“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
As suggested by Juhani Pallasmaa in his collection of essays The Thinking Hand, physical models remain crucial 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 and to 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.
BKK designed a soundshell for a public space. The initial concept was around pleated sculptural forms, so we explored the design through scoring and folding paper – a flat-sheet material analogous to the plate steel proposed for the structure at full-scale.
By testing the physical model, we refined the rigidity and proportion of the pleats and optimised the balance between the cantilever and backward angle of the supporting wall, 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 specify the thickness of the steel plate and nominate a large concrete footing to allow for the wind loads that the structure would face. Through a rigorous methodology in the model making process, a design that sculpturally expressed its structure and materiality evolved more intuitively than in the gravityless environment of the computer.
The form of BKK’s Garden House evolved from physical and digital models.
The initial digital model of the part of the house we were retaining revealed a double-hipped roof, which had the same area as the proposed addition to the rear. From this, we produced a simple diagram summing up the design: to duplicate and unfold the closed form of the existing house, creating a new space that related to the existing in form and proportion, but with better amenity, light access, connection to garden, contemporary liveability 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. A 1:200 scale model of a house is quite small, so 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 brought 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 processes, these initial models were a constant clear reminder of this initial idea.
Models made at the end of the design process are important communication devices that reiterate the initial concept and provide an intuitive understanding of complex projects. This is especially valuable for people untrained in reading architectural drawings.
We made a model of our scheme for the Puffing Billy Lakeside Discovery Centre using a single piece of 3mm birch plywood. The building was to be partially submerged in the landscape, so using plywood that was sculpted into an undulating landscape and cut and stepped into terraces brought us to the idea of a building that was of the landscape rather than on it.
Another presentation model, for our innovative Hi-pod Tower Turnaround project, was constructed from solid beech timber. Half of it had the cladding stripped off to reveal the underlying structure. The project’s purpose was to improve the sustainability, appearance and amenity of Melbourne’s 1970’s public housing towers, starting with one in the inner-west suburb of Footscray. Our team designed 1.2m by 3m bay-window pods that are prefabricated offsite and slot into the lounge rooms of existing apartments to extend them.
We made the model for an exhibition, thinking of it almost as a sculpture and emphasising 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’s why it won’t be replaced as a significant tool in the design of our buildings and spaces.