A Physical Process

Partner and Model-Maker Ken Grix describes the importance of hands-on exploration in the design process

Copyright Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

At Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios there’s no shortage of monitors but we’ve also recently invested in two new model-making workshops which allow all members of staff to use physical model-making as a means to explore, communicate and experiment with design ideas.

Because physical models are an intrinsic part of our thinking and our design process we have always had an in-house model-maker but the new workshops allow all staff to create hand-made and lasercut models. We are thus able to produce process models to aid design thinking, concept models which distill the essence of the idea and presentation models which communicate the full scheme to a wider public.

Process Models

Our model-makers all have architectural backgrounds which means they engage fully  with the design team intentions during collaborations.  The architects are encouraged to design with process models, either by making models themselves or by discussion centred around models. Process models can be rough sketch models in card, wire, clay or styrofoam or more precisely constructed lasercut card, veneer, Perspex or plywood. The cyclical process of design, action and assessment can thus be reduced from hours to minutes or even seconds if the designer and modelmaker are working in close collaboration.

The iterative revision of a process model is thus central to the design process and also provides an excellent tool for clients to explore ideas in 3D through all stages of a project. (1) This striking process model of Manchester School of Art is a good example of a design iteration made by the design team. Several features were subsequently revised but the prime moves shown here are established and recognizable in the completed building .

(2) An example of an engaging process model with moveable parts is this generic floorplate “toy” for the Ulster University. Faculty heads were invited to rearrange modular office typologies on a gridded floorplate and thus test and customise the design of their own faculty offices.

Concept Models

Concept Models serve a slightly different purpose. They communicate the essence of the design and tend to work best as   an extraordinary reductive abstraction of a scheme. It’s particularly compelling if the concept model can  fit in the palm of the  hand. We often try to create something original and memorable, perhaps with sculptural qualities, using light and  interesting, often tactile materials. Concept models are usually created in-house with the design teams and often remain as inspirational benchmarks throughout the design process.

(3) This set of nine concept models for the Southbank Festival Wing shows the proposed glass elements as lightly touching additions to the existing concrete “landscape” buildings. From a single view-point, various angles of light reflected on the dichroic film create unique colours in each model. Made with cast cement, Perspex and dichroic film, this model exhibit won the AJ/Lendlease Grand Award for Architecture at the RA Summer Exhibition 2013.

(4)(5) Casting is a useful and popular method of creating form without distracting joints, seams or fixings, as demonstrated on the cast Plaster of Paris model showing the massing of the Leventis Art Gallery. Plaster of Paris twinned with brass wire and Perspex model, both signify the form and voids of the proposed art gallery with an appropriate sculptural vocabulary

(6) Continuing the art theme, the early concept model for the Manchester School of Art uses stacked layers of contrasting Perspex to represent the bold elevational patterns and to enliven the object with internally reflected light transmitted through the edges of the clear Perspex layers.

(7) In an earlier project for Manchester Metropolitan University, we created a competition-winning concept model for the Business School. The envelope of the building is decorated and shaded by projecting fins represented by deeply scored Perspex, up-lit along the bottom edges with a pallet of coloured LEDs. The Perspex had to be removable to reveal the internal floorplates. Thus, the fins were inverted as scores lines in order to remain robust during the removal of the model envelope and also to interrupt the internally reflected light within the Perspex.

(8) This unusual concept model describes a three-dimensional circulation diagram for the Ulster University. Live-edge acrylic signifies social areas and circulation elements weaving through minimally implied  building form. The heat-formed strips of live-edge acrylic had to be as long as possible in order to avoid distracting light interruption at joints and fixings.

(9) Our competition winning concept model for Bath Abbey reveals the subterranean resource of vaults, basements and the Roman Baths and also reduces the Abbey to a skeletal gothic structure. The model aided discussions about the Abbey interior and showed how new accommodation could  be discreetly inserted.. Lasercut plywood and Perspex.

Presentation Models

Presentation models are high quality, technically precise, scale representations of the architect’s finalised designs. The creativity of presentation model making lies in making it appear convincing: designing the model to hide or minimise the distracting construction of the model whilst expressing appropriate architectural signifiers.

(10) This presentation model for Southbank Centre’s Festival Wing includes internal lighting. As well as representing the enchanting night-time appearance of the complex, the lighting further emphasizes the proposed interventions modelled in Perspex, against the general existing massing modelled in Lime wood. (Photograph by Andrew Putler).

(11) This sectional relief  model of the Southbank Centre’s Festival Wing compresses the depth dimension to provide an easily understood relationship of spaces across a section. The existing building and landscape are  modelled in walnut. Proposed interventions are modelled in lime and Perspex.

(12) We created this 1/50 plywood model of the Manchester School of Art as a presentation tool for the 2014 Stirling Prize jury visit.  The model uses 15mm thick birch plywood components, CNC routed to form floorplates and columns. The stairs and walkways were lasercut and hand-cut. Figures are painted in various wood-shades to represent the social fusion of different design disciplines.

CNC routing has to be out-sourced but both offices have lasercutters and 3D-printers. The preparation and duration of the 3D-printing process can take several hours but it is a method of increasing interest and popularity, particularly for representing complex forms. 3D-prints are another option in the modelmakers’ range of methods.

Models remain universally popular because they are easy to understand. A model signifies a miniature reality; the three-dimensional relationship of all parts and spaces of the model can be observed directly in real time and from real viewpoints. Released from the conventions and limitations of two-dimensional graphics, makers and viewers of physical models can easily engage with the architecture. 

Ken Grix