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The new model army

The skill of model making is often neglected but its value for visualisation is gaining recognition in academia and practice

Architecture students are obliged to make models as part of their coursework. If they are organised, the last few days before a crit may be taken up lovingly preparing a model of one's completed scheme. In the best case this can be the difference between a pass and a fail and at least it can give a student extra brownie points with the course tutors. But obviously, a model done badly is worse than no model at all.

To many students, model making is one of the most enjoyable parts of the presentation process; to others who are less dextrous (or more prone to last-minute all-nighters), it is an intrusion into the real business of architecture. While stylish presentation has always been important there is nowadays a tendency for students to see computer walkthroughs as the new way of doing things. However, the usefulness of a good model should not be underestimated.

Measuring up

Depending on the complexity of an individual building, a model of the proposal can be a great help at various stages of a project design. For an architect it can be helpful, for example, to make a fiveminute paper and sticky tape model of the way that various hipped roofs intersect to clarify the way the roof plan should be drawn. This is simply a model as an aidememoire; a throw-away, a don't-tell-anyone-I-made-that type of model. Students have not yet learned professional ignominy and are often happy to present even this type of model for public scrutiny.

The next level of sophistication is the massing model; something which conveys the spatial form of the proposal without external or internal detail: the ubiquitous white card model with UHU glue oozing from every pore.This begins to realise the model as a clue to the appropriateness of the form. When combined with a rough site build-up, it provides the first stage in defining the contextual utility of the typology. Depending on the architects' satisfaction with their proposal, they may feel confident enough to show this type of model to the client or design team (with excuses), to talk through the scheme.

These hasty, interpretative models are the very stuff of student intermediate crits.

The next stage is to make concrete the agreed design; the presentation model of the finalised scheme. In the commercial world, this is where architects have to come to terms with their own shortcomings. Architects, it has to be said, do not make good presentation models. None of them have the time, admittedly, but most are also lacking the aptitude. Students on the other hand, have not yet had the creative impulse knocked out of them although architectural schools do not usually nurture their students' modelmaking talents.

Qualified success

At present there are only seven degree courses in the country which teach model making and a scattering of others at HND level.Although it is a growing academic specialism (see box for a list of courses) the value of such courses is still the object of debate. One source, who does not wish to be named, says that 'academic qualifications in model-making are not worth the paper they are written on . . . you learn in two years what you could learn in a commercial environment in two months', but others disagree.

Peter Robertson, head of department at Kent Institute of Art and Design, acknowledges the wider educational debate about the merits of vocational courses.He believes that an academic training in an arts subject allows students a freedom of expression, which they would not have if they went straight into employment. 'We do require a broad knowledge of subject context, 'he says, 'and require a dissertation submission at the end of the course. This is currently being changed to the requirement for a log book-style case study, which educates the students to think more realistically.'

The architectural model-making course at Kent is currently being refined into a specialist course within the architecture department.

Model making practice

However, many model making companies take year-out architecture students for holiday periods and some retain Part I and II students full-time.Martin Finnesey is director of Kandor Modelmakers. Its workload is 90 per cent architectural model making. 'A knowledge of architecture is essential, ' he says, 'but it is possible to pick things up as you gain more experience.' The main thing, he adds, is that 'trainee model makers should have an aptitude for the subject', which is as likely to be gleaned from a 'model-making hobby' as from a college course.

John Tyrrell, administration tutor on Sunderland University's Model Making and Design course, is developing a syllabus that tries to address prospective employers' concerns by linking the course to actual commercial appointments, effectively creating a sandwich course with the involvement of industry. 'We are developing exchange programmes with architecture colleges because of the usefulness of model-making skills to architects and because it is a profitable venture, ' he says. The marketplace for architectural model makers is not very large in this country and graduates will usually have to be prepared to travel.

Tyrrell adds: 'All nine of our recent graduates got very lucrative appointments worldwide.'

The profit motive certainly features strongly in the model-making fraternity.

Nick McKeogh, managing director of modelmaker Pipers, admits that 'there is a lot of money to be made depending on how good and how quick you are', but that it is a fluctuating, uncertain market. 'The '90s was the era of the computer walkthrough but now clients and architects are rediscovering the usefulness of models.'

John Walton, partner at TPA Modelmakers, says 'the computer model has a different value. It is only when you see a building in 3D in its setting that you can really convey and appreciate a true sense of how it will look. There is real interaction with a model, everyone can see it clearly and each viewer will literally have a different perspective on it.'

The place of model-making companies in the design chain can be as important as other members of the design team, although they are often criticised for not adding value. This is a mistake. The model-maker's art has a place in the winning over of a client or local authority and is a specialism which cannot be underestimated.

Models provide a closer understanding of three-dimensional form, which often clarifies the architects' traditional 2D presentation. Architecture schools linked with modelmaking courses or practices will inevitably improve their students' visualisation skills. It is a travesty to try to make a presentation model cheaply and hastily inhouse. Leave it to the trained experts.

INSTITUTIONS OFFERING MODEL-MAKING COURSES

Barking College (HND) Tel 01708 770000

University of Hertfordshire (Degree) Tel 01707 284848

Kent Institute of Art & Design (Degree) Tel 01634 830022

North East Worcestershire College (HND) Tel 01527 572822

Rycote College (HND) Tel 01844 212501

University of Sunderland (Degree) Tel 0191 515 2000

MODEL-MAKING COMPANIES

Kandor Modelmakers Tel 020 7251 6366

Pipers Tel 020 7250 0530 TPA

Modelmakers Tel 01892 835051

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