R for Representation

By Ralf Liptau

Working model under construction for Eero Saarinen’s Trans World Airlines (TWA) Flight Center at Idlewild Airport, New York (1958-62), photographed by Balthazar Korab. © Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Balthazar Korab Collection, LC-KRB00-545

When it comes to analysing the status and function of architectural and design models, the concept of representation is central because it underlines the core idea of what these artefacts are: they stand for something else. They are a symbol, a first materialisation, a placeholder for abstract ideas, for constructions and forms. They are thus communicative or epistemic tools. All models represent a material or immaterial ‘something’. It is the principal reason for their existence. This understanding of models allows us to categorise, to analyse and to describe what exactly each different kind of model does, can do or ought to do. To think about what representation through models is, means to think about what models are. Two fundamental questions stand out: what shall be represented by the model?’ And, why by the model?

So, what is it that is to be represented by the material artefact called the model? It depends. Within the fields of architecture and design, we can set apart two main types of model: those that are involved with design processes and actively shape them, and those that serve as replicas of already completed architectural and design concepts, be they realised or not. A distinctive example of models used as tools within the architectural design process are those made by Eero Saarinen during the design of the TWA Flight Center at Idlewild Airport (now JFK Airport) in New York. The terminal is well known for its spectacular non-Euclidean shape, which could be said to symbolise wings and the weightlessness of air travel. In 1958, four years before its opening, the building was praised in the journal L’Architecture d’aujourd’hui for its ‘deliberate rupture’ with ‘every kind of orthogonal rationalism’. In 1960, Helmut Borcherdt, a former member of Saarinen’s staff, explained in the journal Baukunst und Werkform, ‘It would be impossible to carry out such a design without a model. The representation of buildings on paper is only a tool of communication; it tells nothing about the spatial qualities of a building. The design language will probably be influenced by the medium with which one has worked during the design.’ Borcherdt here connects representational aspects of the model with its productive potential as a non-human ‘actor’ that – in interaction with the design team – develops in a certain direction to create a design that had not previously existed.

Concepts of ‘tacit knowledge’, of the productive mixing of ‘making and thinking’, even the idea of science and play, raise another question concerning the concept of representation: what exactly is it that a model represents, when it does not stand for something already extant? Moreover, what happens when it interacts with others during the design process and thus influences its own development and shape? Models that are integrated in a design process obviously gain specific importance both during this process and for the process. The artefacts that are left at the end of the process represent these ways of thinking as a reminder, a remainder, or sometimes only as trash. They are not created in order to represent an object developed or even realised elsewhere. The artefact is a leftover of the process, not really representing but rather bearing witness to what has happened.

Expectations concerning models and representation are easier to tackle when it comes to models produced in order to make visible, to communicate or to promote a thing or design that already exists. Examples include presentation models for architectural concepts or newly developed car bodies, both of which share some characteristics with didactical models in a scientific context. They all make visible something that either has existed, exists (but is too small, too big or too far away to be observed) or shall exist. They claim to be reliable replicas of something else and thus to be able to represent the main characteristics of this ‘something else’, be they visual characteristics or other analogies.

This leads to the question, why is something represented by a model, either during the design process or to make visible a thing that is already extant? And what is the core potential of models when it comes to questions of representation – for example, in comparison to sketches and drawings? The main characteristic is obvious: a model presents its ‘content’ in three dimensions. It is an artefact that can be taken in one’s hands, turned around and looked at from several perspectives. In many cases, it can be manipulated or disassembled. It is an artefact in the ‘real’ world, not just in the constructed environment of a two-dimensional picture, and thus it promises a strong resemblance to what it represents. On the other hand, it always has to maintain a certain otherness in order not to be redundant; the difference concerns either time or space. The model must either be smaller, bigger or lighter than what it represents. Or it has to be prior, subsequent or more permanent. Whatever the type of model, this field of tension between otherness and similarity is something they all have to deal with. The productivity that lies in the – sometimes closer, sometimes wider – link between model and ‘original’ contributes to the core potential of models and their different modes of representation.

Extracted, with permission, from An Alphabet of Architectural Models, edited by Olivia Horsfall Turner, Simona Valeriani, Matthew Wells and Teresa Fankhänel. Available from Merrell Publishers

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