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Is physical model making in architecture a dying art?

Neal Morris

Artificial intelligence and other digital tech might be adding to the architect’s toolkit, but one practice argues that the hands-on approach still has a place.

The model making workshop at Squire & Partners.
The model making workshop at Squire & Partners. Credit: James Jones

Go to any architecture school's end-of-year show and students’ ideas and concepts will often be exhibited via physical models.

Physical model making has always played a huge part in architecture – from initial visualisation and early design stages to presenting to clients. However, the landscape has changed in recent years. The unstoppable rise of digital modelling technologies, virtual reality and generative AI that can conjure amazing renders, walk-throughs and images at the push of a button has seen new approaches to conceptual realisation.

At London-based Squire & Partners, Modelshop Director, Beth Mills, says the concept of the modelshop has never been healthier, and is happily making good use of the new technologies on offer. But, despite the use of digital tech, she says that craft-based makers are still at the heart of the design process for many practices.

So how does this venerable part of the design process – one that engages the full range of senses and represents a creative and tactile approach to problem solving - fit into a rapidly changing, ever-digitised world?

Anything can be achieved by model making

‘We call ourselves the modelshop, but we’re more of a maker space, a fully-functioning workshop,’ Mills says, looking out over her busy benches populated by half-made models and tools. ‘While we do make architectural and scale models, we can do anything from prototyping door handles and window installations to bespoke furniture for Squire & Partners’ interiors team.’

Mills and her team see themselves as very much part of the designers sitting elsewhere at their digital screens. They will test out different shapes and forms at early design stages, for instance, and even test the possibilities of a build makeup through prototyping.

And it seems there’s no such thing as a ‘no can do’ attitude. A model maker’s approach? Anything can be achieved, especially at this stage of the process.

‘We’ve had contractors saying to us, “we don’t think this is possible” when first taking on a project,’ she continues. ‘Instead, we hone in on an aspect or a detail and tell them what we have discovered during the model-making process. We will then tell them how they can replicate our model in production. In this respect, we are also problem solvers - sometimes our job will be testing the possibilities of construction.’

Contrary to some people's assumptions, Mills’ team don’t actually make many marketing suite models for developers. Most of their work is design stage or developing models for planning applications and planning committee presentations. Table-top marketing suite models are regarded as a post-design activity, and clients are more likely to commission their own models from somewhere else.

Physical model making can exist as part of a toolkit for architects.
Physical model making can exist as part of a toolkit for architects. Credit: James Jones

Why is model making so important?

Despite the speed with which wow-factor CGI renders can be generated from the digital design tools that teams are now using – not to mention fly-throughs, immersive virtual reality and more recently almost instantaneous generative AI imaging – the physical model still retains its power, Mills argues, and helps people to understand how a building works in ways that flattering CGI renders cannot.

She recalls building a model of a project for Brighton Marina. Despite all the digital input and rendering Mills could not grasp how the podium levels worked, even while she was constructing the physical model.

‘It was only when I put it all together that it all made sense,’ she chuckles. ‘You suddenly grasp how it all works from a physical model in a way you never can from a flat image.’

And there is no question that clients still love to be able to pick up and feel a physical object, Mills says. They will perhaps pick up on a detail, and will handle it like a little piece of sculpture. The architect’s artistry made solid.

Indeed, many of the Squire & Partners’ models made in its workshop will be approached as artistic objects in their own right, not simply as accurate-as-possible miniatures. Some models will necessarily have to be stylised, some lines may be offset, some thicknesses exaggerated so they look right when viewed as a small-scale model.

‘Maybe the model is trying to convey the essence of a scheme and the quality of materials,’ Mills ponders. ‘So even though we have laser cutters and 3D printers, we still like working in materials like solid timbers. We’ve recently been making whole models in Jesmonite and (homemade) “micro-terrazzo”.’

What's next for model making?

The modelshop is very well provided for in terms of digital tools. It has a large flatbed CNC cutter and 3D printers, which Mills and her team make good use of, but she has no fears that as makers they are flirting with the digital Dark Side.

‘These new technologies are extra tools in your belt,’ Mills argues. ‘We very rarely make an entire model that’s all 3D printed. We use the printers for details where they can speed things up, repetitive sections where we no longer have to spend ages cutting in everything with a scalpel. It allows you more time to explore more creative aspects of a scheme or a product.’

Mills thinks makers and digital technologies can happily exist side by side. In fact, she sees new, smart technologies almost as assistants that will allow makers to put more emphasis on craft and quality materials in the future.

‘We are making more sculptural pieces as opposed to miniatures,’ she says. ‘This shift in technology is going to increase creativity, rather than diminish it, so that’s quite a positive. I think model makers are practical problem solvers, but everything we do will always be bespoke.’

Thanks to Beth Mills, Modelshop Director, Squire & Partners.

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RIBA Core Curriculum topic: Design, construction and technology.

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