The first recorded use of architectural models dates back to the fifth century BC, when Herodotus, in Book V, Terpsichore, makes reference to a model of a temple. Whilst it may be inspiring to believe that scale models were used in the design of buildings from ancient civilizations, this appears highly unlikely. This is because the inaccuracies in translating scales at this time would have resulted in significant errors, but also because designs in antiquity were in fact developed with respect to cosmic measurements and proportions. Despite this, however, the production of repetitive architectural elements in large quantities was common, and the use of a full-size physical prototype as a three-dimensional template for the accurate replication of components such as column capitals was typical.

Architectural design continued in a similar manner through to the Middle Ages. Medieval architects travelled frequently to study and record vital proportions of Classical examples that would then be adapted in relation to a client’s desires. Although models were not prevalent at this time, they would occasionally be constructed to scale from wood in order to enable detailed description to the client as well as to estimate materials and the cost of construction. This was largely because two-dimensional techniques of representation were comparatively under-developed. Therefore, despite the very early recording of an architectural model, there is no substantial evidence to suggest that such models were used again until this point: ‘only since the fourteenth century has this form of representation become relevant to the practice of building; we know that a model of the Cathedral of Florence was made towards the end of the fourteenth century.’There appears to be an explanation for this emergence of the scale model as a method of design and communication. Unlike his predecessor and Gothic counterparts, the Renaissance
architect had no equivalent frame of reference as he derived his style from fragments of Graeco-Roman architecture. The only method of checking the feasibility of these new architectural concepts was to build exploratory models. These models were even, when necessary, made using the actual materials proposed for the building itself.Therefore, from the early Renaissance on, an increasing number of architectural scale models exist, illustrating not only buildings but also urban districts and fortifications. Well-documented architectural models included those of the church of St Maclou in Rouen from the fifteenth century, the church of ‘Schöne Maria’ in Regensburg of 1520 and the pilgrimage church of Vierzehnheiligen by Balthasar Neumann, circa 1744. Such scale models were large prefabrications constructed in wood, plaster and clay. In contrast to the primitive structural models of the Middle Ages, these new models were expensive and extravagant – frequently including pull-away sections and
detachable roofs and floors, both to allow internal viewing and to aid the development of the design.