A show devoted to the work of Peter Zumthor prompts Bobby Open to examine the role of miniature representation.
‘Now that’s how to convince a client’, was an immediate reaction on entering the exhibition of Peter Zumthor’s architectural models in Bregenz. The model in question was of the Kunsthaus Bregenz (KUB), the very building visible next door through the windows of the exhibition room. Aside from its powers of persuasion, the 1:50 cutaway model delves into the KUB’s complex section and lighting strategy, clarifying aspects that remain elusive even in a first-hand experience of the building, and one of the more descriptive sides of modelmaking highlighted by this fascinating exhibition.
The two exhibition rooms are arranged chronologically, offering an impressive, and sometimes surprising, overview of Zumthor’s work since 1985. Models of competition entries, unbuilt commissions, realised buildings and ongoing projects are presented in virtually every conceivable material, scale and technique. Architecture students are often encouraged to explore their ideas through physical models to learn about space, material and light. The models of the Kolumba Museum in Cologne happily illustrate this lesson as they jump from small to large scale, including a 1:10 model of one of the key rooms, complete with furniture and curtains. This doll’s house aspect is a tricky one to navigate in architectural models, but there is no doubt that the absence of drawings in the show is compensated for by the models’ inhabitation by miniature figures which clearly suggest aspects of function alongside more abstract architectural concerns.
One such example – with a piano, fireplace and dining room furniture – is the Secular Retreat in Devon for developer Living Architecture, and this also highlights a recurring theme: the exploration of primitive or essential modes of construction, particularly the contrast between frame and monolithic structures and, ultimately, the temple and the cave. This raises the notion of ‘model’ meaning perfect or ideal.
The search for the essence of things is at the core of Zumthor’s work, and this is apparent in the studio’s approach to modelmaking. Analogous modeling techniques include casting and moulding in clay, plaster, concrete and resin (Bruder Klaus Chapel), investigating a structure in frame only (Zinc Mine Museum), and building up a series of thin layers (Saint Benedict Chapel, Sumvitg). At times these techniques translate literally into the built work, as in the Sumvitg chapel with its foil-backed timber columns bouncing light onto walls coated in silver-painted lining paper. Elsewhere, models resemble archaeological artefacts that wouldn’t seem out of place in a museum.
Theatricality is present too in the model of the abandoned Topography of Terror building in Berlin, which invites the viewer to peer through holes to experience a columned hall receding into infinity, effected with mirrors that also reflect the viewer’s disembodied eye, floating in space. This sense of the uncanny recalls David Fielding’s stage set for the opera André Chénier, currently floating in lake Constance near the KUB; here is a super-sized three-dimensional model of Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Death of Marat, with lake as bathtub, eyes and mouth that open, and a head that folds back at a severed neck.
One of the most poignant models is a large cast of a remarkable city gate proposed for Isny in Bavaria, which stands proudly centre-stage in the exhibition with a 1:1 glass brick fragment hinting at what might have been had local residents not recently vetoed the project. The Isny gateway, along with others in the exhibition, challenges preconceived ideas of what a Zumthor building might be, and highlights the importance of models in this kind of experimental work. Physical models offer a unique method of exploration, where conceptual leaps can be achieved and projects can be gradually refined in the creative space that exists in the slow process of hand crafting.
Bobby Open practices and teaches architecture and urban design in Cambridge.
Exhibition photographs by Markus Tretter.
Architectural Models by Peter Zumthor is at KUB Bregenz until 28 October 2012.
First published in AT230, August 2012