On Quality

One of the difficult parts of curating a site like this is maintaining a standard of quality. This is difficult primarily for two related reasons, (1) it can be difficult to find high-quality images of specific people doing specific activities, so we sometimes have to compromise on quality, and (2) cut out people in renderings get used at different scales and resolutions, so it isn't always necessary for a cutout to be high resolution. In many cases, the right person at a lower quality is preferable to the wrong one at a higher quality.

To this end, we're introducing categories as a new feature, additional menu options on the navigation bar. Our two immediately available categories are "New", so you can quickly see the most recent content added to the site, and "High-Resolution", for when you're doing a particularly large rendering, or need to place someone in the foreground. The addition of an HD category gives us the freedom to include in the database interesting images that don't meet the highest standard of quality. 

The third category that we will hopefully be adding to the site in the near future is "Commercial", which will allow you to quickly filter the database to show images that are either public domain, commercially licensed under the creative commons, or that we otherwise have the rights to distribute for commercial use. 

As always, send feedback to nonscandinavia@gmail.com, and be sure to contribute your own images using the submit page. Nonscandinavia gets stronger with user involvement, so send those images our way!

Are Renderings Means or Ends?

There's a question we've run into that has to do with the extent to which architectural renderings track reality. Obviously, the way most renderings are currently populated, there is a lack of correlation between the homogeneity of the rendered demographic and the actual racial demographics of many of the areas being represented. The correction of that imbalance is one of the fundamental aims of this project. 

But what about economic representation? In addition to being mostly young and white, the stereotypical entourage person also tends to appear wealthy and fashionable. It's the classic advertising strategy of showing happy, beautiful, well-off people in order to sell a product, or in this case, a design. But in many of the locations in which those designs are supposed to be manifested, the population isn't wealthy at all. The use of exclusively trendy individuals in a rendering for a low-income site constitutes an intellectual gentrification that frames the project in a significant way before real gentrification ever starts to take hold. 

It's not clear that the opposite approach is right either though. To populate renderings with low-income, even homeless individuals feels in some ways like a resignation to the existing economic inequality that belies architectures transformative potential. The issue turns on the notion of whether renderings are meant to be a kind of utopian vision for the future, or whether they instead constitute a discrete step toward that greater aspiration. Different projects probably take different approaches, but it's important that we recognize the message we're sending with our representational decisions.

Our goal is to expand this collection of images to encompass a range of economic realities, ages, body types, etc., while recognizing that these diverse traits can be used in both productive and damaging ways. An unconsidered use of a homeless person in a rendering, or the use thereof for the purpose of establishing a more gritty, real aesthetic might be insensitive or even outright offensive if the project doesn't conceptually and normatively engage issues of homelessness. 

But ultimately, in order to address real issues, architecture has to recognize and represent them. Not every project can - or should - address every issue, but our intention here is to provide the architectural community with a range of possibilities that allow for thoughtful representation of real people. As always, this is meant to be an ongoing dialogue, so please express your thoughts below, or by sending us an email!

The Trouble With Tagging People

There's an inherent contradiction in the intentions of this project. On one hand, we want to break down stereotypes and outdated notions of representation, to be more inclusive and less judgmental. On the other hand, entourage people are inherently stereotypical because we're forced to judge them solely on appearance. This gives rise to the first problem we've encountered: do you overtag or undertag? 

Tagging too much can start to feel pretty uncomfortable. How fine grained are the distinctions? "Asian" or "Chinese"? What about "Laotian"? Can you be sure based on one image? Even if you're right, will other people know? What would you search for? Should you tag someone as "fat" or "plus-sized"? Or is there an even better term we can use? Can we start shaping people's judgments based on the tags we're using and the search terms we're popularizing?

The alternative is to tag too little, perhaps only by activity. This is probably the most equitable solution for the future, but it also perpetuates the latent racism of those who claim to be race blind. Somehow when no one thinks about race in renderings, everyone winds up white. And if you're doing a project in, say, the South Bronx, which is 60% Latino and 39% Black, the exclusion of people of color from project renderings amounts to projections of mass displacement and gentrification. Whether or not you think that's likely, do you think it's right?

For NONSCANDINAVIA we're tentatively going with the approach of overtagging, because we believe these issues have to be faced consciously and head on. The goal is essentially to tag people in a hierarchy of specificity, beginning with the most general and honing in with as much detail as we know to be true. Here's our basic tag template:

  1. Activity: Walking, Sitting, Talking...
  2. Mood: Happy, Angry, Sad...
  3. Accessories: Phone, Bag, Shovel...
  4. Gender: Woman, Man, Transgender...
  5. Race/Ethnicity: Asian, Indonesian, Balinese...
  6. Age: Child, Middle Age, Older...
  7. Season: Summer, Winter...
  8. Miscellaneous: Anything else...

Some of these things are are visually apparent in a given image, and will be tagged accordingly. Others - like nationality, religion, or sexuality - aren't always apparent, and are often prone to conjecture. We'll only be tagging these non-visual traits based on known information, such as narrative text that accompanies certain images in their original context, known individuals, etc. The issue really is how specific do we want to get, and how comfortable are we resorting to appearance-based stereotypes as metrics for classification?

We don't have all the answers, but our general approach is to tag what seems relevant using terms that are respectful. The tag template is an attempt to break down those criteria in a reproducible way that will create a searchable archive. The tag cloud page lets people see all of the terms we're using, sized based on frequency of use, which gives us a good way of maintaining balance and transparency. 

This process is ongoing and open-source, so if you've got ideas, let's hear them. Comment below to make it public or email nonscandinavia@gmail.com to express your opinion privately.