30 May 2018


Märklin Modernism

Text: Jörg Stürzebecher

Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Frankfurt/Main

– 9 September 2018



„Märklin Modernism. From Architecture to Assembly Kit and Back Again” Imagine suburban settlements with detached, fenced houses with basements where cable connectors, soldering irons, and tweezers await deployment; a stupefying whiff of chemicals just used, infinitely adjustable low-voltage appliances, all controlled by age-indifferent, stocky men with scanty hair, wearing synthetic jerseys with the patterns you see on public-transport upholstery, designed to hide stains.


It looks like one of those scenes where residents engage in the most unerotic of leisure activities (only topped by stamp collecting): tinkering and playing with their model railways. Here, it is the transformer that decides who goes how far, and where there is no escape from the circular track, except perhaps in the depths of dark, shaded stations. This is where models are “supered”, refined in such detail, as if in emulation of the second skin from “The Silence of the Lambs”. Attempts to perfect the proportions are made, but it’s impossible to get them right, it is an unachievable goal, but you keep working on them, a bit like a serial offender always looking for new kicks. And to make sure no one really does commit a crime, you have safety valves – like the one in the most famous, large-scale installation in Germany, the Miniatur Wunderland [miniature wonderland] in Hamburg, where you can see couples copulating at the push of a button; or the Faller artist’s studio in a homely basement, replete with the nude model kit and the painter whose abode is probably like every other model maker’s.


And so we come to the topic of this article, the small and interesting exhibition “Märklin Modernism” in the German Museum of Architecture (DAM), that is well worth a visit. It tells the story of how the Old Catholic Faller brothers’ criticism of Catholicism, conveyed by Modernism-Church-Models and of how East German prefabricated slabs mutated into multimodal scaled blocks, which didn’t exist anywhere, but made it possible to mimic cities in any place, from Rostock to Chemnitz, and perhaps even from Wittenberge to Vladivostok. Here, railway and postal architects can be brought back from oblivion and their buildings in original and model copy form offered up for comparison. There’s even that Villa in Ticino, which pleased the Faller brothers so much that a modified model not only became one of their classic products, but was recreated for real. Add to that Gerald Fuchs’ crazy big-city ideas, presented here for the first time in a bigger context along with press moulds for components that can be made at home. There is even a play area complete with mountain chapel, city station with flying roof, and, of course, the definitive “Villa in Ticino”. The somewhat unimaginative catalogue includes clever details about the eternal problem of scale but unfortunately not much else about the actual subject of the exhibition. The exhibition claims that modernism was present in the model railway as an optimistic promise of the future, especially in the decades following the Second World War: this begs some commentary. As early as the 1960s, model trains and their environments were considered a little weird by many. You only have to compare the teen mags Rasselbande and Bravo. The first was all about stamp collecting (as a way of getting to know the world), glider models (in preparation for future student club membership), swing (with Louis Armstrong as alibi and star musician alike), and model trains (for future engineers). The other focused on rock and roll and beat music, problems of the heart, and wet dreams. Neither of them could be said to be modern in the sense of such as the HfG Ulm, but there are no doubts about where the lonely readers were spending their time. Even the term “moderate modernity,” used by Daniel Bartetzko, one of the curators of the show alongside Karin Berkemann and Oliver Elser, is of limited use when it comes to model railways. Catalogues and contemporary photographs of installations from the 1950s and 1960s also give a different picture. Perhaps the Villa in Ticino really was a hit, and about small-scale wish fulfillment – not unlike that experienced by allotment gardeners. Yet the model houses that commonly adorned the just two square-metre areas of model railways, were the so-called Siedlerhaus, especially constructed in rural areas (even in the 1950s). It was the actual leitmotif of post-war reconstruction in the new homeland – a cottage in the countryside. Also, the grid-like facades of urban development have more to do with post-1933 serial architectural constructions than the curators care to admit, and the architecture of the Villa in Ticino, with its feminine and cinematic pretensions, is more modernist than modern. Perhaps the building that captures the zeitgeist best is the one that parents hated, and children with their love of kitsch loved: the kiosk pretending to be a toadstool.

But such criticism is of little consequence for an exhibition that is quite incomparable and which has limited itself to the German-speaking world and the scale of 1:87. In some respects modernity looked a bit different on the scale of track N 1: 160, especially since the smaller track appeared later than H0. What were the houses like in France, Great Britain, Italy, the US, and Japan – the other countries big on model railways? What is more, the relationship between fictional model-making for the home and model-making for real buildings is also worth exploring, especially in a time where 3D can be seen as competition for Preiser figurines. Just think of the Highrise Award 2012/2013 given to Christoph Ingenhoven’s model of a skyscraper, which included, among other things, model figures of the architects and employees. “Märklin Moderne”, then, is a start and let us hope that DAM won’t tick off the topic as done, but explore it further, and that visitors will thank them for it.

A bilingual catalogue of the exhibition is available for 28 euros. Particularly recommend is the excursion to the Villa in Ticino in Gütenbach (Black Forest) on 7 September 2018, advance booking is possible until 10 August.


Nº 281
Design and Archives

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