Ever wonder what’s it like to climb to the roof of the Taj Mahal or to see a building built before your eyes?
Image making has always been about representing something in a way that is convincing. Computer-generated imagery has forever changed the way that the real can be shown and the fantastic brought to life. Think, for example, of James Cameron’s exquisitely and exhaustively rendered world of Pandora, where masses of moviegoers found themselves depressed after they left the film's immersive, fictional Eden. Films like Avatar show the complicated power of virtual reality, where possible applications of computer imagery are endless.
But imagine applying that same technology to imagining how to heal the devastated landscapes of Haiti or virtually rebuilding the wounded cities of New Orleans and Kabul. And while any such undertakings always run the risk of blurring the line between the real and the imagined, ultimately it is the power of digital imagery to change our thinking that is significant. While there are philosophical, aesthetic and ethical issues about the blurring of the line between the real and the imagined—Hollywood blockbusters, mind-altering videogames and designs for buildings and landscapes—virtual reality makes anything possible and it this inherent promise that is timely and culturally important.
Four sites are worth visiting:
Architecture and urban planning have always turned on the rendering of buildings and vistas in order to convey the appearance of a finished building or project. The incorporation of computer aided design (CAD) and computer generated imagery (CGI), whether static or moving, has transformed the idea of the simulated cultural product. Endless examples abound, but two are worth seeing. The first is a tour of architect Santiago Calatrava’s new train station in Liege, Belgium. The imagery of the tour is not as crisp or lifelike as other comparable virtual products (the people look stilted and the trees are rather flat).
Santiago Calatrava’s new train station in Liege, Belgium
However, the overall effect is balletic and suggestive of the rich applications of the technology.
The other site, by far one of the most impressive uses of computer graphics in the creation of a virtual world, is that of Tronic Studio’s presentation for the developer of 56 Leonard Street in New York City. One of a spate of superluxury towers destined for Manhattan (along with the now-truncated Jean Nouvel tower proposed for a site adjacent to MoMA, Calatrava’s stacked-cube confection for 80 South Street and Frank Gehry’s stop and go tower at 8 Spruce), the Herzog & de Meuron building with its stacked and individuated floors is remarkable because it is beautiful and desirous. The promotional clip by Tronic manages to take the fantasy of high-style architecture and make it even more astonishingly sleek and amazing. That Herzog & de Meuron posted the Tronic video on Facebook just adds to alter-modern appeal of the project and its promotion. One does wonder, however, what critic Theodore Adorno would think.
56 Leonard Street
One of many visually and spatially accomplished immersive worlds, the videogame Mirror’s Edge stands out because of its aesthetic sensibility and its pervasive adrenaline-fueled anxiety. With its sharply delineated hypermodern cityscape, its anti-totalitarian message, and its winsome athletic wunder-heroine, the game takes you in and exhilarates your inner freedom-fighter.
Built as a mausoleum by the Emporer Shan Jahan as memorial to his favorite wife Mumtal Mahal, the Taj Mahal is easily one of the world’s most iconic structures and on the must-see list of all travelers. This virtual tour (one of a series of computer-generated architectural tours of significant buildings) is dazzling for its detail and defiance of gravity. Here one sees far more of the building than if you got yourself to Agra, wended your way past vendors and monkeys, paid the entrance fee, and toured the building with thousands of your fellow tourists.
Michael J. Prokopow is a cultural historian and curator in Toronto. He teaches at the Ontario College of Art and Design University and is interested in the objects, their meanings and aesthetics.