Posted Oct 5 2023 | By Jessica Rees

‘Art becomes relevant when it’s made accessible’

‘Art becomes relevant when it’s made accessible.’

This was one of the contributions from panellist Carmen Fyfe, at the ‘What makes a great city?’ event we hosted in collaboration with Manchester International Festival as part of our ten-year birthday celebrations. This phrase resonated with me when thinking about the role of an architect in making relevant work, and, for me, communication is key to making something accessible, meaningful, and relevant.

As architects we are required to communicate a wide range of types of information to many different audiences, for discussion, for information and for instruction. The audience may be a school board, a specialist sub-consultant, planning officer, contractor, manufacturer, or, often, your own design team. How and when you communicate is key to the success of any project. At early concept stages this may even be a more internal dialogue, as ideas germinate through imaginative iterations, emerging onto the drawing board as a conversation between your body, mind, and creative spirit.

Since studying as an undergraduate I have been drawn towards model making, in a physical tactile form, as a natural mode of communication. The way materials and forms compose themselves to create space and atmospheres always intrigued me. Buildings are to be inhabited, explored, felt- they are physical in their essence. Modelling as a means of communication seems therefore a very appropriate way to communicate the three-dimensional quality of architectural ideas.

Over the last ten years in Manchester, we have used modelling as a tool across a variety of purposes, for communication but also for exploration. This tactile approach, in which your whole body is involved in making, exploring space, form, tectonics, assembly, and light, can quickly open up new ideas and present multiple perspectives on a project.

Exploring Concepts:

Models have potential to explore a layering of concepts and open up new ways of seeing. For example, our exhibit for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition reimagined Manchester as a car-free city. Through the lens of climate and geography (themes of the exhibition), we cast four plaster ‘vignettes’ and these sat on top of an abstracted map of the city. On the casts, balsa wood forms evoked new public street furniture and infrastructure, encouraging cyclist and pedestrian movement through the city (see more here).

Testing Massing:

3D printed massing studies, made at early stages, quickly give an impression as to how a proposal might sit within the existing cityscape. Embracing digital printing has allowed us to test multiple ideas, translating between digital and physical models. This hybrid approach strengthens the capacity to exchange ideas within the studio, testing these from different perspectives.

Attention to Detail:

Models of a particular portion of an elevation can express how the various building components are assembled into their composition. This can help refine a proposal’s sensitive reinterpretation of details, as well as communicate to planners and contractors the overall quality of the scheme.

Sharing a Vision:

Models of new school buildings, often sited within sensitive historic context, help to develop and share a vision, giving the client and project team a flavour of the future. This shared understanding and vision allows for the teamwork and consensus required to see projects come to fruition.

Ultimately, building is a form of communication. Buildings speak - who belongs where, what kind of activities are welcome here, how should this space be used? The potential for this to be both liberating and oppressive underlies the responsibility of practitioners and critics to ensure that buildings serve society in an equitable and life-giving way. Developing a shared vision across a diverse range of stakeholders requires agile, appropriate, and relevant forms of communication. So, however you communicate, make it relevant and be open to hearing back something which you had not previously seen or considered.