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From model-making to property development: do it yourself

Rory Olcayto
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This week the AJ is celebrating craftwork: from model-making to hand drawing to developing your own buildings

We’ve collided two themes into one for this week’s edition that at first glance might seem like strange bedfellows: the art of drawing and making models in architectural practice and a focus on architects who develop their own buildings. Yet both of these facets of architecture practice – exploring ideas visually and developing your own projects – can both be expressions of craft.

Of the former, there is little dispute: drawing is craft and that’s that. So is making models. Regarding the latter, there is more dispute: how can developing be thought of as a craft?

Finding the land, buying it, designing the building for it, funding it, running the contract, then perhaps, even marketing the property yourself – you can’t get more bespoke than that.

Without skill, it’s not craft, it’s simply hand-made

Roger Zogolovitch is a vocal advocate of this mode of doing business. His recent book Shouldn’t we all be developers? serves as a manifesto for those looking to follow his lead (We’ve reviewed it here). And while his latest project, Shepherdess Walk in Angel, London, has been designed by Swiss-London firm Jaccaud Zein Architects – and is the focus of our building study this week – it exudes a sense of craft that suggests developer and architect were pretty much acting as one.

But let’s reconsider drawing and making models. CAD drawings, and high-end computer graphics – renders – can be thought of as craft as well. Frankly, the debate that pits computer-aided design against freehand drawing is redundant (And boring. Even more so than ‘ornament v minimalism’). Go and watch Pixar’s 2009 movie Up and tell me there’s no craft in computer-aided design. There are well-crafted computer drawings. And there are bog-standard computer drawings.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines craft as ‘an activity involving skill in making things by hand’. The key word here is not ‘hand’ – which can wield a 4B pencil or a mouse to do the mind’s bidding – but skill. Without skill, it’s not craft, it’s simply hand-made. And hand-made isn’t always good.

The level of craft apparent in the drawings prepared by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners and its team for its recent extension to the British Museum, for example, whether renders of mottled glass or CAD-drawn elevation studies, is apparent. I was lucky to be able to study them in detail – alongside project artist Liam O’Connor’s beautiful pencil studies of the project as it was being built. You can read more about them in our Culture essay this week.

Skill is clearly in evidence in the models of Roz Barr Architects. On a recent visit to Roz’s Clerkenwell studio, I was struck by the sheer number of well-made maquettes – they seemed like display models but were actually working ones, that had been adapted and changed during their design processes – as well as a one-to-one mock-up of a room, a kind of life-size model.

They embody the essence of architectural craft and thinking: not only are they beautiful objects in themselves, they are manifestations of ideas in flux. Models, mostly, tickle the punters too – perhaps because they are both craft-y and clever.

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