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The Model City

The Model City
Courtesy Queens Museum of New York

San Francisco sat there for years, broken up and packaged into 17 wooden crates, hardly labeled and nearly forgotten. But when the warehouse that held those crates was sold in 2009, the city was rediscovered. All of its streets and neighborhoods and homes were there, delicately and intricately replicated in a relief model of the entire city measuring 37 by 41 feet and dating back to the New Deal era.

No one is exactly sure how it ended up in that UC Berkeley warehouse. But for Gray Brechin, a New Deal researcher and historian at the university, the rediscovery of the model was an incredibly lucky find. He says it’s likely this model was just one of many built by the Works Progress Administration in the years following the Great Depression, but it’s uncertain how many of them remain. The models were built for planning purposes, but also as a form of what is now called economic stimulus. “It employed an awful lot of people,” says Brechin, who estimates that construction of this one model probably took thousands of people-hours.

The WPA's scale model of San Francisco in 1940, courtesy National Archives

The model – with its hand painted houses and little street trees – was given by the WPA to the San Francisco Planning Department in 1940. Brechin says it was probably used to help plan transit in the city, as well as new development. After its professional use, it was likely put on display for the public. Brechin says large-scale models like these were created by the WPA and the Civilian Conservation Corps for many national parks as well, but he’s not sure how many other cities had them, or if any have survived the years. As tools for planning a city, these models were incredibly elaborate assets for their time, but assets that have slowly disappeared from city planning and even from the broader goal of educating the public about the function and development cities.

San Francisco’s model is potentially very rare and, Brechin says, an invaluable educational tool and historic resource. He’s hoping to find a home where it can be put on display, but room for the 1,500-square-foot object has been hard to find in San Francisco, a city much more dense and developed than the one depicted in the model itself. In the meantime, it's still sleeping in its crates.

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Scale models have been built for cities all over the world, from Rome to Shanghai to Los Angeles to Moscow. Most of these models were built by governments for government purposes. Some were used for plotting out infrastructure like airports and subways, and others were used to act as a canvas for planning out new developments. One in particular, though, was mainly built for self-celebration.

Robert Moses was at the height of his massive-scale public works building spree in New York City when the city was chosen to host the 1964 World’s Fair. To highlight the city’s development, guided by his largely autocratic control, Moses commissioned the construction of a scale model of the entire city of New York, all five boroughs, and more than 800,000 individual buildings. The 9,355 square foot model is widely believed to be the largest in the world.

The model, known as the Panorama, was a major hit during the World’s Fair, offering visitors a simulated helicopter ride over the city. The model remained at the fair site, now the Queens Museum of Art, and was used for planning purposes in the years that followed.

“If you wanted to see how your new development would fit into the surroundings, you’d come down and bring your model and actually place it in the Panorama,” says David Strauss, the museum’s director of external affairs.

The model eventually stopped being used for official purposes, according to Tom Finkelpearl, the museum’s executive director. But it's still popular. Finkelpearl says the model draws tens of thousands of visitors to the museum each year.

“I think there’s a certain amount of fascination with models that people have from a very early age,” says Finkelpearl.

He isn’t sure why the model fell out of official use, but sees its new role as an educational tool as more important. The model’s detail and sheer size make it an ideal way to think about the city as an entity. And though it’s no longer used by the city’s development teams, Finkelpearl points to a few exhibits at the museum that have used the Panorama to expand or change the way people think about the city as a whole. One project by artist Damon Rich in 2009 used the model to map out foreclosures in the city, creating a visualization that was both explanatory and visceral. Another project, opening next spring, will invite artists to build models of imagined islands that would sit in the waters around the city. Finkelpearl says this sort of physical display gives people a deeper understanding of the physical elements of the city, and the ways those elements can and potentially will change.

The newly emerging megacities in China often build scale models for display, the most notable being the massive scale model of downtown Shanghai at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center. Others exist in Nanjing, Chongqing, and Beijing, among others. (Buildyourownchicago.com has a nice list of scale city models from around the world.) But these large projects are often eschewed in favor of easier to produce and cheaper to share visualizations like maps and satellite imagery.

They’re the evolution of these city models, in a way, but Finkelpearl sees them kind of like surrogates of surrogates. “Looking at a map or screen just doesn’t have the same impact,” Finkelpearl says.

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Exhibits like those at the Queens Museum of Art show new ways of thinking about the utility of these models. Another recent exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York developed a new kind of model that offers a more visual way of understanding city change over a long period of time. That 2009 exhibit was connected to the Mannahatta project, which explored the original ecology of the island of Manhattan and its changes as the island developed between the 1600s and today. To show this change, the museum built a topographical map of the island, but left it blank. Instead of crafting anything on top of the model, the landmass was used as a canvas onto which images of the island’s changes over time could be projected. A handful of different images were projected onto the model from before 1609, as the city began to form, and as it developed into the metropolis of today.

These sorts of uses hint at a possible new life for the 1940 model of San Francisco. Brechin is hopeful that a site for the model will emerge, somewhere. He thinks there’s a significant demand for this particular type of historical document. “The public is still very interested in them. They just go gaga when they get a chance to see one,” Brechin says.

But for now, the model of San Francisco remains in storage. The tiny neighborhoods sit as they were seven decades ago, carefully recorded in wood and paint, but hidden from those interested in their form or the lessons they offer from the past. The actual city as it was may be gone, but in this unique form it lives on. How long and for what purpose are questions waiting for an answer.

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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