The images that some visualizers have been presenting have allowed people to be fully immersed in virtually-built environments; exploring the space, observing how the sun rays create a dialogue between light and shadow, experiencing what they might hear or feel as they walk by one room to another, all before excavation work begins and the first block is laid.
In an exclusive interview with ArchDaily, Luxigon‘s Eric de Broche des Combes talks about his career, creating amplified visualizations and how they influence a project, and what the future holds for the industry.
Dima Stouhi (DS): Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the type of work you’ve done?
Eric de Broche des Combes (EBC): I was born in 1971 in the Cité Radieuse in Marseille, yes “that” famous building from Le Corbusier. It was a great year for psychotropic drugs and microprocessors and a terrible one for textiles. I have been anxious most of my youth about nylon suddenly catching ablaze. I developed a fascination with computers and electronic instruments at a very early age. Whatever blinks is my thing. It was also extremely esoteric, even for adults, which gifted you with some kind of special power. Geeky kids were considered with a mix of admiration and fear. I was quite a rebellious child, pupil and student but managed to make my way through the school of architecture without too much hassle. I couldn’t —and still can’t— handle hierarchy. I did the mandatory study time plus two extra years of Masters, mostly because I was given the opportunity to work on top-notch computers others only dreamt of laying their hands on (like Sun or Silicon Graphics Stations). I enjoyed it a lot. I am still living very much by the rhythm of those years: the terror of failing, sleep deprivation, alternate phases of exuberance and depression, and a lack of reasonable limits when partying. Funny enough I also discovered, during my studies, that being lazy finally requires a lot of work. In order to earn a bit of money along the way, I was running a little sweatshop to help the lost-cause students to attain their diplomas. I think this is where it all started. These days I am still doing my fair share of images and movies, teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Design to “insanely great students”, as Steve Jobs would say, and doing lectures here and there —when there are no coronavirus’ lurking around.
DS: What inspired you to follow this career path?
EBC: Nothing precise. I never saw it as a career and I never had a plan. Still today. For as long as I can remember I have always been more influenced by the immaterial than material. I travel in my head. I like the process of imagining as opposed to absorbing. My father was an exceptional draftsman. He trained me the hard way with intense discipline and extreme organisation —a bit like a Kung-Fu master. My mother, on the other hand, has an utterly fertile imagination and a tendency to believe in the supernatural. The combination of both is a perfect cocktail for art, even though I don’t consider what I am doing as art in the noble sense of the word. It’s more in the domain of the interpretation of dreams. Drawings, good ones, deliver a pristine vision that has not yet been edulcorated by people’s opinions or desires. They are the recipient of the reality you have placed in them and which remains to be deciphered. This ambiguous state is what makes them so powerful. Even more than a finished building if you ask me.
As much as I love architecture, I find being an architect a very painful job. It is very frustrating to see how such a serious and important practice is being treated with such little consideration. I wisely chose to stay away from the construction part but still participate in my own way. On a (less important) side note, I have been puzzled most of my school years by how little bravery and humor was put into architectural representation (with some noticeable exceptions like Kaplický, Archigram or Superstudio, to name but a few). Most of the mainstream work was at best very dull and boring. Skies were always blue and nights never dark. They were showing the monster in plain light in the very first seconds of the movie.
DS: What is the step-by-step process of creating a render/scene? How long does a project take on average?
EBC: I wish there was a rule here but only one seems to apply on a regular basis: “whatever works”.
Ideally, you discuss the scope and visions with an architect or team, immediately followed by the delivery of great self-explanatory documents, a wonderful 3D model made of different layers with names you understand, and pictures of the site taken with expensive cameras. You then proceed to work with this material you are given, but still have time to enjoy lovely evenings with your family and friends and weekends doing whatever you are into doing on weekends. A few rounds of previews, a couple of adjustments later, and a pack of beautiful images is delivered on time and prompt payment is being issued as a reward for your hard work… but most of the time it is more like an Apollo 13 situation “we have a string, a couple of screws, 2 meters of tape and half a pen, how are we going to bring our people back to earth in one piece”. It is NEVER easy, and even worse than that is if it looks easy it is going to be your worst nightmare! I think this rule also applies to engineering.
In 25% of the cases, the plan goes more or less ok. Some people really know how to work, generally, it’s the people modeling in rhino and using pdf as the main form of communication. They earn the respect of our team and even if it’s demanding, you do it gladly. 50% of the cases are more complicated with a few guerrilla fights of various degrees here and there. I would say that the difficult part to handle is being blamed for mistakes we have not made, or are not our prerogative. We are often asked to do things we should not. We call it the “white-cube-and-photographic-reference” syndrome. You have white cubes and by the magic of rendering it should be turned into a vibrant stadium or a lively mall. After all, the computer does it right…
The final 25% is a portal opening straight to hell. A new sort of office mixing all the wrong ingredients has emerged ie.: absolute lack of work; badly covered by long and useless video meetings; terribly corporate and insincere briefs; childish obsessions and ultimately poor design served with a large swig of pretentiousness. Zoom and Sketchup. This can make you consider living in a hut in Alaska and hunt your own salmon. The percentage is, unfortunately, increasing every year because in the world of architecture there’s very little justice. One can feel It’s the end of chivalry.
DS: Is the scenery as important as the architecture or do you prefer to focus on the project itself then complement it with the setting?
EBC: It’s a balance. The era of powerful buildings and weak entourage is over. There’s a common understanding that a project is an array of forms and functions and they have to blend efficiently. An image should reflect exactly that. It should be easy to understand without giving any explanations, but that is also becoming the weak link, unfortunately with the temptation to replace proper design by a sum of uses. A bunch of people waving iPads in the midst of luscious plants is not a workspace. The main purpose of architecture resides in the harmonization of scales for specific functions, with a touch of magic to make it an experience instead of day-to-day operation. Making that part trivial is a considerable risk. Trees have always been the best allies of bad (or insufficient) design.
DS: Since you have an international client profile & your offices are spread across Paris, Milan, and LA, do you find that there is a difference between the style or type of renders requested in these different cultures?
EBC: Renders have become very uniform. I don’t think you can say that there are major specificities anymore – which is very unfortunate. They are “international” now, the same way architecture evolved in the ’60s. It was great to be confronted by different forms of culture whilst doing images though, for example, perspective in itself is a cultural perception. Some countries are less used to the notion of a “third dimension”. The methods of working, on the other hand, can be quite different depending on where the office is situated. Without being too specific, some offices are very open to suggestions, some not at all. You have the Industrious, the Passive-aggressive, the Rude, the Stingy, and the Messy. It would be quite an interesting map to design!
What is an endless joy though, is working with people from different nationalities at Luxigon. On top of being remarkably talented, they all bring different spirits. We tend to tease each other continuously and little folkloric details are a solid fuel for good laughs. You cannot possibly be afraid of differences when you can make fun of them. Nobody is spared, myself included.
DS: How do you translate the architects’ vision? What are the elements that you focus on?
EBC: You have to understand the stakes fairly well before you start. If I had to do a comparison with music we would be the ones doing the arrangements. You have a brute melody and you have to make it intelligible for the masses. The most interesting part of the work is to be capable of grasping the singularities. In one or a few images you have to create some sort of entanglement of reality, desires, and wills. It is barely, if never, a technical issue. It is an intellectual effort and sometimes you even have to fight with the creator to impose it. I love something Paul Andreu, who was notoriously exigent, was often saying “people do not understand that I fight for the project, not for myself”. We at Luxigon, and I personally, are striving for this level of integrity.
DS: How do you think visualizations contribute to the design process and the final result of the project?
EBC: I feel very ambivalent. The fact is that projects have become increasingly complex. One can hardly avoid using 3D software to help in the design process and If a 3D software is implicated then you are one step away from having a fairly accurate simulation. While in the good old days drawings were mostly an interpretation, these days they are more a logical extension of the design evolution. This I think is real progress, alas, as we all know: if facts contradict the story then just change the facts. I would love to believe only the intrinsic qualities of a project are what matters the most, but I have done enough fireworks in my life to know it’s not always the case.
DS: Do you feel like 3D renders are less credible than photographs in the eyes of the reader/viewer or there is no discrimination to the art of architecture visualizations?
EBC: You can lie with a picture as easily as with a render. All you have to do is remove what is wrong and replace it with something nice. A bit of Photoshop and ‘voilà!’ your problems are gone. One tricky situation has appeared due to the progress of technology, software now permits a higher degree of realism which can trick people into believing buildings already exist. Believing in what you see leads to a form of acceptance that removes a large part of critical thinking. The truth is often very different. To quote the Giant in Twin Peaks “the owls are not what they seem”. Let me give you a simple example: a lot of projects you assume will be made of wood will finally end up being all-aluminum coated with a wooden effect. There’s a huge difference between illusion and magic you see. When you know how to read plans or sections you discover where costs have been cut and that is far more concerning than the trickery I have mentioned before. A danger for architecture would certainly be trying to cover all the bases which would finally transform buildings into products.
DS: What are some of the misconceptions about visualizers that you’ve heard? Or things that clients expected from you that you’re not really responsible for?
EBC: First and foremost I don’t like the word “client”. We are in between two “clients“ which is a rather uncomfortable situation as we have to serve two masters. I like to think we are part of a team and not just outside consultants that will throw a bunch of light into a 3D model and talk in pixels.
Over the years our space has been more clearly defined. It was a job that was nearly non-existent 30 years ago. Computers made it possible. It was infinitely difficult to do perspectives by hand, whereas computers could launch millions of rays nearly instantly, but like hand drawing the process of making an image is intellectual, not technical. There’s still this idea that things can change with the push of a button. I think it’s just a posture. We all know it’s not the case but it is often entering into the discussion when things get a little rough around the edges. “You just have to …, no?”, “why don’t you just…” are words we hear on a daily basis. Also, most of us are in fact architects, but there are still some people that consider us as pluggable devices.
DS: How have today’s technological advancements helped you in creating/elevating your renders, especially since you’ve been rendering since 1604!
EBC: Not so much in the end. Things are just going faster but not necessarily better. In 1604 you were having time to peacefully visit space, while today you have to “render-regions” super fast. We still work late evenings and weekends in evermore hectic stress due to constant changes coming from all directions. It’s funny considering how you have been educated to breathe, calm down, and think. It’s a permanent state of panic, but if you take time to consider things carefully, you find that gigantic black holes are absorbing stars while you are desperately trying to remove the mustache of a guy in the background because someone somewhere does not like mustaches.
What technology should have done though is help create better architecture. What amazed me, and that was one of the reason for the class at Harvard, is that the video game industry uses a million times more powerful solutions to create games than architects or urbanists do to create entire cities. At some point, it is critical to reassess what is important. Realtime 3D should be integrated into the design process, but like most technologies is going to fall on the leisure side.
DS: What are your favorite/go-to visualizations style? Why?
EBC: We really don’t have a single style. We see what fits. If it were up to me, we would only do collages like Mies van der Rohe, they were elegant, simple and straightforward, unfortunately, they are too abstract for this era. You don’t need a close-up of a face in tears and a pale blue light and the sound of the waves crashing and wandering piano notes all at the same time, to make people cry. If you do, it means you are bad at your job.
DS: In your experience, what type of render do clients prefer the most or are they most impressed by?
EBC: Renderings are slowly but surely getting to a status similar to religious imagery, something slightly disconnected from reality while still looking realistic enough to make it believable. Cases are all very different, it really depends on who you have to convince. We do only images for competitions, so at least we can skip the elaborate marketing strategies that are sometimes very painful to read. It’s interesting though that the fascination for sunsets and sunrises still persists so vigorously. There must be some sort of genetically embedded special moment connected to the mechanics of celestial bodies. On a larger scale, you can really feel the evolution of anxiety over the years, some sincere some purely opportunistic. We pretty much represent the state of society at any given moment. If we had the opportunity, I would love the experience of working in a radically different expression where opulence is not the most accomplished form of success.
DS: I personally loved your personal website. I felt like for some reason it really translated your personality in a subtle way. Can you explain the importance of having that “touch of personality” in a website/portfolio?
EBC: Thanks! Most of us have a life besides doing renders. We all refuse the idea of being stereotyped. We’re more like a rock band doing images. We are not only here to give satisfaction, like docile animals. I have all sorts of weirdness that I need to express one way or another. I think that everything you do compliment other things, sometimes through simple and regular discipline and sometimes in a more mystical way.
DS: How can architects and designers reflect their character in a website/portfolio? What are the elements to achieve that?
EBC: I think honesty should come first and foremost. I see honesty as a holy shield that can protect you from mediocrity. I have been very strongly influenced by the work of Rem (Koolhaas) and OMA. “Junkspace” is still in my top 10 books many years after I first read it. It is fascinating to see theories slowly developing into practice. I even enjoy the sudden shifts, a bit like Churchill – he fundamentally stayed true to his brain, as opposed to his heart. There is a major nuance.
DS: What would you tell future designers who want to follow the same career path as you?
DS: What do you see in the future of the visualizations industry?
EBC: I realize I might sound a bit bitter sometimes but I am not. I am more like a perverted optimist. I do think that the right solutions always hide in the shadows and that it takes patience and good eyes to recognize them. Now if I want to take a shot at this little speculative exercise I would say there are two possible directions. The first, most ominous one, is that everything develops into some sort of gigantic Ponzi scheme with lies upon lies and immediate gratification. Read me well, it is not a criticism of capitalism, this applies to all political systems. Visualization will then become a tool of propaganda or a special effect and AI will handle that much better than human beings. Having no soul is of great quality if you are targeting optimal efficiency. You can switch off your computers and start learning something else and preferably something AI will not mess with, like baking cupcakes.
My hope is that it will evolve into something more intelligent in the true sense of the word, the combination of powerful technology and human intuition will permit more accurate and proper simulations not biased by the need of the instant. All the now floating parts of architecture should become more integrated and ultimately create a reasonable system you can trust. I always knew images were never far removed from politics but now we have a cause and the responsibilities that go with it, and we are going to fight for it. We have greater expectations than just commercial success. Render or die.