we’re more often asked to produce images at the end of the competition, when the timeframe is different and we can work deeper.
CW – For me too, the work can take place in two stages: one that immediately follows the completion of a building and one, much later on, which is the retrospective stage. It’s the latter stage I like the most, because a long-term dialogue then develops with the architect. By following his projects one after the other, and by superimposing a photographic style and an architectural one, it’s even possible to create a firm’s identity together. Relationships of this quality are few and far between in. I sometimes also have to work at the preliminary stage of a project to “take the pulse” of a locale: in certain competitions that involve a range of different professions (architects, planners, sociologists, geographers, and so on), this multidisciplinary approach can be very useful to determine the direction in which a project can go.
GN – Basically we act as privileged observers at every stage of the architectural process. We both work with a very diverse panel of architects, and that puts us at the very heart of contemporary architecture.


Limitations of images in architecture
CW – Nevertheless, architecture can’t be restricted to images. The unity of a building also involves its volumetrics, the way light interacts with materials, and the way spaces are lived in and experienced. Sound is also a very important factor…
GN – It’s true that good architecture isn’t necessarily just a beautiful image, any more than it is just a beautiful façade, as some architects tend to believe…
CW – The problem arises from the status society gives to images: we tend to focus on them too much. This is all the more dangerous, I think, when it comes to competition images, which tend to freeze buildings in the mind of the public and of politicians, whereas so many things can change between design and completion!
GN – But I’ve noticed that CG images rarely survive longer than photographs. At best, they survive in museums or books. But I don’t think they’re any less interesting for that, like all those architectural models at the Centre Pompidou: they preserve their own materiality, and that means they have an independent life, like poems… My greatest success would be for the images I make to ultimately assume that kind of value.

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