In today's real estate market, it has become commonplace for buildings to sell out or to become fully leased using only a set of computer-generated images of what a future building just might look like. But for architect Brad Cloepfil, the principal of Allied Works Architecture, this fact is something of a concern.

In his mind, buildings ought to be more about ideas than they are about image and form. To this end, his firm has made great creative use of physical models, keeping a workshop underneath his Portland studio that churns out models to help the architect crystallise a building's ultimate design. These objects – all working studies meant for the studio's own in-house use – are now the subject of 'Case Work', an exhibition at Denver Art Museum, on view through April 17. 

Walking through the exhibition, Cloepfil put the work in context: 'In the age of architecture as an instant image, this is a counter-proposal.' Visitors familiar with Cloepfil's body of work will recognise the buildings that resulted from these studies, but these models aren't the exact scale figures of built work. 'They are not representational,' he says. 'They're not showing how a building will look.' That effect is emphasised by his material choices, which include a sawed-up trombone, coloured pencils in resin, porcelain, and a pinecone. Set in a museum, they convincingly double as small sculptures. 

Inspired by antique toolboxes, Cloepfil designed ten different custom cases to house the models. With operable lids, drawers, hinges, and pivots, the cases orchestrate a cohesive presentation of different models. A steel grid provides what Cloepfil calls a 'threshold,' helping to direct the visitor experience. Curator Dean Sobel lined the gallery walls with the architect's drawings, including his trademark charcoal sketches. 'I always start with charcoal - always,' Cloepfil says. 

'These were never intended for the public,' he says repeatedly. 'They were models in search of an idea.' Projects represented by the models include the National Music Centre of Canada and the Veterans' Memorial Museum (both forthcoming), his shortlisted proposal for an expansion of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Clyfford Still Museum, which now sits directly adjacent to the Denver Art Museum. In each of those, like all his work, the models were integral to the design process. As Cloepfil puts it, 'they themselves become things that propel the project forward.'