The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney houses a collection of computers to plot the rapid development and obsolescence of technology over the last 50 years.
In one showcase, there is a collection of “obsolete architectural tools” including ink drawing pens, a parallel ruler, and an architectural model of a modest house. Today’s architects can generate three dimensional images and video “fly throughs” on a computer, which has, it is assumed, made these primitive tools redundant.
As an architect and model maker, seeing this display was rather like stumbling upon my own gravestone; was I really that obsolete, and if so, why was I busier than ever after nearly 20 years in a large commercial practice? I had just bequeathed my pens to my son, a student architect who was learning to draw ‘the old fashioned way” and whose undergraduate friends occupied my workshop most weekends as they modelled their design projects. Model making is the fundamental design tool in university, preceding even drawing as a skill, and it is used across design subjects; architecture, industrial design and furniture design, to develop and refine ideas.
There seems to be a misconception, a disconnect between the way architects work, and the way they are perceived to work. Despite the rapid adoption of computer technology, the process of design is not linear; it is iterative, circular, often illogical. The output may be slick and digital but the process is an art and involves rough ideas being worked and reworked, initially with a pencil, or lumps of modelling clay, until gradually the scheme is refined enough to commit to a computer.
In the commercial world, architecture models are often seen purely as a marketing tool, either as a council requirement for DA submissions or as a presentation to assist sales or leasing. They are very useful in this type of presentation, and can give a succinct overview of a complex project to people who are unfamiliar with technical drawings. These models, however, only represent the polished final product, and are a very small part of the process.
Once students graduate, they can begin the serious business of learning in the workplace. The historic notion of ‘the drawing board’ has given way to the keyboard, with today’s students having computer skills that are valued more than their conceptual design skills. This can lead to a narrowing focus on the production of documentation, particularly on large and complex health projects.
At Rice Daubney, we still rely on using a model maker, ensuring the resource is available across the company. Any project, or individual, can call on the skills of the model maker or come and tinker in the workshop. Ideas are tested and rejected, or refined, using a variety of materials; card, Styrofoam, recycled timber, plastic, scrap metal and found objects. These models are not always pretty but they are a fundamental part of the design process. They are used in-house for design reviews, discussed with builders, taken to client presentations and are always used in conjunction with the slicker technology. As buildings and documentation become more complex, the simple physical model is a valuable tool when used in conjunction with the increasingly artificial reality of the computer screen.
It is interesting that in this age of computer generated imagery, where models can be machined, laser cut or rapid-prototyped in exquisite detail, and colours can be matched with photographic precision, the most expensive models use very little of this technology. For exhibitions and museum exhibits where cost is not an issue, and the “Rolls Royce” of models is required, the preferred medium is still timber. Handmade by craftsmen, using skills and tools that would have been familiar to the great Renaissance architects 500 years ago.
By Simon Grimes, Associate, Architect and Model Maker, Rice Daubney
All models featured were made by Simon Grimes