Architectural models: an art form in their own right?

Architectural models: an art form in their own right?

When the empress Joséphine commissioned architect Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine to remodel her bedroom at the château de Fontainebleau, she wanted, naturally, to consult her husband, Napoleon. But he was away on the battlefield. So the architect made a collapsible, folding-card model to illustrate the design in three dimensions and had it sent to the emperor. Embarking on his new set of wars, you might have thought he had better things to do but, nevertheless, the notorious micromanager was able to give his assent.

Architectural models inhabit a realm between the technical and the popular; they can transcend the mere projection of drawings and become things in their own right, embodying remarkable stories beyond the building they represent. Shaping Space: Architectural Models Revealed, a small and lovely show at London’s Building Centre (in conjunction with the V&A) illustrates the range of media and approaches, and intimates that this might be an art form in its own right. From film sets to toys, the artefacts here suggest a field misunderstood as a tributary of architecture but which has evolved its own material languages, ambitions, clichés and pretensions.

Some of the things here resemble abstract sculpture. Take Jorn Utzon’s model of the Sydney Opera House, its elements carved from a shallow convex dome. It appears an exquisitely simple work, though it belies the tremendous artifice of architecture in the age of spectacle (could anyone really understand from looking at it that all those shards and slabs were fragments of a single dome?). Or Le Corbusier’s model of a wall at his groundbreaking chapel at Ronchamp, whose random openings look very much like the background to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 1933 picture “Madrid”.

Lots of small, stout white, yellow or green oblongs sit on a thick base
Peter Barber Architects’ model for a zero-energy estuary island village

A model of a white rabbit , dressed like a human, sitting on a sofa in a 1970s-style sitting room
Andy Gent’s meticulous 1970s-style interior for the animation short ‘Save Ralph’

Other things are unsettling. The miniaturisation of architecture can evoke, like the haunted doll’s house, the uncanny, the unheimlich (literally the unhomely). It looks like a building but it is too small, forcing you to crouch to peer in. It is represented here by the eerily meticulous work of British model-maker Andy Gent. One model, the set for the 2021 animation short Save Ralph, represents a normal, slightly shabby, possibly 1970s and clearly inhabited interior. That its inhabitant is a lab rabbit complaining to us about his afflictions — inflamed eyes, skin lesions, tinnitus — increases the unease around its verisimilitude.

Gent’s other contribution is a striking miniature street scene, a chunk of shrunken Taxi Driver-era New York, perfect in its details, from the fire escape and backlit windows to the wire-basket trash can and the rubbish in the street.

There are remarkable contrasts. The large Victorian wooden section of the Albert Hall (discovered in a cupboard a few years ago) is as much furniture as model. Peter Barber’s clay and concrete model for a proposed housing development in the Thames Estuary makes it look like a kind of colourful kasbah. A 1930s model of a New York skyscraper is stuck on a stick, popsicle-style, so that it can be viewed not from an unrealistic bird’s-eye level but as it might be seen in the city, from below. There is even the toy building-block set belonging to radical architect Cedric Price, who probably built more using that toy set than he ever did in real life.

A set of building blocks that belonged to the radical British architect Cedric Price
A set of building blocks that belonged to the radical British architect Cedric Price

The virtual model appears too, in the form of Forensic Architecture’s precise digital reconstruction of the interior of a Palestinian home struck by an Israeli missile, outlining in shocking detail the moment of impact, the trajectories of shrapnel, the bodies and the likely weapon, all to be used as documents in testimony.

Finally, the most meta thing in a show about models is architect Roz Barr’s model of the show itself in the final section. I almost wanted to search for a tiny model of myself peering at the model. Much is often made of how difficult architecture can be to display engagingly. This little exhibition shows how easy, varied and enjoyable it can actually be.

To January 28,

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About pevita pearce

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