Skip to main content

A rendering by anti-development activists of the proposed Bjarke Ingels-designed condo project for Westbank Corp.

Anyone who followed the battle against Rize Alliance's Kingsway tower will remember the widely distributed image of a big purple tower hovering above Mount Pleasant like a giant blemish.

The image, created and circulated by an organized group that hotly opposed the development, helped mount public opposition and the tower remains in the development permit stage. The purple monster may not have accurately represented the scale or dimensions of the proposed 215-foot-high tower, but it did function as a terrifying symbol of change to the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood.

The use of such images by anti-development groups hasn't stopped at the Rize tower. They are regularly showing up in city council presentations, along city streets, and on blogs and websites – any time there is neighbourhood opposition to the mere suggestion of a mid-rise or high-rise project.

"When used to an extreme, the primary goal is to misinform and inflate some level of fear in their audience," says Rize Alliance's VP of Development, Christopher Vollan. "We spend a lot of money on professional rendering companies. We do renderings to give an artistic presentation of the building, and they picked up on one of them and created their own rendering, which was extremely exaggerated. They like bright fluorescent colours to make it look as garish and scary as possible. They changed the scale, and they changed the perspective and coloured it to be as terrifying as possible. That's their goal."

Mount Pleasant resident Robert McNutt says the renderings of the Rize tower inspired him enough to join the highly public fight against it, spearheaded by the Residents Association Mount Pleasant (RAMP).

"I told City council, 'that monolith can be seen from outer space,'" he says.

With architectural renderings now the anti-development groups' weapon of choice, Vancouver developers are honing their communication skills.

Renu Bakshi, a communications consultant for real estate developers, recently taught a course on how developers can adjust to the new world of social media at the Urban Development Institute. She used the purple image of the Rize Alliance tower as an example of the type of social media battle that can turn into a developer's worst nightmare.

"I call it the Barney building," she says. "That purple rendering was used in stories over and over. Viewers thought that was the actual rendering [presented] to the city – nobody even saw the actual rendering.

"Here was a community group that created its own website with some renderings and managed to own the media with it. Those are the images that dominated the media stories, not actual images submitted by the developer to the city.

"With all these community groups popping up and being as savvy as they are, they capture the media. That includes their own blogs and websites, whether they are factual or not. They've become media experts."

Manipulative architectural renderings are nothing new. But while hand-drawn architectural drawings were more obviously idealized versions, the photo realism of modern renderings carries more weight. The expectation that it's a true depiction is higher, says Bing Thom Architects' Michael Heeney.

"This issue has been with us forever," he says. "Even when we did a hand rendering, it was always possible to fudge it because you have complete control. You can have people selling balloons and having a party in the building, even though you know that will never happen. There are always ways to seduce the viewer.

"But now it's more nefarious because you think you're looking at a photograph. … That is something that can be abused for sure."

Mr. Heeney says he likes to think that most of his company's buildings, such as Aberdeen Centre and the Surrey Public Library, have turned out better than the renderings. But he knows, too, that renderings can be used by anyone with an agenda, especially with new software.

"Nowadays 3-D modelling is so accessible, everyone can do it. Suddenly everybody is a renderer," he says, laughing. "People can use it for political gain. It's not just the architects misusing it, but also neighbourhoods misusing it as well.

"It's all part of a discussion. It is important for people making decisions, that they understand that these media can be manipulated, and they shouldn't take them too seriously."

Developer Daniel Boffo said many naysayers changed their minds about his project at 555 Cordova after viewing the renderings for the residential development, which includes social housing. However, his proposal at Venables and Commercial Drive got the big, purple-monster treatment in a widely distributed rendering that showed a huge tower hovering over a 13-storey building adjacent to it. In reality, Mr. Boffo is requesting a 12- to 15-storey, mid-rise tower that will house the Kettle Friendship Society community space and not-for-profit housing.

"The way they had drawn it … it looked to be 25- or 30-storeys. It looked out of context. It's unfortunate that that happened. It's disappointing. But it happened," says Mr. Boffo, who's still in the preapplication stage with the city.

"The reality is that social media and computer renderings and computer representations are out there, which means we have to be out there in our communication with communities," says Mr. Vollan. "It is a big part of what we do, but we have to get that info out to make sure people understand it and are comfortable with it, before the opposition does. That's critical.