The Inner Life of Models

LOG 50: Model Behavior, Fall 2020

Bruce Nauman described his “Model for a Trench and 4 Buried Passages” (1979), as a concept model for a subterranean space at an unknown, “much larger” scale. When confronted with this piece, the viewer is forced to speculate what it might be like to encounter it on a vast, almost planetary scale, and what its purpose might be. Is it a supercollider? A mausoleum? Originally shown in Nauman’s studio, the sculpture raised the surreal possibility that everything in the room could also be a model of some other, giant thing. Taken as a precedent, Nauman’s piece illustrates the crucial power of scale, which tells us more than anything else what a particular construct is for. Architecture too often becomes a mirror of the human medium scale, crystallizing our routinized sense of our position as primary and special. Upending scale expands our vision of reality to include things that exist equally but on radically different registers, like galaxies, mountains, and corona viruses. Architecture today should embrace the potential of the miniature and the gigantic in our contemporary experience.

In buildings, we always associate the scale of things with the number of pieces from which they appear to be made. One of the reasons the CCTV Tower by OMA seems charming and toylike is that its envelope features an overscaled channel pattern that overpowers the regularizing grid of its glass curtain wall and stands out against its background of conventional buildings, with their refined articulation. The result is a building that appears smaller than it is, making the entire city seem strange. Or consider Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House, which is parted out into unexpectedly small “textile blocks” and consequently feels more like a Mesoamerican temple than a residence. A related technique from the world of special effects, known as “greebling,” involves the almost maniacal addition of fine surface detail and subdivisions to small, in-camera models so that they resemble vast technical objects like spacecraft. When medieval architects began designing smaller containers like reliquaries, baldachins, and tabernacles that had previously been the purview of other guilds, these quickly became vehicles for mixed-scale and mixed-material speculations. Tiny vaults and oriels were combined with out-of-scale jewels; miniature castles were topped with crystal turrets; structures were clad in too-big walrus plaques and crowned with oversized golden eagles. Freed from the structural logistics and construction techniques that limited larger works, these “micro-architectures,” as the historian François Bucher called them, ceased to function as replicas of full-scale architecture and became instead lively collections of multiscalar objects in the general form of a known type. Composite entities such as these never resolve into a unity, as in tired models of part-to-whole, but remain bundles of parts that continually catch your attention one-by-one.