Making Architecture Art : Development: Al Forster and Robert Watts are two of the best at taking technical drawings and translating them into renderings that make buildings come to life.


Architects aren’t always capable of explaining their most sophisticated designs in simple terms. Government and community design review boards are often stumped by architectural models and plans, which sometimes seem as inscrutable as ancient hieroglyphics.

Often, architectural illustrators save the day. They translate an architect’s complex drawings and models into simple, romantic color “renderings” any banker, politician or community planning group member can comprehend.

“I think the rendering is more important than the architecture, and that’s not being facetious,” said San Diego architect Rob Quigley. “It’s all the lay person has to understand a building. The lay person has to base his entire decision on the rendering, since he’s not trained to look at the abstraction of the working drawings.”


Among the best architectural illustrators in San Diego County are Al Forster, who works in Mission Hills, and Robert Watts, based in the outskirts of El Cajon.

Forster’s romantic watercolors are often used by developers to help win approvals from public and governmental review boards, especially for residential and retail projects that must prove their merits as people places. He makes the renderings real enough to allow the viewer to imagine stepping into them; unlike some architectural illustrations, Forster’s include people, and he softens buildings with lush, mature landscaping.

Watts’ more spare, computer-generated illustrations work better for crisp, commercial buildings. His art is more often used to lure lenders and corporate tenants than to pacify design review boards.

The services of artists such as Forster and Watts aren’t cheap. Clients pay as much as $2,000 for an illustration that might take a week to produce. Most projects require more than one illustration.

Illustrators seldom get recognition when a project they’ve worked on wins broad support. But, when asked, architects are more than willing to give the illustrators their due.

“Architects like models, because they accurately depict a building,” said San Diego architect Mark Fehlman. “Yet it’s hard for people who are not educated in architecture to translate that into what it feels like to be standing in space, looking at the building.”

Fehlman recalls many times when illustrators smoothed the way for a project’s approval. In 1988, for example, he was a partner at Austin Hansen Fehlman when the company bid for the job of master planning a 1,800-acre new community in Carlsbad. Instead of submitting reams of complicated architectural drawings, Fehlman hired Forster to produce watercolors of a few select buildings.

“They allowed people to picture how this whole thing could come out, and to make sense of the planning layout,” Fehlman said. Fehlman’s company got the job.

“You have to understand that architects are now doing a tremendous amount of land planning,” Fehlman said. “To achieve approvals, you have to use images that the public can relate to. So the images created by the illustrator are one of the major foundations for gaining public approval.”

Forster credits another architectural illustrator--Leucadia’s Dave Purcell--for moving architectural illustration into a more prominent role.

“There was always reasonable demand for illustration, but the Escondido Civic Center competition (in 1984, with a winning entry illustrated by Purcell) turned the tide,” Forster recalled. “All those who viewed the competition were impressed. There seemed to be a real shift to a more artistic approach.”

San Diego architect Charles Slert, who worked on the winning scheme, agreed.

“I would say Dave’s drawings were absolutely essential in winning the competition,” Slert said, recalling how Purcell’s romantic watercolors easily captured the imaginations of the competition jury, especially compared with the surrealistic illustrations submitted by another semi-finalist. These depicted an imposing, Islamic-looking complex set in a desolate desert landscape, instead of in the park-like setting Purcell dreamed up.

At his office in Mission Hills, where his desk is topped by the classic car models he collects, Forster, 47, explained some of the nuances of his craft. Pinned to a wall were stark, two-dimensional drawings of a proposed fire station. On his drafting table, the fire station was coming to life in the form of a faint three-dimensional line drawing to which Forster was gradually adding watercolors.

“I always drew as a child,” he said. As a teen-ager, Forster doodled custom cars, and in high school, fell in love with architecture in a drafting class. He was encouraged by his grandfather, a civil engineer.

Forster studied architecture at the University of Houston during the mid-1970s, but didn’t complete a degree before he was drafted to serve with the Navy in Vietnam. When he got out in 1969, he went to work for San Diego interior designer Walter Broderick, and later, other interior designers.

Until the mid-1980s, Forster held a variety of design and teaching jobs, but in 1985, turned to illustration full time and soon discovered that watercolors are his natural medium. He names San Diego architectural illustrator Brad Powers, who died earlier this year, as a major influence.

One of Forster’s primary responsibilities is to make a client’s building look as good as possible--even if it is bulky or poorly designed.

“We are asked all the time to make a tall building look shorter, a long building less long, a massive building less massive,” he said. On a controversial downtown high-rise project that would have blocked views from a nearby tower, for instance, Forster did an illustration that didn’t show the neighboring building. Because the drawing was accurate--although slanted in the developer’s favor--Forster didn’t question the ethics of rendering it that way.

“But I’ve said no on a couple of occasions,” he added, recalling the time he told another developer he couldn’t, in good conscience, shift Point Loma to serve as a backdrop for a condominium project. Overall, though, Forster said he hasn’t found developers to be unscrupulous. “More often than not they stress accuracy,” he said.

Still, some public officials take illustrations with a grain of salt.

“I think frequently elected officials have depended on renderings to make a decision and been disappointed in the end result,” said Ron Roberts, an architect and San Diego City Councilman. “Experienced elected officials are usually cynical when they are shown renderings. I was recently shown a drawing where the perspective could not be true--I think it was purposely done to make a taller building look lower. I questioned the mechanics of the illustration, and, I think, embarrassed the person showing me the drawings.

“An illustration can be a creative way of lying, all too often,” Roberts said.

Unlike Forster, who came to architectural illustration from a related career in interior design, Watts, 48, began as a graphic designer in the 1960s, after graduating from the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

Watts spent the first 10 years of his career as a conceptual artist in the aviation industry while free-lancing for ad agencies, and the next 10 as an advertising illustrator.

He fell into architectural illustration during the early 1980s when a friend asked him to do renderings of several new commercial buildings in Carlsbad, and soon other architects and developers were asking for his services. To date, he guesses, he has illustrated 800 San Diego projects, ranging from downtown high-rises to urban condominiums and even the new Mormon Temple now under construction in the Golden Triangle.

For Watts, a computer is a cost-efficient means of serving clients. It is time consuming for Forster to draw a building from different points of view by hand, but, once Watts has the basic outline of a building stored in his computer, he can easily print out views of the building from several angles. Clients can choose the ones they want.

Although Watts’ illustrations are bolder and less romantic than Forster’s, they are no less artistic. For a client proposing a downtown condominium project, for example, Watts produced a version of the downtown skyline in an Art Deco style that made the scene look like an out-take from the 1926 movie “Metropolis.”

During their careers, Watts and Forster have done illustrations for all manner of buildings. But what kind of architecture do they prefer? Watts likes skyscrapers, especially Art Deco, 1930s towers like the ones in Washington, D.C. Forster confessed a love for nostalgic styles that evoke some of the romance of the past.

When a project is approved, the illustrator’s work is done, and Watts and Forster often don’t hear about a building again for months--until they happen to drive by the completed project.

“It’s almost always a letdown,” Forster said. “I think we’re kind of dream merchants. We don’t have to put in telephone poles and stop signs and homeless people and all the required electrical shut-off boxes and bus stops. Our trees are mature, and our streets are clean, and the cars are all sleek and pretty, so you have to expect that the rendering is going to look somewhat better than the actual building.”