When guests enter the tenth floor of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's Chicago office on South Michigan Avenue, they're greeted by a skyscraper hall of fame. Scale models of some of the world's most famous multi-story buildings, such as the Burj Khalifa, as well as a building map of Chicago's Loop, showcase the reach of the international architecture firm. If you want to impress a potential client, walking them through this grid of towers makes a strong statement.
Many architects in the offices nearby can probably point to a few buildings on this floor and talk about their engineering and design contributions. But only one man can truly claim to have worked on just about all of them all. Roman Udakov, the model shop manager at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), spends his days making miniature buildings for client presentations, ideation exercises and displays. When high-powered computer design software is the norm, employing a full-time model maker may seem antiquated. But as Udakov explains, physical demonstrations make even more of a difference in an age when everyone is so tied to their screens.
"You can put a really intricate rendering in front of a person, and they just don't get it," says Udakov. "Once you have a 3-D object in front of you, one you can touch, feel and look at, something in the brain just clicks."
For Micro Week, we spoke to Udakov in his foam block-filled office to learn how, even in an age of computer simulations and digital fabrication, hand-built models matter.
A former industrial designer for Peugeot who started at SOM seven years ago, Udakov works by himself in a fifth-floor studio space that resembles a shop class, only with cooler equipment, including a CNC milling machine, laser cutter, 3-D printer and paint room. Most firms don't have a dedicated model shop, or one so large. Posters and shelves line the wall, holding an array of old models, a styrofoam block of miniature plastic trees and the shop class mascot, a wood-block pig with plastic ears.
Models evolve through multiple phases of ideation, experimentation and approval, from foam blocks to paper sketch models to more sophisticated recreations made with plexiglass or wood. Udakov often juggles a handful of projects at a time, especially when the firm is planning a trip to China to showcase potential designs. Larger models, such as the five-foot tall skyscraper shown in the photos above, are built to be broken down into separate pieces and stored in custom cases during international flights, checked in like luggage. (Udakov recommends architects bring especially intricate pieces as carry-on). Since many of SOM's clients are international, Udakov often doesn't see his models again once they've been presented.
Whether they're for a client presentation, creative exploration or research, each model helps shape and conceptualize the final building design.
"Firms that have rapid prototyping are more design-oriented," he says. "You can make a real cool rendering, but then when you build it, you don't understand the surfaces. The geometry of architecture is becoming more and more complex; it's no longer just boxes and extrusions. It's becoming curvy and organic, and if you can build a model, you can figure out how to build the real building."
While every project is unique, Udakov's most challenging project may have been making a model of the Ssiger International Plaza. The design for this 59-story tower in Cixi City, China, included a series of copper fins to shade the building. To recreate the facade as proposed, he spent 12 hours bending 37,000 tiny pieces of metal. ("I thought I was going to go cross-eyed.")
Amid a few models in the works, a massive wooden frame leaned up against a workbench points to Udakov's next big project. A few floors down, SOM is building a wind tunnel to test building designs for wind resistance; Udakov's frame will be part of an intake grid of criss-crossed metal fins that will suck in air through the 40-foot rectangle. By testing models in this machine, architects a few floors up will get immediate feedback to help design more efficient buildings.
Models will be placed on a turntable so designers can see how every side stands up to high-powered wind. To simulate turbulence and the way wind threads through buildings in an urban environment, the tunnel will eventually include a mini-skyline built from Legos. While Udakov and a colleague joked about recreating the famous Maxell Cassette ad once the wind tunnel comes online in three or so months, the tests will provide a sophisticated recreation of the high-speed winds that buffet tall buildings. It's another example of physical testing making a difference in an increasingly digital world.
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