This is how Ho Chi Minh City’s University of Architecture (above) designed by Japanese architect Kazuhiro Kojima should look one day.
dpa Picture-Alliance / Kazuhiro Kojima

Visions you can touch

Every major building project starts small. Just like the finished architectural work, its scale model is the sum of many individual parts and stages. A visit to the workshop of WUP Modellbau in Hamburg.

A fine film of sawdust coats the drawing being used by Hans Wiens to check whether his model fits exactly onto the preset layout. Carefully he places his almost finished wooden buildings onto the architect’s paper, moving an element marginally to the left, nodding his head, and casting his eyes briefly from one corner to the other. Everything is correct. As expected. His decades of experience and sure and calm hand are guiding the master model maker through his current project, an office building for an architectural competition to a scale of 1:200.Whilst working on the façade he was struck by the fact that the architect had positioned the glass elements very close together. Wiens used the milling machine to insert in stroke form the desired narrow spacing, followed by broader spacing, took a photograph and suggested both options to the architect. The latter accepted Wiens’ idea, and the spacing was widened. As with these glass elements indicated through lines in the wood, a lot of things in the architectural model are abstracted. It is about representing the basic idea. “Especially in the initial competition phase, as in this case, it’s about the overall concept, not the details”, explains Wiens.

The trained architect and his colleagues at the Hamburg office of WUP Modellbau Wiens und Partner deal not only with the precise three-dimensional implementation of designs in miniature form. They also provide advice. With every project they collaborate closely with the client, considering in advance which material to use and in what scale the best result can be achieved. Is only a basic model required – as with the competition entries – or is a naturalistic representation desired, showing every detail in the right colour? Models need to fulfil differing functions depending on who is going to view them. Whereas architects are often happy at the start with a self-made mass model as a working tool, for presentation purposes, be it for developers, competitions or the public, they require a professional model that makes their ideas easily accessible even to non-specialists. At the same time, the miniature building is used to check the original idea. It is often only during the spatial realisation that the model makers come across minor planning errors.

Hans Wiens sits at his desk in the wood workshop, deep in concentration. Using tweezers, he glues a tiny staircase in the building and fixes it into a clamp. Lying around him ready to hand is everything he might need in a day’s work. Sand paper, pencil, double-sided sticky tape, drill, calculator, wood glue, protractor, hand brush and the indispensable cutter, the most important tool of every model designer. The room is filled with instruments and machines from a panel saw to a disc sander. A smell of freshly sawn timber lingers in the air. Hanging on the wall in a very neat row is a full range of circular saw discs. Robbie Williams would be hard pushed to arrange his gold discs with more style. “We use them in various different ways”, says Wiens. “It depends on whether we want to cut the wood lengthwise or across.” The material being used is also crucial to the choice of saw disc. Above the one with short, even jags it says in big red letters: “Plexi only!” Not only the incredible number of tools and machines in this workshop impresses, they are accompanied by countless materials. Alongside maple, limewood, Swiss pear and other woods waiting to be employed in long planks, the men use plastics such as polystyrene or polyurethane and metals including brass, copper and aluminium. Wiens likes to use wood, even if this involves greater effort: with wood he may not be able to work so precisely as with plastics, because pieces can break off. In return, he can see the grain – and it remains visible in the finished model, whereas all plastics are painted over again.


and Iceland moss, peas, buds or twigs, pine needles and cones, wooden or plastic beads, copper cable dipped in plaster and sprinkled with sawdust – the range of materials in model making seems endless.

Model making in the digital era

In the neighbouring room, Wiens’ business partner Nils Borgmann is operating the new head-high CNC milling machine. Directly on the milling machine’s monitor or at his PC in the office, he sets which tool the machine is to operate with and at what speed. The CAD data for the object to be milled have been obtained beforehand from the architect’s firm and prepared for further processing on his machine. The contrast could hardly be greater between the bulky, loud machine and the delicate, tranquil final result, which upon completion turns directly into a photographic model. From the receipt of the digital data to the finished model an order requires – depending on the specifications and size – between three days and three months. From many individual components over this period the craftsmen produce a type of self-assembly kit, from which the building and the site model are put together and finally fitted, along with hedges, benches and trees, into the finished model. The costs of such a model range between a few hundred and a few tens of thousands of euros. “Coffee’s ready!” shouts partner Helmut Lange into all the rooms, signalling the start of a short break. A strong coffee aroma fills the air as the four general managers and two permanent employees of WUP Modellbau congregate around the big table in their office.

Having studied architecture and passed the examination for the master model maker’s diploma, 64-year-old Hans Wiens founded the WUP company in 1979 together with three partners. Model-making master craftsman Nils Borgmann, at 34 the youngest partner, joined the firm just a few years ago. The job description “technical model designer, specialisation visual display”, as the qualification is now known, has existed in Germany for about 50 years. At the present time roughly 25 apprentices pass their final examination in this subject at Biedenkopf vocational college every year. The Federal Association for Model Making and Mould Construction believes that there are 80 businesses throughout Germany which specialise in model making for visual display purposes, which includes the making of scale models. That is a limited number. This small sector has to adapt continually to the latest state-of-the-art technology and integrate new working methods.

From the 3D printer: a high-performance machine needed some 24 hours to produce the plastic model for the Christ the King Social Centre to be built in Sunyani in Ghana.


building models from 25 countries are held by the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt am Main. The database contains lists of all architectural models, and is accessible to anyone.

Looking ahead

The coffee break comes to an end, and it is back to work. The six men return to their rooms, and back to the place that is ideal for the next step in the work process. Axel Jürgens, the fourth partner, slips on white gloves in the big-gest workshop and applies solvent adhesive with a fine paintbrush to acrylic glass components. Helmut Lange picks up a hammer. Hans Wiens returns to the wood workshop and settles down at the precision circular saw, which can cut to size small parts to tiny fractions of a millimetre. The digital display provides extremely accurate information. Even the hand-held vernier for checking sparkles with digital figures. But what was it like back in the day of the fretsaw and ruler? When the simplest of models were still made from cardboard? The times have changed. The 1990s saw the arrival of milling machines, which are becoming ever more powerful with an increasing number of axes. At the same time, 3D animations began competing with the handcrafted models. WUP felt this in their incoming orders for a period.

“But the customers then noticed that they were missing the tactile presence. They wanted to be able to walk around a model again themselves and to view the building from all angles”, says Wiens. The topic of 3D printing is huge right now. Is this a problem for the sector? “The 3D printer is an addition. We are happy that it is there. However it is not likely that it will replace the model maker”, says Borgmann and talks about the difficulties such printers have with crosscutting and their poor aesthetic quality. Wiens adds in a similar vein: “A model like this sets certain artistic standards.” The two recall many of their past projects, including the snow-white stadium in the Uzbek capital Tashkent with its spectacular concertina roof or the gleaming golden Qur’an Museum in the Saudi Arabian city of Medina. They put all their experience and their passion into every single little detail. Could a printer have produced these works of art? It is unthinkable.


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