Thinking and Imagining Architecture at a Distance with Models


  • Matthew Mindrup


For over 500 years, architects have continued to extoll the utility of scale architectural models for visualizing “the entire work in miniature right before their eyes.” Yet, when the 37-year-old Johann Wolfgang von Goethe arrived in Rome in 1786, he was immediately surprised to find that the antique ruins he came to know from cork models at home had become “familiar objects in an unfamiliar world.” The models which Goethe recalls were popular eighteenth and nineteenth century souvenirs of the European Grand Tour. Initially used as table settings to encourage erudite discussion about antiquity, these objects inevitably found their way into academic, private, and museum collections alongside full size plaster casts, actual building fragments and scale reconstructions. For the study of architecture however, using these models was not unlike trying to read a book with missing pages and one had to imaginatively fill-in the spaces between fragments. When the authority of classical antiquity was challenged by a new generation of modern German architects at the beginning of the twentieth century, the use of fragments and models of antique structures to inspire new designs did not completely disappear. Young architects were encouraged to find inspiration for new designs in the assemblage of broken objects and building blocks representing identifiable structures. As Hermann Finsterlin explained, the aim of these approaches is to seize the impartiality of the child to rid the architect of their cultural inhibitions. This paper explores how the ambiguity of scale, materiality and context in models creates a space for the imagination to wander.