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Digital Artist Ben Keen Brings You New York City's Next Skyline

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Photos by <a href="">Paul Barbera</a>.
Photos by Paul Barbera.

For many, a walk through Manhattan offers a constant stream of architectural inspiration, towering high rises conspiring to create a striking urban landscapes. For visual artist Ben Keen, a trip through the canyons created by the city's skyscrapers provides him with a canvas for work. How would a new residential tower appear when viewed from that rooftop? What would the facade of a skyscraper look like in this early-evening light? How can this angle help tell the story of a new development? As art director at Visualhouse, a studio that specializes in videos and photorealistic renderings for many of the biggest names in the architecture industry, Keen is constantly cataloging today's urban landscape. His job, after all, requires him to stare at the next iteration of the city's skyline for hours before anyone else, even the architects.

"You start building up images in your head as you walk down the street," he says. "Standing on the street corner, I'm always wondering if this light or image could become a great photo."

Photo by Paul Barbera.
Photo by Paul Barbera.

For a company closely tied to the architecture industry, Visualhouse chose an auspicious place and time to open: London in 2008. Managing director and founder Rob Herrick foresaw a growing need for photorealistic 3D renderings to sell and brand projects, and the steady uptick in construction projects has provided a steep upward trajectory for Visualhouse. In New York the firm opened an office in 2011 and has worked on projects including Hudson Yards and the supertall 217 West 57th Street.

Originally from London, Keen studied animation and modeling, and despite the pull from the gaming industry that many of his classmates felt, he was drawn towards architectural visualization. His first job out of college was doing visualizations for the Harry Potter Theme Park in Orlando; he spent hours modeling candies for the background of a commercial that played during the Superbowl. Despite the high profile, he sought out something more architecturally engaging, and through a series of freelance gigs, made the connections that got him hired at Visualhouse in London.

A Visualhouse rendering of the New York City skyline in 2030.
A Visualhouse rendering of the New York City skyline in 2030.

Since helping start the New York office in 2011, Keen has overseen the firm's work as it has partnered with many of the biggest names in architecture and development, including Hudson Yards and One World Trade Center. Visualhouse knows how to give architecture the spotlight; the firm's New York 2030 rendering showed what the southern Manhattan skyline will look like when scores of yet-to-be-completed buildings are finished. But that's not the signature that makes Visualhouse stand out, according to Keen.

Rendering for a high-profile project are fraught with politics. While architects worry about showing off the details of their design, and developers just care about making the sale, Keen and his colleagues believe the first job is realism, and being mistaken for a photograph is a great compliment.

The selling point is realistic perspectives. A wide-angle shot taken from above the water can show scale, landscape, and perspective. But the photo of a woman enjoying breakfast, newspaper in hand, and a towering view stretching out from the balcony of her high-rise penthouse, with only a few architectural details in the frame, is much more powerful. Draw them in with a story in the foreground, with the architecture in the midground.

"If you pull that camera into the building and frame it so you're looking out a window into the landscape, it's a more compelling, realistic image," says Keen. "Marketers are trying to sell a building, but we're trying to tell a story, show a life that we couldn't really have. What's the lifestyle, how does it feel to live in this space?"

Rendering by Visualhouse.
Richard Meier's Ward Village Gateway in Hawaii. Rendering by Visualhouse.

Keen's team goes to great lengths to capture those details. Photographers shoot models positioned to replicate the lighting conditions and shadows that will be depicted in final renderings, such as a solitary woman in a Hudson Yards condo. Cameras are hauled to remote sites or private viewing decks atop neighboring towers to capture a unique perspective. For a new project by Richard Meier in Hawaii, Keen went to the islands for a few days, and sorted through $30,000 chairs to determine the right props for the photo shoot. Capturing the sunset reflecting on the ocean and the colors of the water require full immersion.

From his office near the Flatiron in New York, Keen has imagined numerous iterations and potential futures for the city. But after all this time working on high-end properties, there's still one thing he can't wrap his head around.

"I can't picture how a billionaire lives," he says.

Photo by Paul Barbera.
Photo by Paul Barbera.

· Visualhouse [official]
· Young Guns 2015 [Curbed]
· Imagining the Megatower-Filled Manhattan Skyline of 2030 [Curbed NY]