For centuries, physical modeling has been a staple of architectural education and practice. Allowing the designer and client to explore a scheme in plan, elevation, and perspective all at once, the physical model aims to simulate the spatial relationship between volumes and to understand constructive systems.
Even in an age of ultra-high quality rendering, and virtual reality, physical material models represent a beloved, tried and tested method of conveying ideas both during the design process and at presentation stage. Whether through a rapid, five-minute volumetric test of paper models, or a carefully sculpted timber construction detail, careful choice of material can greatly assist the modeling process, allowing designers to remain abstract, or test physical properties of structural systems.
As a crucial step in the creative process, volumetric explorations can be crucial to the design of a project. Think of the works of Antoni Gaudí. Two-dimensional drawings (plans and sections) work together with physical models to provide a comprehensive representation of the design.
But, architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha, in the Brazilian book “Maquetes de Papel” purports that models serve as support for the process, not for representation.
“It is the model as sketches … The model you do as an essay of what you are imagining … Like the poet when he scribbles, when he takes notice … The model here is an instrument that is part of the work process. “(p.22)
Considering the challenges that arise during the creation of architectural models, we have compiled a set of fundamental tips and materials suggestions to assist you in your next modeling venture.
Thanks to its low cost and accessibility this material is most suitable for rapid volumetric testing or drawing of design plains. With scissors and some tape, you can generate a number of solutions quickly, easily, and cost-effectively, while still creating dynamic architectural objects.
Another feature to be considered is the thinness and, consequently, flexibility of paper models, which allows stress-free bends, curves, and inclinations. This also makes the material good for folding studies.
This material, when compared to paper, offers a thicker edge and rigidity, and is therefore frequently used for the volumetric experimentation of architectural objects with shapes without large three-dimensional curves. However, it is worth noting that in some cases, curved surfaces can be achieved by fastening cuts at the edges.
With a variety of colors, it also has excellent properties for site programming models. From a neutral base color to represent terrain, it is possible to design or represent the urban fabric using a pre-established color palette to indicate different uses and programs, allowing for a better understanding of spatial division and the uses of the buildings.
Card stock also allows for the design of isolated physical models. Using neutral colors (particularly white) it becomes possible to understand the effect of shadows with the aid of a light source such as a flashlight.
Frank Gehry uses this material; his signature designs include fluid forms, twisted planes and curves. He creates spontaneous models, as seen in Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005), directed by Sydney Pollack.
Paper Board / Chip Board
This paper has an even higher weight and strength. The difference between duplex and triplex board refers to the amount of layers in each. The material is ideally used in the development of volumetric mock-ups.
The architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha is adept at using this material for its simplicity and experimental speed.
It is worth mentioning that, together with the papers mentioned, some additional materials can be used, such as acetate sheets, to represent glass and glazing.
Unlike paper models, wood models provide higher resistance and a greater level of detail. With this, one is also able to represent constructive techniques and spatial properties in an aesthetically-pleasing, although typically more expensive manner.
Within the family of wood used frequently in model making, Balsa is the one of the easiest to work with. The low thickness allows for precise cutting and joining of surfaces with wood or white glue. That being said, careful attention must be given when slicing perpendicular to the grain, to avoid chipping, or rough edges.
Many studios employ this model type for observing the constructive solutions in their interiors. The soft timber aesthetic also makes a great choice for presenting design proposals to the client in a considered, confident, professional methodology.
Balsa is also excellent for portraying contour lines when stacked. Unless you want to really put your cutting skills to the test, it’s probably best to employ a laser cutter.
Balsa also lends itself excellently to manipulation through sanding of edges, painting, or varnishing to create different finishes. Balsa is typically available as panels, or thin strips, allowing for experimentation in cladding, framing, sheets, and tiling.
Foam is an excellent choice for rapid volumetric testing, with a foam cutter now a staple of university studios. Dozens of volumes can be generated in minutes, making the technique ideal for large-scale context modeling, where details such as pattern and facades are not as important.
Using carving tools, foam also allows for the creation of more defined, detailed sculptures, and landscaping features such as trees.
The possibility of dyeing the material also helps show schematization of the project. As with foam cutting, care is needed to avoid the spread of fumes from burning or dyeing the material. Choice of glue is also important, as some chemicals may melt the foam and weaken the model’s rigidity.
Foam modeling is a favorite for university students in particular, due to its low cost, ready availability, and pleasing aesthetic when due care and attention is paid.
In the professional world, foam models are used by the architectural powerhouses Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and OMA.
This low-cost material is often used for the development of topographical mockups. You can simply fasten a printed drawing on top of the plastic and cut.
Due to its low thickness, it might be necessary to join more than one layer with the same cutout to reach the desired final height.
Plastic models can be complemented with 3D-printed models, providing a base or context for more elaborate, detailed designs.