For centuries, model-making has been an essential part of the architectural design process. With recent advances in computer technology, today's architects are placing more emphasis than ever on developing video walk-throughs of "virtual" spaces they're designing rather than building three-dimensional study models for clients to consider. And many new buildings look as if they were spit out of a computer.
But long before the advent of computer-aided design and drafting, model-making was the best way to show what was on the drawing boards. The process may have reached its zenith in the Italian Renaissance, when scale models weren't simply a way to create buildings that are works of art. They were works of art in themselves.
Through March 19, the National Gallery of Art in Washington provides a fascinating glimpse into that era with an exhibit of 14 of the most important wooden architectural models to survive from the 15th and 16th centuries.
"Italian Renaissance Architecture: Brunelleschi, Sangallo, Michelangelo -- The Cathedrals of Florence and Pavia, and St. Peter's, Rome" is the title of an exhibit that illuminates the design process behind three of the most significant buildings in the history of Western architecture.
Though supplemented with more than 70 paintings, drawings, prints and medals, the exhibit makes clear the key role that models played in determining the final design of these Old World masterpieces.
The architects who created the churches of Renaissance Italy relied on detailed scale models to access and improve their designs; to perfect details; to guide workers during construction; to estimate how much building material would be required; and to demonstrate for their patrons and clients the appearance of the finished work.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is a large, recently restored model of St. Peter's in Rome. It was built over seven years, from 1539 to 1546, to the specifications of the architect Antonio da Sangallo. The largest model still in existence from the Renaissance, it measures nearly 15 feet high and 24 feet long and weighs more than six tons.
Also on view are two models for St. Peter's that are based on designs by Michelangelo. One shows the dome and supporting drum, and one shows the vault of the south apse. They are accompanied by the second largest wooden model still existing from the Renaissance, a design for the Cathedral of Pavia, and 10 models representing the Duomo in Florence.
What makes this exhibit so awesome and awe-inspiring is the level of detail and craftsmanship that went into these elaborate creations. In the large model of St. Peter's, for example, more than 1,000 pieces of fir, elm, lime and apricot wood were used, and it was painted inside and out to simulate travertine and stone.
Also remarkable was the amount of time invested in these works of art. During the Renaissance, many architects never lived to see their buildings completed. Sangello, for one, died before his model was completed. And yet, because of the work he left behind, the commission could be carried on by Michelangelo and others.
The National Gallery exhibit is a modified version of one first presented last year at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice. From Washington, it will travel to Paris in the summer of 1995, Berlin in the fall of 1995, and London in the winter of 1996.
Viewers are likely to leave the exhibit wondering how much of a correlation there is between;the architect's reliance on model-making during the Renaissance and the reliance on computer-aided design today: Does one process consistently lead to better design? That's a matter of debate, of course. But despite their current preoccupation with computers, architects will probably always use models to some extent. This magnificent exhibit shows why.
What: "Italian Renaissance Architecture"
Where: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street at Constitution Avenue Northwest, Washington
When: Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; through March 19
Tickets: Free admission
Call: (202) 842-6188