Architectural models can be exercises in precision, triumphantly embellishing studio lobbies or displayed to win over skeptical clients. Earlier iterations of those glossy showpieces, however, retain a fingerprint of their designers’ first brush with the discipline’s universal medium: space.
German artist Thomas Demand also works with space. He’s known for his photographs of the often politically loaded models that he builds and then destroys. But the work on display in his new exhibit Model Studies—showing at the Graham Foundation in Chicago through June 1—is a departure from his usual work. During a residency at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, Demand discovered the archive of mid-century architect John Lautner. Fascinated by what he saw, he photographed someone else’s models for the first time.
Demand’s pictures of Lautner’s models zero in on the human character of the architect’s conceptions, visually obscuring any semblance of their structural form in order to catch a glimpse of the builder’s hand. Lautner lives in these photographs of tentative pencil marks, broken glass, notes written with graceful penmanship, and the glint of sunlight on white foam core bubbles.
The Getty found “these odd things,” as Demand called them, in the back of Lautner’s office after the architect’s death in 1994. Fascinated by “the idea of things you can’t throw away,” Demand was eventually allowed a limited amount of time to photograph 12 of the models, which were apparently never meant to see the light of day. As a result, most of the photos were taken with no tripod, using only natural light. “In some ways,” said Demand, “it’s the most photographic project I’ve ever done. Everything here is the opposite way I’m used to working. What you see is an abstracted piece of reality. But still it has a reality in front of the camera.”
Courtesy the Canadian Centre for Architecture
Lautner’s work was divisive, but the photographs in Model Studies do not cast a ballot either way. Demand described Lautner as “a guy with an ax in his hands rather than a pencil.” He trains his lens on details that say more about the architect’s private moments than his public intent. The artist’s statement begins by quoting a note Lautner wrote to his doctor: “Does this mean I’ll have to give up brie?”
The perspective of the photographs are enhanced by their size, which might breathe life into the architectural elements in the models if they focused on doorways, exteriors, or another more explicit reference to the viewer’s experience of Lautner’s built work. Instead, the viewer confronts cheap cardboard and aluminum scraps—byproducts of Lautner’s charisma, who was better known for uncompromising architectural gestures in concrete. His “cinematic” buildings appear here as anything but, at least in the heroic sense. But they do convey a sense of mystery, like peculiar details remembered from a dream.
Demand portrays fraying cardboard edges from so tight an angle that they almost lose all meaning. But in discarding the conceptual completeness that architectural models strive for, the photographs gain an intimacy that seems to reveal a sense of the model maker’s process on an emotional level.
By his own admission, Demand broke all of his own rules. Yet the work remains very much in line conceptually with his deliberately flawed “life-size environments.” Both confront living memories that elude viewers’ attempts to pin them down.
The show also features work by American photographer Francis Bruguière (1870–1945) and photos of work from the 1920s Russian constructivist VKhUTEMAS (Higher Artistic and Technical Workshop) school in Moscow. Demand commissioned German artist Thomas Scheibitz to design custom vitrines for the VKhUTEMAS pieces and copies of Yvan Goll’s 1920 screenplay Chapliniade containing illustrations by Fernand Léger.
In concert with Model Studies, the bodies of work from Bruguière, Scheibitz, and VKhUTEMAS explore the use of construction on narratives through formal abstraction. About VKhUTEMAS, Demand said, “You don’t have to react to it as an illustration of a thesis. It’s more of a train of thought.”
This show also presents six of the 23 impressions Léger sketched in the trenches of Verdun during World War I, the most ever collected in one place for public display.
Demand likened the exhibit favorably to a collection of distant or unexpected family members—a meeting of black sheep.