Models Lie

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The truth is that models lie.

Examine the trajectory of 20th Century Modernism, coupled with the analytical explorations of the late postmodern period, and you’ll note that the architectural model is completing a circular evolution, culminating its orbit squarely within the discourse of digital production. The first half-lap is a resistance against 19th Century conservatism rendered in miniature, followed by a post-war attention toward diagrammatic abstraction, and concludes as a conceptual confection, frosted with tight philosophy, loose theory, and robust technological prowess. At the start of the 21st Century, and with the emergent dominance of computational processes within the discipline, the architectural model can be found rendering, printing, and milling itself back into a “straw man” of physical representation. This is not to say that the model is an irrelevant or a representational remainder from the 20th Century modernist project. Instead, it suggests a conceptual mirage that, along with the complex post-modern readings of cultural evolution, delivers a stage where building the idea-as-model delicately operates between visionary truth and operational misreading.

Dirty white lies start with Modernism.

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Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe are all liars.

Confronted by an environment of social conservatism during Modernism’s infancy that pushed their respective practices toward the realm of material and structural experimentation, models within the aforementioned practices serve as either stand-ins for reality, or tombstones for speculative projects, that for various reasons would never be. With more failures than successes, early modernist practices exploited the model as a kind of projective signifier, one that delivered the building concept, often stillborn, for aesthetic contemplation. The architectural model at times represented the foreshadowing of a structure that was later realized, or partially so, as in the case of Mies van der Rohe’s full-scale canvas model of the Kroller-Muller Villa.1 Johannes van der Wolk, Kroller-Muller Villa Project, Wassenarr, 1912-1913, in Mies in Berlin, Barry Bergdoll and Terrance Riley, eds. (New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 2001) In either instance, the result was a polished representation of a projective reality aching to arrive, yet portrayed as if it had always existed, and with confidence.

Le Corbusier, playing both Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog and fox2 Collin Rowe and Fred Koetter, Collage City (Cambridge, 1978), eschewed the “model-selfie,” in favor of cameos featuring him striding confidently through a building under construction, or strutting nude in his painting studio. Here, the architect is depicted as a maker in action, and the unrealized project remains consigned to the studio archive or monograph. In contrast, Mies and Wright appear celebratory of what one might call, for lack of eloquence, the “trophy shot.” Both architects consistently appear posing with models of their work, wherein the architect’s presence serves to either transpose dream with reality, or, in the case of Mies, reify an already constructed creation. An example of this phenomenon is captured in Irving Penn’s canonical photos of Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson trading caresses over the Seagram Building. The photos purportedly were all taken after the building’s 1958 completion and include several outtakes of the architect and the curator hamming it up for the camera. For Wright however, the model appears as a solemn alibi. Un-built canonical projects such as Broadacre City and the San Francisco Call Building are frequently documented in the archival studio photos in a state of perpetual life-support. The Call Building, one of Wright’s early experimentations with regard to the skyscraper typology, appears, in the famous image by Pedro Guerrero, as a mere stage prop. In the photograph, Wright stands, leaning over a set of plans, glowering at the viewer, while the model of the Call Building hovers in the background like an albatross, simultaneously a specter of philosophical victories and professional losses.

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Never trust a hippie.

A seductive reboot intended to deliver a modern Japan from the horrors of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Allied firebombing of Tokyo, Metabolism transformed the Post-War metropolis into a futuristic matte of techno-urbanist diagrams and speculative architectures.3 Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Project Japan Metabolism Talks…(Koln, Taschen, 2011) While press photos produce a variety of trophy shots, the images of models released by the architects are largely diagrammatic in nature, and are often presented as stand-alone objects intended to objectively address the realities of building in a country decimated by war and economic recession. The modernist theme of blending architect with model continues with Kiyonori Kikutake’s Marine City and Kenzo Tange’s Olympic Stadium. Recalling shots of Wright’s work on Broadacre City at Taliesin, Kikutake’s archive shows interns working in earnest on models of Marine City, while Kenzo Tange appears in multiple photos of his proposal for the Olympic Stadium. Already, we see a shift from models representing built form, to constructs that eclipse the quick read in favor of the abstract diagram. The internalized conceptual language of the Metabolists presents an oppositional reality, one that ultimately serves as the ideological platform underpinning the tenants of postmodernism, thereby propelling architecture away from the aesthetically-bound traditions of the International Style, and toward a deeper connection with politics, culture, technology, and place.

Lip Service and Little Triggers

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Despite positing itself as a savior stepping in to rescue the world from modernism’s malapropisms, postmodernism remains architecture’s biggest half-truth. Steeped in history and philosophical narrative, postmodernism’s strict avoidance of authorship or even a unified aesthetic delivers models that seek only to reify the object as a project unto itself. Here architectural representation exists as if in a vacuum, devoid of cultural gravity, where readings of site, scale, and even building type are left to ambiguous significations that encourage a multiplicity of conceptual readings or critiques. Certainly the most productive period within the discipline for fostering ”paper-projects,” the postmodern practices of Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind, and Rem Koolhaas clearly depict systems of language at odds with the traditional modernist object. Presenting the finished typological building condition in model form is no longer of concern when a diagrammatic prop will do. If modernism presented an archive of media expressing the contradictions inherent in 20th Century socio-politics and Fordist urbanity, then the loose representation of the postmodern model is a body of resistance, though one that is hardly at odds with the contradictions of late capital.

Foils and Fronts

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As a facet of contemporary creative discourse, the model has become the most prevalent lie used to promote experimental operations within the avant garde. Most often presented as a decoy in place of a project that, for numerous practical reasons, cannot be presently constructed, the digital print counterfeit, flip-milled fabrication, or 3-D printed alibi represent a turn toward modernisms not so distant past. They communicate aesthetically as perfected art objects, albeit with a nuanced material or textural twist. While Mies might have seen his models as an aesthetic discourse represented in miniature, a convincing substitute till the actual building was completed, the contemporary designer often presents the model as a kind of hopeless signal flare of an idea, one that implies an unquenchable desire to promote an architecture still in search of means and methods. Often devoid of scale and infinitely programmable, the 3-D print remains the most coveted object in final reviews at architectural schools today. This is evidence that only serves to reinforce the model’s position as the proverbial skull of Yorick; a mute metaphor, in this case, for contemporary architecture’s desperate struggle to free itself from the legacy of a discipline that produces truths in built form, only by building lies first.

The Whole Truth

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The architectural model represents a problem within contemporary discourse that is at the forefront of both education and practice. Automated and computational tactics remain unexploited with regard to their ability to produce a truly analytical device worthy of a larger ideological or aesthetic project within the discipline. The problem with the model is not one of practical 1:1 application, or its potential as a mockup, but rather with the substance behind the model itself. More probing is necessary in order to call out exactly what is missing within the language of the contemporary model, but the answer is buried somewhere in the white bones of the powder print or the sawdust of the CNC-milled form. So, the next time you are dusting printing powder off of your lap during a design review, ask yourself - “just what is it that makes today’s models so different, so appealing?”

Chances are that it’s all a lie.