Architecture & Art: Spirit, Craft, Allied Works’ Models, and El Anatsui’s Art

Allied Works Models, El Anatsui

Whether or not you are familiar with the works of Allied Works, headed by Brad Cloepfil, a particular step in their process deserves a look. Especially with the rise of Building Information Modeling, computer rendering and analysis, and…well, everything computerized, the physical model maintains a unique role. More than trying out ideas from the mind and the computer in the place they will eventually inhabit, the physical world, models can distill architecture to its base, ‘not so much to inform the form, but to capture the spirit.’

Such comments from Cloepfil at a recent talk on his firm’s Still Museum were revealing of what role the model performs in their design process. Listening to Cloepfil, one could connect the models illuminating the projection screen behind him and begin to see where he, where the building is coming from. Indeed, some of those abstracted, conceptual models went to interviews with him, before it was even certain Allied Works would have something to design.

A weathered block of wood; the top is hewn, as if someone using a checkerboard for guidelines sunk a dull chainsaw into it a dozen times. It’s an early model of the building next door to where Cloepfil is talking, which is where, coincidentally, Ghanian artist El Anatsui had a few pieces exhibited not long ago that used exactly that language, that tool. To say that architecture is, in part, art is a given, but to have it so clearly modeled as such is refreshing. As an aside, furthering that point from the converse, Anatsui’s more tapestry-like works graft amazingly to architecture. In the convergence is an esteem for craft that such artists and architects share. Why shouldn’t architectural models reflect that artistic craft?

The reflection is refreshing, but also pragmatic. Such models, Cloepfil explains, are ‘to remind ourselves…give us touch-points as we move forward.’ Strip a design of its architectural detailing and systems, and you’ll eventually get down to its heart and soul, if that is what it was built upon. And if it was, it can be modeled. Then, regardless of changes and additions as the design progresses, that all important seed remains the driving force to refer back to and build upon. A final model may look nothing like the initial, conceptual model, but can be imbued with everything it embodies.

Some modeling done by Allied Works is used not to be held up as the spirit of the design, but to reveal it. For the Still Museum, ‘hundreds’ of concrete explorations were made with the contractors to find the right option. Direction to the contractors was to ” ‘make messed up concrete.’  ‘How messed up?’  ‘We have no idea!’ ”

Against the technical, exact documents architects create on computers and contractors execute to technical exactness, the models seem all the more relevant. A building designed and constructed to perfection doesn’t guarantee a thing; One modeled off of a simply and sincerely expressable spirit has a good shot at saying something meaningful and succeeding at a magnificent range of levels. Allied Works’ models are a reminder that what architects do begins and ends in the challenges of the tangible, graspable world, but that what must drive them is so much more.

Allied Works Architecture:

El Anatsui:   Photos courtesy of  The October Gallery and Giuliano Photos