Architectural Models in a New Light

People / Places / Products / September 25, 2012

There’s a new book a new book out from the University of Chicago Press called The Architectural Model: Tool, Fetish, Small Utopia, edited by Peter Cachola Schmal and Oliver Elser.

It’s authors assert that the model hasn’t been explored as an artistic medium in its own right. In 2009, The Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM) began to fill in this gap in architectural scholarship, focusing on the history of the model with particular attention paid to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Drawing on the museum’s vast collection of models, comprised of more than 1,200 objects created by over four hundred architects from around the world, the researchers and authors created both this book and a corresponding exhibit that opened in May.

A+A recently interviewed Mr. Elser via email for two consecutive posts:

What is the intent of the book?

It demonstrates how architects have worked with architectural models since about 1920, and highlights the latest developments. Following intensive research, architectural models will be placed in a new light, namely within the context of how architects employ them – as tools or fetishes, or to try out utopias. Architectural models, and not as is generally the case for the buildings which were planned with the help of the model, are the focal point of this book. There have been architectural models for many centuries, but since the early 20th century they have been produced in greater numbers and for more diverse purposes than ever before.

What inspired you to write it?

The lack of knowledge concerning models of the recent past. Perhaps the phenomenon is best explained by a comparison with architectural photography. Not a single exhibition, not a single book about architecture would dream of dispensing with the medium of photography. Yet it is only in recent years that such photos have come to be regarded as more than just a “window” through which to view some faraway building. Who took them? Why are some photographers better than others? To what extent do they “lie” to us? All these questions can be asked of models, too, except that
for some reason, no one has yet bothered to do so. While photographers have long since come to be perceived as artists in their own right, it has taken a lot longer for architectural photography to be admitted to the art photography pantheon.

But how many architectural photographers can be considered house-hold names? And what about the model-makers? They have even further to go before they make it into the annals as architects of a miniature reality.

The challenges involved?

The main challenge was to find out more about the “model history.” Individual research was not only conducted on most of the models from the DAM collection but also on many of the loaned items, so as to reconstruct the circumstances under which they came about: What exactly was the purpose the models were built for? What materials were used, and why? Who built the models? Which publications carried images of the models, and to what extent do the photos contribute to interpreting the models (and naturally, the planned buildings)? In some cases the ascription and dating were = corrected. The history and therefore the provenience of one of the most important and famous models of the DAM collection has to be revised: it can´t be labeled as an original model of the twenties anymore.

For more information, go to

Tomorrow: Models, photography and the offset press.

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Mike Welton

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