Art and the Architectural Model

9 February 2010

Saint Valentine’s Day promises to be very different for me this year.  This Sunday, February 14th, I will present my paper Art and the Architectural Model at the Design Principles and Practices Conference at the University of Illinois, Chicago.  I thought I would share the abstract and a few of the images from the presentation.  The research for this paper was done under the tutelage of internationally esteemed model expert Dr. Mark Morris, the current Director of Graduate Studies at Cornell University’s Department of Architecture.  I will post a follow up note after the conference.


Based on centuries of craft and application, the projective and documentary utility of architectural models to represent full-scale designs is relatively well understood in both the discipline of architecture and the public realm. The 1976 ‘Idea as Model’ exhibition and subsequent publications recognize the conceptual model and its potential to transcend modes of presentation. This new criticality through architectural miniatures opens up new avenues of exploration in three-dimensional models, which are certainly not limited to the realm of architecture. This paper investigates the contemporary artistic appropriation of the architectonic miniature for purposes other than representing architecture.

For some of the artists included in this survey, the model is but one experiment in a portfolio of varied media and formats, while for others, the model appears in the majority of their oeuvre. In virtually all cases, the concept or intention behind the work is not primarily focused on architecture, but the artist uses the form of buildings and landscapes to introduce the issues important to him or her. The use of the architectural model as a sculptural format is accomplished at varying levels of abstraction, from precisely scaled museum board buildings, to a city made of poker chips. For the purposes of analysis, artists have been paired in three loose categories based on their work’s relative level of abstraction from the conventional model format. The cases include works by Mike Kelley, Joel Stoehr, Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell, Nathan Coley, Zhong Kangjun, and Liu Jianhua. This paper attempts to elucidate these artworks’ relationship to models in architectural design, while also illustrating how the model has become a useful format for non-architects.


… The project is at once about memory and the loss of memory.  Spaces that Kelley remembers are denoted by fenestration voids, allowing views inside the structures, while those he has forgotten have a solid facade, a reference to memory blockage. … Kelley does not attempt to reinvent the architectural model, but in following established conventions, he is able to express a complex psychogeography through the juxtaposition of structures and the variety of envelope treatments. …

Detail of Educational Complex, Mike Kelley, 1995

… Not unlike Langlands and Bell, Nathan Coley’s preoccupation with the model stems from an interest in architecture’s apparent codification of social and moral values.  His sculpture and installations examine religious and political institutions as well as personal identity through architecture. …

The Lamp of Sacrifice – 286 Places of Worship, Nathan Coley, 2004

… Zhong’s version of the new Beijing National Stadium, the only building separated from the dense cityscape, is crowded with miniature people who view one another due to the apparent lack of activity on the field.  The strong aesthetic of corroded metal flips any notion of presentation model on its ear, as a dystopian future is projected in startling detail.  On a wall nearby, text introducing the exhibition asks if the human race is constructing or deconstructing.  Zhong’s reply, by welding together the refuse of contemporary production, seems to be both. …

City, Zhong Kangjun, 2008

Detail of City, Zhong Kangjun, 2008

… By invoking the gambling metaphor, Liu’s emphasizes Pudong, the financial center of Shanghai that has received intense development over the last two decades.  Although quite abstract, the poker chips create a kind of massing model, a three-dimensional graph of economic activity not dissimilar from the scale of Shanghai’s buildings themselves. …

Unreal Scene, Liu Jianhua, 2008


Divergent Convergence

3 September 2009

The work of Christoph Kumpusch’s Forbidden City Studio is currently being exhibited at the Beijing Urban Planning Center as part of Divergent Convergence.  The show, hosted by the USC American Academy in China features projective architectural projects from schools all around the world.  Here is part of the curator’s remarks:

Divergent Convergence will, for the first time, collect in a single exhibition the work of students and researchers from across American architecture schools, produced over the past decade. Projects will range in scale from individual works of architecture to proposals on an urban scale. More specifically, the selected projects will illustrate the responses of students and researchers to a series of questions critically relevant to the Chinese city today: How can architecture adapt to a hyper-compressed design and construction schedule? Should ancient neighborhoods be demolished to make way for new construction? Can cities accommodate rapid demographic change without opening up irreparable social rifts? How dense should cities become? How can sustainability be achieved in the context of increased industrial production? Ultimately, this multiplicity of investigative angles will constitute an in-depth study of Chinese urbanism and architecture in the context both of global economy and local culture . . .

Representing Cornell University are myself, Michael Duran, Joshua Nason, Landon Robinson, and Gregory Serweta.

Forbidden City Studio Cornell

On Edge in Jersey City

21 July 2009

This video from last fall contrasts concepts of urban legibility found in Kevin Lynch’s Image of the City with animations taken from Google Earth’s version of Jersey City.  The juxtaposition attempts to reveal the effects of simulation on our understanding of cities and their navigation.  Google Earth, GPS, and other interactive simulations are changing the way we view the world.  While these technologies can transmit an abundance of information, one must think critically about the source and presentation of that information.  Lynch proposed that, in terms of urban navigation, legibility reduces anxiety.  A digitally mediated landscape offers new ways to read the physical environment, but what are we really seeing?

Standard Deviation

15 July 2009

Inspired by the Common Ground seminar with Lebbeus Woods and Christoph a. Kumpusch, this post details another piece of pedestrian research.  Standard Deviation is a spatial experiment I conducted in April of this year.  While not strictly scientific or absolutely measurable, these kinds of installations may provide another means of understanding how people interact with architecture.  I hope to develop future experiments as a continuation of this design research.

Quad from North Panorama


When we travel along a path, what do we really see?  What do we need to see?  This experiment tests whether a pedestrian relies on the spatial bounds of path or on a surface pattern for their directionality.  A person tends to look down while walking, most likely for the practical purpose of placing their feet on safe, solid ground.  This experiment supposes that the average pedestrian disregards the overall geometry of a path in favor of the portion of pavement to be next tread upon. On a typical concrete sidewalk, a scoring pattern occurs approximately every 4’-6”.  These control joints are cut or formed at 90 degrees to the direction of the path, forming rectangular segments of an otherwise linear mass of pavement.  The walker may perceive the transverse lines as more important to their direction than the edges of the path.  If the pattern on the path no longer correlated to the extents or direction of the path, could a person be made to deviate from a given trajectory?

Art Prof 3

Experiment Format

The site for this experiment occurs at the north end of the Arts Quad at Cornell University.  It was chosen for its lack of scoring pattern on its asphalt surface and its adjacency to Sibley Hall, making it easier to record the experiment.  The secondary nature of the path ensured that most users would be able to experience the intervention without other pedestrians obscuring the pattern.  The pattern is accomplished with thin lines of black tape occurring every two feet on center.  The lines shift from perpendicular to the path at the ends of the pattern to 20 degrees off normal at the midpoint.  The pattern is the same in either direction, allowing users from either direction to experience the intervention in the same manner.  With the assumption that pedestrians in North America tend to walk on the right side of a path, the pattern is designed to subtly encourage users to veer to their left.

Arts Quad with Intervention

Lines on Walk

The experiment was recorded with video over the course of four hours on a Thursday morning while class was in session.  Due to the location on the north end of campus, more users moved from north to south as they made their way to class or work.  Because the black tape had a similar reflectance as the pavement, most users did not notice the intervention until just before entering the pattern.  Once on top of the pattern, the black tape contrasted well with the grey asphalt.  Over the course of the experiment, the some segments of tape had to be repaired or replaced, but in general, the course was unoccupied by the project author and assistants.  No person stopped walking to investigate or tamper with the tape.  In general, most users did not appear to consciously notice the pattern, although their path through the intervention might indicate otherwise.

Pedestrian with Tube

Pedestrian with Colorful Sneakers

Pedestrian Sequence


The results of this experiment suggest that about 35 percent of users deviated from a normal trajectory based on the pattern intervention.  The correction of this deviation lends to the credibility of this claim, showing that the pedestrian had intended to walk in a particular direction, but was taken astray by the intervention.  The relative success of this intervention suggests that pedestrians are susceptible to taking directional clues from pattern over spatial extents.  Perhaps we must amend Merleau-Ponty’s assertion to say that, while the human mind possesses a perceptual genius to see what is not there, it also operates with perceptual naiveté, assuming geometrical qualities of space that may not be present.

Results-All Paths

Results-North Bound Paths

Results-South Bound Paths

The proportionally higher number of deviation in the north-bound direction may possibly be explained by the slight hill that the path climbs as one moves from south to north. Due to the angle of the ground plane, the pedestrian walking down the hill may be able to see farther in from of him, while the one walking up the hill may focus more on the ground in front of him.

Hill Diagram

Lines Close

Sidewalk Panorama

Common Ground

1 July 2009

The last semester of Cornell’s Master of Architecture II program is underway in Manhattan.  In addition to a studio led by Rob Rogers and Jonathan Marvel, we are taking a seminar reexamining Colin Rowe’s Collage City.  Mark Morris leads the seminar with modules by guests Chris Otto, Lebbeus Woods and Christoph Kumpusch, Kathy Battista, Mary Woods, and Henry Richardson.  The module by Woods and Kumpusch was titled Common Ground, a reference to the streets and walkways all New Yorkers share.  After a lecture on drawing by Professor Woods, our group was tasked with individually documenting a piece of common ground, writing a commentary about our findings, and creating an analog or representation of the ideas discovered in the process.  Based on my exploration of a piece of granite curb in Greenwich Village, I became interested in the function of thresholds in the city, which seem to create spatial boundaries that must be negotiated by pedestrians.  Here is my piece of Common Ground:

The Site

Granite Curb in Greenwich Village

Sidewalk Tiltorama


In Greenwich Village, a tired hunk of granite subtly marks the threshold between sidewalk and street.  Its corners worn smooth from a century of utility, the stone takes on a more natural geometry than its original sharp lines and perfect bullnose.  Long gone is the evidence of its excavation, fabrication, and installation.  It appears to have always existed in this spot, maintaining a stoic order in a city of chaos.  Even the yellow paint applied by a union roadway line painter has all but faded from the pocked surface of the curb.  A small shift in elevation—maybe three inches—is complemented by a distinct change in pavement to denote the edge.  The line of curb acts a seam, tenuously stitching together the fabric of equally old paving stones and a contemporary concrete walk.  Compared the smoothness of the concrete, the street surface is a topography unto itself, a warped grid of canyons and gullies.  As the stones slowly wear, the spaces in between them gradually collect the residue of the city.  Yes, the street sweepers, both manual and mechanical, do their best to collect the refuse, but still, tiny pieces of urban life nestle themselves in the depressions between pavers.  This microcosmic index reads like a guestbook of activity: a cigarette filter flicked into the street when no ashtray was readily encountered; a dead leaf, the victim of a late spring frost, the fragmented remains of an earlier concrete walk.  The current walk, in its broom-brushed consistency, resists the collection of debris, save for the myriad of irregular, black splotches that dot its surface.  One wonders if hundreds of individuals spat their gum onto the ground at this very point or if a local office manager, always eating too many onions with her lunch salad, habitually deposits her sticky breath freshener on the same patch of sidewalk on the route back to work.  The gum spots hold fast to the sidewalk while the cigarettes all end up on the street, thus maintaining the separation of roadway and walkway, at least in terms of oral fixation products.  A traffic sign rising above the pavement echoes the function of the granite curb with diagrammatic clarity.  The pedestrian, forced off the stone edge by its thinness and irregularity, must chose a side, but presses on toward thousands of urban thresholds left to cross.

Threshold/Boundary Drawings

Common Ground Final 1 Yellow-WEB

Common Ground Final 2 Green-WEB

Common Ground Final 3 Red-WEB

Common Ground Final 4 Blue-WEB

Common Ground Final 6 Composite-WEB


The culmination of the Common Ground module was an exhibition of our projects, held at Cornell’s 17th Street studio on June 24th, 2009.  Guest discussants included Miodrag Mitrasinovic (Parsons), Shannon Mattern (The New School), Anthony Titus (Cooper Union), and Mark Morris (Cornell).  The exhibition proved a very meaningful way to summarize and reflect upon the ideas and work produced in our nine day sprint.  I was pleasantly surprised by the daring and depth found in many of my colleagues’ work.  Despite the vast differences in approach, the common effort for the exhibition brought a tighter sense of studio community, which should help us finish our program with verve.

Lauriat Discussion-WEB

Discussion of Thresholds (photograph by Brook Moyse)

Group View-WEB

Viewing the Work

Group Discussion-WEB

Group Discussion (photograph by Brook Moyse)

Lauriat Hands On-WEB

Installation View

Lauriat Detail-WEB

Dowel Detail

Spectacle vs. Ambiguity

15 April 2009

The following is a brief reflection on two readings from Caroline O’Donnell’s Perceptual Genius course at Cornell.  Society of the Spectacle and Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, by Guy Debord and Robert Venturi respectively, resonate with some of my own misgivings about the current state of global practice.  I hope to develop these ideas into a more robust essay alongside tangible architectural experiments in the very near future.  I would appreciate comments to add to this discussion.

“The fact that the practical power of modern society detached itself and built an independent empire in the spectacle can be explained only by the fact that this practical power continued to lack cohesion and remained in contradiction with itself.”
Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit: Black & Red, 2005).

“Most of the examples will be difficult to “read,” but abstruse architecture is valid when it reflects the complexities and contradictions of content and meaning.  Simultaneous perception of a multiplicity of levels involves struggles and hesitations for the observer, and makes his perception more vivid.”
Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2002).

Spectacle vs. Ambiguity
Arguably more than any time in history, popular architecture is pushing the bounds of the spectacular. Fantastic imagery is substituted for good ideas in the mass production of architectural “concepts.” Architects crank out visions of the future every three days and are treated like rock stars before a single building is ever inhabited. This raises the question, does society really want to inhabit these formal flights of fancy, or do they just need the spectacle? Do they expect it? Perhaps, as if watching a horror film, they are both terrified and mesmerized. “Will it really be that tall?” “Can you believe what they’re building in [exotic location here]?” The spectacle rarely coexists with ambiguity. The shiny rendering is designed for a narrow purpose, even though the architecture may be more complex (we hope). The presentation becomes the object of design; the building can wait. The form is recognizable, even in silhouette or at a great distance. The viewer says it looks like a corkscrew or a bird in flight. A connection to something simple and familiar sells the concept to those who lives are too busy and complex for meaningful reflection. Ambiguity requires creativity on the part of the viewer as much as the designer. To begin to understand, or at least appreciate, complexity requires sustained effort and a commitment to a reading that may never materialize. Is the joy of a contradictory work of architecture the invitation into the creative process? If so, perhaps the building can never be finished except by the participation of its visitors.


Studio Blog Updated

14 April 2009

The AAP Forbidden City Studio is pleased to invite you to our ongoing blog.  This online narrative tracks our projects, activities, and research from Ithaca to Asia, with stops in Tokyo, Yokohama, Shanghai, and Beijing via the Great Wall of China. Through the compilation of our architectural investigations, travel accounts, and subsequent conversations, the website provides a means for discourse beyond our studio. Please, help us expand the discussion by adding your comments.

Please, visit our newly updated blog and comment on our current work.