Rory MacLean meets Axel Monath
‘For me the greatest excitement, and challenge, is understanding the idea of a building,’ he told me when we met in his Kreuzberg office. ‘One studies the plans, of course, but in the end one needs to feel the architecture. That process brings me joy.’
Axel Monath is considered to be Berlin’s finest architectural model maker. At the age of eight he helped his parents to build their new home in Hermsdorf, cutting the skirting boards, fastening electric switch boxes, developing a feeling for both his hands and tools. His grandfather Friedrich Wendland, a sculptor who had himself been an architectural model-maker, set up a workshop in the cellar. In it Monath saw him shape, chisel and carve wooden models.
‘But in truth I fell into architecture because of a friend,’ he said, recalling his training at Berlin’s Technical University. ‘I tutored the Industrial Design course, helping students to operate the thermo-plastic mold press.’
At the TU he - along with his brother Gert Monath and fellow student Klaus Menzel - made a 1:18 model of Bauhaus architect Bruno Taut’s famous Hufeisensiedlung ‘horseshoe’ housing estate, and then a 1:50 scale model of the iconic Karstadt Hermannplatz department store, which had been destroyed during the Second World War.
‘The Karstadt model took us almost a year to build,’ recalled Monath with a shake of his head. ‘We worked from the original plans, made over 22,000 plaster panels and fixed them to the brass framework. It was a real labour of love. Sadly my grandfather didn’t see that, or any other of my models. He died in my graduation year.’
The three-metre long Karstadt model – which was central to an exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau to mark Berlin’s 750th anniversary - secured his reputation, leading to the establishment of Monath + Menzel. Over the next 25 years the partners produced models of dozens of new and historical buildings in resurgent Berlin and around the world. As well as the Jewish Museum and the JSK/gmp entry for the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport, Monath + Menzel build models of Moscow’s Hotel Rossiya for Foster and Partners, a prototype for the new Real Madrid Football Stadium, plus the competition entries of six different architects for the Humboldtforum - Berlinerschloss site - competition.
‘I like making different models for a single competition. When one works on a single model alone, one comes to think it’s the only solution to an architectural problem. But with competing entries one soon realises that there are many different ways to look at any project.’
In his light and open workshop, beyond the digital CNC milling machines, craftsmen and women – carpenters, cabinetmakers, specialists with plaster – bring architect’s plans into three dimensions, and to life. ‘Only with long experience can one learn how to smooth a plaster surface or hear the sound of a clean-cut with a circular saw.’ To Monath, a knowledge of traditional skills are vital, as is a sensitive human touch. ‘No model leaves the workshop until it is finished by hand,’ he added. In a storeroom adjoining the busy studio he keeps his grandfather’s old tools.
Recently Monath has been involved in the restoration of the Humboldt’s Old Anatomical Theatre, built by Carl Gotthard Langhans who also designed the Brandenburg Gate. Using the original 19th century plans Monath recreated in oak and steel (treated to resemble cast iron) the self-elevating mechanical operating table which once lifted animal carcasses from the cellar to the theatre for dissection. ‘Berliners – with their fondness for wordplay - called the mechanical table Tischlein deck dich, or the Table that Lays Itself, after the Grimm fairytale,’ he said with a laugh. ‘Recreating the table and its mechanism – with chains and counterweights – has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’
‘You know, I don’t miss being an architect,’ he said. ‘In fact I believe that, as a model maker, I am much more involved with high-class architecture. I have the opportunity to work with many of the world’s greatest architects. I learn from them, and I see how they imagine. Sometimes I become so intensely involved in realising their design that I feel as if I am part of the creative process.’ He went on, ‘Model making isn’t simply about creating a miniature version of a building, rather it means making an idea work, on a smaller scale.’