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Cities in Miniature

At London's Building Centre, an educational center focussing on architecture and planning, there is a semi-permanent 1:1500 scale model of central London.

The plastic model was built in 2008 by the modelmaking firm Pipers, covers 130 square feet and required over 5000 hours of work. The layout does not encompass the entire city, just a cross section from Paddington in the west to the Royal Docks in the east which includes important areas of redevelopment.

The city model is made from plastic in square sections. The section grid lines cut directly through streets and buildings, which would seem to indicate that the squares were molded or 3D printed as solid pieces of plastic rather than individual buildings glued to a base platform. The ease of assembling and disassembling the model takes precedence over the detailed recreation of particular structures or streets.

A closeup of the Tower Bridge and London City Hall shows the simplified design of the models. The forms of the real-life places are abstracted at a level several times larger than the size of a scale human on the model. While the basic shapes of the buildings are represented, there isn't quite enough detail included to imagine yourself crossing the tiny bridge or walking along the riverfront.

New developments and proposed buildings are indicated by white plastic models. The route of the enormous Crossrail project being tunnelled under central London can be seen as a blue line soaring over the rooftops. If a scale model helps us visualize the thousands of structures of London aboveground, can it also show us the equally massive root network of tunnels and built structures underneath the ground?

Though the model lacks detail, there are some charming vistas of local landmarks.

There are no labels on the Pipers model, so you are on your own in navigating the tiny city and figuring out the street names and locations of landmark buildings. The sole marker is a small red dot telling the viewer "You Are Here" at the New London Architecture Building Centre gallery.

Large blocky structures of new developments surround the Millennium Dome, while an older jumble of smaller buildings can be seen across the Thames.

Like the Beijing Planning Model, one purpose of the model is to show the layout and massive new development of the park built for the 2012 Olympic Games.

While the sprawling layout of the London city model is impressive, its lack of detail makes it difficult to explore in the small-scale imagination. The plastic materials and promotional purpose of the model seem more similar to the grand development models of China in Shanghai and Chongqing than the worn handmade feel of the Panorama of New York model. Interestingly, Pipers has also built a 1:500 scale model focussing on the smaller area of the City of London, which is located at the City Marketing Suite. This second model includes much more detail on each building and features a computer-controlled lighting system to highlight particular landmarks. Sadly, the City Marketing Suite is not generally open to the public for viewing the model.

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