Architects have used physical models to design buildings for a long time. In the 15th century, Brunelleschi built a large model of the Florence Cathedral to test out his structural ideas for the Duomo and to explain the construction method to the masons. In the late 1920s, Le Corbusier built a model of his new Villa Savoye which was displayed in Museum of Modern Art in New York, marking the beginning of the International Style.
In the 21st century, models continue to serve many purposes for architects. There are study models, which are rough, quick and fluid with many iterations, and there are final presentation models that are detailed, meticulous and focus on material. Study models are great for designers to test out ideas and make decisions. Final presentation models help showcase the design to clients and the public.
Study models are often made at relatively small scales, which force the maker to simplify the design to highlight large moves and make them legible. This emphasis on important moves makes study models an effective way to communicate ideas to clients early in the design process without getting caught up on too many details.
Most study models sit within a simplified contextual base that shows how the new design addresses or relates to the surrounding buildings. Physical study models provide an assessment method to discuss designs because several people can look at a model simultaneously and understand different perspectives of the building. Computer models fail to do this because they are limited to one view and to a single person navigating the model.
Models are often very malleable, especially foam models, giving architects the ability to sketch out ideas three dimensionally, combining information from plans, sections and axons. Our design team recently utilized study models during the design process of a new science building. By using pink foam for our models, we were able to easily manipulate, carve and add pieces onto the structure. Since it is a light material and easy to cut, we were able to quickly make many different iterations. Most importantly, our preferred scheme lent itself well to foam models because our design is a large block that is carved and sculpted in specific locations based on entrances and views. Had our design been primarily glass, it’s likely we would have made the study model out of plexi, resin or another transparent material. The pink foam also worked well because the pink contrasted well with our all white context base model. The schemes were also at 1” : 32’ scale which can easily be made out of one solid piece of foam, further mimicking solid block design. Lastly, foam is good for rough experiments but it can also be cut cleanly and precisely with a hot wire cutter so that mistakes in the craft are less distracting.
By crafting study models, our entire project team, including the client, was able to dive deeper into the understanding of the project and find the best design solution for the new science building for the campus.