When is a Model Worth a Million Pixels?

In this age of computer generated 3D renderings, most architecture firms have come to regard physical model making as an old-school, outdated tool – no longer worthy of a contemporary design process. We’re not talking about formal presentation models here, but rather the “working” models, usually white and made of foam core, that are such powerful tools for communicating and exploring the design process, both with colleagues and fellow designers, and with our clients.

More than any of the other tools in the architect’s tool box, such as computer models or drawings, physical models convey a more complete truth. With drawings, you can fudge proportions.  With digital displays, you can clip or cut your view to see only what you wish to see, or what you want someone else to see. With a digital model, you might experience a distorted view – much like the objects in a rear view mirror that may be closer – or larger, or smaller – than they appear. But with a physical model, it’s impossible to hide behind cleverness and artifice. And as real as a 3D computer-generated vision might seem, the tangible object sitting on a table, out in the open with 360 degree views, doesn’t allow much room for distortion or even self-delusion.


As we work through a design, physical models also promote more effective collaboration. The intern architect responsible for crafting the model may dread the question, “May I?” from other architects in the office because that presages the movement or even ripping away of some pieces. But it is precisely that process of moving things around that most often generates the best solution, and not just an answer that is “good enough.”

For our clients, physical models promote an insight and understanding of the project in ways that other tools simply can’t. Some people can’t fully comprehend the drawings that layer in elevations and perspectives. Some can’t process a screen image in the same way as they might experience the shapes and sizes that play out in a scaled object. With physical models, clients too can ask, “May I?” and move things around. They can see – and feel – what the project is becoming and what it will be. And in a field like architecture, where so much of it is about looking but not touching, we want our clients to touch and be touched by our work.

Don’t misunderstand. We are not saying that other tools aren’t useful.  We use digital tools, and drawings as well.  But we are not prepared to throw out physical model making because it might be considered old-school or even outdated. The truth and clarity that comes with well-utilized physical model making is timeless. Much like the architecture we strive to produce for our clients.

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