Dorothy in “Renderland”

Rendering of proposed Lakefront Gateway Plaza, in Milwaukee. (Journal-Sentinel)

Rendering of proposed Lakefront Gateway Plaza, in Milwaukee. (Journal-Sentinel)

Given the apparent difficulty architects have designing places that improve rather than undermine their settings, I was amused at the crie de coeur from art critic Mary Louise Schumacher of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel about the figures – known in the design trade as “scalies” – that occupy architects’ renderings of projects. (See my March post “The secret lives of scalies.”)

Schumacher’s article “In Renderland, including designs for lakefront project, few faces of color” complains that

The humans are uniformly happy and somehow familiar, like old acquaintances you can’t quite place. They cheerily glide in sporty sneakers, chat on cellphones, point at fireworks and eat baguettes. They are also, far more often than not, white. … Not unlike their postwar counterparts — architectural renderings that romanticized the notion of a mostly white middle class — this new class of renderings reinforce an iconography of white privilege.

Oh, please. Give us a break! Schumacher refers in particular to a project along Milwaukee’s lakefront. “In what should be a representation of one of the most democratizing spaces in one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States, the renderings for Lakefront Gateway Plaza included very few people of color.”

She adds, quoting Arijit Sen, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, that “”The lakefront is a highly charged place in terms of race. … I think the lakefront can be a very awkward place for people of color.”

So there aren’t any scalies of color? No, there are not enough scalies of color. She also regrets that there are too few older scalies and too few disabled scalies. How does she know? Maybe some of the scalies eating baguettes have had facelifts. Maybe some of the scalies chatting on cellphones are talking to the counselors at their halfway house.

(Excuse me, but I can’t resist wondering why Schumacher has expressed no concern that scalies are too thin, that there aren’t enough obese scalies. Has she succumbed to a regrettable bout of lookism? I think not. Certainly the obese may be defined as disabled. On the other hand, wouldn’t that be to commit reverse lookism?)

It’s really a little bit much to expect the designers who use scalies to funnel them into some sort of sociological portrait of the area around a given project. Their purpose is merely to give a notion of the scale of a proposed building. Architecture has enough issues without the design equivalent of whether #All Lives Matter is a reprehensible concern.

Schumacher refers, above, to early “postwar” scalies. I recall, in writing about the Downtown 1970 Plan, proposed in 1960 at the height of midcentury modernism, that many if not all of the male scalies in its renderings had male pattern baldness. I attributed that to their being drawn into modernist environments. It was supposed to be a joke!

Proposed redesign of Kennedy Plaza in Downtown Providence 1970 Plan.

Proposed redesign of Kennedy Plaza in Downtown Providence 1970 Plan.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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19 Responses to Dorothy in “Renderland”

  1. Moose says:

    I feel dumber for having read the comments.
    I think that it was Confucius who said, “When the wise man points at the moon, it is the fool who looks at the finger.”

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  2. bradfiore says:

    David, your political ideas are as outdated as your diction, and the only reason your writing finds any audience at all is because you work in one of the most racially and politically divided cities in the country. The reason why MLS isn’t as concerned about the rendered model’s physique as its racial representation is because fat people don’t live in a society that was built off the work of their enslaved ancestors.

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  3. David, Sorry but I agree with those who disagree with your post. Two people of color out of more than one hundred is not a silly objection and to say the visuals are just to “give a notion of scale” would mean there would be no reason to have more than one image throughout the renderings.. I expect better of you.

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    • Many thanks, Work, for your high expectations. If I’d been aware of the degree of exclusion (2 of 129) I might have written my post differently or not at all. Many of the points made in these comments above and below are valid. I still doubt that, in general, racial politics is something architects, with all their other issues, should want to engage. Leave that to others with more knowledge of the issues. As I said to the first commenter, I have no objection at all to scalies of color.

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      • Anonymous says:

        “Radical politics”? At the least we should expect architects to be aware of the world around them. To create a rendering that supposedly reflects the community in which it will be built and ignore the people, yes people, who live within that community is to open that architect — and its supporters — to criticism that says where the hell are you designing for? (I wrote a daily blog for years and know it is best to thoroughly admit a mistake and apologize so everyone can move on.)

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        • Once I learned of the extremity of the exclusion (2 in 129) I backtracked to the extent that I felt was warranted. No apologies are called for here, and I do not apologize for my general point that scalie politics is something architects should stay out of.

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      • If you are going to blog about the issue, why not examine the original renderings yourself? There is a direct link to them in the article.

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        • I will give them a look. But from what I’ve already seen the architecture is more problematic than the scalies.

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        • I just went through the renderings, of which six are of scenes large enough to distinguish race in enough to count. It is difficult to draw the line between figures whose race is identifiable and figures too small or vague to make a reliable assessment. But I think I was able to find 16 blacks among 208 figures. That is not counting people with black hair but their face turned and extremities indistinct. I might be argued out of two or three scalies I’ve ID’d as black but who might be white or Hispanic. Very hard to tell for sure. Here is my image-by-image count:
          1. At the skating rink: 5 blacks/22 total
          2. The swoopy bridge at night: 3/26
          3. Path near fountains by day: 1/22
          4. Path near tower by day: 1/9
          5. Path with girls by day: 1/9
          6. Scene with cherry trees: 5/20
          Aside from acknowledging that even 16 out of 208 does not nearly reflect the black percentage of Milwaukee’s population, it is still less egregious than 2/129. This entire exercise well illustrates, to me at least, the dubious value of such counts.

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  4. Raul says:

    Mary’s article was a total breath of fresh air in Milwaukee, a city which usually likes to stifle the obvious and hide the elephant in the room in the basement. So David, you’re ridiculing Mary’s piece for pointing out something that is obvious to anyone with any kind of media sense: IMAGES MATTER. Depictions matter. They carry power. There isn’t one single instance I can think of where depictions of human beings in a community space — a familiar space, a public and central space for goodness’ sake — wouldn’t matter. That they wouldn’t matter in the most segregated city in the union is just ridiculous. The fact that you don’t think they do pretty much crystalizes the whole problem we have with architecture and urban planning — many designers don’t actually give a rat’s ass about the people who will be inhabiting the space. So you throw in the visuals that are easiest for your hardened brains to come up with. No need to think about it. No need to evolve, like the community around you. No need to show anything other than your laziness and your contempt.

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  5. To me, sir, your reaction is typical “oh no, why do we have to be so PC.” But I’m the guy who counted 127 white people and only two people of color in the renderings. I did that because this is not an ordinary project. This is a major public marquee space, the location of a design competition, and it is unfolding in America’s most segregated city. In this light, I think you’d agree that a) this is not kvetching about diversity, and b) this is critical in terms of the way we envision a major public space in a city seeking to heal racial inequities. Or maybe you think the representation of an architect’s vision is merely trivial?

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    • Two of 129 is too few, indeed, I would agree. Why did Schumacher herself not count it up? She used phrases like “very few people of color,” “far more often than not white,” and the like. Her article did not accurately reflect the degree of the exclusion of people of color from the scalies. That said, I still believe this is not an issue architects should have to deal with. It politicizes architecture. It is a legitimate issue for critics to criticize, but they must be clear that there is a serious omission not just disagreement over how much is enough, as seems the case in Schumacher’s article. I still am not convinced that it is the architect’s job to accurately reflect the diverse characteristics of the population that will use their projects – which is beyond their ability to know and, arguably, a waste of time and money to be asked to calculate.

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      • I did attempt a count and came up with a less definitive number than did Brad, one of a handful of people who brought this issue to my attention. An even casual perusal of the original renderings, however, paints an overwhelmingly white picture. I am surprised that you would be willing to blog and opine on the subject without inspecting them for yourself.

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      • John H says:

        “I still am not convinced that it is the architect’s job to accurately reflect the diverse characteristics of the population that will use their projects…”

        So, that’s a tacit admission that you’re fine with enabling and indeed perpetuating racism – you don’t see paying attention to not replicating racist patterns of representation as part of everyone’s job, all the time, which it very much is for anyone who isn’t in favor of racism. You may not be a bigot (I wouldn’t know if you hold any conscious prejudice against people of color), but you just outed yourself as a racist (in that you are actively arguing for the perpetuation of systems that discriminate against people of color).

        “…which is beyond their ability to know and, arguably, a waste of time and money to be asked to calculate.”
        Yeah, no, not even close. It took me 30 seconds on Google to get racial demographics for the city of Milwaukee, which demonstrates both that it’s possible and not at all costly to find out – you’re arguing that combating racist patterns of representation isn’t worth 30 seconds of time. Doing that beforehand can inform the representation of people in renderings in the first place, which results in zero extra work on that count: no need to count up every person in the renderings after they’ve been produced if you’re paying attention while producing the renderings – just aim for close to proportionate representation IN EVERY SCENE.

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        • You read too much into advice that architects avoid being pulled into racial politics. The numbers may be easy to locate but asserting them might turn out to be more risky and unpleasant than an architect bargains for, precisely as the experience in Milwaukee suggests.

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  6. Really? You can’t accept that in a diverse and liberal society that this kind of detail matters? Have you no empathy? No feelings for your fellow man? Imagine being a person of color for just one day. Would you not notice how you and the people you know and love are carelessly written out of the common narrative through oversights such as this?

    Most surprising to me is why you object to such an obvious and easily remedied problem, A problem that exists in the beloved details, yes, but a problem. It is painless, free, easy to accomplish and makes everyone feel good while making no one feel bad. Why would that be offensive to a champion of beauty?

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    • Bill. Read it again. You will find no objection to scalies of color. I merely object to making a big issue of the detail and accuracy of the scales’ skin color and other ethnic and physical characteristics. That would indeed entail costs and difficulties, inserting building design into politics. She was not saying there were no scalies of color but that there were not enough of them. I decided that this was worthy of ridicule. (I knew I would get a silly objection like this, arising from a desire to raise objections on this kind of topic over something that was absolutely not there.)

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