Make me a super model
At his workshop in Bath, Timothy Richards creates exquisite replicas of the world’s great buildings. Now he’d like to fill a building with models of others from the ‘tree of life of architecture’, as Lisa Johnson reports
Across the river from Bath Spa railway station, beyond the imposing church of St Mark’s and down a path of swirling leaves, is a Victorian school of blackened stone that houses a unique collection of architectural models.
Rather than mock-ups of buildings yet to be constructed, Timothy Richards makes miniatures of masterworks that have already entered the architectural hall of fame. Visiting his workshop is an intriguing and oddly emotional experience, as memories of their real-life counterparts flash before your eyes.
In the foyer, a 41cm-tall replica of Sir John Vanbrugh’s Temple of the Four Winds stands beside a 70cm Flatiron Building, while the diminutive treasures on the workshop shelves include a 22cm north front of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art, its windows and balconies in pencil-thin lead, and a 35cm Ca’d’Oro in Venice, with a gold-leaf crown and tiny windows of turquoise glass behind its Gothic quatrefoils.
The models are handmade in gypsum plaster, using a complicated process that involves constructing a master from styrene sheets, then casting in silicone-rubber moulds created from the master. Most models range in size from 20cm to 70cm, and the level of accuracy is remarkable: photographed from a certain angle, the mini Pantheon could pass for the real thing.
Asked what set him on his chosen path, Richards replies, ‘Bath, I think’ — and given the city’s worldwide renown for its classically-inspired Georgian architecture, it seems a reasonable answer. The boy Richards grew up outside Bath and — in the image of his father, ‘who had a box full of destroyers and battleships crafted from packing cases during the war’ — once made a model of a tea clipper from a Corn Flakes box.
He works in plaster, bronze, wood and gold because ‘people have an instinctive feel for materials’
After art college in Taunton, he InterRailed around Europe looking at furniture design (‘I was in love with the Wishbone chair’), helped to build an Outward Bound centre in Lesotho, taught on the Gower Peninsula in Wales, and joined the explorer Tim Severin on the Greek island of Spetses, building the Bronze Age galley in which Severin went on to recreate the mythical voyage of Jason and the Argonauts. ‘I took my wife Anne and son Daniel, who was one at the time,’ says Richards with a wry smile. ‘Tim paid the mortgage.’
Gradually, however, Richards returned to both Bath and model-making. ‘No one was doing exquisite frontages for dolls’ houses,’ he says, sitting in his office in overalls covered in plaster dust. ‘So in May 1988, I made four models for people who like architecture, starting with a typical Georgian terrace house from a book by Walter Ison.’
Showing the models at various fairs, he eventually won a commission from Sir Terence Conran through, in Conran’s words, ‘sheer bloody persistence’. The result was a 20cm Michelin House, complete with the minuscule figure of Bibendum, the ‘Michelin man’, imbibing a glass of nuts, bolts and nails. Subsequent commissions have included gifts for royals, diplomats and donors, or in recognition of a lifetime’s service, like the 58cm model of St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, made for Sir Edward Pickering. Other pieces are more poignant — of landmarks loved and demolished, or family homes destroyed in fires.
Using the lost-wax process, Richards makes a bronze of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates that accompanies the Richard H. Driehaus Prize, an annual $200,000 award for new classical architecture; he also created the one-off Driehaus Patronage Award, a bronze Tower of the Winds presented to Prince Charles.
Bespoke models start at £4,000, and, in many cases, variants are added to the workshop’s permanent collection, where prices range from £80 for a Jane Austen house to £11,800 for a limited-edition Flatiron Building. A handful of models have been resold at auction: a limited edition Spencer House went through Sotheby’s for $6,875.
Curiously, Richards and his team (including John Marlour, who has worked with Richards for 20 years) are unique in producing plaster models of this kind; but there is a precedent. In Paris, just before the Revolution, Jean-Pierre Fouquet started making detailed plaster models of the buildings and monuments of ancient Greece and Rome, using Stuart and Revett’s The Antiquities of Athens and Other Monuments of Greece as a reference. ‘This is the book,’ says Richards, fishing out his copy and showing me the astonishing drawings. ‘It was aimed at Grand Tourists and architects.’
Many people know of Fouquet through the 20 ‘perfectly formed models under glass’ by his son François at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. And after replicating Fouquet’s reconstructed Temple of Vesta for the museum shop, Richards is now restoring two of the original models: the Arch of Hadrian and a variant of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates with a bust of Napoleon in the drum. The models are extraordinary, says Richards. ‘No one understands how they did what they did. I’m trying to put forward a theory.’
In 2013, Richards won the Arthur Ross Award, the US Institute of Classical Architecture and Art prize for artisanship in the classical tradition, and he clearly feels privileged to be doing what he does. Five years ago, he was asked to provide 19 models for an exhibition, organised by the Royal Institute of British Architects, on the influence of the 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio in America.
Palladio and His Legacy toured to New York, Washington, Indiana and Pittsburgh, and Richards’s models were praised for combining ‘exactitude with artistry’. ‘What was great,’ says Richards, ‘was that my models [of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda in Vicenza and Jefferson’s First Monticello, among others] were shown alongside 31 Palladio drawings insured for over £11 million.’
His most recent commission, meanwhile, is something of a game-changer: a model of the Palais Royal in Paris for a private museum in the Middle East, which, at 6.9 metres wide and 2.75 metres tall, is significantly larger than anything he has done before. It was the client, says Richards, who pushed him to go ‘from rowing boat to Titanic’. The commission took 3,000 hours to create, and its impact has been startling. ‘You can’t deny that model,’ he says. ‘It’s a very emotional experience standing in front of it. You go silent. It takes you over.’
Now 60, the master craftsman sees his workshop producing more of these large-scale models, and he would also like to fill a building with models of ‘pivotal’ buildings from the ‘tree of life of architecture’ (his bible is Banister Fletcher). He wants to wow people, and educate them, too — ‘remind them of what we should be doing’, and his workshop has hosted graduate teams from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, which teaches traditional and classical architecture, to learn from Bath how to build modern cities.
He produces a few rather beautiful models in blue ‘to strip out the history from a building and allow the observer to look at the pure form’
He describes Bath as ‘the midpoint between Rome and our times’, yet insists he is not a classicist per se. ‘I just believe that classical principles — Vitruvian, Palladian principles — are extremely well-founded,’ he says. ‘Georgian buildings can make you feel you are living in a palace, at least on the piano nobile.’
Richards thinks a lot about our emotional response to architecture. He works in plaster, bronze, brass, wood and gold because ‘people have an instinctive feel for materials, and even these words have a weight to them’. His preference for a palette of patinated metal over paint ‘goes back to our reaction to the raw materials of life’; and he produces a few rather beautiful models in blue ‘to strip out the history from a building and allow the observer to look at the pure form’.
He is also fascinated by the idea of ‘witness’, the way a building can ‘tap into a whole consciousness’ and ‘accrue a collective memory over time’. And not just the building but the ground it’s on. ‘Think of Ground Zero, which belonged to those who died and their relatives,’ he says. ‘The rubble was moved to Staten Island, but it didn’t make any difference. The hole was still there, and the memories. Or the Cavern Club in Liverpool, which wasn’t the same when it was rebuilt next door. The public have an innate sense of community and continuity.’