Ambitious and diverse, models are representative tools non-exclusive to architects. Peculiar fascination with miniatures – and what they tell us about our larger world- extends to all ages, cultures, and purposes. From scaled temples of clay from 200 B.C. found in Mexico, ceramic models carried during medieval Islamic journeys, Victorian doll houses, and LEGOS, models are more than baby buildings. Miniatures unveil the essentials, explain much larger concepts, contain intimate and historical data, and invite us to challenge our known selves and perspective.
Miniatures are full of bite-sized portions of our world and lives. By transcending spatial norms, models envision and measure real-world size and performance. They help to understand the cultural and historical heritage and its connection with the contemporary world. "Small objects also challenge the scale by which we measure ourselves anew." Lastly, scale buildings contain stories, places, and emotions.
It is an abstract matter to address object-experience and body-scale relations to justify miniatures' appeal. Nevertheless, aside from shared cuteness and astonished wonderment, small models represent ideas having common interpretations. From that point, under historical, practical, and architectural approaches, the following thoughts can unveil why models intrigue and engage.
Models are Envisioning Tools
Models are appealing because "controlling a tiny scaled-down world can give us new perspectives and restore our sense of order in uncertain times." These powerful tools allow real objects to be accurately represented at fixed reduced sizes and be measured to determine their real-world size and performance. Mini figures served in military layout campaigns, and Leonardo Da Vinci was famous for creating intricate scale models of catapults, paddleboats, and structures.
As a key feature of architectural modernism, the miniature model became a crucial design education and practice tool in the late 19th century. Its re-emergence, as well as the increasing use of photography as a documentary medium, is associated with the modernist turn towards objectivity, the search for ways to communicate ideas in three dimensions, and the possibility of examining a project with the client 'in the round.'
“The god’s eye view offers “an omniscient sense of measured order.” - In Miniature: How Small Things Illuminate the World by Simon Garfield
However, the intense search for an organized and planned world has critics too. In 1958, Jane Jacobs lamented that architects and city planners had become infatuated with scale models and bird's-eye views—a "vicarious way to deal with reality," in her words. Miniaturization conceals the decidedly messy nature of urban life and the complex social intricacies that make the city work. While the view from above offers the illusion of coherence, cities are only really understood at ground level: "You've got to get out and walk," said Jacobs.
Models are Timeless
Archaeological architectural effigies from Middle Bronze Age Syria, Ancient Egypt, and Han Dynasty China set scale models beyond the 'ornament' position", re-setting architectural iconography within larger contexts of urbanization and city culture of previous worlds. Whether they are considered tools of architectural representation or not by professionals, the popularity and the communicative advantage of models can be used to wonder about our cultural and historical heritage and its connection with the contemporary world. Or at least a vision of what we think the past was like.
Delving into memory interpretation, The Belgian Pavilion at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia delivered a mini version of a Flanders and Brussels region to explore spatial conceptions, misconceptions, and presuppositions based on past and present times.
Titled "Composite Presence," the Pavilion tackled the question of 'how can the city and architecture flourish together'? to examine the complex "love-hate" relationship between architecture and cities. Under the theme "memory as a design studio," Bovenbouw Architectuur chose to recreate fifty architecture projects of the past 20 years scaled at 1:15, displaying a balanced architectural ecology and bringing together different styles, functions, and typologies. The visitors could recognize historical layers, morphological specificities, and unpredictable clashes within the historical and contemporary urban fabric.
Models Challenge Perception
Contrary to order and control, open discernment is also appealing. As described by American author Susan Stewart in On Longing, an experiment conducted at the School of Architecture at the University of Tennessee tested how scale radically altered the perception of time in direct proportion to size.
Researchers had subjects play with scale-model rooms 1/6, 1/12, and 1/24th the size of full-size scale models. Participants were asked to imagine themselves at that scale and wander around the model rooms. Then, they were asked to tell researchers when they felt they had been involved with each model for 30 minutes. The test showed that time is experienced based on the scale. For example, 30 minutes was experienced in 5 minutes at 1/12th scale but in 2.5 minutes at 1/24th scale. Stewart called the compressed time phenomenon ' private time'.
Models are Mementos
Models are appealing because they are portable and transport memories and emotions. What about a Guggenheim for your desk or a Sydney Opera House on your side table? Like souvenirs, models of buildings and landmarks express the variety and richness of cultural traditions without visiting museums or crossing the world. Likewise, miniatures carry emotions (nostalgia, excitement, affection, etc.) linked to a past period or picturing the future.
“It is the small we are inclined to be fond of"- A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful by Edmund Burke
Miniatures are the familiar, reduced to unfamiliarity. They serve to understand the universe in which we live, triggering, like a childlike response, fun, creation, discovery, remembering, and wondering. Scale models are appealing because they transcend all generations, cultures, and realities by working as a complete world unto themselves.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 28, 2022.