Architecture is uniquely conflicted. Buildings are as real as anything we encounter. But the designs for them start as creations that are as conceptual—even fantastic—as anything we can imagine.
Creativity requires exploration. Painters and sculptors sketch. Musicians practice and improvise. Writers take notes and keep journals. But architects have to understand how a structure is put together to design a building. Every building has a site, with natural and social features; every building has space and shape, is made of material, formed of pieces, planes, masses and voids. Usually, humans are involved.
Controlling all those variables has obsessed architects since they were called “Master Builders.” With the advent of the 20th century, technology exploded beyond drawings and wooden maquettes to allow miniature explorations of extreme accuracy. Antonio Gaudi, Eero Saarinen, Paul Rudolph, Kevin Roche—all went a little nuts reality-checking their designs by creating amazing “mini-me’s” before building them.
But the last 50 years has seen computerization take 2D and 3D into new realms. In my freshman year of architecture school in 1973, Scientific American thrilled everyone by showing I.M. Pei’s Johnson Art Museum at Cornell, built down the Quad walkway from my adviser Don Greenberg’s office. Greenberg had virtually discovered the brave new world of computer rendering. That breakthrough made those midcentury models antiques within a generation.
Virtual reality has, in turn, made rendering “old school.” The stark realities of computer-driven drawing on a screen went beyond presentation and became a tool for design, which had instant and obvious PR value. Not only used for selling a design, or facilitating the expertise of consultants, 2D rendering has evolved to simulate reality with a quality that evokes and encourages an aesthetic that is at once exquisitely controlled and antiseptic.
The medium of digital rendering has created an aesthetic in which the effect on the screen is often the desired outcome for what architects design.
The effect of the new technologies is compelling and thrilling to all involved, to the point where a large and growing cottage industry of renderers are flooding everyone’s inbox with unceasing business solicitations. But there is a cost. Marshall McLuhan stated “the medium is the message” long before the VR juggernaut was launched. But the medium of digital rendering has created an aesthetic in which the effect on the screen is often the desired outcome for what architects design.
Before he came to work for me, Drew Kepley, a former intern in my office, had spent a year in the Frank Gehry office creating tiny models of paper, cardboard, color, and shape. After hearing how Gehry designed, I understood how he built with a new clarity. Similarly, computer-generated 2D reality conveys a distinct visual reality to the point that the resulting images have an aesthetic architects apply. The allure of the digital image is compelling, but problematic if a building tries to simulate that sensibility.
This cross-pollination between the way something is created and the reality of what is made has a direct parallel to the way early 20th century photography transformed how everyone perceived buildings. The pristine, timeless clarity of black-and-white images soon found their way into real-time constructions.
In recent years, the same computer that makes 2D art facilitates perfect fabrication of components in 3D printing and laser cutting to make physical modeling remarkably accurate and quick. But, again, something is lost in all this efficiency. The human touch has increasingly abandoned the studio, as the sound of clicking mouses in a silent space between those staring at screens, listening to music or podcasts via earbuds, is as antiseptic and clean as the old architecture office was messy and chaotic.
My 40-year-old office betrays its age in this evolving world. I started out working in the human mess and chaos of a woodworking shop, before CNC machines changed everything. That mess was directly reflected in the adjacent architecture office of Louis Mackall, my mentor and co-owner of the shop. The messy ethos of that shop infused our office. The instant physical exploration of ideas—with quick cutting and gluing of cardboard, paper, foamcore, and wood, spiced with plasticine clay, paint, or bits of clear plastic and metal—provided a primal joy that no screen can ever capture.
Like a sculptor’s maquette, an architect’s model is simultaneously a search for and a test of ideas. The ripping, cutting, gluing and taping are a direct brain-to-hand-to-material-to-reality connection: tangible, physical, real. This is not a method of presentation. It is a tactile way of thinking and looking that no sketch or screen can come close to equaling.
Virtual reality remains, sadly, virtual. Peering into a flat screen is just one way that humans perceive. Making a model uses those same eyes, but a model can be felt, held up close to the light, placed in front of you or across the room. Space and shape are real. Design models are not preconceived; they are a hard reality that challenges the nature of any building that is being created.
Why be ”virtual” when designing buildings? Is easier better? Of course computer imagery and 3D printing are fantastic tools, but they have limitations and powerful properties that we should acknowledge and occasionally resist. Architecture can be public or esoteric. But buildings are inevitably and unavoidably human experiences. If design is about making imagery and detached aesthetics, then photos and pixels are enough. But if design is intended to result in a physical creation in this temporal and experiential world, then physical models, perhaps handmade models, have fundamental value.
Architects should not lose that truth.
All images by the author.