How To Spend It

Architecture

Models of perfection

Meticulously replicated buildings are proving popular commissions to commemorate special occasions or treasured memories. Clive Aslet talks to three master craftsmen about their very individual techniques

December 21 2012
Clive Aslet

There is no danger of getting two for Christmas,” jokes Ben Taggart. He is talking about the architectural models that he makes to a scale of 1:50 or 1:100, every piece of which is individually crafted. “One lady came to me saying that she had bought her husband a BMW last year and now couldn’t think what to get him.” Models – in this case of the architectural variety – “appeal particularly to men. They make very good presents for people who have everything in the world and are very difficult to buy for.” It reflects well on the taste, as well as the cheque book, of the giver. As Taggart observes: “It’s quite a rare breed of person who commissions me.” People with a love of architecture may want to have a copy of their country house to remind them of it when they’re in town. For a detailed structure of this kind with all the trimmings, the starting price would be around £10,000. Lilliputian Taggart’s buildings may be, but you get a lot of erudition and craftsmanship for the money.

The very largest models that Taggart makes – usually of townhouse façades that can be hung on a wall – are to a scale of 1:25, which means that a three-storey building comes out at between 60cm and 90cm tall. You would need a much larger stocking to contain one by husband-and-wife team Kevin Mulvany and Susie Rogers, who always use a scale of 1:12. “Our models are usually about the size of a small wardrobe,” declares Rogers. “We have to do the larger buildings in sections. Versailles would be the size of a tennis court.”

Mulvany and Rogers both studied history of art at Essex University, but it was their passion for architecture that led them to begin constructing miniatures nearly 30 years ago. They have undertaken commissions for people who have saved all their lives for a special object or for whom a set piece is a status symbol. An American client, who was returning home, asked for one to remember the house he was leaving. Others want something to remind them of a place they knew in their childhood or which may have been destroyed. One couple wanted a model of the house their children had grown up in – an heirloom to pass down through the family. Mulvany and Rogers replicate the rooms as well as the façades of the buildings they fabricate. Naturally, the labour involved in both the research and the making is reflected in the price, the entry level being £15,000 for a standard design, or £30,000 for bespoke.

Timothy Richards was also driven to make models by a passion for architecture. Having grown up in a village outside Bath, his eye for classical proportion and detail was formed at a young age. “A current project is to reconstruct a building that burnt down in 1895. The descendants of the family who lived there would like to show what it was like, but all we have are two oblique photographs,” he explains. “After another fire, an owner commissioned a model as a thank-you present to his neighbours, who had helped him through a harrowing period. Another individual wants one to preserve his memory of a loved Tudor building that he is leaving.”

Richards prides himself not only on the accuracy of his craftsmanship, but on the unique technique he uses, which is based on the work of two model-makers in late 18th- and early 19th-century Paris – Jean-Pierre Fouquet and his son François. Dissatisfied with the relatively crude cork and terracotta forms that were the norm at that time, they developed a method of casting exceptionally fine details in white plaster of Paris. Its purity chimed with the vogue for neoclassicism. Although a new construction by Richards will cost anything from £5,000 upwards, one of the benefits of this process is that further editions can be produced from the moulds from around £400.

David Linley’s approach to the architectural model is quite different. As a furniture-maker, he likes to evoke a house in what is also a practical piece of cabinetwork. The result is an “architectural box”, the function of which may well be that of a humidor. A design of this type was given to the Honourable Simon Howard by a friend some years ago to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Castle Howard. It is 1.2m long, largely made of burr oak, and incorporates five cedar-lined humidors. “When I delivered it on Christmas Day,” Linley remembers, “Simon described it as a perfect moment in Castle Howard’s history.” It is the ultimate boy’s toy, with secret drawers and other ingenious contrivances. Other versions serve as boxes for watches or jewellery, or as cases for special bottles of wine. One of his earliest commissions of this kind was for a piece to celebrate the birth of a child. On another occasion, an American client remarked that Linley had completed his model before he (the client) had finished building his house. The starting price is in the order of £25,000.

Each of these artisans uses a different process to create a beautiful object. Richards believes that nobody has made models in the manner of the Fouquets since they stopped production in the 1830s – and having visited his dust-covered studio in a converted Victorian schoolhouse in Bath, it is easy to believe him. It is a tortuously complicated process. First, a master has to be made using sheets of styrene – a kind of hard plastic – that are welded together. Details, fashioned from modelling putty, are added and the structure, identical to the finished piece, is divided into sections. Silicone moulds, similar to those used by children to make primitive ornaments – but of infinitely greater intricacy – are made from these individual parts and are then used to cast them in plaster. The advantage of the silicone moulds is that they can be used again and again – in the case of a portico of columns or the repeated elements of a cornice or architrave, for instance. Spindly forms, such as balusters, where plaster of Paris would snap, might be cast in lead.

The plaster itself is made from finely ground gypsum, deposits of which were laid down 250m years ago amid the limestone strata of the Midlands. Water is mixed with the powder, which is then poured into the mould. Entrapped air is released using a vacuum chamber. After 20 minutes or so, the plaster sets hard, although for it to be fully dry can take another week. Once fettled, the sections are assembled and the piece is complete. Examples are displayed on plinths in the foyer of Richards’s studio, looking rather like a cocktail party of classical monuments and including the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford, the Palais-Royal in Paris and Thomas Jefferson’s unsuccessful competition design for the presidential mansion in Washington, now the White House.

Not surprisingly, given the labour involved, Richards has to employ a team of eight people. The advantage of the Fouquet method, though, is that a plaster model is a seamless construct – there are no awkward joins or changes of material. A favourite trick is to encourage visitors to take a close-up photograph of one on their mobile phones and send it to friends, pretending they are in front of the actual building. Recipients rarely spot that it’s a hoax. “People understand models better than drawings,” Richards says. “Human life is about making millions of small spatial calculations.” The Dutch government recently commissioned a copy of a 35-storey tower being built in The Hague, so that civil servants could understand the character of their new offices. The Lord Mayor of London once ordered one of the Mansion House for a diplomatic gift, taking advantage of the plaster form’s capacity to be reproduced.

Ben Taggart’s creations begin with an in-depth survey. “A by-product of a commission is that the owner also gets an architectural drawing. Measuring, taking photographs and creating elevations and plans are vital parts of the process.” Having perfected ways of showing surface texture and weathering, he is usually asked to make models of listed and period buildings.

But that was not how he started his career. After a course in graphic design, his first employers were in film and television; he then found himself being asked to replicate structures for museums, including Auschwitz for the Imperial War Museum. “By some strange accident, which has been very happy for me, I came to specialise in that area. I have been fascinated by architecture all my life. Every commission is different, from quick-sketch models made out of card for property developers to high-end constructions with a lot of decoration for museums and owners of important buildings. They take a very long time indeed.”

Made of wood, with applied plastics, fibreglass resin and brass, the stupendous recreation of Henry VIII’s vanished Nonsuch Palace, unveiled last year, is over 2m long and represents six months of meticulous craftsmanship. The courtyards contain 700 panels depicting Roman emperors, gods and goddesses, and miniature paintings are attached to the walls.

“Materials are immaterial,” says Rogers. “We use whatever is necessary to do the job.” That might include any medium from gesso to modern glue, plaster to photo-etched parts. She joyfully likens the effect to “a yoghurt pot thrown on a fire, which shrinks in proportion to a miniature version of itself”. But the objective is not to pursue slavish accuracy in every particular, seen or unseen. The plan of the interiors can also be slightly simplified, eliminating ante-rooms, for example, to allow a greater focus on the main rooms.

Linley’s guiding principle is to make “miniature works of art”. He believes his “challenge, going forward, is to be more imaginative” and his next project is to create architectural boxes in the form of various London landmarks. He came up with the box concept 25 years ago, beginning with a number of love temples, and, in the future, aspires to create a series based on vehicles. “I would really like to do people’s cars,” he says, excitement ringing in his voice. “In this field, you are constrained only by the size of your imagination.”

Father Christmas had better think big.

See also

Models, Gifts