Each model is an interpretation
May 24, 2012
Oliver Elser, photo © Nina Reetzke, Stylepark

The Deutsches Architekturmuseum in Frankfurt shows the exhibition: “The Architectural Model – Tool, Fetish, Small Utopia”. The show presents nearly 1.000 exhibits, the focus lies on models in the 20th and 21st century. An interview with the curator Oliver Elser by Nina Reetzke.

Nina Reetzke: Are architectural models now accorded a similar value by collector as are works of art or design objects?

Oliver Elser: Many of the models in our exhibition definitely have high insurance values. But there isn’t a market for models comparable with that for artworks. At least not in terms of works by contemporary architects. But an early 19th-century cork model, for example – that would fetch a high price.

Although there have been a few architects who have tried to smuggle their models into the art market. The exhibition shows a 1973 model by Austrian architectural firm Haus-Rucker-Co: a mason jar containing a romantic “primeval hut” like a small wooden shed taken from a model railroad: A commentary on the destruction of the environment and the naivety of ideal-world utopias. It was produced in an edition of 50 copies. We are also showing an early design by Peter Eisenman. Edition: three copies. Price in 1980: 3,000 deutschmarks.

To what extent have architectural models moved away from being representations of buildings and become independent objects?

Elser: A model often depicts the essence of a building: What is seen in the model is how the architect wanted the building to look in reality. Sometimes it doesn’t work out – then the model serves as a kind of fetish, as an “act of compensation”. Each model is an interpretation; elements are omitted, effects intensified. An example would be Peter Zumthor’s model of the Kolumba museum, whereby the model’s brick façade is much more structural than that of the actual museum. Or Mies van der Rohes’ model of the Resor house, on loan from MoMA in New York: Mies’ commission had long been pulled but he assembled two models nonetheless, indicating the importance of the building for the architect, which was however far too expensive to realize.

How do these creative depictions affect the architectural outcome?

Elser: Models by architect and constructionist Frei Otto illustrate how closely related the two are: His models are made of bubbles, sand or fine fabrics. His designs would not have been feasible without these models; the Deutsches Architekturmuseum owns twenty wonderful exemplars, which constitute one of the exhibition’s highlights. The large model of the multipurpose hall in Mannheim is particularly impressive, on a scale of 1:98.5. Otto’s draft is a hanging model, the suspension giving rise to the optimum, self-supporting dome shape; all you have to do is hang the weights and turn it upside down. In the case of the Multihalle, the working stages that Frei Otto followed from the hanging model to the actual construction constitute a breathtaking example of the best in civil engineering, most definitely on par with his design for the roof of the Olympic Stadium in Munich.

How did your own view of architectural models change during the exhibition conception process?

Elser: The most decisive change was probably my discovery of the extremely close relationship between model making and photography. From around 1910 onwards, photography (a relatively young technology at the time) provided definitive impetus for the construction of more architectural models than ever before, capturing them in the form of atmospheric, often incredibly realistic photos, which could then be published in architectural magazines and books. One might even call them “photographic models”: Architectural models that were built specifically for that crucial moment when the photographer presses the shutter release. This phenomenon can be seen throughout the subsequent decades, from the Sternkirche by Otto Bartnings, original photos of which are displayed it the exhibition; to the Third Reich, represented in the exhibition by an elaborate wooden model from Munich and the film “Das Wort aus Stein”; to models by Rob Krier or Roger Boltshauser.

What led you to produce replicas of the Einsteinturm by Erich Mendelsohn made using a “DIY 3D printer” as exhibition souvenirs?

Elser: Until now, the plaster model of the Einsteinturm has been the one of the most valuable pieces in the Deutsches Architekturmuseum’s inventory, because one had assumed that it was an original model from 1920. The model was very highly sought-after by other exhibition projects, leading to the creation of two copies, which travelled from exhibition to exhibition in place of the “original” plaster model. Then we were able to prove that the model is most probably not an original. You can read more about this story of disenchantment in the exhibition catalog.

Now everyone who visits the exhibition has the opportunity to buy a copy of the copy: Produced as an approximately eight-centimeter-tall print from a 3D printer, which was acquired especially for the exhibition. It is a DIY device, which costs just 1,099 US dollars as an assembly kit and produces astonishingly precise prints – it has been positioned in the exhibition’s workshop area where there are regular demonstrations of the printer at work.

The Architectural Model – Tool, Fetish, Small Utopia
From May 25 through September 16, 2012
Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Frankfurt/Main

Further reading:
The Architectural Model – Tool, Fetish, Small Utopia
Published by Oliver Elser and Peter Cachola Schmal
Hardback, 360 pages, German/English
Scheidegger Spiess, Zurich, 2012
65 Euro

Oliver Elser, photo © Nina Reetzke, Stylepark
House with curtains by Raimund Abraham (not realized), model 1972, photo © DAM, Hagen Stier
Cluster in the Air by Arata Isozaki (not realized), model before 1982, photo © DAM, Hagen Stier
Town-extension Ratingen West by Merete Mattern, model 1967, photo © DAM, Hagen Stier
Struckus House by Bruce Goff, model around 1982, photo © DAM
Piece of nature preserved by Haus-Rucker-Co (not realized), model 1973, photo © DAM, Hagen Stier
Capsule houses Solingen-Caspersbroich by Wolfgang Döring (not realized), model 1969, photo © DAM
House at Checkpoint Charlie Berlin by OMA, model c. 1987 by Dirk Alten, photo © DAM, Hagen Stier
German pavilion world exhibition Montréal 1967 by Wolfgang Rathke (not realized), model 1964/65, photo © DAM, Hagen Stier
Competition-entry Neues Museum Berlin by Axel Schultes and Charlotte Frank (not realized), model 1994, photo © Schultes Frank architects
Kolumba Art-Museum of the Archbishopric Cologne by Peter Zumthor, model 2001 by Zaborowsky, photo © DAM, Hagen Stier
Space-experiments in styrofoam (object 1) by Franz Krause (not realized), 1967–73, photo © DAM, Hagen Stier
Einstein Tower by Erich Mendelsohn, presentation-models (replica), photo © Nina Reetzke, Stylepark
Gläserne Manufaktur Dresden by Henn Architects, model 2001, photo © Nina Reetzke, Stylepark
Exhibition-view „Small utopias”, photo © Nina Reetzke, Stylepark
Competition model for the reconstruction of the Reichstag to the Federal Diet of Germany by Axel Schultes and Charlotte Frank, photo © Nina Reetzke, Stylepark
Interior for the Schweizerische Hochschule für die Holzwirtschaft by Marcel Meili and Markus Peter, model 1990-99, photo © Nina Reetzke, Stylepark
Exhibition-views with projects by Oswald Mathias Ungers, photo © Nina Reetzke, Stylepark
Images of architectural models from previous centuries in 1:1 scale, photo © Nina Reetzke, Stylepark
Relief of the laying of the foundation stone at the Münster Ulm, donator`s model 1377, photo © Nina Reetzke, Stylepark
Prada design-models by Herzog & de Meuron, photo © Nina Reetzke, Stylepark