Post-secular architecture process: the physical model.
Outlining key benefits of the physical, in reference to a model ‘for’ architecture, rather than ‘of’ architecture. The paper will construe the sensorial experiential qualities that the unfinished process model possesses in the hands of the architect whilst also acknowledging the power of the miniature in its unmediated reality.
This paper sets out to investigate and collect critical, theoretical and practical research that illustrates the importance of the physical model in the design process for architects. The position of this text is to understand that although there is a technological development in architecture, it is imperative to recognize the still present role of the physical model.
There is no doubt the important role of digital tools within architecture. Neil Leach recalled Bill Gates prediction in 2002 expressing that the present decade would be titled “The Digital Decade” as it will reach many, if not the entire human race, with Leach proceeding to claim that no architecture will be produced without the aid of digital tools by 2020. This digital world is assisting in the ‘making’ process within architecture, enabling it to become even more customizable, available, personal and social. The introduction of new machines is placing the control of design in the hands of the neophyte instead of with the hegemony of the engineers or model specialists. The autonomy and advancement of technology is becoming the catalyst for real life architecture, by forming a continuum between the digital and physical.
This paper therefore acknowledges that there is tremendous potential in digital, virtual and intelligent techniques of modeling as a way of designing however, the objective is to display the virtue of the physical. Acceptance of the digital, virtual, intelligent and physical will grant a possible hybridization methodology to designing in architecture, which cross mediates into a multitude of scales, disciplines, technologies and materials.
Included in this report are collections of projects, both by the author and of others, which will support the theoretical content. The reasoning behind undertaking this investigation is to enable a greater understanding of why and how physical models can enhance the design output of an architect. The focus will be on models ‘for’ architecture rather than models ‘of’ architecture. Whilst the latter type is limited to the representation of reality, the second type has the potential to generate reality.
Architects have their own modus operandi and it is important to acknowledge that. This paper will construe the sensorial experiential qualities that the unfinished process model possesses in the hands of the architect in reference to the power of the miniature in its unmediated reality. The structure of this paper will develop and justify the proceeding statement and therefore outline the structure of the discussion.
Introduction into models for architecture
A brief history of how the physical model has been used within architecture as a design tool.
Playing with models
Understanding how the model provokes a development of ideas through play.
The unfinished contemplative flux
Describing the process of ‘thinking through making’ in this constant state of unfinished flux between mind and hand.
The sensorial experience
This leads on from the idea of touch into reviewing how we experience the world with all five senses and making an argument into how the physical model at present is the closest to this reality.
Unmediated reality of the miniature
Finally a look into how through culture and familiarity, we don’t perceive the media of the model therefore allowing a closer connection to the reality.
These sections will aid in the statement of how through working with the physical model as a habitual experience that we are confronted with throughout our lives, allowing the designer to be free in play and designing in the closest medium to reality.
Introduction into models for architecture
In the Italian Renaissance era, the status of the architectural model became secondary to the process of drawing. It has since been argued that the model has not been accorded equivalent intellectual status as the drawing, as it has been ‘footnoted’ by Diana Agrest who has written that architecture is produced through three modes: drawing, writing and building. This lack of status is then subsequently translated into many architectural practices. Understandably the problem lies with the cost, time and money implications in creating a three-dimensional miniature edifice of the proposed architecture. However there has been a resurgence of the physical model in recent times due to the emerging computational tools and design techniques, such as generative, algorithmic and parametric design, and the digital technologies such as fabrication and 3D printing which have been able to translate these digital worlds into the physical. Even in this time of three-dimensional modelling in the virtual world, physical models play an important role in the development of architectural designs and in translating them into practicable structures. Whist these technologies have become essential to the way we live and design, the physical and real have become more, not less, valuable.
A partial reason why there has been a resurgence of the physical model is due to the digital model lacking physicality due to software or hardware requirements and abilities. A physical model has immediacy to the real world through their tactile and material quality and makes the invisible, visible, presenting the limitations and opportunities of space and material in the real world. The architectural model evokes the not-yet-constructed edifice, but yet is significantly close to the process involved in the assembly of real built architecture.
Leon Battista Alberti was noted as one of the earliest advocators of models as a design tool. Since then there has been further avocations such as Peter Eisenman and Charles Gwanthmey who created an exhibition in 1976 “Idea as Model,” the purpose of which was to think “of the model as a conceptual as opposed to narrative tool, as part of the design process” allowing them to generate rather than describe architecture. This transcends the model from not just an after production to present to a client but into a tool for the way architects think. Models, that do not portray all features of the architecture they represent but only those deemed relevant to evaluate. Rudolf Arnheim has depicted this type of model as a ‘thought model’ describing that there are many parallels between the working of a space in mind and subsequently in the physical model with one’s hands. In the creation of a ‘thought model’, it is of benefit to reference Marcial Echenique. Echenique questions, what is the purpose of the model; what is the materiality of the model; and how the model engages with time. Many architects have since championed this thought. The following is a catalogue of examples of how the physical model has been used as a design tool for architects.
Playing with models
The previous chapter presents how many architects use physical models as a medium to be creative. Chris Dillon writes that “whenever we attempt to speak, write or otherwise represent aspects of our experience and understanding of physical reality we are entering into a modeling relationship with the world.” This section is intended to provide an understanding why we, as architects, have this innate ability to enter into this modeling relationship to design.
As architects the ability to learn and develop through play with design ideas is an essential part of the development of a proposal. Learning to be creative is primarily concerned with learning a new process of thinking. Generally, as individuals, there is an innate need to ‘create’ from early in life. Children learn by manipulating within their environment. We play as children and toys are an integral part of our lives, allowing us to create miniature worlds to escape to. This habitual action that allows a human to place items together by stacking and joining, in order to conceive and present the invisible world from their minds. Children stack, move and assemble objects to create structures of the preconceived imaginary. This process teaches the basics of gravity and thus how to build space.
There have been many accounts of architects who advocate this idea, speaking how their childhood play has influenced their ability to design. In ‘Inventing Kindergarten,’ Norman Brosterman highlights the tools that were incorporated to teach creativity by the German educator Friedrich Frobel. Frobel used blocks that were seen as the building blocks of modernism. Braque, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Klee, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright all went to kindergarten schools and many of them explicitly recognized the pivotal role of the toy that resembles the architectural model. There have since been later accounts of architects who played with toys such as Richard Rogers and Norman Foster who used Meccano and Bjarke Ingels with LEGO. These simple toys that resemble the architects tool were early pedagogical tools, which paved the way to allow play and creativity in the formation of three-dimensional spaces. The “thinking through making” paradigm becomes congenital. Simply by making this representation accessible to all, at a young age, has then enabled the model to become an unmediated language to express ones ideas and creations. It becomes a way in which we, as architects, can communicate. Communication between mind and hand that creates models then provokes critical reflection when designing.
The unfinished contemplative flux
As architects, we can now understand that the power of play, derived from childhood, is used to create a habitual experience in which to design. The subsequent discussion will explore how an unfinished model can assist in contemplative flux. This enables the physical model to be a working tool rather than model of a finished design.
So why should the model be seen to be in an unfinished state? Well this unfinished artifact allows for reinvention and rediscovery. This notion of a perpetual state of ‘becoming’ was present and governed in the Renaissance era. The idea of the ‘unfinished state’ in architecture is seen as a ‘redemptive’ metaphor that conjures the future reconciliation of a world not yet seen. Engaging in the unfinished model allows ambiguity of the design that then seeks to spark creativity in the mind. Contemplative observance is a resulting factor in the process. The process of this continuous meditative process completed by the architect’s hands is a Vitruvian rule that expresses the construction process. Rather than exercising a remote position within architecture, dealing with what Diana Agrest described as the three modes of media, it places the architect at more direct engagement with the real. This aids in minimizing the difference between representation and real, as unlike other artists such as painters, architects do not normally work with the subject matter but work with alternative media to imagine the end proposal.
Neil Leach understands this engagement in architecture as dynamic rather than a static process. Using a physical model in this undertaking does not limit the engagement to just the sole architect but it grants multiple participants to be involved. Reactivation and new perspectives of a project occurs when there is a model within the office as it sparks discussion. Architecture is a team effort, and model building promotes collaboration. Several designers easily modify a study model during its development. Jerry Griffin describes the “digital three-dimensional visualization as a powerful tool, but a solitary endeavor that limits design interaction and is not easily modified until it is substantially complete.” Model making workshops and models around the office, nurture collaboration and promote a constructive dialogue which enhances the design output of past, present and future projects. This iterative process through collaboration of thoughts, using models as a catalyst, can sufficiently consolidate the design proposal.
The completive flux is enhanced due to the relative slowness of physical modelling, which gives space for reaction, testing out design changes whilst the model is being constructed. The timeframe of a model’s build can be altered with the use of technology that alludes to another discussion to the blurred line between physical and digital. In the slowness of making a model there could be moments of serendipity, which can transform the design.
The digital model and the role of photorealistic renders enhances a models completeness, with the goal to reach a literal representation of the future architecture, but the problem is that designers see it as complete and less likely to continue its improvement. This seemingly complete edifice detaches itself from the ‘accidents’ of making, which are subsequently removed from the design process. These ‘accidents’ become results when the physicality of handling materials recreates what is in the mind into a physical model. A notion described by E. H. Gombrich, an aesthetic theorist, states that the process of producing a form that is already imagined and present in your mind is called ‘matching and making’. Gombrich also notes that the process of ‘making’ allows designers to constantly reflect and react to each move made. This constant observing and responding act, through a critical lens towards making, allows this compelling reflexivity to emerge. To create a physical edifice from the mind is often a difficult task, as the mind has no limits with undefined boundaries whilst the real has a plethora of constraints. Another advantage of building a physical model commits the designer to a concept notion of materiality enabling constraints to be overcome before starting the build.
The unfinished model allows for an embryonic process that does not assume clearly defined procedures or predictable outcomes. Roz Barr clearly evokes this idea of the model being a conversation in a moment of a process where nothing is fixed and everything is always changing. This act of making decisions on materiality and form enables you to reflect on the decisions you make and react to these. This analysis in the process of ‘making’ includes understanding how the parts of the model work together to make a whole. This tectonic understanding and language of material combinations and techniques evokes the real building allowing for transferable techniques from miniature to real which can eliminate potential risks as the model can simulate real conditions prior to building on site.
The unfinished state allows for designers to work with this technique of altering, adding, subtracting and moving the model until it reaches a point where nothing can be added or taken away. Alberti states that when this point is reached a design is deemed to be successful.
The sensorial experience
The ambition of a model is to step past “making the invisible, visible, but making the visible seen.” Implicating it is more than just the visible, but it delves into the experiential. As Hilary Brown notes “architects are taught to privilege the visual and be seduced by images. But we live in all five of our senses.” Since architecture is a physical experience of space made of real materials, we find physical models a satisfying approach to exercise the sensory experience we are trying to achieve.
The next section looks at how the model enters into the ‘fourth dimension.’ A dimension that D.H. Lawerence says is experienced “with your blood and your bones, as well as with your eyes.” To understand architecture, it is critical to engage in direct experiential qualities of space. Experiences of space, which are seen to be present in both, model and proposed. John Monk reiterates this connection by describing a model as an artifact that “stimulates people to give accounts that could also be triggered by the object being modeled.” These experiential qualities are created by the stimulation of the senses. Tom Porter explains that engaging with the experiential qualities of space is imperative to understand architecture. This is because “architecture is concerned with physical articulation of space; the amount and shape of the void contained and generated by buildings being as material a part of its existence as the substance of its fabric.” An analogue model takes advantage of this particular sensory concomitance between feeling and seeing when the architects make a commitment to the making of a model. This notion of seeing and feeling objects and spaces is subconsciously remembered and is subsequently recreated in both model and in the real. It is believed that “every fibre in our bodies, every cell of our brains, holds memories.” Edward Casey outlines that this store of sensorial memories help us to design intuitively.
The reasons why the analogue model runs the closest to the idea of architecture being a tactile entity is due to its commitment to materiality. Materiality represents a matter that offers surprise, complexity and has many dimensions and is a contrast to the representation of photo-realistic renders. Working with materiality endeavours to capture the material presence of the building and deals with the laws of gravity. Designing within a digital realm disregards the effect of gravity and materiality. As architects we are engaged in the encounter between people and the physical world; how people experience place and how place affects them. Model making is the first step towards understanding this reality. Exploring the subtle unfolding of spaces and play of light, a way of “being there” and sensing the feeling of the spaces we are designing in all their tactile and sensory complexity. Juhani Pallasmaa describes this tactile sense as the model awakening in “The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses” by saying, “all the senses, including vision, are extensions of the tactile sense; the senses are specialisations of skin tissue and all sensory experiences are modes of touching and thus related to tactility.” Architecture that is founded in intimacy, touch and experience is a form of language that is needed to be present whilst designing. The visceral nervous and corporeal senses deeply route architecture and therefore is needed within the physical model.
Unmediated reality of the miniature
In this section I will highlight how the model has became a tangible unmediated representation of reality when conceiving architecture. This allows the architect to ‘play’ and engage in familiar cosmospoiesis or ‘world making’ in the miniature.
A model is normally a proportionately scaled down artifact of the real – a miniature. But why is this scaling down process performed? Assumptions can be made at that models are at a smaller scale due to economy of cost, time and effort, all of which result in the miniature.
Other than the preceding factors, the world in miniature grants us a sense of authority; it is easy to maneuver and manipulate therefore it becomes easier to be observed and understood. In addition, whenever we fabricate, touch or simply observe the miniature, we enter into an explicit private affair, immersing ourselves to become close and intimate with the model and therefore the real. Gaston Bachelard, an advocate of the miniature, notes that through the small we can realise the sublime, clearly documenting the virtue of the miniature. By minaturising the world it condenses and enhances the values present and causes men to dream. There is therefore no doubt in the power of the miniature yet this condensing of power of the miniature is sometimes dangerous as Eugene Kupper believes that the “buildings seldom have the clarity-in-complexity that a model shows. Models gain energy by being small.”
With this discrepancy in scale between the model and the architect, how is it possible to understand the space? Models use material to represent a reality so it should be seen as a mediated reality. Architecture is out of necessity a mediated activity: in order for the architectural to be built it has to be represented in other media: sketches, perspective drawings, plans, sections, diagrams, spread sheets, text, physical or digital scale models. Due to culture and our interaction with the miniature through our lifetime it has however, enabled the model to become an unmediated reality. This therefore dissolves both the media and scale of the model, which empowers a relationship between the model, the real and the architect. To identify between the two terms ‘mediated’ and ‘unmediated reality,’ Rolf Hughes characterizes mediated realities by the standard architectural representational methods to depict the real and unmediated realities to signify the actual. Nonetheless, models can be seen in many instances as unmediated reality due to their ability to capture the presence of the real with the added significance, that the model has become deeply embedded within architecture and has manifested itself into the habitus since childhood. This unmediated reality therefore allows the architect to act and design in a way, which is close to the end architecture. The designer is therefore able to see and control spatial problems that are presented in the model and therefore the real, unlike when designing in the mind, which has immeasurable extents. This measurable nature of a model allows architects to explore relationships between elements, context and the human scale. Louis Kahn describes this design process as a necessity in order to create great architecture by working from the ‘immeasurable’ (mind) to the ‘measurable’ (model).
This paper aimed to explore the sensorial experiential qualities that the unfinished process model possesses in the hands of the architect, in reference to the power of the miniature in its unmediated reality. The structure of this paper has developed and justified the preceding statement.
It has illustrated that modeling in the real, through building and assembling materials together allows for a holistic view of the totality of the model and space, allowing for clear reflection and manifestations of ideas in space and context, which at present is the closest to the actual. The physical facilitates the process of designing with a constant fluidity between brain, eye and hand. A habitual ‘making’ process accessed from a young age allows the creation of the world in the miniature, evolving into large scale and the real – an act of creating appears to become instinctive. As the architectural model exists somewhere between the realm of ideas and the physical materiality of final architecture, working models are used to define, redefine or correct errors in the architectural design process and render the invisible, visible. On the whole, the model deals with the sensibility and acknowledgement of the human scale and senses in the miniature, something that is lacking from the digital. This is not however a reason to disregard the digital but it is acknowledge the strengths of all methods of production in order to achieve a good design, where nothing can be added or taken away and all of which is the summary that alludes to the beneficiary role of the physical model in architecture.
To reiterate there is no doubt and no disregard to the sophisticated development of technological tools that have introduced innovation in many aspects of architecture, however this paper has taken a narrow focus into the physical model and its unique attributes within the architectural realm. Further research of design using digital, virtual and intelligent modeling techniques, could provide a collective amalgamation of other modeling realms, which could aim to foster an open polemical debate to the ever-changing process of designing in architecture.