farnsworth house model via moma

The Allure—and Importance—of Architectural Models

For those of us lucky enough to have grown up during the 1950s and ’60s, models were hot stuff—and not just the kind that statement may bring to mind. During my adolescent years I lived in a world of Hot Rod magazine, comic books, and plastic models of cars, planes, and ships. Muscle cars were Detroit’s sex symbols, and the 24 hours of Le Mans was must-see TV. Carroll Shelby produced his famous Cobra Mustang. Shortly afterward, my friends and I were making models of that car and other icons of Detroit’s golden age. I can still smell the glue and enamel when I reflect on my hours in the garage, waiting for parts to dry. 

Though I didn’t become an architect until the late 1970s, I remember that articles about architecture in Time, Life, Collier’s, House & Garden, and other magazines often showed building models that were just as realistic as today’s virtual renderings. I later learned that big architecture firms hired specialists to construct these elaborate mock-ups to convince their clients to spend millions on buildings that often seemed unreal in their visionary forms and materials. Without them, many of the era’s most celebrated buildings might not have been built: Dulles Airport, the Inland Steel Building, Lever House, the Museum of Modern Art. I’ve often wondered why there have been so few articles about these wonderful crafters and their work.

Benjamin Conrad model for Lever House, courtesy of MoMA.


Bloomsbury, a relative newcomer among design publishers, has just released an informative study of one such master modeler, The Architectural Models of Theodore Conrad (1910–1994). He made models of many notable buildings, and his impressive effort for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Lever House appears on the book’s cover, a tour de force that puts any of my own efforts to shame. The author, Teresa Fankhänel, is also a newcomer, and she has done a fine job of unveiling some of the mysteries behind how Conrad and his contemporaries worked their magic. Though she makes some erroneous pronouncements about the history of the period, her book is well worth reading. The archival photographs alone make it essential as a reference for anyone who wants to delve into midcentury modern architecture. 

Like many influential artists, Conrad was born at the right moment, in the right place, and found abundant opportunities for success. Though he studied architecture at the Pratt Institute, his focus on wood and metalwork in high school provided him with the skills to have an immediate impact in an architectural office. His years at Dickinson High School in Jersey City were spent in applied arts classes, including painting, carpentry, and sculpture. While a student in Brooklyn, he was hired by Harvey Wiley Corbett, one of the key advocates of model making among U.S. architects. Corbett had been a principal in the group of architects that designed Rockefeller Center (Raymond Hood and Wallace Harrison were the other key figures). He advocated for building the study models that aided the designers in creating that masterpiece, and later wrote extensively about how models could help represent large, complex building schemes to clients.

Model for Inland Steel Building, credited to Ryerson Tull, courtesy of SOM.


Architectural models have been used as study and presentation tools for centuries, a fact that Fankhänel barely acknowledges in her introduction. She is correct in pointing out that professional model builders emerged in the 20th century as specialists in their own right, mainly as a result of advances in shop technology and the spate of large-scale construction projects that occurred before and after World War II. Before that time, most models were made of plaster or wood, materials that were time consuming to sculpt or assemble. Clay models were sometimes employed when only a crude massing study was required, but for presentation purposes most architects relied on elaborate renderings in ink, watercolor, or soft pencil. Hugh Ferriss, the visionary renderer who is credited with introducing setback massing for tall buildings, worked mainly in charcoal. Other famous renderers, such as Jules Guerin, used watercolor and pencil on colored papers during the early years of the 20th century. Fankhanel underplays the fact that, prior to the 1920s, a number of American rendering specialists earned top dollar for creating elaborate presentation drawings for leading architects such as McKim, Mead & White, Daniel Burnham, and Carrère & Hastings. In England, Edwin Lutyens employed William Walcott as a watercolorist, while commissioning Twining Models, a subsidiary of a toy company, to make models of Liverpool Cathedral and the Queen’s Doll House.

As skyscraper construction flourished in the U.S., “delineators” were gradually supplanted by craftsmen like Conrad, Ramon Lester, and René Chamberlain, among about two dozen model makers surveyed by Jane Jacobs in Architectural Forum’s May 1958 issue. Magazines like Pencil Points (later to become Progressive Architecture) were cautious in discussing the worth of producing cardboard study models during the 1920s, but got on the bandwagon once Corbett and other leading architects demonstrated the value of “selling” their schemes by presenting alternatives in model form, obviating the need for expensive renderings. Another advantage of models at different scales was their capacity for showing the entire building, not just one elevation or perspective view, during a presentation to a committee of executives or decision makers. Fankhänel provides some wonderful photos of such presentations, including one of Gordon Bunshaft hovering over a model of the Connecticut General Life building in 1953.

Conrad was a pioneer who participated in an astounding array of key projects during his long career. He opened his own shop in 1931 and witnessed firsthand the modelmaking enterprises that arose around the 1939 New York World’s Fair, building the first model of the Trylon & Perisphere. During the war he was paid to construct a large model of a naval base; he also did prototyping for noted industrial designer Walter Darwin Teague. Working with photographer Louis Checkman, he developed a system for producing models that could be photographed from various angles, at several scales, resulting in a spate of magazine spreads that amazed publishers for their realism. His client list included Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Wallace Harrison, Edward Durrell Stone, Marcel Breuer, and Minoru Yamasaki. He also made elaborate mock-ups specifically for publication in magazines, and for architectural exhibitions. 


Fankhänel is particularly astute in her analysis of how new materials advanced the efficacy of modelers’ ability to depict the glass curtain-wall buildings that became a hallmark of the period. Plexiglass, invented during the war, became a material of choice due to its relatively low cost and ease of cutting. It could be transparent, translucent, or opaque, depending on the treatment, and melded well with wire and metal extrusions. Even when interiors were constructed for lighting studies, Conrad’s workshop found ways to hide small bulbs inside their elaborate creations. His firm increased to rival the size of the architecture firms for whom he worked, and it could produce a model for virtually any kind of building or group of buildings. A small industry developed to produce tiny cars, trees, people, and other objects needed for these workshops. Fankhänel also points out the influence that such models had on the final design of many buildings, as architects discovered how they might look under varying lighting conditions.

The “miniature boom” that this book celebrates was indeed critical to the advancement of corporate modernism, and mass media—including advertising—made clever use of photos of models to sell ideas to the public. Did this explosion produce “an undisputed victory of the model over other architectural media, especially the drawing and the rendering,” or usher in a “medial shift in architecture”? Fankhänel briefly examines drawings of models as “translations” of ideas between one scale or medium and another, following the theories of Robin Evans and Beatriz Colomina, but her case regarding the model’s midcentury hegemony over drawing isn’t entirely persuasive. It would be more prudent to argue, as I have in a recent book, that models became de rigeur in studios after the fall of Postmodernism, and they continue to enthrall architects using digital tools today. 

There are many fascinating facts, stories, and illustrations in this book, a credit to the author’s research skills and access to the Conrad collection at the Avery Architectural Archives in New York. It appears that much of the text was her dissertation at the University of Zurich, also a credit to her talents. This first large-scale study of an important chapter in the history of modern architecture suggests that much more should be done to explore models as representational types, an important one among an expanding array of media that continues to this day.

Featured image: Model of the Farnsworth House, from Ludwig Mies van Der Rohes first show at MoMA in 1947. 



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