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Why the scale figures in architectural images need to be more diverse

Renderings play a key part in making architecture more inclusive

Courtesy of Just Nøt The Same

When Rose Florian and Kordae Henry met as graduate architecture students at the University of Pennsylvania, the pair started thinking about the power of an image. Their work required them to design renderings, but the fast-paced rhythm of school kept them from designing their own scalies, the architectural term for the people who show up in renderings to offer scale and context to buildings.

“So we had to resource the already-limited available stock from other websites,” explains Florian. She and Henry were struck by the lack of diversity offered in those scalies, which are used to portray everything from a couple taking a walk to a child playing.

Florian and Henry came to the field from unique backgrounds. Florian is Puerto Rican and received her undergraduate in architecture there; she notes that “understanding representation and diversity wasn’t something we were talking about back home.”

Henry describes his undergraduate experience as “almost the opposite.” He attended Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore, and says, “Everyone around me practicing architecture was my skin color. It was very rare to have that experience in the profession. You don’t know how important that is until you leave that environment and enter a different culture.”

The importance of representation crystallized for both Florian and Henry after graduating from Penn. And in the notably non-diverse field of architecture, they realized it’d be up to them to bring about change.

“We simply found that unless we started doing things ourselves—unless we started empowering ourselves—there’s no way we’d effect change within this infrastructure we call architecture and society as a whole,” says Henry.

In that spirit, the pair founded Just Nøt the Same last year to offer users a selection of scalies in ethnicities that are often under-represented in architectural renderings and images. (Henry shoots about 80 percent of the images himself.) “We decided to start simple,” Henry says. “We wanted to create tools to use right now to effect change at a small scale.”

Turner Field Neighborhoods Livable Centers Initiative Study
Design Distil for Perkins+Will

Just Nøt the Same represents a growing tendency within the industry to include diverse people within building renderings—a move that, many architects argue, promotes diversity and inclusion within the field. “Traditionally, this has been a white male profession,” says Gabrielle Bullock, the director of global diversity for the firm Perkins+Will. “So to change that trajectory takes work and focus. Diversity has to be deliberate.”

Scalies have been utilized in renderings for decades, not only to provide scale to buildings but to suggest the lifestyles of the people who may inhabit them. Back in the 1960s, scalies often took on gendered roles, with men in living rooms and women in kitchens. Most people portrayed were white.

The internet revolutionized how people were integrated into renderings. Now there’s a wide selection of stock photography, much of it diverse, that architects have to choose from.

That doesn’t mean, however, that all renderings represent diverse populations. A boardroom at the Midtown Manhattan office building One Vanderbilt is populated with white people in its renderings; white people are also the majority of visitors at the Thomas Heatherwick sculpture to be built at Manhattan’s Hudson Yards mega-development.

Not all architects believe scalies carry much significance. “We aren't a firm that does hyper-realistic image making,” says Ben Porto of the Brooklyn-based firm Snarkitecture. “For us it's a little easier not to put any kind of people in there.”

Porto, who prefers to use “shadowed” people if the rendering needs to portray use or scale, poked fun at the sometimes comical insertion of scalies. “In no way does it ever really represent the user group,” he notes. “It's always people pointing at everything. If I put in an active person, it somehow activates the space, when it should be the other way around. Your architecture should speak for itself.”

Still, Snarkitecture can’t fully escape the need for people in renderings. A rendering by the firm with viewfinders set up at different heights was enhanced by outlined scalies, including adults, children, and someone in a wheelchair.

Courtesy of Snarkitecture

Porto is also aware of how the need to meet a deadline can take priority over the thoughtful use of scalies: “It always comes down to deadlines,” he says. “An office has the same 10 people that they always use because some poor intern has to do an image at midnight the night before some presentation, and they just leave it in.”

Bullock, of Perkins+Will, explains that the firm sometimes outsources its renderings to Atchain, a studio in Shanghai, and H2 Studio, in Russia, both of which provide a quick turnaround. “They don’t necessarily have the toolkit of diversity we do,” she says. It requires an extra step “to be vigilant” to make sure those scalies portray a diverse group of figures.

Other architects consider the use of people in renderings more important than ever, especially as renderings are increasingly used to show how buildings, public spaces, and parks engage with the surrounding city.

“We’ve become a lot more aware of [inclusion in renderings] in the last few years,” says Stephen Yablon, of his firm Stephen Yablon Architecture. He noticed a shift from renderings used for sales purposes—“to make projects look glamorous”—to clients interested in “how to make their building welcoming to a diverse community.” This is particularly important, he says, when representing large institutions like schools. “Those clients will start the conversation [of inclusion] from the beginning,” he says.

The creative agency Visualhouse actually visits the neighborhood for which the development is proposed, takes photos of people on the street there (they sign a waiver), and then inserts them into renderings. “That way we have exactly the right demographic of people around the site project,” says founder Robert Herrick.

Rendering of Oceanwide Plaza
Courtesy of Visualhouse

He admits, though, it isn’t always a recipe for diversity: “A project in Brooklyn will have cool trendy hipsters, different races, people from all over,” he says. “But a project in Midtown Manhattan, realistically, is people in suits walking around carrying briefcases.”

Companies like Visualhouse also have to take into account client’s requests about the end user of the project. The firm developed renderings for Oceanwide Plaza, a Los Angeles project built by Chinese developers. “They’re looking to sell to a Chinese buyer as well as a local buyer,” Herrick explains. “You’ve got to create a broad horizon [for a rendering] that includes Asian people, local people, downtown people wearing Lakers jerseys.”

But it’s notable that many architects realize it’s important for communities to feel represented in projects coming to their neighborhood, and place that importance alongside client requests. “It’s the cultural connection,” Bullock says. “In an architect’s vision of what my community is going to look like when you’re done, I need to be able to see myself in that imagery.”

Henry, who also works with the nonprofit MASS Design Group (a 2015 Curbed Groundbreaker), recalled a community engagement meeting the firm held in Mattapan, an African-American neighborhood in Boston that’s been cut off from the city. “Do I believe all offices are doing this? Maybe, maybe not,” he says. “Do I believe all architects want to do good and add value to all types of communities? Yes. I’m just not sure everyone knows how to do it.”

Ultimately, Henry hopes the work of Just Nøt the Same can help bridge that gap—and assign new value to the long tradition of scalies. “Of that [perpetual] topic of who you put in your renderings, what [it] means if certain individuals are doing certain things—we decided to place value in that to tell a new narrative.”

With reporting by Tanay Warerkar