Architects make models. They are not just literal miniatures of reality but small-scale artworks. They are tools for exploration, communication, expression, and imagination. The German Architecture Museum (DAM) in Frankfurt has gathered about 300 objects around the world as well as from its own collection for an exhibition titled “The Architectural Model – Tool, Fetish, Small Utopia.” The show offers a systematic survey of architectural models from the early 20th century up to now and showcases the important role architectural models have played in pushing our profession forward.
We love cute little objects. We use paper, wood, pressboard, foam, plexi, metal, plaster, resin, concrete, wires, and even straws, and make them into interesting shapes and compositions. They don’t need to be super sleek – they could also be rough and have a special quality of texture.
|Oda Pälmke, Types. Good, Bad, and Ugly Houses|
|Eckhart Reissinger, Weekly Assignment No.3|
|Eckhart Reissinger, Weekly Assignment No.2|
|Barkow Leibinger, DAM Pavilion|
|Wolfgang Rathke, German Pavilion at World’s Fair Montreal|
|James Stirling and James Gowan, Churchill Collage, Cambridge|
|Peter Eisenman and Richard Serra, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin|
|Gottfried Böhm: Parliament Buildings, Bonn. Bronze cast|
|Roger Boltshauser, Residential High-rise Hirzenbach, Zurich|
Some models are so well crafted that they become a fetish object. In Aldo Rossi’s studio on via Maddalena in Milan, many models were hung on the walls as if they were relief sculptures. In the office of Meixner Schlüter Wendt Architekten in Frankfurt, models of the early projects of the firm are arranged in two glass showcases like precious treasures. OMA protected the model of its Checkpoint Charlie project with a robust wooden box that can be unfolded to reveal the building’s surroundings.
|Aldo Rossi, Muggiò City Hall. Rossi hang it on the wall in his study in Milan.|
|Meixner Schlüter Wendt Architekten, Model Showcases|
|Meixner Schlüter Wendt, Inserted object for the Markuschurch competition|
|OMA, House at Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin|
The exhibition also features several Frei Otto’s experimental models. Back in the pre-digital era, it was hard to define accurately the forms of the structures Frei Otto envisioned. He needed models as a medium to “materialize the idea.” He used hanging models to optimize supporting structure of the Multihalle in Mannheim. It reminds me of Gaudi’s sandbag model of Sagrada Familia. Other form-finding tools include soap boxes and pouring boxes for sand. With the soap boxes, Frei Otto was able to find the “minimal surface” while the pouring boxes helped to visualize “pressure-loaded piles of material.”
|Frei Otto, Multihalle Mannheim|
|Hanging model of the roof, Multihalle Mannheim|
|Frei Otto, German Pavilion at World’s Fair Montreal. Measuring model|
|Frei Otto, Soup Boxes|
In addition to being a technical tool, models can also help to test architectural ideas. Herzog & de Meuron’s Prada Tokyo models reveal the evolution of the design process, including studies of massing, space, and materiality. Their fellow Swiss architect Christian Kerez presents the Swiss Re project with a series of core configuration tests.
|Herzog & de Meuron, Prada Aoyama Tokyo study models|
|Prada Tokyo massing studies|
|Prada Tokyo material studies|
|Christian Kerez, Office Building Swiss Re, Zurich|
|Swiss Re concept models|
Models are often used to study interior space as well. The DAM exhibition has an innovative way to present this aspect of models. A peeping wall is introduced with holes through which visitors can take a closer look into the models. The back of the wall is a “behind-the-scene” kind of stage-like setting.
|Marcel Meili and Markus Peter, Swiss University for Forest Economy. Classroom interior|
|Karl Wimmenauer, Protestant Church of the White Ladies|
On the second floor of the exhibition is a high concentration of fascinating models of utopian projects in the 1960s-70s, ranging from Archigram to Japanese Metabolism, from various modular systems to Raimund Abraham’s archetypical houses. Visionary architects of that time couldn’t build what they proposed in reality. So they built models to live their dreams, their mini-utopia. Oh, how I love the 60s!
|Frei Otto, Residential House, Study for New York City, 1957|
|Arata Isozaki, Cluster in the Air, 1962|
|Archigram, Air Hab, 1966|
|Wolfgang Döring, Capsule Houses, 1969|
|Richard J. Dietrich, Metastadt Building System, 1970|
|Richard J. Dietrich, Metastadt for Altstadtring Nordost, Munich, 1972|
|Raimund Abraham, Poetik des Hauses, 1971-73|
The most amazing thing is probably to see the huge OMA models for Parc de la Villette and the Melun-Sénart master plan. The details in the la Villette model fully visualize the vitality in the strict concept. Like the richness within the Manhattan grid, the strips can accommodate a wide range of different activities with many iconic attractions. The Melun-Sénart model represents the abstract urban framework that allows different players for further treatments. It’s a wild assemblage of strange materials: rough wood blocks, nails, acoustic foam pieces, and plastic brushed… You feel the passion. And you can read clearly the powerful idea behind the playful appearance.
|OMA, Parc de la Villette, 1983|
|OMA, Melun-Sénart Urban Planning concept model, 1987|