City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

A model of the model of the model

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There’s a great article over at Design Observer – as ever – by Tom Vanderbilt on scale models of cities.

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

Vanderbilt goes on to describe the unbelievable room-size model of Beijing, in Beijing, and then draws a great image from Paul Auster’s ‘The Music of Chance‘:

"There are no construction cranes in this (Beijing) 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 …. “a model of the model of the model. It could go on forever.”"

After exploring the "pristine, uncorrupted sense" of fake reality that models offer, and drawing from further examples at varying sizes, Vanderbilt concludes by describing the dizzying sensation offered by Google Earth’s inadvertent city models. It’s good stuff.

I just tried to post a comment on the post, drawing in a few more examples around this theme, and their comments software singularly failed to do so. So rather than repeatedly hit ‘submit’ on their comments form – and risk posting the comment five times – I’ll post it here once:

"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 :)"

Design Observer: Small Worlds

Update: I did manage to post the comment after all. Ironically, it was being rejected by Movable Type’s spam filter because it had too many links in it. Thanks to William for unblocking it. John Kaliski, whose comment was also initially blocked for the same reason, contributes some more good context, wrt to Speer etc. "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."


One response to “A model of the model of the model”

  1. Paul Mison Avatar

    Presumably not a coincidence, but MetaFilter recently featured a list of scale models of cities.
    One they don’t mention is the model of Iceland in Reykjavik’s City Hall, which is fairly impressive.
    It also doesn’t mention Touch London, the scale model that’s used by the City to sell itself, which is worth a visit whenever it’s open (usually as part of Open House, when one of the model-makers is often there to talk about it.)


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