Not much is known about the history of model making in the practice of architecture. A few stray references here and there tell us that while it is taken for granted that making models and presenting one’s designs through models is an established part of normal architectural practice, not much thought is given to the role of models in the process of designing. With curiosity I tried to browse the Web world to find out if anyone has done this, only to be confronted with a long list of people and organizations that would make a model for someone else for a price. Apparently there is a trend now to ‘parcel out’ even this from the normal practice.
There is an interesting reference in the 15th century architect and theorist Leon Battista Alberti’s treatise on architecture “de Re Aedificatoria”. Alberti commended the ancient practice whereby builders made drawings, paintings and wooden models of the projects in hand since, according to Alberti, “from a model the cost of the enterprise could be computed accurately”. Alberti refers to the ancient practice though we do not know how far back in history his information goes and whether the Greeks and Romans made models. But one thing is certain. By Renaissance the practice of making models must have been evolved to a level high enough and sophisticated enough for the models to be used to estimate the cost of the projects.
Now that is rather a strange reason for making a model, for these days we do not associate a model as an instrument of estimation; we have better and far more accurate ways of doing that. So why do architects make models, if they ever do? (for there are a lot of architects who do not bother as my web browsing shows).
More than any other objective, we understand models as elements of presentation, that is to say, they are scaled down three dimensional replicas of a proposed building to present to a lay person a realistic impression of what the building will look like. Drawing alone cannot do this as drawings, especially the two dimensional ones, constitute an abstract language, a system of codification of the reality into a language of lines, which makes a drawing several steps removed from that reality; not an easy task for a lay person to understand. Sketches and other rendered images are a bit closer but the problem with these is that they represent the reality of the project in a partial way and that too in a way that the architect, more often than not, wants us to see. It is like he is putting his best foot forward. A model can overcome this limitation. It allows one to move around, albeit like a bird hovering over a city, and take in the whole, stopping and pondering on the way as one likes it.
But then one cannot help being curious. Why didn’t Alberti mention presentation as a reason for making a model? You see, Alberti and his contemporaries in the early 15th century were not yet used to drawing realistic perspectives. In fact Alberti himself contributed in no small measure toward the invention of perspective drawings but the technique was not yet that widely used. He did not send a model to Ludovico, patron of the Benedictine Abbey of Sant’ Andrea in Mantua from whom he was angling for a project to rebuild this church (it turned out to be one of his finest). He sent a sketch saying “It will be more capacious, more lasting, more worthy, more cheerful. It will cost much less…..” All these qualities could easily have been conveyed more forcefully through a model, which as we learnt earlier, he knew all about from the ancients.
My guess is that convincing the client was not of such a high priority in his scheme of things, though historians tell us that at least one wooden model of Sant’ Andrea was built and it has not survived the ravages of time. There may have been others. How did Alberti arrive at those magnificent proportions of Sant’ Andrea which make this building stand apart from all the others built at that time? How did he choose all those elements of his composition whereby nothing can be altered without changing the whole? Did it all come out in one single creative rush or did he have to struggle like most of us usually have to do? If so, what instruments did he use to show him the way?
As I do not claim to be an historian, I may be allowed the privilege to indulge in conjecture. I propose that Alberti’s architecture, like all great architecture was built upon a succession of models, each one being an instrument of inquiry. Accurately computing the “cost of the enterprise” may indeed be a part of this inquiry. The point is that the role of models was, and has always remained, internal to the process of designing. As opposed to being a tool of marketing, which is external to designing, the act of making design choices depended upon the designer critically evaluating those choices with the help of analogous replicas.
The very act of conceptualizing an idea and its crystallization into temporal forms is a far more complex process than we realize. It is synchronic and cyclical in nature as opposed to diachronic and linear as in the case of technical inventions. Such a process requires a catalyst- a metaphor or a model- that can trigger a revelation. In other words a designer is not expected to start with a clear knowledge of what he is looking for – a sense may be but not knowledge, which calls for a clearly definable, a priory statement of an idea. Nor is he aware of what may guide his choices. Remember Corbu’s famous proposition “Creation is a patient search”? I believe, what he meant was that an artist is searching for that sense of order and this search ends precisely at the moment he arrives at an image, which shows him in temporal form what he has been searching for. Thus making of the image precedes the articulation of the idea. The making itself is the search and it follows no logical path. It is full of exploration, struggle and frustration requiring patience. It is in this search, the process rather than the product that we will have to locate the role of models in architecture.
It all comes down to the method of working, doesn’t it? And method is linked to the nature of an activity, in this case architecture, and the way it is represented in our perception. Do we represent architecture as a scientific, logical, problem solving, technical activity, or we represent it as a design activity with a technical component in its training and working and which, through the built environment in the forms of either buildings or cities, seeks to convey an idea of order or of a society built on a different set of values? They both produce tangible images at the end of the day and are informed by ideas and concepts. However, the difference between the two is important in the context of our present discourse on the role of models as models are part of that relationship between images and concepts.
There are enough reasons and studies in the last several decades to conclude that the methods employed by science and technology on one hand and the creative arts on the other are diametrically opposed to each other in their relationship between the concepts and the tangible, corporeal forms that are produced by both. While science begins with ideas and concepts and, through technology, seeks to create objects and events (transformation of the physical environment), arts seek to project an idea (of order, unity, a society built on a different set of value) through the corporeal forms. In other words “thinking” and “doing” have different relationship in science and in arts.
Almost all our high schools and the family too, have taught us to think before doing anything. Thinking through anything prior to doing it has become a second nature. But in architecture the sequential relationship between thinking and doing is often reversed; in fact it is so in all creative disciplines. An architect often explores through a sketch or a model (an action) and then ponders (thinking) about its consequences. Doing precedes thinking or rather they both are reciprocal and feed on each other. I have a name for such a process. Let us call it “reflective action”; an action that critically reflects upon itself; a design action, which is both a cause as well as a consequence of a well-considered critical evaluation of its suitability and supportability in a given situation. This critical evaluation does not come in abstraction. In fact imagination is never stimulated in abstraction; it needs a concrete image. Reflective action is thus opposed to logical action, habitual action or action which may be seen as in vogue at the time (the last two are in reality uncritical actions and therefore not worthy of consideration).
And it is here that models (and also sketches) play an important role by being catalysts to focus this reflective action. They are the mirrors that reflect an architect’s subconscious intentions, making him aware of their implications and taking that ‘patient search’ a step or two further. Thus we locate the role of models firmly within the act of designing itself: as necessary tools of inquiry, investigation and exploration of a designer’s intentions before they are crystallized in real space. Models for presentation and for communicating to the client/patron may still be needed but they do not substitute models as tools of reflection. In other words, architecture can still afford to represent itself as a purely rational activity with a linear and analytical method. Such a representation challenges the very identity and the objective of the activity we call architecture. This is not to imply that design is devoid of rationality; rationality in design has a far more complex role.
The making of the model itself offers interesting clues. Even though a model is analogous to a building in its image, constructing the model is an entirely different proposition from constructing the actual building. ‘Fabricating’ a model, as it were, with planer materials such as cardboard, forces one to abstract or simplify the complexity of the design to its essential spatial elements. On the other hand, ‘sculpting’ a model in clay (my favorite material), wood or stone offers one a perception of the building’s wholeness which transcends material differences and articulations. The complete absence of resistance, that the relatively new materials such as foam plastic offer, makes explorations of design possibilities almost effortless, allowing the architect much greater freedom and ease of working. Once the hesitation caused by material resistance is removed, a designer may feel free to explore possibilities that he may have avoided earlier. Either way one gains invaluable insights in the nature of the work which can not be had in the absence of this important tool. Rationality manifests itself in ways more than one.
Unfortunately a large part of the contemporary practice, as also the training of architects, has devalued this part of the process of designing. And this had begun even before the advent of computers, which is believed to have provided an easy alternative to physical models. Computers have changed the way architecture is produced but their impact as tools of representation has not yet been properly understood. They do have a profound effect on the way we look at the world around us, opening up unforeseen possibilities i.e. the transparency implied in the unhidden “wire frame” mode has the potentiality to change the way we perceive space, something that neither of the traditional materials can do. In any case they will not, and should not, replace the physical tools of representation, which constitute sketches and models. Ideally, computers should be seen as providing another way of seeing your work. Who knows, they may still broaden and enrich the inquiry.
It is obvious that a significant displacement of the objective of architecture has taken place from that of building “good” buildings to, at first, “useful” buildings and then later merely “beautiful” buildings. Whereas “good” implies both aesthetic and ethical dimensions rolled into one, both “useful” and “beautiful” are strictly speaking apolitical and extra moral. But, in the words of that sensitive architect Romaldo Giurgola, “all great architecture of the past came to be as a result of a desire to make good architecture first and foremost. They are the places where aesthetics and ethics were inextricably joined in the same practical system which provided the basis both for the construction of buildings and the creation of a work of art” (italics added).
In 1747 a Frenchman by the name of Perronet established, for the first time in history, a School of Civil Engineering. Until then the term “Architect” implied both a builder, well versed in the craft of construction and engineering, as well as an artist. With this seemingly innocuous event architecture seems to have suffered its first crisis of confidence. What was taken for granted earlier as inseparable, namely construction of buildings and the creation of a work of art, now was sheared into two separate compartments, each with its own independent practitioner. The representation of architecture and civil engineering as two separate disciplines with their own methods and myths replaced the earlier unified whole. Civil engineering defined for itself and occupied the space of the measurable rationality while architecture, by default, had to contend with its opposite, namely the immeasurable and indefinable.
The crystallization of the popular perception of architecture as a quasi-technical activity happened gradually from thereon. Beginning with the revolutionary romanticism of Boullee and Ledoux to the rationalism of Viollet-le-Duc, Labrouste, and Auguste Choisy, to the Arts and Crafts of William Morris and finally ending up in the functionalism of the twentieth century architecture went through a series of definition changes, which was nothing short of an amnesia of destination.
I believe the process of designing took on the qualities of a logical, step-by-step, problem-solving method when architects, looking for legitimacy, felt that they too, like engineers, must be accountable to the strictly rational qualities of mind. Architecture came to be perceived more as a technical activity than a design activity. Measurable efficiency replaced expression of order as the objective of architecture and rational, linear analysis displaced the “patient search”.
One does not have to go too far to see what this means. Look at our schools. How many of them stress, in their pedagogy, the need for designing through exploration? Such explorations demand that initially we challenge the students to explore a number of possibilities, without prior authorization of directions favored by the faculty or by his/her conscious intellect. The judgment as to the suitability of any of these proposals will have to come after, not before, the range and diversity of possibilities they have produced within the limits of a given situation. Such pedagogy requires constantly working in three dimensions through models. The stress on logical process today is indicated by the fact that at many schools the studio projects are termed as design “problems” presumably to be “solved” through the exercise.
The devaluation is perpetuated by the young architects coming out of these schools and are absorbed in the profession. Over the years more and more of the architectural studios in the country, especially the new and young ones, do away with the practice of exploring design possibilities through models altogether. The rationale being, you can always find a model maker on the Web anytime one is needed for marketing your work.
But all is not lost. There are still a significant number of architects, mostly the old timers but, I must add, a few young ones too, who still hold on to the tradition though. We should thank our stars for that. The present exhibition of models done in the studio of Balkrishna Doshi is a welcome opportunity to reaffirm the faith. It is entirely appropriate to see Doshi’s work here for he has been closely associated with both Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. Studios of both these masters were always filled with hundreds of models, small and big, at various stages of evolution of the projects and all evidences of the often bloody struggle that design exploration is all about. And all dedicated to the task of making “good architecture first and foremost”.
It is not my intension here, nor is it appropriate, to explain or interpret the models on display in this exhibition; they speak for themselves. In their own way, the models themselves, each one of them, are far more eloquent testimonials of Doshi’s and his team’s ceaseless pursuit of good architecture.