Philipp Schaerer has made a style-defining contribution to the field of digital architectural visualisation. He authored many well-known project visualisations in collaboration with architects Herzog & de Meuron in the 2000s. Many of these images are still considered points of reference in the architectural context to this day and have played a significant role in shaping the visual language of the architectural visualisations that are now commonplace. Most of the images were created with a view to participating in international architectural competitions and served as visual representations of the respective submitted project designs.
The images are to be understood in the context of the time when they were produced: the start of the 2000s, an era characterised by incorporation of the computer into the architecture business and by use of new digital (image) processing techniques – as well as by advancing development of the internet, which, in addition to the previously predominant text-based content, was now more capable of transporting and multiplying image-based content. Thus, a marked shift towards the image as a medium was also evident in architectural practice at that time. More and more architectural designs were being depicted visually and conveyed via the image – a phenomenon that can basically be understood in the context of the increasingly pictorial nature of social communication and is often described as the iconic turn.
The remarkable thing about Schaerer’s early visual work is certainly its ‘manual’ execution. It has little to do with computer-generated 3D visualisation, which is practically used for the majority of perspectival and particularly photographic-looking project visualisations rendered from 3D scenes today. Although Schaerer’s images were also developed digitally on the screen, they were mainly created two-dimensionally, directly within the image, by means of collage. This is partly due to the fact that at the start of the 2000s, 3D computer graphics were still in their infancy in the field of architecture and the resulting visualisations could not provide the expected image quality (lighting design, atmosphere and visual haptics). Especially in the case of planned large-scale projects with an increasing number of components and ever greater complexity, the calculated visual results of 3D rendering were hardly satisfactory. An even more decisive factor was the fact that the processing power of the computers available at the time was still only modest, so the required calculations pushed them to the limits of their capacity, leading to never-ending rendering times. Thus, in some cases, Schaerer’s early focus on digital collage is to be understood in this context, as well as with regard to the possibilities offered by collage in terms of free image development and the pursued visual aesthetics.
The principal characteristic of digital collage is the two-dimensional combination and arrangement of individual image fragments, which are put together on the computer to form a new image. Starting with a basic image, a multitude of digital image fragments were interwoven and superimposed, layer by layer. In contrast to 3D computer graphics, this visual approach is highly manual. All surface and material textures, as well as figurative objects, such as people, furniture and vegetation elements for example, were first cut out and removed from pre-existing images. Subsequently, they were harmonised with regard to contrast and hue. Next, they were scaled to the required size or (depending on the three-dimensional view to be created) distorted in terms of perspective. Finally, they were staggered and arranged on numerous image layers, according to the desired visual depth effect. This multitude of manually executed work steps inevitably gave rise to various nuances in the handling of individual visual elements: localised blur, imprecision and visual inconsistency, which often also constitute the charm and quality of these collages.
Compared to purely calculated computer renderings from the early 2000s, the project visualisations developed by Schaerer appear considerably more striking and subtle with regard to the handling of surfaces and contours. Unlike 3D visualisation, in which the rendered visual scene consists of an arrangement of various virtual model bodies, so modelling occurs solely on the basis of ‘tangible’ objects, digital collage disregards the nature and insularity of the depicted elements. Regardless of whether the visual elements are photographic set pieces, textures, graphic patterns or linear drawings, the main criterion for whether they can be collaged and processed is their availability as pixel or raster graphics, such that they can be combined, interwoven and blended together without restriction. Thus, in one respect, intangible elements such as light textures and atmospheric gradation curves can be loaded into the collage here as visual objects, and interwoven and blended with the surrounding image fragments by means of alpha blending or soft edges – in a process much like the traditional sfumato technique. Incorporation of different levels of visual detail within a single image also seems to be a feature of Schaerer’s early works. This can involve attaching different weightings to focus, transparency, density, brightness, contrast or colour, in order to direct attention (sometimes with manipulative intent) to the relevant key areas of the depicted project proposal. The style of Schaerer’s digital collages thus comes across as considerably more nuanced, multilayered and soft than early 3D visual scenes that were purely calculated, which often appear very clean and hard because of their repeating textures and sharply separated vector-based contours.
This collage or montage work was undoubtedly quite demanding with regard to the planning of work steps, as well as the viewing and organising of the visual material to be processed. Already at the start of 2002, the visualised project design for the Allianz Arena in Munich, which Schaerer prepared for Herzog & de Meuron, comprised far more than a hundred individual digital image fragments, which first had to be viewed, selected, cut out, and finally arranged and organised on different transparent image layers. As the image-processing software Adobe Photoshop was used, which had a fixed maximum of 99 possible layers until the release of version 6 in September 2000, working with such a large number of digital image layers was relatively new and barely conceivable before. It is also unsurprising that during those years, Schaerer began to set up and work with an image database for the handling and management of the accumulating visual material to be processed, so as to enable faster viewing and indexing of the individual image components. To this day, in his independent artwork, the image database plays an important role as a resource pool. Just like paint pots for a painter, digital image and media components constitute Schaerer’s source material and serve as the palette of materials for his works. Schaerer now has over 200,000 captured files, indexed with multiple keywords. Large-scale contact prints from his image database were exhibited in 2016 at the Centre for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, and later in 2018 at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Today, Schaerer rarely works in the field of project visualisation. He mainly produced this visual work in the context of Herzog & de Meuron between 2000 and 2008, and occasionally later in the form of commissioned works for befriended architects. However, these early visual works still form an important pillar of Schaerer’s oeuvre to this day. Alongside his broad know-how regarding digital image-processing techniques, component-based visual processes remain a key cornerstone of his current work. Schaerer is still consulted as an expert in this field today, sometimes also as an author, e.g. for the chapter ‘Visualisation’ in the book ‘Atlas of Digital Architecture’, edited by Prof. L. Hovestadt, Prof. U. Hirschberger and Prof. O. Fritz, and published in the summer of 2020.