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Architecture at a Smaller Scale

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

There’s something special and strange about modelmaking, you feel equal parts a builder and user at a scale you can’t reasonably build or use. A good model invites you to shrink yourself down to scale and wander around in the architect’s imagination, in the way that drawings and renders can’t quite muster. What starts as a messy collection of shapes cut out of balsa wood turns into an object you immediately recognise as being fit for human occupation, just smaller. It’s one of my favourite tools as a student of architecture, and one I tend to use liberally. My name is Adam and I’m currently with WR-AP as a modelmaker and architect’s assistant.

My experience with modelmaking goes back a long way, long before I even knew there was an architect in me. Building is such an attractive thing as a kid, you want to find ways of bringing what’s in your head to life. As such, Lego can be a very slippery slope. Even in school, with any sort of making or doing task, you’d find me planning an ambitious, loose interpretation of whatever the task actually was. Every now and then, it would even work too. These days it’s less about Lego castles and more about timber cladding.

High Trees Model

The first models I made when I started here had the same philosophy: to create the building as it would look when complete. To this end, the models have painted wooden exteriors with window sills and gutters with downpipes snaking down its side. Everything you’d expect in the completed works. The intent behind the models of High Trees and Maker’s Lab was not so much to represent, as to almost thrill the viewer and, in some part, for the architects to feel proud of what they’ve both worked so hard on.

Richmond MakerLab Model

I’ve always been slightly more attached to the models I make for a project than the drawings I produce. Certainly, I feel like I’m a more accomplished modeller than a draftsman, but it extends past than that. You can create a sense of atmosphere in a render, and you can represent scale in a plan, however, it is my opinion that there is no better way of showing space than through a model. As space is the be-all and end-all of architecture, you begin to see where I’m coming from.

After the High Trees and Maker’s lab models, I moved onto a model for 75AR, a residential extension, with explicit instructions to highlight the set of staircases that lead to the top of the building. Interpreting that as highlighting everything on that sectional plane, I created a cutaway model reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s signature style, most similarly in his film ‘The Life Aquatic’ with a giant model of the ship ‘Belafonte’. I would later learn that the client had in fact cited Wes Anderson as potential design inspiration and that the symmetry exhibited everywhere at the rear of the building was a direct consequence of that. The model itself is even a little whimsical, with rooms detailed and decorated as if a little slice of life exists in each. A concept you really want to emphasise when the model doesn’t 'Belafonte' Model on set of 'Life Aquatic' have any party walls.

'Belafonte' Model on set of 'Life Aquatic' Source: Socks Studio

75 AR Model

Most recently, learning from the practice’s resident casting expert Jo, I’ve worked on a series of casts of the Ham community centre project, trying my best to include as many of the reveals and features as exist on the design as possible. The results have been widely successful, and the inherent frailty of the material mitigated, with the exception of a few bumps and scrapes. The homogeny of the plaster creates this wonderful tectonic quality, as if the model was created from deep inside the planet and unearthed over centuries. I suppose it’s obvious Jo’s enthusiasm for casting has rubbed off on me, and I’ll certainly take it into my 3rd year of studies as perhaps my preferred tool for massing.

Cast Models for Ham Community Centre

As in modelmaking as architecture: you’re always learning. There are hundreds of ways to make a model and you’ll never learn to do every single one of them. There’s such a diverse set of tools and media to use that selecting the right one is half the job. The rest comes down to intent and execution. My advice then, to anyone looking for wisdom, is to think of the model holistically. Picture it and plan it in your head and on the page. Anticipate the difficult parts before you tackle them. Most importantly: ask yourself what your model is trying to show.

Difference in Practise – An Appendix As a student at the Mackintosh School of Architecture, there’s such an emphasis on models as a tool of expression. Not just of form or structure but also wider design intent. You can make almost anything you want at a small, unobtrusive scale, so why make it ordinary? It’s a way to bend physics and craft a new world with new rules. It might have to relate to what you intend to put out into the real world but if it will never see the light of day, then what’s the harm in pushing that cantilever a couple metres further than it actually could manage.

Models as part of my studies

It will come as a surprise to nobody then, when I say real practice is radically different to student practice and being exposed to the realities of it all at such an early point in my architectural journey has certainly changed my perspective. My understanding is that it’s not so much about what you can do as an architect, it’s about doing what you can for your clients and your practice. That doesn’t always mean the most innovative or fanciful design. That means compromise: that’s the skill. It doesn’t mean that you can’t design buildings with amazing architectural quality, far from it: everything I’ve seen coming out of this studio inspires me to become a better architect, but not every job can be like Frank Lloyd Wright given carte blanche. Nothing would ever get built that way.

It will be interesting nonetheless, to find out how much this experience will have shaped my own work when I go back to my studies in September. One thing I am certain of however, is that I’ll be making models bigger and better than last year.


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