Every architect has a method to his or her madness – a way in which he or she works through a design. Sketches on napkins, water-colored impressions in stock notebooks, hard-lined drawings stained with red ink. A process clicks, and that process becomes their signature.
I think of myself as a modeler – one who is more adept with wood and glue than pen and paper. Though I should be able to use both, and I’d like to believe I can, I feel more comfortable with a cutting mat before me, the cool metallic handle of an Xacto in hand, and a piece of bass wood laid out ready for an incision. There is the tactility of modeling that I find attractive, the physical reality of the product that excites me. It’s small, it’s abstract, but it’s tangible.
I was an obsessive modeler as an undergraduate, building constantly and usually from scratch. It was an expensive process, and many times I was told to just take a study model apart to start a new one, but I liked the pile that would begin to accumulate around me. One model would follow another, and another and another. Within one week I might find myself with five our six variants of a single idea, all staring back at me. My little children, as it were, who I had imagined and sired. Some had been bastards, but in the end, I found something in each one that was special.
And so, when it came to final presentations, it seemed natural that I would have a more elaborate model to supplement my, admittedly, average drawings. It was my way playing the best hand I was dealt. I might draft well, but I struggled to imagine creative ways to render my drawings for final presentations. I would try different techniques, occasionally failing disastrously. In general, no matter how hard I tried, even my best presentation drawings lacked the glossy sheen of fellow classmates – the compelling eye candy that sweetened a viewer’s palate and softened their criticisms.
Models, I found, were an easy way to accomplish the same. Models, when done with craft and detail, masked certain deficiencies while highlighting the projects strengths. For architects, nice models were like an alluring siren’s call to sex-starved sailors. It blinded them, wrapping them up in a warm and sensuous first impression, and leaving them oblivious to some potential dangers or pitfalls that might otherwise beckon for their attention.
There are downsides to going the modeling route, and time is the biggest one. Modeling is equal parts patience and commitment, with the expectation that you have devoted yourself entirely to the single purpose of building for an extended period of time. Get side-tracked from your model, and things happen. Pieces go missing, templates get ruined, a work in progress gets mistaken for scrap, the materials you are using run out at the art store if you wait to long. So, once you’ve begun a model, especially a final model, you want to proceed without interruptions. Besides, with the models I was doing, I rarely had room to do other work.
I was, as with everything else I did, slower than others at my model-building. That was, in part, due to my nagging hopes of achieving perfection. Perfect corners, perfect intersections, perfect alignments. If a piece was a millimeter too short, I would re-cut. If the edges of two pieces did not glue seamlessly, then they would be torn apart and adjusted. I couldn’t leave it alone. I tried, but the errors haunted me, prevented me from moving on. And if I tried, I’d make more mistakes while thinking about the others.
I was also, perhaps, a little too ambitious in the scope of my models. As I proceeded from first year, to second, and onto third year, my models seemed to grow in size, until I found myself, spring semester third year, trying to accomplish the gargantuan task of building a behemoth that measured 8 feet in length, 1 foot in width, and about 2 feet in height.
Thankfully, I was not alone in this particular pursuit. My studio third year comprised a new studio professor hoping to make a mark on the teaching faculty. And so, twelve of us confronted the task of rendering our individual designs for our semester long project – a pedestrian bridge crossing the Monongahela River near downtown Pittsburgh, Pa – in wood. Not paper, not metal, but wood, preferably bass wood, with plywood bases to represent the river and the side banks.
Imagine what happens to a small studio room, which barely fit the drafting desks of twelve students, being crammed with twelve wood plinths, each measuring the dimension I mentioned above? And now imagine twelve individuals each trying to model their designs? It was a crowded maze of cantilevering plywood, scattered tools, and human bodies, all trying to meet a final deadline without inadvertently knocking something over. Within two days, I had moved my desk and my model into the adjacent hallway.
Throughout the semester, I had become obsessed with making my models “real”. The studio during the semester was advanced construction and engineering, so I intended have my models faithfully represent the loads they might carry and they methods that might be used to construct them. If a bridge was built using cable stays, pulled in tension to carry their platforms, then so would my models. Why “represent” something, when you could do the real thing? So, I did away the sticks and hot glue, and soon found myself, needle in hand, using nylon string to hold various elements together. And it worked. With each new study model, I found ways to improve my modeling techniques and my new materials. I was digging myself and my modeling. I was in a zone.
So, for the final model, I was determined to do the same. First came the cutting of each little plate, which underpinned the bridge platform. Next came the drilling, for holes to insert metal rods, which would connected the plates together. Next I glued the platform in place, as one might weld a platform in place in real life. Next, I installed the metal arches, which my “cables” would connect to, and carry the bridge platform. And finally, I found myself stringing the cables, tying them as tightly as possible to put the entire model into tension. It kept the bridge platform in place, even if I added additional weight. It took ten straight days, and I mean full days, as in every hour not in class or grabbing more materials or the quick bite to eat. I even pulled an all-nighter on day nine, which was the first
of my architecture career, making day ten seem really like a surreal extension of the day before. But, as the dawn of day ten came, and our studio prepared to meet with our professor that afternoon, I found myself putting on the final pieces that completed the most ambitious model I had ever attempted.
That afternoon, as I waited for my professor to stop by and see the final product, I worked to add some additional pieces that would complete the context – a bit of the neighboring freeway, some cut outs to define the roadways and sidewalks. To ensure the cut-outs were glued down securely, I had large metal bricks acting as weights. And you can, perhaps, imagine where this story now heads.
A classmate and I were talking about our projects while I continued to tinker here and there. And, in my sleepy, clumsy state, I turned to say something to him, and brushed up against one of the metal bricks. And slowly, my classmate and I watched, as one brick tumbled down, directly onto the bridge deck. And while the deck had held weight before, it was not capable of sustaining the impact of a large, heavy, falling object. There was a large crash, a couple of shouts, and as everything settled, I found myself staring at pieces of splintered wood groaning under the crushing weight of the rusty metal.
I give myself credit. Likely, I was just too exhausted to actually get upset. But, in the wake of the destruction, I just calmly moved towards the brick, removed it from its Godzilla stance among my model, and set it on the floor. And while my classmate whispered, “Man…oh man…I am so sorry” and heard the questioning calling of “What happened?”, I surveyed the damage. And, saying nothing, I pulled up my stool, and began the task of putting everything back together. My classmate, sensing a near breakdown, went to find our professor, and let him know what had just occurred. And, a few minutes later, he was at my side. I don’t remember much of the conversation, only that I said I was fine and something like “at least I’ve built it once. A second time can’t be that hard.”
Luckily the damage was less severe than it first appeared. The wooden pieces had split, but could be repaired, and the strings had snapped, saving the metal arches from disaster. So I found myself, the next two days, finishing what I had already finished, using a weekend that my fellow classmates had the luxury of taking off. But, disaster or not, I finished.
And it was a beautiful model. It captured everything I had hoped for, and certainly made an impression with anyone who saw it. And, it was surprisingly resilient, as models go. Not only did it survive that initial blow, but in several moves around the city of Pittsburgh, it never needed additional repair. And, on the night of our class’s graduation show, it held a prominent place in my display, looking as resplendent as the day I presented it for final reviews. It even survived a three-hundred mile journey from Pittsburgh to upstate New York.
And yes, I still have it.
Spring 2001 Advanced Construction and Engineering Final Model