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People Textures on the Athletic Fringe of the City

by LiveModern Webmaster last modified Jan 04, 2012 02:47 AM
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by Geoff Manaugh ( last modified Feb 07, 2011



Yesterday's New York Times Magazine included a new installment of Rob Walker's excellent "Consumed" column in which he explores "the little human figures who inhabit the rendered world" of today's architectural images.

[Image: From a proposal by WE Architecture, via Bustler].

"The apparent purpose of these figures is to provide [a] sense of scale," he writes. They give the image what is known as "people texture."

"But where did these uncanny little citizens come from, and what are they really up to?"

[Image: From a proposal for the Minneapolis waterfront by TLS/KVA, via Bustler].

I had the pleasure of speaking to Rob about his piece, and our conversation rapidly turned into a sprawling look at the various meanings and purposes of inserting nameless, miniature, and often semi-transparent human beings into images of the built environment. The resulting article is worth reading in full—but there are two particular sub-topics we discussed that didn't make it into the final article, and I'd briefly like to mention those here.

1) Rob points out that "there is a small people-texture industry." He writes, for instance, that a company called Realworld Imagery sells a CD featuring 104 "Business People" for $150 per disc. "A site in Britain," he adds, "Falling Pixel, offers, among others, '120 Casual People' (which sounds like a passable indie movie) for about $70." Further, he explains, "While a certain amount of variety matters—scalies can be young or old and come from diverse ethnic backgrounds—the most important factor is making sure any individual isn’t so remarkable as to distract from the scene as a whole (or dressed in outfits that will quickly look dated)."

I had to wonder, nonetheless, if there might not be some fantastic, Don DeLillo-like storyline hidden in the material here—a novel, or short story, or film, that would follow a group of individuals who pay their bills and make a living working as nothing more than anonymous "people texture" in the backgrounds of architectural renderings. SOM, KPF, OMA, HOK—their press teams all seek out this elite group, who, like the legendary hand-model from Zoolander, are seen as uniquely able to add authentic culture to the increasingly elaborate press releases of the architectural world. Listening to their iPods in apartments that don't exist yet, walking their dogs down prospective city streets, playing chess together in a forthcoming park near Potrero Hill.

Anonymous, translucent, and ubiquitous, they are the ghosts of modern real estate, minor celebrities of unbuilt space.

[Image: From a proposal by West 8, via Bustler].

2) If we treat this whole discussion simply as a look at how the human body is depicted in architectural images—in renderings, animations, and films—then it is interesting to look back at a video released roughly three years ago in which "urban free runners" are seen jumping, leaping, bounding, and rolling through the Mountain Dwellings in Copenhagen, designed by Bjarke Ingels Group with Julien De Smedt.

I feel compelled to admit that I am not actually a fan of parkour; my interest here is simply in pointing out that fringe athletic videos—BMX tricks, free-running, skateboarding, etc.—can be tentatively placed into the same genealogy as the "people textures" discussed by Rob Walker.

These peripheral athletics of the city, in other words, are another way to show how the human body populates, textures, and otherwise interacts with architectural space. They don't suggest actual future uses, however, but rather indicate the range of behaviors and movements that a specific location can tolerate. In this context, we could perhaps even suggest that someone like Danny MacAskill is actually advancing the "people texture" industry, without intending to, insofar as his actions reveal new ways for the human body to interact with a given landscape, or that something as apparently irrelevant as trick basketball-shot videos suggest a humanization of architectural space that even well-populated renderings still struggle to achieve.

Fringe athletics videos, then—even if we limit ourselves solely to the Bjarke Ingels/parkour example cited above—can be seen as a kind of unexpected continuation of the people texture industry: highly novel ways of revealing how a site can be woven into the cultural fabric of the city.

Read Rob Walker's article for more.




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