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Mike Fairbrass, Architectural Model Maker, London

Believe it or not architectural model making isn't a modern discipline, it's been with us since the beginning of known history and was a way architects of earlier times presented ideas to get financed (yes, even way back then the Greats relied on getting financed).

Later, Leonardi Da Vinci himself was fond of scale models to present his ideas to a layman audience and those hiring him to work for them.

So, the lowdown: An architectural model is basically a scaled down model of an architectural design, and it's to give people (from architects, committees and financiers to the general public) an idea of what's to come; a taste, if you will, of a vision of a building or project slowly coming to life.

London-based Mike Fairbrass specializes in this unique line of design, working as an in- house model maker for the legendary architect Richard Roger's firm, Rogers Partners. Fate sometimes takes a hand in our lives and no less Mike who fell into his career by chance, but it wasn't long before he shot to the top of his field and has been there ever since.

Creative Mapping took time out with Mike to find out more about what it is he does.

"I like building small, diagrammatic models with laser cut live edge fluorescent colour acrylics and shooting these backlit on a black background to create a highly graphic image."


CM: What did you study and where?
I studied Creative Arts at Nottingham. This covered: art, theatre, film and music. I majored in sculpture in my final year.

CM: Any other jobs before you worked as a model maker?
As a student I worked in a pub in Nottingham, always thinking, 'There must be better work than this!' I starting asking if any of the locals knew of jobs around, and so it was, the model makers over the road needed help. They had to plant 3000 small scale trees by the following Monday, so I lent a hand - and loved it.

CM: So this was your first experience as a model maker? How did things progress?
As I found model making before graduating, I worked through my holidays and proved my worth; enough to walk straight into a full time job upon graduation. The first task on my own was to make a model for a Chinese restaurant in Bingham near Nottingham that was extending. I really should go back there for a nostalgic meal if it's still running! In 1990 I moved from Nottingham to London to work for a company called Unit 22. This was run by Don Shuttleworth, the brother of Ken Shuttleworth, designer of the 'Gherkin' who at that time worked for Fosters'. During my time with Unit 22, we created work for Fosters, Grimshaw, Future Systems and Rogers architectural firms. A few years later we set up a part-time in-house facility at Rogers. The team were very enthusiastic about sketch modelling being used as part of the design process and I found I really enjoyed this aspect of model making. In 1993, I became a full time member of staff at Rogers, overseeing the set up of a new workshop space. I then took over the running of this in 1996, and guided the move into a new, purpose built workshop I designed, with photography area and more space.

CM: If you weren't a model maker, what would be doing?
Photography. Otherwise something referring back to my Creative Arts degree; writing, theatre, film, or music production.


CM: What is your preferred style of photography?
I like building small, diagrammatic models, with laser cut live edge fluorescent colour acrylics, and shooting these backlit on a black background to create a highly graphic image. (See image: European Court of Human Rights.)

CM: What materials do you use to build models?
For sketch models we use rigid foam blocks, paper, card and foamboard. For other model types we use acrylics, timber, and veneer. We have a Pompidou Centre model made from Lego... and another model made from Meccanno.
CM: What kind of scales do you work with?
Models can range in scale from a 1:10000 for a masterplan, to a 1:1 mock up for a steelwork casting detail. These can vary in size from a post-it note to a king-size bed.

CM: Any particular software or equipment you use?
Microstation V8i, Autocad and Coreldraw, CAD software. We use Trotec driver software for our lasers. We also have traditional workshop machinery including; table saws, pillar drills, bandsaws, disc sanders, and a vacuum former. In addition we use a range of hand and power tools, and have a paint sprayshop.

CM: Do you ever amend the design or technical issues that were overlooked in the architect's drawings?
Yes, historically there were always discrepancies between plans and elevations, but less of these issues arise now thanks to most projects working around a 3D computer model.

CM: How broad is your creative freedom on any given brief?
Materials for a model are not specified, but are arrived at through a discussion around what might be appropriate for its purpose. We incorporate elements, or materials to improve the model, and often suggest ways to improve the scheme as well.

CM: Do you have minimum budgets for the projects you work on?
We're an in-house department, so the costs of sketch models are budgeted much the same as the costs of drawings are ' as part of the general overhead. I do provide quotes for clients for larger presentation models. Costs might vary from fifty pounds to fifty thousand, depending on materials, size, scale, level of detail, or the sheer amount of work hours to be put into it.


CM: Favourite project you've worked on?
Of recent models, the one I'm especially pleased with was for our touring exhibition. It's a master plan model of Shanghai - and my concept combines a physical model and a projected animation. We mounted the clear acrylic model onto a glass base, then sat that on top of another base containing four digitally stitched projectors, running a flash animation that up- lit the model. It gives the viewer the scheme information, highlighting moving transport systems, people, and density. My favourite part was the indication of the sun's path. The dark building shadows shortened and lengthened to show sunrise and sunset. This was very illusory, and quite magical to watch.

CM: Tell us a bit about the exhibition at the Design Museum, 'Richard Rogers + Architects: From the House to the City'
The exhibition included a wall mounted timeline of images, sketches, drawings, and nine colour coded zones; Early work / Legible / Systems / Public / Urban / Lightweight / Green / Transparent / Future. These displayed films, photographs and seventy models showing Richard's earliest work, to the present day work of Rogers, Stirk, Harbour and Partners. The exhibition first opened in the Pompidou Centre, Paris in 2007. It exhibited at the Design Museum in London in 2008, and it has since toured Europe. Currently, it's in the Far East.

CM: Re creative and blocks, if you're not inspired how do you deal with that?
With tight deadlines, there's never time to sit around and wait for inspiration. Past successful models may suggest a direction to take, but most times the creativity comes because you have to dive in and get on with it.

CM: How do you develop an architectural model from the brief you're given?
The briefs are never fully formed. Creative concepts develop in both 2D and 3D with hand drawn sketches and rough sketch models that may only take a few hours. An important part of our job is to take the earliest thoughts around a project and make them into objects that can inform the process. We work closely with our architects from the very beginning.

CM: How do you research and document ideas?
I had the idea for the Shanghai model that I mentioned earlier whilst at lunch one day. I made a note of it and waited for the appropriate project to come along in order to use it.
This happened over a year later. Ideas mainly live in my head rather than drawing them, or referencing photos.

CM: Do you listen to music while you work?
In the workshop the radio is on at all times and we flick around stations according to our mood. I sing a lot whilst working, hopefully not too badly as my team don't complain.

CM: Is there much pressure with deadlines?
We work to tight deadlines. Especially when entering architectural competitions where a late entry is excluded.

CM: Is sustainability something you consider when specifying materials?
Yes, we recycle off cuts of acrylic where possible and use timber from sustainable sources.

CM: Do you find London inspiring, if so what inspires you the most?
The people. London is one of the most vibrant cities in the world, in spite of the weather!

CM: What is the purpose of an architectural model?
Models communicate, inform, excite, persuade, and encapsulate the design intent as a whole, whilst being beautiful objects themselves. There is a unique magic about scale.

CM: Do the models inspire the architects?
Every time I hope!

CM: Do you collaborate with people outside your own studio?
When we are at capacity, we work closely with other model making companies to produce a model. Last year I also collaborated with graphic design studio Praline to design a new font based on building floorplates. I made architectural models using the new font to spell 'avec' which was the title for our collaboration. Our work was exhibited as part of the project ' If you could collaborate ', at The Foundation Gallery, London.

CM: Tell us a bit about your team and their qualifications'
We have a split of fine arts and model making BA degree graduates, and a range of senior team members who have been with me for over ten years. Our senior members have outstanding hand skills, and our younger members bring fantastic computer skills ' enabling us to strip down 3D models and extract information for our creations. This combination enables us to produce work that marries technology, artisanship and a strong aesthetic.