USC: Faculty Exhibition
When we were given the opportunity to present our work, we decided to study a current project we are working on in further detail: a new multi-family housing project near downtown Los Angeles which, because of timing and other things going on, our office had had little opportunity to study in model form until now. The opportunity came at the perfect time.
As part of the design, our project featured an 101’ wide, perforated aluminum screen along the street elevation of 1313 Sunset Blvd. The screen is a complex part of the project and is composed of an assemblage of many pieces which will be fabricated offsite and then integrated. We needed to move past digital modeling to understand the screen’s physicality and to see what conflicts might arise. To do it right, the screen needed to be studied via physical model in some way to understand what we would be dealing with onsite — 45’ above the ground. We needed to understand how the screen was going to be integrated into the framing of the building, to demonstrate how we could phase its installation through discussions with the fabricators and the contractors, how the large framed balcony openings were to be placed within its gently curved surface, and what the graphic perforation patterns would look like from both inside and out. To deal with all these issues, we decided the model needed to be large — one which would approximate as many of the experiences we were looking to simulate.
We do large models from time to time in the office. They exist in a world between abstraction and reality. Like other architectural models, the large model is an abstraction of something that is yet to come — it helps visualize a project in greater detail and in relative scale — in ways that digital models often cannot. Models are an essential component of project understanding. For many years I taught in the 3rd year studios here at USC which — for as long as I can remember — is punctuated by the construction of a large model for a project already in progress. It is a way to dive in deep — to comprehensively look at a project simultaneously from both an aesthetic and logistical point of view — to understand it as a system of unified intents.
But the large model also opens up small realities — beyond abstraction and again, in ways that digital interfaces cannot yet manifest, the large model challenges and confronts the scale of the observer because of its own unusual scale — making it feel like a construction itself — shedding its referential role to something else. The model takes on an autonomy of its own. This is an effect that can be likened to the scene in the 1927 silent film Napoleon where Napoleon himself looks down upon a war map only to surrealistically imagine himself superseding its scale (and perhaps his own diminutive scale) — his — and equations from his mind absorb the scale of it all as if a God. Large models resist this god-like effect of perception — transcending the toy-like scale of small architectural models and their infantilization and projecting a type of reality.
Certain projects have benefited enormously from the production of large models. Perhaps most famously, Michelangelo — charged with completing St. Peters after several failed attempts by previous architects — immediately proceeded to build several very large models for his proposal upon receiving the commission as part of a strategy to demonstrate and ensure his plan would not only work, but survive long after his death. Frank Gehry too — as we all saw in LACMA’s recent exhibition — extensively uses large models as part of his practice. They are not meant to be merely seen, but fundamentally experienced. So much so that it seems to me that once the model has been built, he typically prefers to display tight, perspectival photographs of the model over the use of constructed renderings. He leverages his models as part of the public presentation of a project — their large size often crowding the room, demanding attention, refusing to be dismissed.
We learned a lot about the project as we built this. Frankly, spaces had been overlooked and somehow lost in the endless rotation of our Rhino model or the abstraction of the orthographic drawings. The construction of this model gave us an opportunity to look more closely at its geometries, the shading effects, and to understand how it would feel. We got a better sense for all of the systems involved in the project too. We experimented with various perforation patterns and we looked at how the pieces would be layered and who would contractually be involved with what part of the screen. It has been a great working tool for us and we appreciate the opportunity given to us to explore it.