The Twentieth Century Society

Review: The Architectural Model: Tool, Fetish, Small Utopia

University of Chicago Press, 360pp, £61.50

Reviewed by Catherine Croft

This is a lavish German/English catalogue to an exhibition at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum.    The collection has over 1200 architectural models, mainly from the second half of the C20, and also many original photographs of models by Rolfe Janke, who published a much-read book on the subject in 1962. The authors explain how Janke’s ‘trickery and cunning’ enabled architects to make the best impression on clients and colleagues with their models.   The subjective potential of the model as a tool of representation  and persuasion is also shown by the work of another specialist photographer and film maker, Ingo Wende, who worked in Berlin from 1973 to 1988.

This excellent history of the architectural model in the C20 comes right up to date with speculation about computer models and concerns about model conservation.   There is also a separate history of architectural model photography, where the use of medical technology (the endoscope) in the 1960s to photograph inside models is particularly interesting.  There are detailed  examinations of notable models, including a plaster one of Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower which  CT examination has  shown to be relatively recent, challenging its relationship to the building itself and the significance which has been attributed to it.

Individual catalogue entries are fascinating.   These include James Stirling’s competition entry for Churchill College Cambridge, modelled in white card on a chipboard base.  This is signed  by Julian Harrap, who used to work for Stirling and is now a conservation specialist who has collaborated with Foster on the RA Sackler Galleries and David Chipperfield on the Neues Museum Berlin.  Of two models by concrete specialist Gottfried Bohm, one is a direct, if fragile, record of working practice, the other a bronze cast, recording and  immortalising process by casting the slightly unappealing tool in  bronze and thereby transforming it: ‘from the not very attractive, slightly greasy plasticine comes something noble, eternal.’

I now want to see ‘Mock-ups in Close-up’, a still expanding  collection of excerpts from  feature films from 1927 to 2010 that include scenes with architectural models. This includes classics and more obscure material as well as recent American comedies:  my nephews were impressed that it includes the training centre ‘for kids who can’t read good’ in Zoolander (2001) which Ben Stiller’s character completely fails to understand (he doesn’t get the concept of scale, and dismisses it as ridiculously tiny).  As the book points out, this gag says something about the power of architectural models and who controls that power.   The book as a whole makes you think afresh about architectural models in many contexts ,  even if here they are inevitably mediated through photographic reproduction.

Published October 2012