Deception Has Been A Part Of Architecture Since Long Before Photoshop

Where now architects might use Photoshop, Sir John Soane’s elaborate paintings once sold clients on big projects.

Renderings do not always tell the truth. Colors and materials change, trees placed into balconies and plazas disappear, and projects that looked bathed in a heavenly light on the computer screen end up looking more like concrete fortresses in real life. Computers have certainly made it easier to create perfect-looking, totally impossible architecture. But architects have been using visual trickery since long before digital software came onto the scene, as a new exhibit at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London underscores.


Building a Dialogue draws on archival drawings and models from John Soane, an English architect, to reveal the 19th-century equivalent of elaborate Photoshopping. Beautiful visuals–whether or not they match reality–have helped architects sell their case for years.

For instance, when Soane was hired to clean up and repair the exterior of the Bank of England, he instead drew up a proposal to redesign the entire block-length facade. Elaborate paintings of his grand scheme by Soane’s draftsman, Joseph Michael Gandy, sold the bank’s board, and Soane took on the role of the company’s architect for the next 45 years, during which he rebuilt almost every part of the building.

The Bank of England’s Tivoli Corner, built in 1807

In another case, Soane was asked to create alternative designs to his neoclassical proposal for the Holy Trinity Church in London. He complied–but placed the concepts in styles requested by the client within the same painting, lined up one next to the other. Soane’s preferred neoclassical design shines the brightest, literally. It’s depicted bathed in sunshine, while the others fade into shadows.

Detailed paintings illustrated future buildings in a flattering light, selling clients on expensive and time-consuming commissions–not that it was always a successful tactic. Soane’s design for a monumental new entrance to the official residences at Downing Street in 1825 never became reality, despite gorgeous illustrations of its potential. Perhaps he could have made it happen if he had been able to Photoshop a celebrity into the foreground?

Building a Dialogue: The Architect and the Client runs until May 9, 2015, at the Soane Museum in London. 

[via The Guardian]


About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.