Talking to a cross section of architectural model-makers gives a slightly gloomy impression of their profession. Some treat it as a stop-gap on the way to a preferred career, while others feel underpaid and undervalued. But talking to Richard Armiger paints a different picture. For him, model-making is ‘the perfect marriage of sculpture and architecture’. He remembers his career fondly and is just as enthusiastic about it now as he was more than three decades ago.
Having studied painting and sculpture in the US and modelmaking at Kent Institute of Art and Design, Armiger worked for Cambridge Seven Associates, Casson Conder and Partners, Wolff Olins, Ove Arup and the BBC, before setting up Network Models in 1983. In the early days in Boston, he met the likes of Buckminster Fuller and Charles Eames. Armiger says, ‘With hindsight, I realise what an incredibly lucky person I’ve been.’
He remembers his apprenticeship years at the Arup Modelshop particularly fondly. The workshop had an inspiring atmosphere, with skilled, old-school timber model-makers such as George Rome Innes, David Armstrong, Julian Thompson and Roger Hillier debating architecture and life over long, legendary vegetarian lunches. ‘These guys were great characters and terrific teachers,’ says Armiger. ‘They were a wonderful crew and very erudite – so rare in a miniature world, and I’m eternally grateful.’
Armiger continued this tradition of model-making with a passion for craft as well as a love of architecture, and his client list is a who’s who of star architects, including Lord Rogers, Lord Foster, David Chipperfield, Alsop, John Pawson, Zaha Hadid and institutions such as the Victoria & Albert Museum.
He finds projects that require a degree of interpretation, such as competition models, particularly satisfying. ‘Especially when compared to models at the larger scales, landscape and masterplan models have an extraordinary scope for interpretation.
At scales below 1:250 it would be foolhardy to try and represent reality, so a wide-brush approach makes a lot of sense,’ he says.
For the model that helped secure the Gardens by the Bay, Singapore competition win (Wilkinson Eyre/Grant Associates), Armiger emphasised the development’s Green issues by making the most of the garden, and he used as much timber as possible.
The resurgence of timber in model-making makes Armiger smile. ‘Having paid my dues as a timber model-maker in the 1980s and 1990s, it’s great that timber is being embraced again as a “new” material,’ he says. ‘Timbers can be very expressive, especially in abstraction.’ But he fears that timber is in danger of becoming a ‘jump-on-the-bandwagon material’. ‘With new SLA, CAD and laser technology evolving every minute, sometimes timber just isn’t appropriate,’ he explains. ‘We’ve always thought that choosing the best material for the job is what matters.’
Keeping skills alive is very important to Armiger. ‘We can make things really quickly now, but it would be a crying shame if all the traditional hand-making skills, such as turning, whittling, carving and knowing how to season timber, were lost,’ he says.
A good model-maker needs to have an interest in architecture, an ability to focus intensely and a broad range of skills, and not have a hobby focus, he believes. ‘As a hobbyist, the goal is accuracy alone,’ says Armiger. ‘My art school training was diametrically opposed to that. You have to try to catch the essence of the thing. Capturing the spirit is the key.’
With more than 1900 models completed, Armiger’s proudest moment was the completion of models for the V&A of Chiswick Villa and Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace (sadly delivered only a few weeks after 9/11). ‘When we were commissioned for the V&A permanent collection, that’s when I felt we’d really arrived.’
He concedes that some big-brand architects are less willing to share the accolades with their model-makers, but Armiger believes that his is an appreciated craft. ‘All the good makers have a fair stack of thank you letters,’ he says. ‘Ours are cedar-scented.’