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In the summer of 2009, the Chicago Architecture Foundation unveiled a new scale model of downtown Chicago. Entitled Chicago Model City, it is a 1:600 (1"=50') scale model of the Loop and central part of the city, on semi-permanent display in the atrium of the Santa Fe Building.

The model was created to honor the centennial of Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago, one of the first comprehensive attempts at city planning. Like the Panorama of the City of New York model, and the large planning models in Shanghai, Beijing and many cities in China, scale models are useful tools for urban planning efforts. The scope of the model allows viewers to gain perspective on larger patterns of the city landscape, and also allows planning officials to spotlight proposed changes to the landscape to win public support for large or costly projects. On a tiny model, even the most drastic civic engineering schemes can seem like a simple project for a home hobbyist. In the Chicago Model City exhibit, large urban planning projects of Chicago's past and future are explained on displays around the perimeter of the room.

The 1000 miniature buildings for the model were created in resin using stereo lithographic 3D printing, rather than the traditional wood or plastic. Still, the model involved an immense amount of effort. Columbian Model and Exhibit Works gathered existing CAD data for some of the buildings, but most of the buildings were created as Google Sketchup models, which were printed in batches, then sanded and finished with gray paint before assembling into city blocks.

The one shiny object amidst all the gray towers is the "Bean" or Cloud Gate sculpture in Millenium Park.

Some of the models seem to be built with a higher level of detail than others. But perhaps its just that the older skyscrapers have more surface detail than the plain Miesian boxes of Illinois Center in the foreground of the photo above.

This is no mistake of scale: many next-door buildings in Chicago are built to jarringly different proportions, making a haphazard skyline.

Though the model is impressive in size and detail, at only 320 square feet it does not compare to many larger city models around the world. The Chicago Architecture Foundation has promised that it will continue adding to the model in the future. Hopefully they will continue this level of detail right to the city limits, which would create an impressive city model 230 feet by 189 feet, if every far-flung corner of the city were included. The completed model will be a useful educational tool for reimagining a city of balkanized neighborhoods as a unified whole.


There are several other notable miniature representations of Chicago. At the Museum of Science and Industry, The Great Train Story is a large model railroad layout in HO scale (1:87). A long loop winding through the model simulates the sights along a train journey on the Empire Builder between Chicago and Seattle.

Though the models represent actual buildings, they are 'abridged' versions, cut short and rearranged to fit the space considerations of the layout. They do make a nice pastiche of downtown Chicago, but are not strictly to scale.

A different kind of stylized miniature Chicago architecture can be found at the Lego Store on north Michigan Ave.

At Christmastime, the Chicago Botanic Gardens features a charming display of model trains running between miniature architectural landmarks made from bark, twigs, and nuts.

Other humorous model buildings around town include a miniature replica of Wrigley Field made from gum wrappers on display at ESPN Zone, and the Par King miniature golf course in suburban Lincolnshire which features chunky versions of the Prudential Building and John Hancock Center as hazards on the golf course.


Other miniature scale model cities around the world:

Maqueta de Antequera - 1:200 scale handmade model recreating 18th century Antequera, Spain

Beijing City Model - 1:750 scale model of the master plan of Beijing on display at the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall

Boston City Model - Wooden planning model of central Boston on display at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center

Miniature Buenos Aires - 1:1500 scale model of the entire city of Buenos Aires entitled 48 Barrios, 15 Comunas

Chongqing City Model - 1:750 scale model of Chongqing, China master plan on display at the Chongqing Urban Planning Exhibition Hall

Cincinnati in Motion - a 1:64 representation of Cincinnati from 1900-1940 at the Cincinnati Museum Center, featuring working trains and streetcars

Maqueta de la Havana - 1:1000 scale 1550-sq-foot model of Havana built from cigar boxes, cardboard, plastic and sand

Indianapolis City Model - 1:960 model of downtown Indianapolis

Jerusalem Model - 1:500 scale planning model of central Jerusalem on display at the Jerusalem Center for Planning in Historic Cities

Los Angeles 1940 - A model of central Los Angeles built in 1940, on display at the LA County Natural History Museum

Pipers Central London Model - 1:1500 scale model of central London on display at the Building Centre

Minato-ku Scale Model - 1:1000 scale model of Tokyo on display in the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower

Quito en Miniatura - 1:200 scale model of the colonial center of Quito built of cardboard and wood by artist Guido Falcony Palacios

Moscow City Model - 1:500 scale 1550-sq-foot wooden planning model of Moscow completed in 1986

Panorama of Moscow - 1:75 scale 400-sq-foot diorama model created by artist Efim Deshalyt in 1977

Nanjing City Model - 1:850 scale model on display at the Nanjing Urban Planning Museum

Panorama of the City of New York - 1:1200 scale model of the entire City of New York, the world's largest scale model, built for the 1964 World's Fair

Prague City Model - 1:480 scale model of central Prague made from cardboard by librarian Antonin Langweil in the 1830s, at the Museum of the City of Prague

Providence Model - Unknown-scale wooden planning model of downtown Providence, Rhode Island

Le Plan de Rome - 1:400 scale model of ancient Rome built in the early 1900s by architect Paul Bigot, on display at l'Université de Caen Basse-Normandie

Plastico di Roma Imperiale - 1:250 scale model of ancient Rome built in the 1930s, on display at the Museo della Civiltà Romana

San Diego Model - 1:50 scale 290-sq-foot wooden model of downtown San Diego built in the 1970s, on display at Civic San Diego

Shanghai City Model - 1:500 scale model of Shanghai 2020 plan on display at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall

Singapore City Model - Model of downtown Singapore and 1:5000 scale model of Singapore Island on display at the Singapore City Gallery

Stockholm City Model - 157-foot long 1:1000 scale model of entire Stockholm created in 2005, until recently on display at the Kulturhuset

Sydney City Model - 1:500 scale model of downtown Sydney, on display beneath a glass floor at Customs House

Toronto City Model - Unknown-scale model on display at City Hall

Musée des Plans-Reliefs - Hundreds of 1:600 scale models of French cities created in the 18th century are on display at this Paris museum


Some impressionistic not-to-scale model cities:

Metropolis II - Kinetic sculpture by artist Chris Burden depicts a futuristic city of tiny cars and trains in motion, at LA County Museum of Art

Rolling Through The Bay - Kinetic sculpture by artist Scott Weaver made of 100,000 toothpicks featuring landmarks of San Francisco

San Francisco in Jello - Gooey technicolor model of San Francisco made by artist Liz Hickok



Copyright 2013 Matt Bergstrom