WASHINGTON, DC — Architect David Kemnitzer spent decades collecting paper models of castles, nuclear power plants, modernist houses, farms, and skyscrapers, starting from his childhood in the 1940s. But he never assembled the 4,500 pieces he donated to the National Building Museum between 2013 and 2016. So before a display of the miniature architecture could be installed, museum staff, architecture students, and volunteers all pitched in to carefully construct color copies of selected models, with the more elaborate examples taking weeks to erect with scissors, glue, and razor blades.
As curator Sarah Leavitt, who organized Around the World in 80 Paper Models, explained to Hyperallergic, the time making the models “does give you this connection to the structure you’re building.” And for some of them, like a paper power plant produced in Scotland, encouraging a familiarity with a new building was the goal of the model. Others celebrate local or distant marvels, as souvenirs or educational toys, or recall a lost past. Leavitt’s favorite is a black-and-white “Paper Shtetl” advertised as: “A complete model of an East European Jewish town.” It features two-dimensional villagers, trees, chickens, and cows to position among thatched-roof homes. A 1984 article in the New York Times described its design by publisher Schocken:
One may not find everything here. For instance, the mikveh, the communal bath, has not been included nor is the little inn that usually purveyed drinks in the shtetl. But, everything in its time and Schocken is free to do urban redevelopment perhaps in future editions. Meantime, as the creators say, it is more than Jewish origami, it is a chance to forge a table-top past.
Each of the buildings in Around the World in 80 Paper Models, which is part of the museum’s ongoing collection-focused Cool & Collected series, offers a personal connection to a place. There are fantasies, including a 1950s “Spaceport U.S.A.” model that evokes space age ambitions with a punch-out flying saucer for voyaging to “Planet X”; while others bring the wonders of the world down to a Lilliputian scale, like a detailed 1980s model of Sacré-Cœur and its surrounding Montmartre neighborhood in Paris. Leavitt looked at all 4,500 models in the Kemnitzer Collection in order to curate 80 for the exhibition.
“I started thinking about what it is that the paper models are saying — and once you’re spending weeks in the collection they do start speaking to you— and one of the things is about pride in architecture and how architecture can represent a place,” she said. She found that representation varied based on who was designing the models, with some from the 1950s visualizing stereotypes of life in other countries. The time and location in which they were made, with printing techniques improving and becoming cheaper throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, also left its mark on the models. And sometimes, such as a small folded fountain from Barcelona, the models might highlight an overlooked aspect of a city. “I like that idea that the tiny little parts of our built environment and not just the huge iconic buildings can be commemorated,” Leavitt said.
On the exhibition page for Around the World in 80 Paper Models, visitors can download printable models for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a suspension bridge, and the National Building Museum. After appreciating the models housed in the museum, you can recreate the institution’s brick façade in miniature, maybe getting a deeper appreciation with the bending and cutting of paper for its own architectural form.