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Models through time

Richard Horden reviews Deutsches Architektur Museum’s extensive exhibition of architectural models from the Modern Movement

This inspiring and impressively well-researched exhibition contains 300 original models, 200 on loan, extending over the three floors of the Deutsches Architektur Museum. The museum holds an impressive collection of 1,240 models by 419 architects from 25 countries.

The great value of the exhibition is its affirmation of the importance of the model and published image, and of creativity and innovation in the Modern Movement in architecture and engineering in the 20th century.

The Mies van der Rohe Resor House model no 3 (1939) is one of the most understated yet beautifully crafted models in the exhibition. Made in cypress wood and copper, it is on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The exhibition is accompanied by a thoroughly well-researched 360-page catalogue edited by Oliver Elser, curator, and Peter Cachola Schmal, director of the museum.  Elser is largely credited with assembling the material, which includes some fascinating, original and long-unseen pieces. A key part of the exhibition is the parallel of now well-known photographs shown with each model (as Oliver Elser attests, ‘a model is only as good as the photograph of it’).


Point West Place, Framingham, (1983-5) by Robert Stern

The exhibition defines the use of the architectural models in three ways: as a ‘ tool’ for design, as a ‘fetish’, which is defined as passion for material, or as ‘small utopia’, which Jacques Herzog calls ‘bonsai architecture’. This categorisation by the museum team is thought-provoking but, to an architect, seems an academic simplification as models are all-in-one multi-functional design devices and marketing aids. Further, categorising the beautiful Mies van der Rohe Resor House model and Richard Serra’s memorial piece as ‘fetish’ is unrequired.

The ground floor white space is introduced with models by finalists in the Commerzbank Tower, Frankfurt, competition. The area also features Walter Jonas’s Intrapolis, and Frei Otto’s delicate engineering study models for the Mannheim grid shell.

This gallery is dominated by the 50 study models for the Prada Store in Tokyo, by Herzog & de Meuron, who show the process from form-finding through interior design and exterior cladding studies. Apart from the classic, historic pieces referred to earlier, these works define the most clean, clear and modern part of the whole show.

Other projects on this level include the remarkable model by Conrad Roland of his proposed twisting 40-floor high suspended tensegrity tower, Spiral Skyscraper, (1963), which, wonderfully, was unearthed by Oliver Elser from a store in Berlin. Roland trained under Mies and later worked for Frei Otto.

Conrad Roland’s Spiral Skyscraper (1963)

Conrad Roland’s Spiral Skyscraper (1963)

Other models on this and other floors are essentially ‘representational’, showing the finished or proposed buildings in as accurate form as possible at suitable scale, although some interesting peep-hole models show how space can be clearly represented at model scale.

One particularly charming piece on show is an intricate wood model of Milan Cathedral, made using a sewing machine. The model was mounted on a cart and walked around Europe to raise funds for the cathedral.

The first floor features highly innovative pieces by Arata Isozaki (1982), Archigram Air Hab (1966, Collection Centre Pompidou), Mies’s Resor House and Seagram Building models (collection MoMA), and Hans Hollein’s beautiful and artistic studies at different scales for the jewellery shop Schullin in Vienna.

However, all this and much more are set against a black painted background, which made it difficult to see the Mies van der Rohe Seagram model clearly. Maybe this was the curatorial ‘dark’ used to avoid altering the natural colour of these original models but I suspect that it was a design choice rather than a functional one. Unfortunately, the black background gives the works a sombre, tomb-like environment.

The exhibition also included one model from the Nazi era (1939), part of a masterplan for Munich. However, it looked unnecessary and out of place in relation to the optimism of the show’s Modern Movement context.

The third floor has a light tone and is composed almost entirely of illuminated niches around the perimeter containing beautifully crafted history lesson models of buildings and villages. These were built at the time of DAM’s opening in 1984. Particularly impressive is a metal-etched model of Crystal Palace at a scale of 1:200. No photograph could communicate the breadth, generosity and delicacy of this great historic work.

Kolumba Art-Museum of the Archbishopric Cologne model by Peter Zumthor

Kolumba Art-Museum of the Archbishopric Cologne by Peter Zumthor (2001)

This exhibition, which includes the early Erich Mendelsohn Potsdam Einstein Tower model (1919), is sponsored by the Foundation of Frankfurt and Rhein Main. It is definitely about model-making as seen from a German and certainly a Frankfurt perspective.

However, it is very peculiar not to see in an international architectural exhibition about the Modern Movement anything by, for example, Le Corbusier or Max Bill. After all, the latter was co-founder of the eminent Hochschule für Gestaltung (School for Design) in Ulm.

The truth is that this topic is so enormous that no one exhibition could show the full scope of the Modern Movement. As a long working-life friend of Jan Kaplicky, I missed his work greatly and that of Zaha Hadid and other pioneers. Also, surprisingly, there is nothing from Gropius or the Bauhaus, or from the Hochschule für Gestaltung or de Stijl, or from the Eameses or Richard Buckminster Fuller.

Although I question the first floor blackout, I am impressed by the exhibition’s emphasis on the sheer exuberance and creativity seen in architecture over the past 80 years, and how the model has been such a key part of that.


Venue: Deutsches Architektur Museum

City: Frankfurt

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