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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

Model behaviour

Growing up, a bank holiday would have seen me immersed in the craft of model-making. Using Lego, Meccano and Airfix, and with subjects ranging from cars to warplanes to spaceships, the precision, control and satisfaction of reproducing in miniature something that was impossible to possess for real held great appeal. And yet professionals, too, use models, for designing buildings, holding court trials, planning military operations and more.

State-of-the-art materials, complex electronics and painstaking testing went into designing Concorde, yet pilots who would be flying supersonic were trained using vast models that would have been familiar to any young passenger. The Concorde simulator at Filton in Bristol was an exact replica of a Concorde cockpit, just with cathode ray tube screens instead of windows. In another room three highly-detailed, large-scale model landscapes were mounted vertically. One was of clouds, for training on high altitude flight; another of an airport apron. The largest was a 1:2,000 scale model of an entire airport, its runways and the surrounding area. Practising take-offs or landings was especially important in Concorde, even with its famous ‘droop-snoot’. A television camera was attached to a travelling mechanical rig that could move across each landscape, changing orientation as needed in response to the trainee pilot’s operating of the controls. The resulting pictures were fed via a closed-circuit system to the cockpit screens. The Filton models were used for a decade before a computer-generated version was available; that updated system is now in use at the Brooklands Museum in Surrey, where parts of the real Concorde were built.

A notorious crime just before the Great War climaxed with a model being used for trying murder suspects. Three police officers were shot dead after discovering a burglary at a City of London jewellers’; the suspects, identified as Latvian revolutionaries, fled. Caught weeks later after what became known as the Siege of Sidney Street, where involvement of the military was required to match the criminals’ firepower, the focus of the criminal trial that followed was the location of the murders. The intricacies of a cul-de-sac called Exchange Buildings, the parallel road Houndsditch as well as the yard between the two were, the police felt, best clarified for the jury by a model. Made of wood by a police carpenter, it showed every floor of 119 Houndsditch and 9, 10 and 11 Exchange Buildings and could be opened up to show the interior layout. This was achieved by hinged panels like those of a dolls’ house, but the upper storeys could also be lifted to show the ground floor in plan. Doors within the model were openable. Only one of the accused was convicted, but the model is now on show at the City of London Police Museum.

Architectural models have been used for centuries to convince clients or budget holders; they have also helped resolve design problems. The same functions are also performed by full-size architectural mock-ups. This is a model at 1:1 scale, using the same materials and techniques as are intended for the actual building, that acts as a test-bed for the construction process. This too has a history. A century ago Sir Edwin Lutyens used canvass and timber to illustrate what the barbican or gatehouse of Julius Drewe’s Drogo Castle, which Lutyens was building in Devon, would look like on site if constructed in granite; it proved too much even for the ambitious Drewe, and was never executed. A couple of decades later in Racine, Wisconsin the great Frank Lloyd Wright built a single example of the distinctive concrete ‘lily-pad’ columns he had conceived for his Johnson Wax building to convince doubting inspectors of their soundness. That it proved capable of supporting many times the required load, to the surprise of most watching, was typical of Wright’s confidence. In the Sixties Ludwig Mies van der Rohe tried to bring his elegant brand of Modernism to London with the Mansion House Square scheme, or Mappin & Web tower. Exceptionally executed miniatures showed it from many angles, along with a full-sized example of the travertine bench that would populate the public piazza. Richard Rogers was even more daring with his High-Tech Lloyd’s of London building, which raised complicated integration issues between its many components. Several full-size mock-up sections were put together in a builder’s yard in south London to address these concerns; built with concrete, steel and glass, they came complete with glazing, interiors and service runs.

The American government spent ten years doing so, using spies, bribes and bombing, but ultimately finding Osama bin Laden relied on a simple table-top model. The search culminated in consideration of a one-acre residential compound in the suburbs of Abbottabad, Pakistan. Satellite photography, drone footage and ground observations were analysed by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, who produced a computer-generated visualisation of the buildings, perimeter walls and other structures in the target area. The same data was used to rapid-prototype (‘3D print’) components for a physical model. These were painted, assembled on a base board and detailed with the barbed wire, foliage and vehicles associated with the actual location, seven feet of which was represented by one inch on the model. The model was used by military officers and politicians to explore options – once a special forces unit was ordered to assault the compound, two full-size versions were made in the United States in the months before the raid. Operation Neptune Spear killed a number of those inside the buildings, including a man later confirmed by DNA sampling to be Osama bin Laden. None of the operators was injured and all returned safely. It was, one might say, a model operation.

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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