‘Bearing Rome Across The Alps’ – A Brief History of Cork Modelling and its Contemporary Potential

Fig 1. Modern Cork Model of the Temple of Castor and Pollux ©Dieter Cöllen

There is very little published about the nearly lost art of cork modelling aside from a few fairly recent articles and research papers. Before being attributed to architectural forms in the 18th Century, carving with cork was a tradition associated with nativity scenes in southern Italy (Gillespie, 2017). The idea of modelling this way most likely came from a combination of convenience; cork being a common, lightweight and versatile material for quick fabrication, as much as any creative individuals desire to replicate and simply enjoy the tactile craft of making with it.

The refinement of this unusual but captivating form of modelling occurred during a great period of artistic and cultural exploration in Europe. During what could be described as the original ‘gap year’, eighteenth century grand touring took young people across the continent via the most notable and artistically rich cities. This was something of an exclusive privilege that required a significant wealth and strong will of curiosity for the unfamiliar. Everyday living requirements meant a need to be flexible in tastes both for practical and dietary comforts. On every level of perception the experience was sure to be eye opening for anyone willing to embark on such a journey.

Experiencing a new destination for the first time as a modern traveller, you would think it common place to see an abundance of stalls and shops stacked with keepsakes, often mass produced junk that are rife in tourist spots. At the time of the grand tours, this shameless ‘cashing-in’ trade was fledgling if non existent. Despite this, amongst the increasing number of visitors, there was a great desire to somehow record experiences of travelling which led to traditional and art’s and craft based methods or recording being adopted. Visitors fascinated by the large scale architecture and ruins of ancient Rome took time to draw, paint and carve what they saw in order to take some momentos home. This collective practice brought back a new vision, a blueprint of how the classical world could inform a modern British design.

As well as the grand tourists giving these crafts a go themselves there were some forward thinking artisan-entrepreneurs who began producing models to sell. According to Dieter Cöllen the originator of this method of making is commonly thought to have been Roman architect Agusto Rosa. Following his death came Antonio Chichi who produced probably the most famous cork models for sale to tourists in Italy (Cöllen, 2014). These miniature 3D sketches, copies of the classics in that moment, would then find their way back over the Alps towards Western Europe and beyond with many ending up in private collections to this day.

Cöllen, an artist and craftsman, has become the current go-to maker on the subject of cork modelling or ‘Phelloplastike’ – a work derived from the Greek word for cork. His works have gained attention around the world for their outstanding levels of accuracy and due to the specialist nature of the medium it is widely thought that his skills and experience are unparalleled in the field. Whilst these works are undoubtedly stunning pieces many have had the advantage of modern crafts tools which puts the skill behind the original 18th Century examples into perspective.

Fig 5. Richard Du Bourg Colosseum Model 1775 © Museums Victoria

Given the age of limited numbers of the surviving examples, careful conservation is essential to their preservation after many years in storage and a fluctuating relevance in society as they fell in and out of fashion. Conservator Sarah Babister states that cork models ‘were really popular at a certain time and were kept as tools to teach students. Then they fell out of fashion and a lot of them were disposed of.’ (Kate C. 2014). 

This helps to explain why there are so few examples surviving on public display. There has however been a recent recognition of the value of cork models which has led to a more conscious conservation of these pieces with the excellent reinstatement of the Soane model room and a fantastic Colosseum at Australia’s Museum Victoria.

This original 18th century model (Fig.5) was produced by British modelmaker Richard Du Bourg and thankfully spared the ‘no longer in vogue’ fate of so many of his other works. Richard Gillespie at Museum Victoria has written on the subject that stemmed from his intrigue of the Colosseum model that had sat unused in the museum stores for some 20 years. Having researched and discovered several other examples of Cork Colosseum models in European collections Gillespie concludes that separately these models had varied purposes. This is reflective of the wider, multifaceted use of modelmaking in architecture in contemporary practice.

“The [various] Colosseum models […] differed in purpose, combining to different degrees antiquarian interest, archaeological research and documentation, evocation of classical architecture and history, courtly collections, public exhibition and education, commercial opportunity – and artistic endeavour, for the carving of cork into extraordinary classical structures and architecture had a technical and aesthetic appeal for the modellers and their audiences” (Gillespie, 2016)

Using Cork Modelling Today

In current practice cork is still used on occasion by modelmakers but rarely as the sole building material as it was in the golden age of the grand tourist. Makers wanting to try their hand today can find cork in good art and craft stores in both thin sheet and block form. In sheet form it has proved popular and lends itself well to the 21st century workhorse of the workshop, the laser cutter. Over the last few years we have moved to encourage aspects of this classical method of making into some of our works here at B.15. Using files, scalpels and sandpaper it is easy and engaging to sculpt into pieces of cork often requiring the user to study the subject in greater detail than they might on passing, much like life drawing or sketching.

I recently ran a short workshop on sculpting in cork in association with the ‘What We Do Here’ film project at the European Cultural Centre in Venice during the 16th Architecture Biennale. The atelier symposium; ‘Joined Up Thinking’ presented different approaches to studying, recording and designing space. Students of MSA’s Platform Atelier were given blocks of cork with the task of recreating a detail chosen from their time exploring Venice. These sketch models allowed students to engage with the material, largely for the first time, and to think about their chosen subject in carefully considered stages due to the subtractive process.

Senior lecturer and head of Platform atelier Matt Ault explains the context of the task in his teaching:

“The ever increasing availability and access to computational power continues to expand our design capacity for conceptualising, developing, communicating and fabricating. The move towards digital craft and digital tectonics recognises the central role of materiality and materialisation in architectural design and allows the benefits of the digital to be informed by our own material understanding.

Active sketching techniques of drawing, modelling and making result in a deeper understanding of any idea under interrogation or critique.

Our recent use of the cork sketching technique in Venice is part of a design task that also comprises the complimentary techniques in modelling and fabrication: digitally exploring complex, fluid surface morphologies by defining associative geometries that can be manipulated on screen.  Design iterations can be quickly and cheaply made physical through manufacturing and assembling from paper or card with the digital plotter-cutter. Testing, evaluation and understanding of the material sketch model and its construction logic feeds back into the digital modelling to evolve the design.”

(Ault, 2019)
 

Despite its age as a modelling method, it was clear following this task that cork sculpting can still offer us a mode of thought that the most contemporary mediums often steer us away from. It provides a much needed tactility to students learning along with the opportunity to expand on unknown possibilities that result from “mistakes” made along the way. During the assignment the concentration in the room was palpable with everyone, tutors included absorbed in the task at hand whilst clearly enjoying the process.

The work produced, along with additional cork sketch models will be featured at the MSA end of year show presenting the cork sculpts as 3D sketches. I look forward to seeing more examples in the coming weeks.

Scott Miller 2019


References

Ault, M, 2019, Cork Task [E-Mail]

C. Kate, 2014. Cork Colosseum X-Ray [Online Article] Available From: http://museumvictoria.com.au/about/mv-blog/apr-2014/cork-colosseum-x-ray/ Accessed 01/12/2014

Coffin, S. D. 2014. Cork for More Than Wine, The Temple of Vesta, Tivoli [Online Article] http://www.cooperhewitt.org/2014/10/30/cork-for-more-than-wine-the-temple-of-vesta-tivoli/ Accessed 01/12/14

Collen, D. 2013. The Cork-Models [Online Article] Available from: http://www.coellen-cork.com/eng/antike/history.htm Accessed 01/12/2014

Fouskaris, J. 2006. Studio I – Music Stroll Garden [Online Article] Available From: http://www.jonfouskaris.com/portfolio/music-garden.html Accessed 01/12/2014

Gillespie, R. 2016. Journal of the Classical Association of Victoria, New Series, Volume 29, From ‘Trash’ to Treasure: Museum Victoria’s Colosseum Model Available from: https://classicsvic.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/gillespie.pdf Accessed 26/11/2018

Gillespie, R. 2017. Journal of the History of Collections vol. 29 no. 2 pp. 251–269, Richard Du Bourg’s ‘Classical Exhibition’ Available From: https://academic.oup.com/jhc/article-abstract/29/2/251/2503305

Mass, M. 2014. Rare Model Craft: In The Beginning There was The Cork [Online Article] Available From: http://www.spiegel.de/karriere/berufsleben/kork-modelle-von-antiken-bauwerken-dieter-coellen-baut-miniaturen-a-983770.html Accessed 01/12/2014

Images

Fig. 1: Coellen, D. 2013 Tempel des Castor und Pollux [Online Image] Available from:  http://www.spiegel.de/fotostrecke/dieter-coellen-baut-korkmodelle-von-antiken-bauwerken-fotostrecke-115570-8.html Accessed 01/12/2014

Fig. 2: Coellen, D. 2013 Natur pur (2) [Online Image] Available From: http://www.spiegel.de/fotostrecke/dieter-coellen-baut-korkmodelle-von-antiken-bauwerken-fotostrecke-115570-3 Accessed 01/12/2014

Fig 3. Sir John Soanes Museum, London, Model of the Roman circular Temple of Vesta at Tivoli, near Rome, by Giovanni Altieri [Online Image]Available From: http://collections.soane.org/object-mr2 Accessed 01/10/2018

Fig 4.  Sir John Soanes Museum, London, Model of the Temple of Zeus or Apollo (the so-called Temple of Neptune or Poseidon), Paestum Attributed to Domenico Padiglione c.1820 [Online Image]Available From: http://collections.soane.org/object-mr25  Accessed 01/10/2018

Fig 5. Museums Victoria Collections, Melbourne Australia, Model – Colosseum, Richard Du Bourg, London 1775 [Online Image] Available From: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/715107 Accessed 27/11/2018

Fig 6. Miller S. 2015, Cork Block and Sheet [Original Image]

Fig 7. Miller S. 2015, A cork sketch model by the author. [Original Image]

Figs 8 – 11. Miller S. 2018 ‘Grand Tour’ cork modelling task in Venice in association with the ECC [Original Images]

WHAT WE DO HERE – Premiere and residency at TIME SPACE EXISTENCE during Venice Biennale 2018

On Friday, 29 June the Venice Biennale saw the premiere screening of WHAT WE DO HERE; a documentary film about the role our modelmaking workshop plays in student and staff learning and development. In the basement of Humanities Bridgeford Street you’ll find the B.15 Modelmaking workshop which has served our architecture department since 1970.

The long-established workshop introduces students at both undergraduate and postgraduate level to modelmaking as an important design tool.

Documentary film makers Kieran Hanson and Howard Walmsley set about recording the plethora of daily happenings in the workshop environment back in September last year. The aim was to explore modelmaking pedagogy for the many students and staff at Manchester School of Architecture which frequent the workshop space. MSA is a joint school across our university and Manchester Metropolitan University giving students the benefits of both campuses.

Screening at the prestigious Venice Biennale gave the film the perfect setting. Architecture practice Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios Simon Doody and award-winning furniture maker Hugh Miller presented before the screening which led to a constructive debate on the subject of making in design.

The film is now resident at the Time Space Existence exhibition space at the Palazzo Bembo on the famous Grand Canal. Entry is free, and it’s expected to attract many thousands of visitors across the summer up until the end of November.

The completion and promotion of this film and its associated events would not have been possible without the University’s Investing in Success scheme which backed the project. The workshop team is currently planning a number of local screenings and UK events that will feature the film in the coming year.

A huge thank you to all who have contributed to this project in time, funding and above all morale support over the past academic year that has made it all possible. We’ll be announcing additional screening events in the coming months so keep a look our for those.

If you get a chance to visit Time Space Existence in Venice, tag @b15workshop #whatwedoheremsa on social media and enjoy!

Scott & Jim

Venice Biennale 2014

By now there have been hundreds of on-line reviews of the Venice Biennale which is this year focused around Architecture. The Venice Biennale is an annual event that showcases the creative arts from across the globe. Having been open since the start of June this year, the show is almost coming to its end having seen thousands of interested visitors of all backgrounds. My visit last week coincided with the 5th year study trip which basically allowed students free reign over the site and city.

My interest on the site is of course about the varied use of models. There was certainly no shortage of examples. Each international pavilion display addressed their own study of architectural fundamentals and the use of models played a regular and prominent role. As there were so many examples I will summarize my visit by including images of the examples on show and pay particular attention to contemporary methods of display which noticeably inspired many of the students I was with.

Finland – This pavilion was curated in a clear a concise way that explained the concepts in drawings, writing, models and the full size buildings on display outside of the main space. This method of display for the project was great and makes for easy understanding by any visitor. It’s probably worth taking note of this narrative when thinking about the display or presentation of your own projects.

 

 

 

The use of timber pieces accurately cut for the model (above) translated directly into the construction of the 1:1 construction (right).

 

 

Austria – Now as popular as they are amongst established architects I’ve never been a huge fan of the ‘White Model’. I’m not sure why but I suppose it feels like a stark and almost clinical representation of a form which in reality has much more texture and thought behind its finish. That said, I’ve made many of these for clients and of course pursue the whitest of white finish to meet their brief. The Austrian pavilion presented a bright white room dotted with white block models of every one of the worlds parliament buildings (above left and below). I thought it was fantastic and enticing as did so many other visitors who spent a substantial amount of time examining the many models on display. This was an interesting subject matter to study in model form due to the ‘god’ like decisions that come from each of these buildings across the globe. One of my favourite displays of the show.

Projection Models – There was a noticeable buzz around the use of projectors to animate aspects of otherwise static models from the students I was with. Whilst this is something we have looked into before there were several good examples used across the Biennale.

The Canadian pavilion made extensive use of the projection model with micro projectors mounted above white site models. Each model showed traffic flow trends and potential variants in the environment around the site. Anyone wanting to attempt a similar project should start by looking at the type of projector you want to use as they can be expensive and planning their set up in relation to the model is crucial.

 

 

 

The Italian pavilion made use of a similar projection set up but was across a master plan model showing city routes toward and around particular hubs of activity.

 

Also on display in the Italian Pavilion was a host of plaster cast models (right) each with a high level of finish and detail that guaranteed a closer inspection from anyone who walked into the room.

 

This alpine mountain range model (left) made using a CNC router worked fantastically when OS maps were projected on the the model from directly above. the contouring matched perfectly and appeared almost hologram like in front of the viewer.

Russia – In the Russian pavilion there was an interesting model on show that combined digital animation with a physical model. The basic walls and elevations of the model were built up out of plywood and overlaid on top of screens with animated environments of the proposed interior spaces (left).

 

 

 

Turkey – There was a fantastic presentation cross section model of a theatre which was finished in veneer and full lighting (below). As is usually the case with models of this size they invite you to almost get inside the building and view different perspectives as you choose. This model was one of the best in show in terms of attention to detail and finish quality.

Japan – This display reminded me of a studio workspace with samples from different stages of the design process on display all over the room. Amongst the items were plaster casts (left) and perhaps interesting for our second and third year students at the moment, 1:1 structural details such as this fantastic timber joint detail below.

 

The main ‘Fundamentals of Architecture’ display by Rem Koolhass contained a fantastic array of different design and building components split it to groups and stages of production. One of the rooms featured a wide range of concept models from spiral stair cases (right). These were produced in different materials and at varied levels of finish but all as intriguing to see as each other.

 

The Hungarian Pavilion featured a number of great drawings and subsequent sketch models (left). These were made from a variety of materials and almost 100% using traditional analogue methods – that means no laser cutting guys!

 

 

A huge part of the display in the French Pavilion looked at the tower block housing development called Cite De La Muette. The site was a modernist development that became synonymous with sadness after it was converted into a major internment camp for persecuted French Jews awaiting deportation during WW2.

The exhibition looked at the values and goals the development originally set out to achieve that were unfortunately very short lived. The center piece of the display was a white presentation model of the site with a romanticized film vision of modernist living projected behind (left).

Conceptual presentation model on display in the Costa Rican Pavilion (below)

I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the design but this Korean hotel model was finished to a high standard from beech veneer and timber (below). Very nice.

One of the 3d printed models from the Moroccan Pavilion display (below). A series of site models were displayed under spotlights in a sand filled dark room. Quite a strange experience to walk around.

Interestingly, despite its increasing prominence in people’s consciousness both professional and public, the use of 3D printing was thankfully kept to an appropriate level in most cases. I was particularly glad of this as the repeated use of this method of model production can become somewhat boring!

As well as the endless exploring of exhibitions across Venice the visiting students did manage to get a tutorial or two in and a presentation session of their proposed ideas.

The show was a fantastic display and I would encourage anyone to visit and see as much of it as possible next time around. The city is, without really needing to say, a fantastic inspiration and learning experience in itself.

Scott

Venice Plaster Detail Model, Becky Prince

Made using an MDF mold this detail model aimed to demonstrate the window detail Becky was focussing on at her site. The mold proved to be the most time consuming aspect of the model but turned out successfully. It is always worth spending longer on mold design to ensure a good cast.

 

The mold was made using MDF which can absorb moisture from the plaster mix and therefore needs to be well sealed before pouring. Becky used Vaselene to act as barrier and release agent for the cast.

The internal void was made by using blue foam to allow for contracting of the cast as it cured and then be removed. This too was well coated in Vaselene to aid removal.

Once cured the MDF was unscrewed and removed before cutting out the internal blue foam. Additional window details were added using initially laser cut and then modified components.

 

Venice Arsenale Site Model, Matt Arnold

Matt used stained Meranti hardwood to create the block massing on his model. The majority of the model was hand finished to a high standard with time being taken to sand the blocks a smooth finish. The water in the Arsenale basin is represented with a sheet of frosted acrylic.

The site itself covers the Venice Arsenale and focusses around a small site, as is often the case with Venice, in between a restrictively protected mass of existing historic buildings. Matt intends to use the model as a master to ‘drop in’ his site proposals as they develop with the final model being displayed in place at the end of year exhibition.

Campo San Martino, Venice Site 1:200 Master Plan Model

This year 6 Group project uses Jelutong block to create the busy built up area of Venice, Italy where the focus site of their brief is located. Once complete individual site study models will be placed in context to demonstrate their relationship to the existing constructions and canals in the area.

Dividing up time consuming tasks like mass producing bespoke block model shapes can be sped up by involving all team members as long as everyone has a clear understanding of what is trying to be achieved overall.

3D Powder Printed Venice Master Plan Site model, Lauren Green and Becky Prince

Laura Green and Becky Prince Y6 (4)Lauren and Becky decided to create their site master plan using 3D powder printed components on a laser cut plywood base. The completed model looks great and shows in detail all the shapes that make up the exiting structures their chosen site.

Laura Green and Becky Prince Y6 (2)For those eager to try 3D printing it may be worth noting that this is a fairly unorthodox approach to making a site model due to the cost implications. This batch of printing came to a total cost of £116. When combined with other material and machine use time the total cost of the model came to around £150. This is minimal compared to commercial model costs but cheaper approaches can be carried out if cost is a concern.Laura Green and Becky Prince YR6 (1)Despite these cost implications, the outcome is very successful and clearly conveys the level of detail sought for the project. The use of timber against black acrylic to represent waterways is a style often used by David Chipperfield Architects Models.

Extension to the Academy of Fine Arts, Venice, Benjamin Hale

This project seemed to go on forever but Ben got there in the end after much thought and perseverance! Ben described the project in his own words for us:

“The project centred around the concepts of subtractive architectural restoration, revealing existing elements on site and adding additional elements to solve architectural anomalies often found in historical cities such as this.  The models represent at differing scales how the site interacts with this new architecture as well as how my own building functioned within the new public spaces created by this subtraction. Many of the models are abstract forms of more sophisticated concepts yet the message remains concise as to what each model is trying to achieve by the way of simplifying the material pallet and not resorting to complicated methods. The models are also interchangeable as long as they are created at the same scale and can be reused to create new models later on or explain an idea in greater detail. Model making is an integral part of any designer’s toolbox and new techniques should be tested, however often you can find that a new take on a tried and tested method will result in unexpected outcomes that will further you design.”

This series of models certainly give a varied view of Bens proposed project which is exactly what you should be trying to achieve in your submissions. Models are there to convey different aspects of your design in the best possible way. Spending time to think about exactly what you want to show and how best to show it is time well spent as frustrating as it can be at times!

Also, as a side note to you all, unless you plan to take your array of models with you to interviews etc. then good photography is essential to document your work. We will be looking to a devoted photography area of the workshop in the coming months in time for the start of your new term in September.