New London Architecture

Five minutes with...Ben Davies

Tuesday 31 August 2021

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor  
Hello. How are you? 
 
Ben Davies  
Good morning. I'm well, thanks. How are you? 
 
David Taylor  
Yeah, pretty good. Nice to meet you! I'm keen to learn about the work that you're doing with the Alan Davidson Foundation and the Archiboo Storytelling Award and, particularly, your idea of having more emphasis on narrative and storytelling within the built environment. Have I got roughly the right end of the stick? Is that what this award is all about? Perhaps you can talk about it in general terms?
 
Ben Davies  
Yeah, sure. I can try! My interest in storytelling, as you might call it emanates back to architecture school, really, where I spent seven hard-working years like most architects. It became very clear to me during architecture school that a great idea could be completely let down by poor communication. But also, a terrible idea could actually be adopted through the power of great communication, which I would call storytelling. So that's where my interest began. Following architecture school, I worked at Hayes Davidson with Alan... 
 
David Taylor  
Oh, you did? 
 
Ben Davies  
Yeah. It was quite early in its evolution. It was in the mid to late 90s, in a messy room above a pub in Chiswick where I started to be fascinated and slightly obsessed with communicating what the cities of the future could look like, how they would feel, and how you could evoke a feeling in a viewer. At that stage, we were working almost exclusively on static, still imagery. And that fascination has continued to this day, really.  I've been on a journey myself, which involved, after working at HD, I worked at another visualization studio before taking the plunge and setting up my own in the mid-2000s. And at that point, I was also continuing that obsession about how we communicate architecture in a way that truly does it justice. There can be sometimes decades of work that goes into a single project; decades' worth of man hours or effort can go into a project to make it what it is. To take on board and respond to all the different forces at play. And I've always seen architecture in that respect, as almost the ultimate art form. Alan passed a few years ago, sadly, but he was a real trailblazer in his time, clearly. For me, he was one of a very small handful of people at that stage in the 80s, and 90s, who really recognized that there were new ways to stimulate these conversations about the future of our cities, and either to tell stories about them or to communicate them accurately, which was another aspect to his work.
 
David Taylor  
His involvement was largely about photo-realism wasn't it, through software, essentially. Do you think we are moving into a different phase where filmmakers are getting involved? And that there's a sort of different narrative emerging, and different technologies emerging, like VR and AR?
 
Ben Davies  
Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I think it's really come to the fore in recent years. But of course, that's been underway for decades. (laughs) Well, centuries, you could argue, in some regards - I can remember clearly reading a quote from a French painter, in the 1800s, when he first saw a photograph, proclaiming that from now, painting is dead. And in a sense, I can see that repeating. With every new tool, with every new technology, with every new way of potentially telling a story, we see people lurching and jumping onto this new technology, or new medium, before really understanding arguably, what you can do with it, or what you might do with it, what you could do with it, and maybe what you should do with it.  Alan, in a lot of his work, technology was at a certain point, if you like, in the 90s, and the 2000s, where actually achieving a level of realism was a pretty special thing to be able to do. And, obviously, technology and skills have evolved, whereby, actually producing something that looks pretty realistic, in terms of being credible - it's quite commonplace now. So, I'm always interested in that expanding toolset, if you like. Just because you can achieve realism doesn't mean that that's the best way to tell a story about something, about a building or about a future part of a city. 
 
David Taylor  
So can you give us an example from today, or in the last couple of years, say, that you have found really interesting and fresh as a way of communicating architecture?
 
Ben Davies  
Yeah, well, I think you mentioned one earlier, which would be the whole space, if you like, of virtual reality. Obviously, when it comes to experiencing a space, three-dimensionally, we've been limited for quite some time to essentially abstracting the view of the real world onto a 2d plane of some kind, lacking that depth and that experiential aspect and actually consuming the entire visual range. But I think VR has become incredibly talked about and incredibly exciting. For me, it is still perhaps comparable to what I was just saying about realism and photo realism; that a lot of the VR work that I'm seeing now still feels quite primitive. It still feels at the level of representation, rather than truly finding a new way to use that medium to tell stories. So, it's at the stage where it's very impressive. It looks realistic, but what else? (laughs) You know, why use this particular platform to convey this project or convey this idea? So, yeah, All VRs, virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality - these have all given us incredibly rich opportunities to tell stories, but I haven't seen that many examples of them being used, specifically in architectural communications, in a genuinely innovative way beyond what you might call representation - to move the human. Just to present information.
 
David Taylor  
So am I right in thinking that it's used largely to place the individual within a space and let them wander around or imagine the space or see the space or be in the space? And it's that linear at the moment?
 
Ben Davies  
Yeah! Most of the things I'm seeing are working in that way. It's almost like, okay, plonk, a human in the space and have a walk around. Yet, if you compare that to something like say, film, what you might call an A to B kind of narrative, film is all about the director trying to convey a story through a series of carefully considered framings. Whereas, if you just plonked someone in a in a space, it is like putting someone in a building, literally, and just saying, 'go and have a look, see what you think'. So, I think there's a whole dimension of opportunity there to think much more creatively about what to do with the human when they're in that space! How to tell stories to them and get over the sort of fascination of 'ooh, doesn't this look realistic?' or 'doesn't this look impressive?' into story, drama, and atmosphere. And working to tell that story rather than, as I say, just kind of plonking the human in there.
 
David Taylor  
Yeah, sure. So, more curation, in other words... 
 
Ben Davies  
Yeah, more curation. I mean, of course, sometimes, it can just be that the story is, ‘show me what the space looks like’, and then that's a completely worthwhile exercise. But I think once you move beyond that, there is another storytelling paradigm, really.
 
David Taylor  
So it's early days, in other words, and we've got lots to look forward to.
 
Ben Davies  
Yeah, the irony is that it has sort of been early days for like a decade with something like VR! It's becoming to the point where it has become very well talked about and adopted. But even now, of course, it's changing drastically, not least because people aren't sure about putting things on their face at the moment. So, lots of cultural issues to deal with as well. So that's shifting how people think about those experiences. I always think technology is fascinating, but for me, it's about creating a bigger box of tools. The skill for me then becomes about which tools are the ones to tell the particular story that you're looking to immerse people in.
 
David Taylor  
Well, it all sounds very exciting. And I'm looking forward to a future where I'm not just plonked into a scenario but where I'm curated! So, thank you very much for your time. That was really great. Good luck with it all
 
Ben Davies  
Okay, cheers. No problem. Bye!

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly



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