Book Review: Design for Eternity

Art historian student, Matthew Page reviews the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition catalogue, Design for Eternity: Architectural Models from the Ancient Americas and finds it an intriguing read, but is left wanting to know more.

Design for Eternity

When we think of architectural models today we consider them as prototypes for buildings and as part of the architectural design process. Architects use small-scale versions of buildings as projections for future structures and these are integral in their dialogue with patrons. However, the function of architectural models was different in ancient American civilisations. In these societiesmodels rarely operated as prototypes for real buildings, instead they played roles in burial and ritualistic practices. Design for Eternity is the first English language survey of architectural models from the ancient Americas, and accompanies the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2015 exhibition. Using examples from the Met. Museum’s extensive collection of models, which ranges from complex figural scenes to stylised and abstracted carved stones, the book looks at how we can use architectural models to understand cultural practices which have been otherwise largely unrecorded.

Design for Eternity

Excavations in Mexico and the Andean region of South America — which have occurred since the nineteenth century — have garnered a large and diverse number of architectural models. Dating from the first millennium BCE to after the arrival of Europeans in the early sixteenth century, the models depict a wide variety of building types, and range from representations of modest domestic structures to elaborate palaces. While studies of the models have historically sought to interpret them as precursors to buildings — i.e. as aids for the design process — and have attempted to find a correlation between them and extant ancient American architecture, Design for Eternity discusses current scholarship’s contrary interpretation of how the models were used. In three essays curators and art historians discuss what we can learn from these objects, by looking at what they depict, and how they were used. The essays distance themselves from attempting to use the models to advance understanding of full-scale architecture, and instead argue that although general architectural details present in the models are similar to existing buildings, there is a weak correlation between the models and buildings.

Design for Eternity

In the first of the three short essays, Joanne Pillsbury — the curator of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, at the Met. Museum — discusses the relationship between architectural models and ancient American conceptions of the afterlife, and explains that the association between architectural effigies and divinity is known from nearly every region of the Precolumbian Americas. Her essay details how models operated as effigies and how their discovery at burial sites suggest that they represent symbolically important buildings/ritual architecture which ensured favourable conditions in the afterlife. Later in her essay, Pillsbury investigates the duality of many architectural models. In addition to functioning as effigies and symbolic representations of buildings, some models have less obvious functions. Some, for example, could be used as musical instruments, whereas others could act as vessels for liquids — Pillsbury suggests that this as a play on the idea of a building as a “container”.

One of the most interesting points broached by Design for Eternity, which is touched upon in the first two essays, is how we can use artefacts such as architectural models to further understand not only the architecture, but also the cultural practices of ancient American civilisations. Beyond their ritualistic function for the communities that made them, they provide modern viewers with a source of information about ancient architectures, the physical remains of which have been lost. According to Patricia Joan Sarro and James Doyle, models are valuable documents of the residential or ritual mechanics of life sustaining activities, and the effigies show the ways in which artists interpreted these activities; one model, for example, contains a fiery incense to evoke the hearth of a house. Sarro and Doyle cite Naryarit models which depict complex communal events — i.e. feasting and convivial events. These objects contain narratives which have not been recorded widely in texts, and their existence — in remarkably well preserved conditions — helps to elucidate the function of archaeological discoveries.

Design for Eternity is a concise book, almost disappointingly so, and although it is abundantly illustrated with photographs of models, the essays feel repetitive and somewhat limited. They are effective at closely analysing objects and the authors’ observations are accompanied with vibrant illustrations, yet their discussions occasionally feel like they are covering the same ground — perhaps this is due to a lack of archaeological evidence. Despite this, the central purpose of the book — an antidote to previous interpretations of models — is an intriguing premise. It is interesting to see how the projection of European ideas about architecture does not correlate with the uses of objects in non-European contexts, and demonstrates a methodology which we should always consider when studying cultures temporally and geographically different from our own.