Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 28, 2017
Joanne Pillsbury, Patricia Joan Sarro, James Doyle, and Juliet Wiersema Design for Eternity: Architectural Models from the Ancient Americas Exh. cat. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2015. 100 pp.; 87 color ills. Paper $25.00 (9781588395764)
Exhibition schedule: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, October 26, 2015–September 18, 2016
Installation view, Design for Eternity: Architectural Models from the Ancient Americas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, October 26, 2015–September 18, 2016 (photograph © 2015; provided by the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Because of its large size relative to a human body, a building can only be known from partial encounters: the view of a particular facade, the transition from exterior to interior when crossing the threshold, the sensation of being inside one of many rooms. The mind must assemble these fragments into a multidimensional panorama to understand the structure as a whole. Even so, aspects remain unknown: the appearance of the roof from above, the thickness of a wall, the view from a clerestory window.

An architectural model represents a building at a reduced scale. Because of the new dimensional relationship it forms with the body, it allows a viewer to more comprehensively understand the structure it emulates. The way the roof is engaged by the walls can be examined directly. The composition of a facade can be evaluated against the one opposite it. The proportions of a wall can be considered without the damaging effect of foreshortening. At the same time, there are many fine-grained aspects of a building that a model is not expected to relate: the texture of a brick, the detail of molding, or the finish on a door handle. An architectural model is a small object that provides a big picture.

At only one hundred pages, the exhibition catalogue Design for Eternity: Architectural Models from the Ancient Americas shares the objective of many of its subjects. The small volume aims to give shape to a topic that is by any measure sprawling: the creation and use of reduced-scale representations of architecture in Mesoamerica and the Andes. While its length understandably limits the detail it can present, it excels at surveying the topic’s breadth. This work will undoubtedly encourage future scholars to examine these objects in greater depth, and they will be duly apprised of their broader context for having read it.

While the publication was occasioned by a temporary exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the collection of three essays is more coordinated and on point than many exhibition catalogues. Curator Joanne Pillsbury first situates the making of architectural models both theoretically and from a global perspective (especially as conjured by the museum’s collections) before sketching an overview of the study (3–29). Then, Patricia Joan Sarro and assistant curator James Doyle explore the topic in Mesoamerica (31–53), followed by Juliet Wiersema’s treatment of the Andes (55–79). The result is cohesive, coherent, and successful. One particular way that the volume’s analysis moves beyond the exhibition is through the inclusion of photographs of many of the models’ referents, which greatly contextualize the subject.

What further sets the work apart from some recent exhibitions-turned-publications is that this is Pillsbury’s subject. Shows on the ancient Americas often isolate a particular civilization, seeking to comprehensively define its arts. But, in trying to impart order and identity upon the messiness of culture, such shows can seem to essentialize societies rather than raise new questions. What is catalyzing about this volume is that it juxtaposes disparate objects from an array of civilizations around a theme of its own formulation. Would the Chimú makers of a maquette actually recognize their project as overlapping or contiguous to that of the Nayarit creators of a ceramic house model? Perhaps not. And this is precisely how the volume is revelatory: it actively draws connections between distinct cultural practices and evidences how the end results are similar. In so doing, it models a vision of the whole that might not be self-evident from the parts.

The thought-provoking heterogeneity of these objects is captured by the many ways the authors describe them, including models, effigies, votive offerings, and maquettes. While these terms may impart shades of meaning or may simply arise from scholarly conventions, Pillsbury addresses the greater terminological and ontological difference among the objects in the section “Model as Vessel” (23–26). Many of the objects—especially those from the Andes, as also evidenced by Wiersema’s recent book Architectural Vessels of the Moche: Ceramic Diagrams of Sacred Space in Ancient Peru (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015) (click here for review)—perch atop or form the body of ceramic vessels. This may indicate the objects were used to enact ritual libations and makes them somewhat different from objects created purely as embodiments of architecture. Those familiar with ancient Andean ceramics know that they take a vast array of shapes including fauna, flora, landscapes, human beings, deities—the list goes on—and, of course, architecture. This volume opens a rich space for considering why societies like the Moches might have made both architectural models such as those excavated at San Jose de Moro and vessels featuring architectural models. How might these objects have been ritually and conceptually different in spite of their formal similarities to modern viewers? Even more broadly, the volume might urge a reconsideration of the nature of “vessels” in the Andes. Given how difficult they generally are to fill and pour from, as Pillsbury acknowledges, might many elite ancient Andean ceramics be better described, to turn Pillsbury’s phrase around, as “Vessels as Models”?

While Design for Eternity discusses both architectural models and vessels that model architecture, it also addresses a group of Andean objects referred to as yupanas. They were once thought to have been created by the Incas during the 1400s and early 1500s, but research by George Lau has revealed they were made by Recuay peoples from the years 200 to 600 and are now most often guessed to be some kind of game board. Nonetheless, before this new research came to light, yupanas were often touted as architectural models. In her discussion of them, Wiersema seems hesitant to agree (77–79). The objects have no architectural features—doorways, windows, roofs—and only present geometrically partitioned space. Even more critically, their overall form does not resemble any known kind of Andean building. Quite simply, there is no real evidence that they bore any relationship to architecture. While their inclusion in the volume might seem unusual, it is a welcomed reminder that modern viewers necessarily project perceptions onto artifacts from the distant past, and can inevitably misconstrue them. As such, the discussion of yupanas, placed at the very end of the volume, demarcates a sort of limit to which diverse objects from the ancient Americas can be considered architectural models.

The three essays work well together to provide a generous overview, but they nonetheless incorporate many insightful details that will ignite new lines of research. For example, Sarro and Doyle note that several Mezcala temple models were carved from pieces of green stone similar in size and shape to celts, or stone hand adzes (48). They suggest that the convergence of forms was either deliberate or that the temple models themselves were recarved from celts. This observation strikes at the heart of the topic because it potentially explains the size of these reduced-scale objects. While their scales as models forge a relationship with temples, their sizes determined the ways they could interact with or be engaged by human bodies.

Finally, the photographs in the volume—many by senior photographer Paul Lauchenauer—are the epitome of art-historical images for which catalogues by the Metropolitan Museum of Art are revered. Reduced-scale objects can be challenging to photograph. The lighting and angle must be just right so that the object is legible to a viewer. These images capture the most minute details. For example, the photograph of an Olmec ceramic house model from between 1200 and 800 BCE (fig. 33) allows a viewer to determine the exact direction and sequence in which the maker incised lines into the wet clay. A photograph of a Nayarit house model (fig. 27) suggests the head of a figure once broke off, likely along the join between the pieces of clay, and has been repaired. Photographs of a Recuay architectural vessel (figs. 74 and 75) indicate that the maker painted the red slip first and then the black over it, evidenced by overlaps between the colors. This corpus of photographs deftly illustrates the forms, constructions, textures, and colors of these fascinating objects.

While the photographs capture many intrinsic details of the objects, what they do not fully convey is the subject of the volume: their scale. Scale is external to an object and only exists relationally. The volume’s photographs conform to the broader convention for art-historical images in which the object is situated in a gray infinity cove without a scale marker. This deprives the viewer of visual references for how big the objects actually are. While the maximum height of the objects is listed in the image captions, the layout of the book and the dimensions at which the photographs are printed at times visually contradict this information. For example, figures 54 and 55 represent Mezcala temple models. In the adjacent photographs, the objects appear to be the same size—however one is 5.7 cm tall and the other is twice its size at 11.4 cm. This makes it challenging for the reader to understand the range of sizes in which Mezcala house models were actually produced, essential knowledge for grasping Sarro and Doyle’s insight into how their size may have derived from recarved celts. In some cases, the scale-less photographs work against the textual discussion, such as in figures 29, 30, and 31, which depict a Maya limestone urn in the shape of a house and the greenstone figurine found inside it. While the urn is 28.5 cm tall and the figure is 8.1 cm tall, the photographs make them appear to be the same size. Looking at the images, it is thus not clear how the reduced-scale figure could fit inside the urn. Nonetheless, these issues evidence the pioneering nature of this work’s topic: the questions it asks exceed the conventions for how objects are presently imaged within the discipline. They also reveal that most art-historical publications chronically distort the scale of art, hindering attempts to address scale theoretically. Design for Eternity, therefore, presents an important opportunity to consider how scholarship can better visually evidence scale.

Design for Eternity: Architectural Models from the Ancient Americas should not be underestimated because of its small size. It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking work that unites, connects, and presents diverse artistic practices that were widespread in ancient Mesoamerica and the Andes. In so doing, it provides a broad foundation for future in-depth studies while raising fundamental questions about art-historical scholarship relevant to the discipline as a whole.

Andrew James Hamilton
Lecturer, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University