Modelmaking: The Thinking Hand

Gordon Murray discusses the importance of model making in the twenty first century.

Our contact with, and experience of, the world takes place through the skin by means of our enveloping membrane.  All senses, including vision, are extensions of the tactile sense.  This fundamental hapticity of the human world heightens the significance of the hand.  Every motion of the hand carries itself through the element of thinking.  All the work of the hand is rooted in thinking.  We are not usually aware that an unconscious experience of touch is unavoidably contained in vision.

As we look, the eye touches, and before we see an object we have already touched it, judged its weight, its temperature and its surface texture.  This process is refined and reaches a culmination when a skilled football player internalises the entire complex situation of movement of other players and the ball as well as their expected movements on the field into a single unconscious percept and respond to that instinctively.  The eye and the hand constantly collaborate.  We see the image, but we feel the space.

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Henry Moore’s hands (1978)

The whole issue of thinking and making things is central to education and personal development. The relationship between what the hand does and what the mind does is a fundamental attribute in what needs to be developed in architecture.  Even when you produce CGI / 3D drawings, clients don’t see it the same way that they see a 3D model in its physical reality.  Models clarify a lot of information and they equally enhance communication to a greater degree and in a way that even high quality CGIs don’t.  Part of it is the tactility – you can visualise the upscaling of the space that is created in models but also feel what that space feels like, and so it has a different function.

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Eero Saarinen and Cesar Pelli working on model for TWA Terminal (1956)

With clients, the benefit of using a physical model, rather than a digital model, is that all can see the whole project at once and it creates a conversation about an object – that object being a scaled version of the project.  A conversation can come through models a lot more than with digital images, which are fixed shots of certain aspects or frames of a proposal.  The model exposes all the junctions, the relationships between the old and new.  There is nowhere to hide. Not all of it needs to be resolved but all of it is exposed for consideration and future resolution.

There’s also something about making at prototyping stages, where the models are fast and crude, being about play and creativity, almost experimental.  If you look at Apple, Ideo or any high creatives, play is a fundamental part of design because it is where the creativity takes place.  Following children, it’s how they play.  They invent things, they test it and if they think it’s rubbish they try something else.

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OMA model store (1990s)

Even if you don’t have clients coming up and stroking the model, you still have something that they can lift, you can get down into it on a table level and engage with it.  That is much more about the tactility and hapticity.  The fact that there is a physical presence there, it works in a way that drawings don’t.  It reveals things in new ways, genuinely slowing the process down so you can consider various aspects in more detail, especially if you’re making a façade model for example, you would consider the way the light passes across it or how light and shade play across an elevation.

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Prada Warehouse model in differing materials, HdeM (2000)

It’s easy to fall into the trap of purely working at your computer using 3D modelling software that is readily accessible and easy to use.  For me, the difference between modelling on a computer and modelling something by hand is that you’re not being led by the computer in a certain direction.  It’s almost like you take out the middle man when you’re making physical models and you can get the ideas from your head directly onto a 3D form.

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Mies van der Rohe, Phyllis Lambert and Gene Summers (1955)

In terms of value for a practice, models are a fantastic way to explain what you are thinking.  If you do quick prototypes, you can test whether the idea is working.  Similarly, it allows you to communicate ideas from other members of the design team to a wider audience.  You can upscale that and it allows you to look at things like 1:5 or 1:10 details and to show how junctions work and how you’re going to detail an interface or whatever.  With drawings, you’ve got to draw an awful lot more to explain an aspect than you do in even a model that you’re making out of foamboard.

In the age of computer aided design and virtual modelling, physical models are incomparable aids in the design process.  The 3D material model speaks to the hand and the body as powerfully as to the eye and the process of constructing a model simulates the process of construction.