No great project came into existence without conception. No pyramid rose from the vast Egyptian desert without purpose and planning preceding its construction.
The Florence Cathedral Dome would not be beckoning the skies above the Italian city today if not for the visual guidance Filippo Brunelleschi’s model gave those who built it.
Antoni Gaudi would not be able to give precise instructions to those crafting the unfathomably detailed Sagrada Familia long after his death without the help of his models.
The inherent connection between conceptualization, model-making, and architecture is approximately as old as civilization itself, evidenced by an architectural model from where Bulgaria exists today, dating back to 4,600 B.C.E.
If you need more evidence pointing to the importance of model-making in architecture’s history, look no further than the tombs of China’s Han dynasty – models of full-scale architecture directly link the deceased to the structures they knew in life.
Why is architecture so intertwined with model-making?
It is simple: the model is the architect’s brainchild that others may gaze upon and touch. The model is the medium between an idea and a building, whatever form that model may come.
Fast forward to today, the field of architecture is notably different. Some may say that model-making has become redundant thanks to technology such as computer-aided drafting and virtual reality.
However, the architectural model is not dead – something with such a long history does not go down without a fight, after all.
Models are still being made, still conveying ideas, still stepping in to fill in the gap between imagination and reality.
It begs the question: why do architects make models?
With the many other methods that are currently available, what makes model-making so important?
1. Added Sensory Input Aids Comprehension
If you ever see a toddler living life, you will probably notice a great deal of touching things, picking things up, handling things.
What you are witnessing is the toddler taking in knowledge and becoming more familiar with the world during the brain’s most formative years.
This method is often overlooked but critically evident in such a scenario, and it applies to model-building as well.
As science indicates, the more senses that are involved, the more you learn.
Thus, when you are working with a tangible representation of an idea, you become more familiar with it through the added sense of touch.
The more familiar you become with a concept or design, the better you can present it to a client (or an architecture crit).
2. Tests a Design’s Buildability
You can’t extrapolate from images how a design is going to behave when subjected to real-world conditions.
With a model, you have an incredibly useful and efficient way to test how a design will function when exposed to gravity and physical elements.
If you feel that a model is flimsy, the immediate realization enables you to resolve the structural issues with your model and quickly make improvements.
If you skip modeling, pitch a design, only to be bluntly informed that your “brilliant” concept could stand on its own, you will have to confront profound embarrassment.
Just build the model. You may find that you enjoy getting closer and more intimate with your design.
3. People Like Models
Clients will especially appreciate the effort you put into handcrafting a prototype because it shows an extra level of involvement with your work that many seem to be lacking in the digital age.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are the client.
Architect 1 enters your office and says, “I’ve got a design for you! Would you like to see it?” to which you enthusiastically reply, “Of course!”.
“Okay,” says Architect 1, “Just open up your email ’cause I sent you a CAD file!”
You comply, but it is late in the day, and you have grown a little bit tired of opening emails and staring at the computer screen.
Juxtaposing the last encounter – Architect 2 enters your office holding a beautiful presentation model of a transitional-style villa, immediately drawing your sense of wonder out of your body and to the model.
Unlike the last architect, this fellow has brought you an experience instead of a chore.
Both designs being equal, which architect has you more intrigued?
4. A Presentable Format
A typical model is convenient, easy to transport, and easy to show to large numbers of people in an engaging way.
The fact that others can touch it (again, added sensory input) means that a model conveys the most considerable amount of information possible.
5. Easy to Comprehend
If you have no experience with drafting – or even if you do – you will be able to understand the relative scale, texture, angles, and general nature of a design in model form compared to looking at orthographic projections.
No piecing information is necessary because the work has already been done for them – thanks to you and your amazing altruism.
The less time others have to spend putting the visual information together, the more time others have to admire the design.
6. A Physical Product Deserves a Physical Model
It does not matter if you choose to build a model or not. If you reach your end goal, chances are something is ultimately getting built.
You may not be donning a hard hat or driving stakes into the ground, but that does not mean you should not make an effort to build a model.
Along with the other benefits of doing it, you are practicing what is ultimately the fundamental nature of being an architect – designing and building something tangible.
7. Engages You, the Architect
You might think that since the design came out of your head, you already know everything you need to know about it.
However, the hands-on experience that comes with model-making provides an opportunity to examine your design with the eyes of an eagle, noting every feature – of the various types of architecture study models – during the building process.
Along the way, you may cultivate pleasure in the process and remind yourself what drew you to architecture in the first place.
8. Adds a Human Element
This may sound like more of an emotional reason, but it serves a logical purpose. It might apply more to how others perceive your design than anything else, but perception is a meaningful facet of everything these days.
Any art form is intrinsically human, including architecture.
You could think of a design, function over form, modified so that it conforms to building code, and then call it a day. But this does not add any extra value to society except the monetary value of the building itself.
This type of process is almost robotic, like an architecture factory spewing out cookie-cutter buildings, a theme that is unfortunately quite common.
If you build a detailed model, you are conveying that you are better than a factory; you are an artist who cares about the personal touch.
9. Stands Out in a Digitally Dominant World
If more architects were to decide that model building is redundant in today’s digital world and that they would rather sit behind a screen to “handle” that portion of the process, you are not obligated to do the same.
You should not – because this is a prime opportunity to go against the trends and recognize the value of true model-making.
In a world where automation and digitalization seem to be the inevitable future, you can make it a point of your career to remind people that architecture is ultimately not just about engineering and computer-aided drafting (although these factors are important); it’s about craft.
Making models enforces this “craft” aspect of architecture that many seem to be forgetting and is a breath of fresh air for potential clients.
10. Some People Are Willing to Pay for Them
If you were to design and build a client’s dream home and make him or her the happiest person in the world for just a moment, there is a good chance the person will want something concrete to forever preserve that euphoric memory.
In many cases, a client will request to purchase the prototype model so that they have something to do exactly that. It does not always happen, of course, but it certainly could.
Also, the satisfaction that comes with a client’s appreciation is irreplaceable.
11. Models Bring Everything Together
If you work among others, having a model in the vicinity is a medium that brings everything (and everyone) together.
It is the keystone of the architectural process, the embodiment of what you are working to turn into a real-world structure.
When you need to address a detail, tweak the design, or brainstorm, gathering around a model enables you to do all of those things.
It engages you and your co-workers, and the better they know your design, the better they will be able to provide useful feedback that may enable you to take things to a new, creative level.