Monday, November 26, 2012

Drafting Room Models.....


Drafting Room Model.....

The name pretty much says it all. This is a design study model, drawn and built by hand in a drafting room in the days of paleo-CAD. By "drafting room model", I mean exactly that: a model used as a working tool to study various compositional, massing and spatial qualities of the proposed building, in this case a banking facility I designed in Chicago's Wicker Park. I built this model in 1997 as a drafting room exercise with a couple of architecture students at the same time as I was developing the design concept drawings. I designed the building at a time when I was influenced by the very informal Ralph Johnson Chicago School of Architecture (like a lot of people), so the model had a very specific graphic vocabulary influenced by his work. The model later morphed into a more refined presentation tool when I realized I didn't have any design fee left to spend on renderings.

Architectural models as a design tool, by their very nature, still enjoy an immediacy and currency which validates their intrinsic purpose. The essential question is the road you take in getting there. Today's model builders, professional and amateur alike, enjoy the benefits of precision and speed available through digital technologies. Affordable, readily available laser cutters and printers significantly increase the accuracy and quality of the model components while also reducing the amount of 'cutting time' (and agony) required to create them. Many architectural models are outsourced to professional model builders, especially models that are to be used as a final presentation or marketing tool. By the time these models are constructed the building design has been decided upon and, much like an expensive rendering, are more about validation of the concept, as opposed to exploration of the concept itself. Laser cutting and laser printing also afford professional model builders the opportunity to provide extremely realistic material and profile representation with almost unbelievable accuracy and dimensional tolerance. Brick joints on an 1/8" scale model are a good example of this. Ever try to do that by hand with an X-Acto knife? Grrrr......... 

Good study models are, as a general rule, abstract and monolithic in nature and use one or two materials for all of the building components. Abstract trees are good, people and cars are bad, even as scale references. Realistic material representation is eschewed in favor of simple, easily cut model materials like museum board, illustration board and, if you're really into it and a glutton for punishment, balsa wood. Combinations of these three materials, along with a very light dusting of matte-finish white spray paint after the model is built (to hide glue and pencil lines, fill in joints, etc.), are especially effective. The scale of your model and its methods of assembly will always play a large part in deciding which materials are most appropriate. Models at 1/4" scale or larger will find the depth and rigidity of foam core board or gator board very useful. In study models at 1/8" scale or smaller, the dimensional thickness of foam core or gator board can actually misrepresent certain aspects of the design, such as depth and scale of exterior wall openings, wall thickness, recessed reveals or changes of profile in wall surfaces. On the other hand, the rigidity of gator board makes it an ideal and commonly used material for larger scale models and for indicating site contours and grading. Museum or illustration board can be cut in thin strips and applied over wall, roof and ground surfaces to create layers of detail that are appropriate to the building design as well as the scale you are working at.

AutoCAD and other design software programs make creating and cutting of your model templates by hand both accurate and easy. As an example, try laser printing a reverse image of a model component on translucent media (i.e; vellum or mylar). Then lightly adhere the printed image with spray mount to the back surface of your model material using a brayer. You know, one of those roller thingys. You can then cut the component out from behind with no hand drawing on the model surface itself. This is both quick and easy and also eliminates the unavoidable accumulative scale errors of repetitive hand drawing, not to mention those pesky graphite smears on your pristine white model. A further refinement of this technique can be used by laser printing templates with scale appropriate line weights on translucent or opaque mylar and then applying them to the front (visible) side of a model component, again with a light coat of the deadly and misunderstood spray mount. This allows the model builder to show details like mullion patterns on traditional windows, things that may be too tediously time consuming and infuriatingly inaccurate to hand construct at the scale you are working with.

There are far too many tips and tricks in the technique of composing and building a "drafting room" study model to cover in a single blog post. Remember that study models, like architectural hand drawings, are an artistic exercise in abstract representation, each with its own distinctive vocabulary and inherent advantages or limitations. They are usually collaborative and are made for the often ad-hoc process of learning, informing and communicating. Certain styles and types of building lend themselves more readily to study in model form than others. Ultimately, the quality and degree of detail in a model resides in the amount of time expended and talent available, always with the purpose of the exercise being held clearly in mind. The subtly expressed, hand-crafted qualities of a study model humanize both the expression of the design and the designer, something that should never be held as a completely abstract concept. Remember that your model is a design tool. Admire it when you can but revise it when you must. Well made models rarely lie. If it doesn't feel right in model form, then it probably isn't going to work on the building, either. And finally, remember the seductive power of photography. Some of your most compelling presentation images can come from a digital camera in thoughtfully composed and artfully lit photographs of your model.

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