Surviving the Design Studio: You will never be an architect unless you make physical models.

The realisation came about a week or so a go at the mid semester crits in our Colliding Spaces studio. One of the students was presenting and the guest critics and myself were holding up a white cardboard physical model and turning it around. It was massing model and there was a previous version with less massing and facade articulation. The project had curvilinear geometry and in seeing the two models seen together were able to ascertain how the project had developed from the first physical model to the second. Despite the whiteness of the card we could get a sense of possible façade treatments and materials.

I realised that we would never have been able to have looked at the model in this way if it was a computer model.

If it were a computer model we would have seen a schematic volumetric diagram printed and pinned onto the wall. A diagram ready to be filled in with texture and colour to make it look real. If we were lucky, if the student is kind to us, we might be able see this diagram with a bit of context thrown in.

The ubiquitous and depressing digital model pinup  

generale

I then began to think about the number of times I had seen design studio projects where there has not been any physical model design development. In other words, the times when the digital model had been spat out and printed from the computer and stuck on the wall. Looking back they all seem drearily similar, the same lack of context, the same lack of façade development, the same depressing lines delineating volumes, the same annoyingly and inappropriate view point.

Why we need physical models 

Physical models are vital to effective architectural design and development and it would be churlish to suggest that I am being an old school troglodyte in asserting this. Many large global offices use models as a way of quickly and efficiently developing massing options. Effective architectural design rests on hybrid practices that move between and combine the virtual and the physical. As the work at the AADRL establishes physical models also allow for the realisation of experimental digital processes. More importantly:

  1. The sooner you make a model of your design in the process the quicker you will understand the complexity of the design. This is because a physical model provokes the important decisions that need to be made at an early stage.
  2. A physical model embodies different design knowledge that may not be captured in a digital model. In other words, the physical model embodies in a physical form more design knowledge than what we might find with an undercooked diagram.
  3. A physical model once made can be easily be changed it is more effective as a tool that can be used to produce further reiterations of the design.
  4. A physical model can be shared more easily with others.
  5. In the studio a physical model can be easily moved around around and apprehend it from different angles and viewpoints.
  6. Physical models are more congruent with the final reality of the project.

How did it come to this ?

In the studio it seemed so simple and easy to turn the model around and look at it from different angles and to try and understand its possibilities. As well as imagine it in its context. After this realisation panic set in and it turned into rant in my head:

How did it come to this I wondered? How did our design teaching and practices become so diminished in favour of the lockstep production of the digital model? When did the physical model as a development tool depart from the design studio? Why did we so easily and unquestioningly welcome the dreams of the computer into our arms as architects and throw away all of the other things essential to design practice? Why as architectural designers have we allowed the proponents of technology, software vendors, grass hopper jockeys, CNC manufacturers, BIM engineers and the systematisers to tell us that everything can be done in a computer and then believe it?

More practically, and less rhetorically, perhaps all architecture students should do a model making subject. It should be in the curricula of all architecture schools.

This is an important debate that needs to happen. We need to ask why have some architects privileged the acquiring of technical skills at the expense of critical architectural thinking? By critical architectural thinking I mean the ability to generate and iterate solutions and ideas in three dimensions. The digital computer model only partially does this and its critical poetics is often diminished unless we pursue hybrid practices,

This weeks blog comes to you from ARCOM 2016 in Manchester. Where I presented my paper: The architect as Gleaner:  Design Practice As Performance In The Architectural Office



Categories: architectural education, architectural practice, Design Studios, design teaching

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