Physical models are an essential medium of architecture. They present a miniature reality, released from the limitations of two-dimensional fantasy. Anyone can immediately understand a model without prior conditioning. The three-dimensional relationship of all parts of the model are observed in real time and from real viewpoints. Freed from the conventions and veils of virtual reality, viewers of physical models can engage directly with the architecture.
Architectural models are generally presentation models, concept models, process models or occasionally a combination of the three.
Presentation models are the standard produce of the modelmaking industry, with specialist companies offering high quality, technically precise, scale manifestations of the architect’s finalised designs. The architectural design process is either suspended or complete before the making or out-sourcing of the presentation model. The creativity of presentation model making lies in making it appear convincing: designing the model to hide or minimise the distracting construction of the model whilst expressing appropriate architectural signifiers.
A concept model shows the client a distillation of the core design ideas. They work best when they are beautiful reductive abstractions of the salient concept(s) of a scheme, that can fit in the palm of the client’s hand. Concept models must function as intrinsically interesting objects. Originality is important, perhaps in sculptural quality, construction technique with interesting materials and in the use of light. Concept models tend to be made in-house with the design team and often remain as an inspirational benchmark through the design process.
Process models are design tools. They can be rough sketch models in card, wire, clay or styrofoam or more precisely constructed lasercut card, veneer, perspex or plywood. All design team members are encouraged to design with process models, either by direct making of models or by discussion centred around a model. Review and revision of a process model is an important and often iterative part of the design process. Rapid prototyping can provide the designer with valuable records of design cycles but the duration of the process can take several hours and the result is inflexible. If identified areas of a design can be fixed at an early stage, then hybrids of 3D prints combined with traditional model parts can be more useful and flexible. For efficiency, it is desirable to increase the frequency or reduce the interval between iterations. Thus, parts of the process model can be made to be easily replaceable, movable, maleable or amendable with a knife. The iterative feedback process of design, action and assessment can be reduced from hours to minutes or just seconds if the designer and modelmaker are combined into one or at least working in close collaboration.