Lying Through Design

Renderings of proposed urban spaces–be they parks, plazas, public squares, streetscapes, or really any other outdoor urban realm–tend to be very idyllic. In fact, they tend to be downright unrealistic, particularly in regards to the placement of people.


People in project renderings always amuse me, because they perfectly illustrate the limitations of the designer’s understanding of human behavior. Or more specifically, the failure to conceive that people might use their design in ways beyond the designer’s intent. The people depicted are always clean and inoffensive, never doing anything uncouth like leaning against a wall or–gasp–loitering in a space that looks like an awfully inviting one to loiter in. And there’s always the perfect amount of people: just enough to make the space look occupied, but not so many as to make the space look loved.

But it’s the positioning of the people in renderings that really gets me. They always look so sterile, so disengaged with the beautifully-designed spaces they inhabit. A lot of this can be chalked up to the limitations of badly photoshoping pictures of people into drawings, but there’s more to it than that. The presented notion that what you’re looking at is capturing a moment in time is undercut by the obvious truth that each figure was very consciously positioned there by a guiding hand, lending these renderings a very surreal aesthetic.


But then there are those renderings where it’s not just the people, but the design itself that suggests a disconnect with reality. Which brings us to this article about a proposed park space in Downtown Los Angeles. The central feature of the proposed park was an events center that would be covered by undulating strips of green turf.


At first glance it might seem like a cool idea, but look at the pictures more carefully. One key matter seems to have gone unanswered by the designers of this park: are people going to be allowed to enjoy those strips of green turf?

The absence of people on the grassy roof suggests that it’s not the designer’s intent for people to be up there, but there’s no obvious barrier to deter people from climbing up there. In fact, some of the sidewalks lead almost invitingly past the base of the turf strips, and the turf is at such an angle that it certainly looks like climbing it is easily doable.


And really, what sensible kid isn’t looking at the strip of lush green hill and thinking “I want to run up that and roll back down!” A usable roof would be a unique, fun feature for this setting.

But not only do there not seem to be any barriers preventing people from going on the turf strips, there also seems to be no safety barriers on the sides of those strips. So if someone did go up there, they would run the risk of falling off the side, not just endangering themselves, but anyone who happens to be standing on the sidewalk below.

So which is it? And people allowed to go up there or not?


Obviously, these are questions the actual builders of the space are going to have to figure out–presuming this design even gets approved in the first place. But this seems like a pretty obvious thing you’d want to address off the bat.

Indeed, the absence of any kind of safety features raises an uncomfortable question: was this an innocent omission on the part of the designers, or did the presence of such safety features mar the visualization of the design enough that the designers felt they would have a stronger case leaving them out–even if it meant lying to the viewer about what the final product would look and feel like?

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