Making Architecture Tangible

Archi Depot Foundation models the future

September 2015
Architects Riken Yamamoto and Shigeru Ban had a spontaneous idea this year: to establish the Archi Depot Foundation, thereby opening a permanent exhibition centre for architectural models in the Japanese capital. A glimpse of what professionals and the interested public can expect was provided at the Milan Triennale – a Wunderkammer of handmade architectural miniatures that effortlessly outplay the renderings.
Architectural models are a discipline in themselves. Michele De Lucchi uses a chainsaw to carve his miniatures from solid wood blocks. Achille Castiglioni, contrarily, takes slabs of Swiss cheese to vividly reveal the design of a building, and Sou Fujimoto layers finely cut pieces of Styrofoam that appear exactly as delicate and light as his buildings. But no matter what material models are constructed from, they are more than just a miniaturised approach to spatial surroundings; above all, they’re instruments of communication – used both for internal discussions in the studio and as a means to appeal to the customer or jury.
How models disclose different design attitudes is what defined the Archi Depot exhibition at the Milan Triennale in July, with models by 40 Japanese architects. It was the first public appearance of the eponymous foundation set up earlier this year. In September, Archi Depot opens a permanent showroom at the TERRADA warehouse in Tokyo’s Tennoz district, where both professional visitors and the general public receive an unusual insight into the Japanese architectural scene.
While in many countries, handmade architectural models are more and more replaced by renderings or digitally printed models created by rapid prototyping, Japanese offices still continue along the traditional path. “There is a huge difference between the physical model and the computer model. In Japan, we work with many different study models made by hand – not only during the design process but also during construction”, explains Shigeru Ban. Since even in prominent offices space is limited, most of the models are stored in warehouses on the outskirts. “It’s a pity, because nobody can see them. So we discussed the notion of renting a warehouse in the middle of Tokyo, in order to show the models to the public”, Ban says, explaining the project’s initial spark.
The Archi Depot presentation includes final models as well as study models. “That is very important to us, as then you can understand the architect‘s intention very quickly”, insists Riken Yamamoto. Unlike that of a computer rendering, the perception of a physical model is always cinematic – space and time work together when the viewer moves around a model. In addition to tactile qualities, the models also reveal an artisanal process. “When I went to Italy 26 years ago, almost all design and architecture studios wanted to have at least one Japanese employee, due to our modelling skills”, informs Setsu Ito of studio ito design.
The Milan-based Japanese designer, together with his wife and studio partner Shinobu Ito, created the warehouse-inspired exhibition design at the Triennale. Displayed on white metal shelves, the models could be approached from different sides and viewpoints. In addition, the upper shelves revealed the cartons and boxes in which the models were delivered. On their arrival, nearly two-thirds of these were damaged. “Fortunately, several students from the Milan Politecnico helped us to repair them during one long night”, says Setsu Ito, conveying his relief.
He also refers to one of the masters of the discipline, Italian modeller Giovanni Sacchi, who has worked with many famous designers from the 1950s to the 1980s, and even created – from very rough sketches – icons of the future by Richard Sapper, Ettore Sottsass, and Aldo Rossi. “Sacchi always used solid materials, such as wood and stone, which were cut and milled to make a form. Our situation is different, as the Japanese culture is a paper culture. We construct space from the surface”, Ito emphasises.
The impulse for the project was yet another point: “Today, museums like Centre Pompidou and MoMA collect architecture models. But they do not know which models are available. That’s why we also want to publish a catalogue and renew it every year, so that the institutions can easily choose the model they wish to purchase”, underlines Shigeru Ban. The objectives of Archi Depot Tokyo also include events and activities that utilise the scale models to stimulate an understanding of the relationship between architecture and urban or natural environments.
For that reason, this new exhibitions space addresses itself to architects, designers, and students, as well as to the wider public. “Many people think that architects only design façades. These models show exactly the opposite, also giving an idea of the interior of the building”, Riken Yamamoto informs. To him, the strength of models lies in their honesty. While it is not difficult to pretty-up a mediocre design in renderings by using clouds, sunsets, and other atmospheric tricks, a physical model must be able to convince by itself. It works as a tangible filter for the usefulness of the draft – and it can help prevent certain faux pas.
Archi Depot Tokyo