When is a Model a Method? Architectural Expertise in Eero Saarinen & Associates, 1948-1961

Jia Yi Gu, PhD candidate 
Department of Architecture & Urban Design
University of California, Los Angeles

The dissertation, entitled When is a Model a Method? Architectural Expertise in Eero Saarinen & Associates, 1948-1961, investigates the instrumentality of models in the postwar architecture office as a site of demonstration for architectural expertise. Historically, models have been understood to be recordings or representations of buildings, and thus stand in as documentary or factual objects. My scholarly work pushes against the tendency to read models as objects containing inherent meaning, but is instead interested in how perceptions of the model’s facticity came to be. The dissertation examines how and why physical models became a pivotal instrument for Detroit-region architects in the postwar period, centering on Eero Saarinen’s office practice and the migration of modeling techniques from ES&A to adjacent practices such as Gunnar Birkerts and Associates, Roche Dinkeloo Architects, and Pelli Clark Pelli Architects.

In the postwar period, American architects were under increasing pressure to redefine professional practice within a new social and political economy. New industries and professional sectors such as engineering, industrial design, sociology, urban planning, and business management challenged architectural claims of expertise in design, planning and organization. Aspiring to situate architecture as a “hard science” rather than a “soft art,” professional architects incorporated new methods of design into their business to demonstrate that architecture was a node of expertise within a constellation of other sciences. Physical artifacts such as models occupied a central role in the presentation of a scientific “method” in architectural practice, demonstrating that architecture could produce knowledge that was objective, applicable, and verifiable. Important architecture offices such as Eero Saarinen & Associates, Gunnar Birkerts and Associates, Minoru Yamasaki Associates, and Skidmore Owings & Merill began to incorporate large-scale physical models in their design process as a way to represent and solve problems.

Drawing together regional techniques in industrial crafts, automotive design, material science, and military presentation techniques, the architects in ES&A produced hundreds of physical artifacts in the form of plasticine studies, fiberglass molds, wire-frame structures, material and assembly prototypes and imagistic presentation devices. The dissertation focuses on three distinct modeling techniques deployed by ES&A’s office and later taken up by architects in his office, including Gunnar Birkerts, Kevin Roche, and Cesar Pelli: the construction of physical models for formal study; the testing of material and structural mockups; and the imaging of highly realistic models used to simulate architectural experience. Each of the three examples of modeling represent a distinct form of expertise claimed by architects in the working profession: mastery of form, material, and spatial experience.

This research asks how physical models in architecture shifted from a craft-based activity premised on final representation to a solutions-oriented enterprise subject to structural calculation, operational analysis, and experiential simulation. The work analyzes how architects’ and technical experts’ ideologies of extreme instrumentality led to the mobilization of the physical model as a factual object to be studied and used to inform decision-making in a wide set of fields including operational analysis, environmental studies, and the engineering of industrial process plants. By studying the modeling activities of a constellation of practitioners, we can see that modeling is not a singular method of design, but encompasses many forms of knowledge production and generates many directions of reading. In this way, we can also understand how the model came to serve as a test site for architectural practice, absorbing and defining the many dimensions of architectural expertise. This interdisciplinary research draws on media studies, the history of science and technology, and material cultures to investigate how practices of constructing, testing, and imaging physical models became a primary mode by which architects practiced.

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