“Even in the age of computer-aided design and virtual modelling, physical models are incomparable aids in the design process of the architect and the designer. The three-dimensional material model speaks to the hand and the body as powerfully as to the eye, and the very process of constructing a model simulates the process of construction”
-Pallasmaa, The Thinking Hand
Why do we still make models?
As suggested by Juhani Pallasmaa in his collection of essays The Thinking Hand, physical models remain crucial tool for an architecture studio. Models are made from physical matter, and our built environment, excepting some digital augmentation, is still composed of matter, be it timber, steel, glass, plaster, bricks or concrete. And we still occupy these spaces with our bodies.
When we sketch an initial concept for a project it is very rare that this wouldn’t be pen on paper rather than a sketch on the computer. In a similar way, making physical models throughout the design process as a tool to generate form, explore materiality and how materials come together to form space and atmosphere is not easily replaced by digital tools, rather they can work productively in tandem.
Case Study: Pleated Shelters
A recent project in the office was the design of a sound-shell for a public space. The initial concept was around pleated sculptural forms, so the design was explored through scoring and folding paper, a flat sheet material analogous to the plate-steel proposed for the structure at full-scale.
Through testing of the physical model the rigidity and proportion of the pleats was refined, and the balance between the cantilever and backward angle of the supporting wall was optimized, which in simple terms meant it didn’t topple forwards or backwards.
When the engineers ran their calculations on the structure the only thing left for them to do was to specify the thickness of the steel plate and nominate a large concrete footing to allow for the wind-loads applied to the structure. Through a rigorous methodology in the model making process a design that sculpturally expressed its structure and materiality evolved more intuitively than in the gravity-less environment of the computer.
Case Study: Unfolded Roof
The form of the recently completed Garden House evolved between physical and digital models.
The initial digital model of the house being retained revealed the double-hipped roof of the same area as the proposed addition to the rear. This lead to a simple diagram summing up the design: to duplicate and unfold the closed form of the existing house, creating a new space that in form and proportion related to the existing, but with better amenity, light access, connection to garden, contemporary livability and sustainability.
The design then evolved through a series of sketch models in watercolour paper, at first physically unfolding the planes of the existing roof and then exploring variations on this form, in both physical and digital models. As a 1:200 scale model of a house is quite small it demands a clarity of expression that doesn’t rely on fussy details. The risk with the digital model that it is virtually a 1:1 scale, and you can model it down to the door-hinges, which is of no use in the early design stages of the project.
In this design process the physical model provided a clarity to the idea of the unfolded roof canopy, propped up by a heavy masonry fireplace, but otherwise flowing seamlessly from interior to landscaped garden beyond. Throughout the rest of the design and documentation process, these initial models are a constant clear reminder of this initial idea.
Series of sketch models in watercolour paper
Models made at the end of the design process serve as important communication devices that reiterate the initial concept and provide an intuitive understanding of complex projects for people untrained in reading architectural drawings.
The Puffing Billy Visitors Centre was constructed from a single piece of .3mm Birch plywood. The building was partially submerged in the landscape, so using a single sheet of plywood sculpted into and undulating landscape and cut and stepped into terraces brought to the idea of a building that was of the landscape than on it.
Puffing Billy Visitors Centre
The Hi-pod presentation model was constructed from solid Beech timber, half the model with the cladding stripped off to reveal the underlying structure. The project proposed the regeneration of a social housing block in Footscray, improving the amenity for the residents and introducing a more human scale to the building. Made for an exhibition, the model was thought of almost as a sculpture, placing an emphasis on the simple but thoroughly resolved detailing of the pod structure. The solid timber communicates a warmth and care to a social housing, a typology that has perhaps been neglected in Melbourne for some time.
As Juhani Pallasmaa states, ‘the three-dimensional material model speaks to the hand and the body as powerfully as to the eye’, and that is why it will not be replaced as a significant tool in the design of our buildings and spaces.
– Vaughan Howard with BKK Architects