Monday, January 26, 2009

It's a Small World, After All

One thing I've never mentioned here before is that I LOVE me some model trains.  I suppose this isn't really Architecture, but some of these set-ups are so elaborate that they come pretty darn close. Just a lot smaller. I also think there's something obviously akin to Urban Planning involved here. If nothing else, they require an intimate understanding of the ways we organize our structures and transportation routes in the real world so that, however compressed, they won't appear awkward or unrealistic in miniature. Getting really involved in creating something like this, psychologically speaking, I'm sure requires some amount of God Complex.

Model railroads focus attention on our world in a number of interesting ways. They tend to favor the built environment and especially industrial areas that typically have much more rail traffic. There is a favored time period, near the turn of the twentieth century, when rail travel and heavy industry were at an all-time peak. In general, they favor environments and scenes that have the most mechanical components (like amusement parks), with the most inherent motion. But, despite the fact that these layouts are heavily populated, they would seem to favor a universe devoid of human beings and other animate creatures, because they can't be simulated as realistically. I suppose looking to automata, which have been around for hundreds of years, it would theoretically be possible to give the little human figures motion. But with the huge number of them in a single layout, it would hardly be realistic to attempt it.

Up until now, I'd thought that the most incredible model train layout was the holiday exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh.
--Photo courtesy Bob Fazio.

--Photos courtesy Josh Aronoff.
The lighting in the room slowly changes from day to night, all the lights in the village come on, and then it goes back up to day again.  I think the process takes around a half hour all together.

--Photo by Michael Orban.
It's still incredible. It looks especially large when you're only seven years old, but it's around eighty by twenty feet.  The rivers of real water and boats sailing around them are great.  It also has tons of animated scenes, there's a kid swinging on a tree swing, kids flying kites that actually float around in the air, all kinds of fun things they say are "only viewable from a child's point of view."  But what I suppose is most impressive about their layout is how very educational and historical it is. All throughout the layout are historical scenes like a Women's Suffrage parade, an African American baseball team, replicas of real structures from the history of coal mining and steel smelting.  It's like an elementary school teacher's dream come true.

--Photos courtesy Jaaron Farr.
Pittsburgh really is the perfect place for something like this, too, since the steel magnates made their fortunes from the westward expansion of railways, Andrew Carnegie himself probably more than any other.

MIT students started a fairly impressive model railroad in 1946, still running today. They're the Tech Model Railroad Club, and they allegedly coined the term "hackers," referring to something other than computer vandals.  Their layout is far more urban and industrial than most. Their website explains that originally the club was mostly electrical engineering students who were more interested in control systems than with scenery. The switching controls they created for the layout were evidently quite sophisticated for the time and used mostly surplus equipment from the telephone industry.

Then there's this very large layout in New Jersey, The Great American Railway at Northlandz. It's a little bit excessively mountainous, but it has some very impressive bridges. The longest of them is forty feet long, although the engineering of the bridges is questionable at best, to the point that they don't really look like any real bridge. They have over a hundred trains running per day. The walk around it is said to be a mile long, and it's said to be the largest HO-scale layout in the world.

In my opinion, the most mind-boggling of them all is the Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg, also claimed to be the largest model train layout in the world. Listening to their statistics, it's quite safe to say it makes Northlandz look childish. They run over 800 trains, the longest of which is several meters long. They have actual ocean liners and cargo ships floating around in enormous lakes. It's also a hundred times more realistic.
It's completely out of control.  I'd love to visit.

Miniatur Wunderland has a factory that produces what appears to be chocolates. After the tiny people make this giant slab of chocolate, it pops out the bottom so the visitor can eat it. I have no doubt that it's a pre-packaged chocolate only appearing to have been made by a miniature factory. But it would be remarkable to see a miniature set-up like this that would in reality produce a product from start to finish. For instance, haul raw materials in from all different parts of the layout by train, unload them into a miniature factory, and bake miniature loaves of bread or something. I can't think of any product off the top of my head that wouldn't be restricted by the actual size of things like eggs in the case of bread. There must be something, though.

©2009, Ryan Witte

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