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Cities in Miniature

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.

Visit other miniature scale model cities around the world.