Next top model

Continuing the debate on physical versus digital models in architecture.

Physical models supplied by Modelcraft
Physical models supplied by Modelcraft

Developers need to see how their new piece of land will be transformed into a super-community. Real-estate agents need to present new properties to potential buyers, both domestically and internationally. Architects need to visualise the neighbourhood within which their new building will stand to ensure harmony. Clients need to get a feel for the environment in which their new home or apartment is located.

An architectural model is often the origin of a building itself and is the one architectural tool that is dynamic enough to perform all these functions. Whether it's created with state-of-the-art digital imagery, rapid prototyping (RP) and laser-cut technology, or plastic, resin or balsa wood and tiny screws, an architectural model is a fusion of the creative and constructive processes; it's a manifestation of the abstract and the functional.

"A model is the closest representation of an architectural design before it's actually built; whether it's theoretical or realistic, it's the best method for an architect to visualise, study, and develop the design," says Amjad Al-Hajj, co-founder of Mimar Models.

Models improve the design of a building, the architect's presentation of the project, the client's understanding of what will be delivered and the public's perception of what's going to arrive - John Rietmann, Modelcraft.

And, while there is some contention within the industry about the most effective visualisation tool, the issue is worth exploring as architectural models will continue to play a critical role in several stages of architectural design.

Physical model argument

The importance of using a model before breaking ground on a project is well-known throughout the industry. Models allow architects, developers and clients to identify potential problems with material, design, orientation and scale before they become costly real-time delays.

During the creative process, architects visualise a shape for every project, regardless of size, depending on the utility or theme of the proposed building. Put simply, models allow architects and designers to realise this shape. Hence, physical model-makers contend that there is a basic human attraction to that which we can feel and experience.

"Models will always have a place because human beings are tactile. Computers are still very difficult for a layperson to manipulate," says Matthew Roche, general manager of Modelcraft. "With a model, people can walk around it for as long as they want. A lot of people, men and women, played with models as children and so there's also a bit of a childish appeal to model-making," adds Roche.

"Digital modelling is, at the end, still just two dimensional. People cannot touch it, cannot feel it and cannot see the actual mass in front of them," adds Kevin Tsui, director of RJ Models. "Would you prefer to look at photos, watch videos or look at a real person right in front of you?" he asks.

However, the physical model argument doesn't end with an appeal to sensation. Model-makers who deal in the physical realm are pointing to the rapid advancement of detailing technology, laser technology and Rapid Prototyping (RP) - the automatic construction of physical objects using solid freeform fabrication - as evidence of the progress being made.

"Today, there is practically no effect, finish or form that cannot be represented in a model. Detailing can be done to the micro level... The precision and level of detailing has increased tremendously," says Y. Srikrishna, managing director of Dubai-based The Miniatures.

In fact, physical models appeal to the sensibilities of those who might otherwise be considered critics. "I think the benefit of a physical model over a digital one is that there is no room for interpretation with a physical model... a physical model gives viewers the ability to see a development from all angles," says Craig Edwards, digital director of Modelcraft.

Digital model argument

It's referred to as computer-aided design (CAD), visualisation technology, computer-generated imagery (CGI) and computer animation. Regardless of the moniker, all of these technologies utilise motion graphics and animation techniques to communicate a specific theme to the viewer. They are used to illustrate the convergence of the architect's imagination and the project's specifications.

"There are so many different ways to access the creative realm. It's like a fairy-tale," says Tarek Masri, managing director of Blackstone Studios. "It is using creativity to communicate things that people never thought could be communicated through this medium. That is the power of visual effects."

Much like physical model-makers, the CAD contingent also likens the creation and use of a digital imagery models to a sensory experience. "We want to dramatise the personal environment in which people will work, live and play. We want to engage people; immerse them into an environment that will be created. It's an emotional attachment between the customer and the product," says Masri.

Within the CAD camp, the prevailing theory is that only digital imagery possesses the dynamism to match the size and scope of the architectural projects in this region. "We're trying to give credit to the scale of the products being launched in the Middle East. What is happening here is not happening anywhere else in the world so the communication for these projects should be similar," adds Masri.

Rabih Haddad, CEO of BlackSmith Studios, the Middle East's largest 3D visualisation firm, agrees that 3D technology allows architects and future occupants to visualise their buildings with a level of accuracy and detail previously unachievable. "Computer animations are an easy way to increase the scale of a model and allow customers to 'enter' their residential or commercial property before the first brick is laid. This was never possible with conventional modelling techniques."

Creating a digital model usually encompasses one of two elements: Building a 3D model with a computer or using a digital presentation to tell a story. The former is very similar to building a physical model and requires decisions about size, scale, orientation and materials.

The viewers are generally concerned with the built environment. They want to know the building's height, how it relates to neighbouring structures and how it looks from different angles. The latter, on the other hand, is a process whereby a designer works with the client and, much like the film or TV industry, uses storyboards, scripts and viewpoints to convey the necessary message.

"[Creative presentations] are more to do with lifestyle. The viewers tend to be more interested in things like the presence of play areas for kids and open-air restaurants," says Edwards.

"They are looking for that fantastic lake that happens to be walking distance from their apartment rather than the materials or architectural styles," he adds.

"We call these presentations 'featurettes'. They are basically a four to five minute movie," adds Masri. "These featurettes provide an incredible level of realism in terms of depth-of-field and perspective. It's about bringing to life a project that is scheduled to be done five years from now."

The naysayers

Naysayers within the modelling industry are certain that as digital imagery and holographic technology advances, conventional physical models will become obsolete. Industry experts, however, remain unconvinced.

A picture is worth 1000 words, but a model is worth 1000 pictures ' architectural proverb.

Instead, it would seem that the architectural model industry is not shifting toward computer generated 3D models, but rather, expanding to include them more regularly. "The two are totally complimentary," says Roche, Modelcraft.

"3D modelling does have an impact on physical modelling, but we don't consider it a bad influence. 3D modelling actually helps our industry to better understand the building in terms of design, form and structure," adds Tsui, RJ Models.

Most industry experts, whether their focus is physical or digital modelling, seem quite convinced that the two media can peacefully coexist. In fact, the predominant theory is that not only can they coexist, but, when used together, the two disciplines will transform the field. Moreover, the multi-faceted visualisation/marketing packages produced by the fusion of physical and digital media will continue to drive evermore amazing projects.

"With the Nakheel project [at Cityscape Dubai 2007], the client asked us to come up with something nobody has ever seen... that project gave us an opportunity to integrate touch screens and remote controlled content," explains Roche.

"We incorporated animation into the physical model, which allowed people to push a button to light a certain section and then switch to another animation to light another area. This type of projects is something that I wouldn't have dreamed of doing even two years ago," he adds.

The final word

Some of the visual technology requires months of shooting film and digital manipulation. Some of the physical models incorporate thousands of pieces and hundreds of man-hours to assemble.

According to some, there will always be a need for 3D physical models because people want to interact with a specific project or property. According to others, we are in the midst of a major shift in the visualisation business and 3D applications have become not just desirable, but necessary.

Because of their varied forms and functions, trying to put one visualisation tool ahead of the other is both futile and short-sighted. Many architects, developers and real estate agents agree that physical and digital models serve specific purposes and, therefore, have their own inherent benefits and detriments.

While a digital model may be a more appropriate installation for a presentation to an overseas developer, a physical model will more effectively draw attention in a trade show environment.

Both media are playing a significant role in the rapid expansion of Middle Eastern cityscapes. But, neither has proven itself a complete enough tool to handle the myriad specifications and perspectives needed in every project.

By virtue of being technology-driven, digital modelling will continue to evolve but until it can offer cost-effective, timely, 3D holographic structures that can interact with a viewer, physical models will maintain a niche in the market.

Action box

Advantages of physical models

  •  Interaction with the buildings
  •  Examination of scale, orientation & materials
  •  Full neighbourhood accessibility
  •  Crowd-pulling element
Advantages of digital models
  •  Portability
  •  Marketability in several formats
  • Speed of production
  •  Unlimited design potential


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