Dunn on Mindrup, 'The Architectural Model: Histories of the Miniature and the Prototype, the Exemplar and the Muse'

Matthew Mindrup. The Architectural Model: Histories of the Miniature and the Prototype, the Exemplar and the Muse. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2019. Illustrations. xviii + 326 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-262-04275-8

Reviewed by Nick Dunn (Lancaster University)
Published on H-Urban (December, 2020)
Commissioned by Alexander Vari (Marywood University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55428

Research into architectural models is still a relatively nascent field of inquiry but with a burgeoning interest through publications and major exhibitions, such as Das Architektur Modell: Werkzeug, Fetisch, Kleine Utopie / The Architectural Model: Tool, Fetish, Small Utopia, held at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum, in Frankfurt, in 2012. Unlike the considerable corpus of works dedicated to architectural drawing, to date the literature on architectural models has largely consisted of practical guides illustrating “how-to” rather than attending to it as a complex and dynamic subject and substantial history. Architect and academic Matthew Mindrup’s The Architectural Model: Histories of the Miniature and the Prototype, the Exemplar and the Muse, therefore, makes a significant contribution to an emerging field of research. Mindrup argues that the uses of physical architectural models extend far beyond how they are commonly perceived, that is, as descriptive tools of representation.

In this generous and sharp-eyed book, Mindrup demonstrates the kaleidoscopic nature of multiple roles and applications of physical architectural models throughout history. An important though perhaps less explicit contribution that this work makes is also in the manner through which it approaches its subject. Therefore, rather than presenting a conventional and chronological survey of the subject, Mindrup offers an interpretive framework, enabling the reader to connect across time and place in relation to specific critical lenses or thematic approaches. This is essential to understanding how the manifold uses for, and methods of construction of, physical architectural models have evolved over time. It is through this specific approach that Mindrup also makes a valuable contribution toward the historiography of architecture beyond the subject of the physical architectural model. 

The Architectural Model consists of an introduction and six subsequent sections: “Models of Existing Structures,” “Dreaming by the Model,” “Descriptive Tools,” “In Plain and Simple Form,” “Modeling Material as Medium” and “Modeling Architectural Concepts.” Through tracing the evolution of the architectural model from antiquity to the present, Mindrup provides a valuable framework across which the seemingly simple yet actually complex object in terms of its histories and applications may be understood. In the first half of the book, attention is focused on models intended to represent existing, speculative, or fantastical structures. This encompasses a wide range of architectural models, spanning from the sublime and magical to the prototypic and as-built. During the second half of the book, the particular applications of models for architectural purposes are discussed. This includes analyzing the models as a generative tool, from concept through design development toward construction, and exploring different interpretations of architectural models whether allegorical, analogical, or anagogical.

It is a testament to the level of academic rigor and depth of research that each section works as a stand-alone essay yet in combination these sections weave together to provide a significant and insightful treatise on the subject. By doing so, Mindrup is able to provide fresh perspectives on an object that is commonly understood as familiar though actually is far more mysterious and plural in its character than initial impressions suggest. The challenge of writing about a subject that has often perished—that is, many architectural models have been destroyed—throughout history is no mean feat. Physical architectural models are neither static in terms of their function—after all their use is shaped by who is using it, why they are doing so, and the circumstances of when—nor bound by rigid definitions. These nuanced areas of interpretation complicate matters further when considering that “the different applications for architectural models result from a complex network of interpretation and reinterpretation” (p. 5). 

As the work’s subtitle implies, the dynamic role of the physical architectural model is able to be origin, paragon, and inspiration. That the exact same example can sometimes be all three resides in the skillful unearthing and unpacking of the subject as Mindrup takes the reader on a compelling journey. Central to this book is the wealth of archive material that judiciously illustrates both the famous and lesser-known examples of physical architectural models, as well as bringing attention to the hitherto secret histories of this enigmatic object. Juhani Pallasmaa has suggested that “even in the age of computer-aided design and virtual modelling, physical models are incomparable aids in the design process of the architect and the designer. The three-dimensional material model speaks to the hand and the body as powerfully as to the eye, and the very process of constructing a model simulates the process of construction.”[1] Despite the architectural community being aware of this both in professional practice and educational contexts, it largely remains tacit knowledge and is rarely fully appreciated or understood. 

In The Architectural Model, Mindrup has created an authoritative work that is open and flexible in its framing yet able to assiduously scrutinize its subject. Given the breadth of the topic, the book is successful in its navigation across eras, movements, applications, and ideas. The complexity of the subject is conveyed while also opening the door to an emerging field of research even wider. This is critical. Just like the object itself, there are further uses and interpretations to be made. Future work in this field should respond to the connections made by Mindrup accordingly, further enriching or challenging them as the body of research on the physical architectural model continues to grow.


[1]. Juhani Pallasmaa, The Thinking Hand (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2009), 57.

Citation: Nick Dunn. Review of Mindrup, Matthew, The Architectural Model: Histories of the Miniature and the Prototype, the Exemplar and the Muse. H-Urban, H-Net Reviews. December, 2020.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55428

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.