Tom Vanderbilt | Essays

Small Worlds

Model of Beijing, photograph by Tom Vanderbilt, 2006

One of the first things I like to do upon visiting a new city is to visit the scale-model version of itself.

From Havana to Copenhagen, I've hunted down these miniature metropolises in dusty historical museums and under-visited exhibition halls. I've pressed the buttons that light up landmarks and crouched down to peer into tiny streets. Since these models have typically been built decades earlier, they sit as three-dimensional monuments of a city interrupted, captured in time and modeling foam. This can lead to unexpectedly poignant moments, such as the extant World Trade Center towers at the Panorama of New York City at the often-overlooked Queens Museum.

At other times, they are used to assemble a vision of a city not yet here, as I recently discovered on a trip to Beijing. There, at the gleaming new Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall, just off Tiananmen Square, exists what is, in its size and replicating rigor, one of the most impressive urban miniatures I have ever seen.

Model of Beijing, photograph by Tom Vanderbilt, 2006

Occupying an entire room, the miniature Beijing is a staggering testament to the city's sprawling density, with its broad boulevards, endless housing blocks and imperial sweep. If the model itself seems massive, the sheer size of the expanding city is further evident in the fact that beyond the red ropes encircling the model, the rest of Beijing, that creeping progression marked in the ever outwardly radiating ring roads. This great sprawl, which undoubtedly would have even taxed the effort of a cadre of Chinese modelers, is not rendered as model but as glass plates (upon which one can walk) featuring aerial survey photographs. To top it all off, the second floor has a series of mounted binoculars through one which one can peer down, like some Jules Vernian aeronaut exploring the city from a novel perspective.

As I scanned for one of my few Beijing landmarks, my hotel in Chaoyang district, I suddenly became aware of my own unmediated sense of mirth and wonder, and thought: What accounts for the peculiar appeal of the scale-model miniature?

Surely one reason for their ineluctable allure is that simple Olympian sense of being able to consume as large as entity as Beijing or New York in a single eyeful.

This is a fiction, of course, albeit a powerful one. But the Beijing I was looking at was only as real as one's imagination would allow it to be. For its painstaking physical verisimilitude, it is an empty, mute, frozen city, vacant of life and urban reality. Nowhere is there Beijing's cacophonous traffic, nowhere the legendary smog (by some accounts currently the world's worst). This model does not capture the convulsive destruction of the city's historic hutong neighborhoods, or the slow eradication of the "Kingdom of Bicycles," or the droves of immigrants living in temporary work camps who have come to build this next city. There are no construction cranes in this model — this is not real-time, unlike the model in Paul Auster's novel The Music of Chance, a "City of the World," marked by "extravagant smallness," in which past and present commingled (its creator depicted himself as a young man and an adult, in different locations). This model was to be so precise, in fact, it would feature a telescoping model within the model — if its creator had time to build it.

Model of Beijing, photograph by Tom Vanderbilt, 2006

What it does show, strikingly, is the Beijing that will soon become the backdrop for the 2008 Olympics broadcast. And so there was a small representation of Rem Koolhaas' serpentine headquarters for the Central Chinese Television (with the eerily apt initials CCTV), Herzog and De Mueron's "Bird's Nest" Olympic Stadium, and the "Water Cube," the Arup, et al., National Swimming Center. These are all striking, aspirational architecture, and I could not help but remember back to a cluttered shop in Shanghai that was selling old propaganda posters — the drive for maximum harvests and industrial output and the like — and think that I was not looking at some version of the same, with important buildings by "name" architects standing in for factory quotas and wheat production numbers.

This too seems to be a factor in the appeal of models, i.e., the sense that once you build something, even if it is at 1 to 100 scale, it is essentially completed. Call it anticipatory urbanism. One thinks of the many iconic historical photographs of architects and civic leaders hovering over some new project — the latest being Mssrs. Libeskind, Pataki, etc. pointing down into the new skyline of Lower Manhattan — dominating the city through their Brobdignagian mass, almost willing it into being. Of course, these buildings can now be rendered in a much more thoroughgoing and complex way digitally — pixilated walkthroughs and the like — but those, no matter how well done, still seem a bit otherworldly, like expensive fantasy real estate in some precinct of Second Life. All those gigabytes cannot seem to ultimately hold a candle to some good old-fashioned Lucite and three-dimensions.

There is a pristine, uncorrupted sense to models. They are an ideal of perfection yet to be encumbered by realism, by political demands and the other contingencies of full-scale life. The architectural photographer Balthazar Korab once told me that he taken pictures of a client's model and the actual completed building, and that the client preferred his photographs of the model.

And one should of course not dismiss the sheer sense of child-like wonder that models possess. As children, we are enchanted by miniature toys not only because we can relate to them in size, but because of the sense they give of being in control of one's environment — entire armies or dollhouses under one's domain. As adults, miniatures seem almost nostalgic, for they reconnect us with that small world, and I think something in this feeling explains the strangely powerful appeal of "tilt-focus photography," which distorts images selectively so that they fool us into thinking we are in fact looking at a miniature. This is, tactically, the opposite of what Korab had achieved — to make the fake look real — but in spirit they are part of the same project.

Raymond Lester, who designed and built the New York City diorama for the 1964 World's Fair, was an enthusiastic model-railroader as a child before going on to a career that began with making miniature, scientifically precise replicas of battleships during World War II — then eventually progressing to being the chief model-maker for Robert Moses' outsized ambitions (including the doomed Lower Manhattan Expressway). But one suspects that somewhere always lurking within this adult in a world of power and ambition was a child with an HO-scale view of the world.

Detail of Mississippi River Basin Model, photograph by Tom Vanderbilt, 2004

There is the question of whether something is too simply too large, too complex to be modeled. Several years ago, I spent an afternoon exploring the incredible ruins of the Mississippi River Basin Model, near Jackson, Mississippi. Built by German POW labor during the war, it is a scale-model replica, spanning some 200 acres, of the river's entire reach, from northern Mississippi to New Orleans, untold thousands of acres faithfully carved in modeling clay. The Corps used it for several decades to predict the effects of its various engineering projects and, on several occasions, to estimate in real-time the downriver effects during various floods. When the Corps began shifting to computer modeling in the 1980s, the model was vacated, left to slowly decay in the Mississippi humidity and sun. At the Corps' Waterways Experimentation Station in Vicksburg, however, there are still physical models being built, sprawling lakes and miniature rivers contained in metal hangers.

Some of the engineers still swore by physical models for being able to predict dynamics that even the most powerful computer might miss. But any model is ultimately haunted by a simple, powerful fact: It is not reality. The truth may be that reality is impossible to capture. Something like the Mississippi River is changing every minute, and it was this difficulty in rendering some version of truth that one engineer told me kept him "awake at night." A few years later, Hurricane Katrina proved his fears correct, even if not as predicted. Nature cannot be adequately replicated in a bathtub, or even a swimming pool.

Mississippi River Basin Model, Google Earth, 2006

What had recently reminded me of the Mississippi River Basin Model was a session of Google Earth. As with a model, Google Earth gives one a God's eye view of some landscape otherwise unknown in its totality; it also reawakens one's perspective of the familiar. As it happened, I came upon a stretch of the Mississippi River, and the view I had via my browser reminded me of striding tall atop the topographical model. On an impulse, I punched up Clinton, Mississippi, and watched as the browser "flew" south. After a few minutes, navigating along what I could remember of the place, I was able to find the Basin Model, looking a bit like, well, a drained river. I now had a view, taken from outer space, of a miniaturized landscape, upon which another, even more miniature, landscape was superimposed. To complete the picture, I remembered that at the Corps headquarters was a smaller, table-sized model of the model. As the narrator in Music of Chance had marveled, "a model of the model of the model. It could go on forever."

Posted in: Architecture, Social Good

Comments [24]

There's always a bigger picture.
Neil McKay

It's not a long way from these 3-D models back into 2-D, where rendering real and imaginery cities starts looking more like the model than the city they are supposed to mimic.

Here's a Japanese online shopping mall with an interface based around a fake, and very model-like, urban skyline.

William Drenttel

If you are ever in Israel you can stop by Mini Israel. The proportions are much bigger than your typical model so it's more like a miniature golf course. Quite disconcerting at times, actually.

"Small" makes things more intimate. As "big" makes things more shocking.

The models and systems discussed and linked here here are so far advanced it boggles the mind.

The city of Memphis has another model of the Mississippi. Its called River Walk.

And the Chinese had a whole "cult of crickets" where they built little cages for them with mini water dishes, houses and areas for them to fight in (GASP!). Apparently the Field Museum in Chicago, Buffalo NY Science Museum and Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins are the only three museums in the whole U.S. to have pieces in their collection. I don't know if its still going on.

Joe Moran

Stockholm Miniature

Sadly, this is not a permanent installation but it's really interesting anyway.

Jonas -- the link you provided reminded me of Mr. Rogers' opening and closing scenes for some reason. Pittsburg in mini! With jazz background music. Very cool. Thank you sir for reminding me.

Joe Moran

Tom writes succinctly and wonderfully of the many joys and some of the potential terrors of models and miniaturization. One of my favorite moments as a kid was being taken to the Gettysburg Diorama where static miniaturization was made dynamic if not quite cinematic by the addition of sound and lights. Another favorite miniature of mine is Madurodam in the Netherlands. Here the miniature is made sublime by the ability of the viewer to walk within the model; simultaneously allowing the participant to both experience Dutch " culture", and I suppose become literally bigger than it; perhaps ironic given the country's dimunitive size. A useful book on the subject that covers the scopes and uses of miniaturization is Celeste Olalquiaga's, The Artificial Kingdom; a Treasury of the Kitsch Experience.

Perhaps the most terrifying model I have ever studied is that of Albert Speer's Germania. Adolf and Albert used to spend many hours alone (some have wondered about this), admiring this horrific vision of classical splendor - the future capital of the 1000-year reich that was not to be. Hitler admired Speer's organizational and miniaturization skills to such a degree that for a time Speer deluded himself not only into imaginging that he was an architectural god, but also the heir to the final solution. More often than one might imagine they have gone together. In this sense at least I am not completely on-board to Tom's comment that models..." are an ideal of perfection yet to be encumbered by realism, by political demands and the other contingencies of full-scale life." My own sense, even as I remain fascinated by City models and visit them when I get the chance, is that they are now an archaic, if not always barbaric, means of urban representation that seeks to represent the life and political power of the chosen at the expense of most of the rest of us. Hence it does not surprise me that a regime such as the one in China would spend time and money to build a model of thier future capital. Better to have a God-like view in a conference hall where all contingencies can be controlled than experience the reality of the streets (conveniently framed and frozen under glass to be stomped upon). Interestingly, one wonders if the tepid response to the first models of the Ground Zero site did not raise some of the same concerns in our more democratic situation. And this gets me to the last point.

Planning and design models in the digital age now have the possibility and responsibility of being dynamic in that designers, clients, and consumer/participants can become active in their production/making. I for one thinks this creates some healthy checks and balances - a little less likely that the Germania's of the future will get even as advanced as the ones of the past - that portend well for a more egalitarian future for cities and their populations. The more models become dynamic and out of the complete control of their designers, the more static models of the type discussed in this post are consigned to the pleasing dustbins of forgotten halls and out of the way locales, perhaps the sooner levees might be designed in a public interest so that they do not break, and Beijing designed for its actual citizens as opposed to Olympian Leader Gods.

Meanwhile, in defense of some models and modeling in general, at least in the political sense, I sure am glad that the Union held, Lincoln was able to give his address, a battlefield model in three-dimensional dioramic splendor with lights, sound, and action was built for a kid to experience - and that we all don't live under the bars and stripes.
John Kaliski

Great article. Love Beijing model and the Auster quote - hadn't seen those before.

Completely agree about using Google Earth to 'visit' a city from a different perspective - I wrote a bit about this with respect to how it can help to understand the urban form of Barcelona (and then cheekily suggested a couple of extensions which would enable you to listen to the city and then scroll the map backwards through time.)

And on the thrill of scale models, absolutely: there are the huge models of New York, Tokyo and Shanghai at the Mori institute in Tokyo and London at New London Architecture. They have similar in Sydney, at the old Customs building at Circular Quay, over which you can walk, on toughened glass. There's something attractive, in the Lilliputian sense, about being able to stride over cities. (Or maybe that's a Godzilla feeling.) This feeling also applies to walkable world maps.

From a slightly different angle, video games offer a similar sensation, though it reverses the polarity and miniaturises you, placing you within the city model, at the size of your TV screen. Here, the city is perhaps best conjured through modeling behaviour and detail rather than urban form at scale. This is where software based models have the edge over physical miniatures, as they could react to real-time data. Although, it can be profoundly disorientating to visit a city after discovering it first in a video game, as I discovered when I hit the beach at Santa Monica, only to realise I'd been there before. Kinda. Kevin Lynch's notion of imageability may be key here.

Finally, what impact do these models have on the urban form itself? Is there any kind of feedback loop? I've speculated that this may happen with architecture, as video game rendering engines conjure increasingly accurate models of things like Fallingwater or cities themselves.

But as you note: it's still not the real thing :)
Dan Hill

I too love city models. I find it interesting that the first thing people do is try to find landmarks they know, such as you with your hotel, or our homes etc.

If you're ever in Cork (in Ireland), there's a model on permanent display at the Cork Vision Centre.

Many great recommendations and theoretical strands raised here so far, and I want to join in, but I'm about to get on a plane for Las Vegas -- which come to think of it is a domain of 'life-sized model architecture' -- i.e., the New York New York Casino, the Paris, et al, et al; in any case I hope to engage soon in this discussion.
Tom Vanderbilt

We keep in our minds representational models of reality against which to simulate real-world possibilities. Any extension of this seems naturally human. Perhaps children who are just developing these abilities compensate by acting out in miniature - a kind of physical mechanical cognition.

So, in our technological childhood, we built scale models and prodded, shook, politicized and otherwise mechanically computed with them. Now that we are six, we do it in our silicon heads.

That was an awsome post tom great pictures too.

As with all posts, I had hoped this would be a sort of sonar "ping" issued to see what else was out there, and my interest in models is definitely profiting from all the intriguing suggestions. It seems noteworthy that the range of references spans from Albert Speer to Mister Roger's Neighborhood (!) This seems to codify that dualistic sense of child-like wonder and innocence that models project on the one hand (the Legolands of the world), and the more sinister moment at which the model-as-city becomes a kind of game board for sweeping machinations. The Mister Rogers model is one of preciousness and nostalgia -- and come to think of it, arent' all model railroad environments nostalgic? I've seen many examples of early 20th century USA, but I haven't seen any railways chugging past Bauhaus buildings or Kahn-ian factories (if any exist, I'd love to know about it). The Albert Speer strand, meanwhile, seems to be a nostalgia for the future , through a channeling of an imagined past, and rather than a sense of cuteness the model is used as a unpeopled dream state in which the overall plan trumps the individual.
Tom Vanderbilt

Hi everyone - I spent all day scouring the archives at the ICA in Boston (online) in desperate pursuit of the name and exhibit title of one of the most intriguing city models I've had the great fortune to peruse. But no luck! So, instead, please allow my words to constuct a view: A male Mexican architect built a mock model of Mexico City using quarter-inch thick foam WORDS. So for example, street (calle such and such) was laid in vertical along the flat bottom. A Bank (banco) reached skyword (in vertical 3D puzz-style - only crafted and elegant). The entire city, from taxi's, to personas, to fruterias sprang to life, with authorial grace and spanned across an entire room. It was an intruging way to learn about the city as for me, it was a very vocal performance.
Jessica Gladstone

In Richmond Hill, Just north of Toronto is the University of Toronto's Dunlap Observatory, which has a very beautiful structure to house it's main telescope, built in 1935. One is of temped to ponder it's role as an instrument modeling the universe in this context, but really, I only mention it for orintation purposes.

Abutting the Observatory's property is a municipal park with a scale model of the solar system which works on a couple of levels. Each body in the system is represented in relative scale with the rest and at the same time in a larger scale representing the orbits of it's moon(s). It was fun to take my sons there when they were younger for bike races to Pluto and back.


Russell McGorman

Mr. Vanderbilt,

And did you request to have a window seat on the plane? ;-)

Joe Moran

These minature models make me want to put on a 'Godzilla' suit and start going nuts.

Not sure my post adds a whole lot to this conversation but it was fun why the fantasy lasted.


Von Glitschka

Was pleased to find this website

If you like model cities, you should see the amazing photographs of Olivo Barbieri, whose clever images make real cities seem like tiny models.
Ben Hamilton

nice article. good read.

There's one in Hannover's city hall that's pretty nice (though it may have been temporary?).

Interesting stuff!

I must sit down and read this post and comments in full, in the meantime, here's my own contribution: photographs of models of Berlin that were on display in the Nikolaikirche in Berlin in August of this year:

Just saw this cool video.

Via Fimoculous.

Very Respectfully,
Joe Moran

Found your site while working on compiling a map of as model cities as I can find...

Model Cities

Always looking for more.

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