Matters of the art

Architects’ models are increasingly finding a market among private collectors keen to acquire their very own piece of Zaha Hadid, Amanda Levete or Will Alsop. Fiona Sibley browses the market

For architects, models are part of everyday practice, used to communicate the size, shape and vision of a building before it becomes a part of fabricated reality.

On the one hand, they can be iterative tools, used alongside sketches to develop a design. On the other, they can be exquisitely hand-crafted objects with an intrinsic value in their own right. It is this aspect that has caught the eye of collectors, keen to own part of an architect’s oeuvre without actually disturbing a patch of earth.

‘In ten years every gallery will have a few designers or architects in their stable,’ believes Kenny Schachter of Rove Gallery, who has already sold some of Zaha Hadid’s models.

‘It’s an extraordinary new market – I think its time has come,’ says Schachter. ‘No one has ever commissioned a model for a collector before, so this is a very nascent stage. There is such overlap between art, design and architecture models.’

The trend for galleries to sell models is attached to the auction-room phenomenon of ‘Design Art’, whereby architects such as Hadid and Amanda Levete of Future Systems have been commissioned to produce limited edition pieces of furniture for art collectors, which have attracted huge price tags. Now architecture is getting a look-in.

Rather than sell Hadid’s original models, Schachter commissions specific new versions for sale, ‘with a view towards manipulating the scale, the finishes and the materials, so this is a hybrid article that never existed before’, he explains.

The sale of models is not entirely unprecedented. In the past, it has mainly been the likes of experimental architectural design group Archigram – whose designs often remained on paper rather than getting built – whose objects have found their way into collectors’ hands.

Contemporary models can be pored over at the Royal Academy’s annual Summer Exhibition, which hosts a room dedicated to architecture models and drawings. Some are for sale, some not; some projects are built, some not. Last year’s exhibition included a model of Coral Island by Chris Wilkinson, priced £5000; a model of Gateshead Quays by Piers Gough, for £5000; and Brisac Gonzales Architects’ acrylic model of a sports centre in Paris, with a price tag of £15 000.

‘It’s interesting to see how architects express their ideas through models – it’s an area between architecture and sculpture,’ says Kate Goodwin, curator of the Royal Academy’s architecture programme. ‘As to whether they sell, if someone like Zaha Hadid was to do a model, would it sell for more than someone only associated with architecture?’

Architect CJ Lim, a ‘paper architect’ who has sold models to various collections, believes that, ‘Generally, it’s the more creative, artistically inclined architects which have a market. When people buy [the model] they’re interested in the creative output of the model. If the building has been built, the model is less interesting.’

Lim’s output includes models of buildings designed by his practice, Studio 8, as well as artistic works for exhibitions, including a major project for the British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2004. He concedes, ‘Our practice is more experimental, and we don’t build a lot. We spend a lot of time on the final models because they are the final outcome. They’re more polished.’

A 1:4000 laser-cut and hand-finished paper and wire model of Lim’s urban design concept for Guangming Smart City is currently on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s China Design Now exhibition. His other models are intricate paper-cut structures, in the style of exploded drawings held in three dimensions, like a pop-up book, which can be seen as works of art.

‘We do make machine-cut models,’ says Lim, ‘but the discrepancy of cutting by hand adds value to the final result. In a time when everything is computerised, it becomes much more interesting when things come from the hand.’ ‹

Lin prefers selling work to museum collections, such as the V&A and France’s Regional Contemporary Art Collection (see below) than individuals, because ‘our concern is that people buy models as single pieces, not to buy projects as a whole set of models and drawings. It’s a shame if a project is split up – like losing a piece of a jigsaw.’

However, the sale of models remains far from widespread among British architects. Foster & Partners retains all its models in its archive, and Thomas Heatherwick Studio – despite being a hot ticket – has never sold a model.

It may just be a matter of time. ‘Original sketches by architects have begun to increase in value, so I wonder if models will follow suit,’ says Jonathan Stock, joint managing director of architectural model-making consultancy Pipers. ‘An original model of a building that becomes iconic, like the Swiss Re tower, could become valuable on the resale market.’ After all if you can’t afford the building, having one on your coffee table could be the next best thing.


Victoria & Albert Muesum

The current blockbuster show, China Design Now, hosts a whole room of models by ‘starchitects’ including Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas, alongside buildings by Chinese practices

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

London’s best annual showcase for architecture models – 2008’s architecture room will be curated by Gordon Benson

RIBA Gallery

A changing exhibition programme at the Portland Place building in London hosts models from international practices


The website of France’s Regional Contemporary Art Collection ( shows images of its unrivalled collection of contemporary architecture models

Phillips de Pury

The auction house that coined the term ‘Design Art’ sold Shigeru Ban’s Paper Tea House project, an indoor structure built using paper tubes, on 2 April. The guide price was £20 000-£30 000


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