The Model-making of Modern London



What is it that we find so intriguing about scale models, from Jonathan Swift’s  depiction of the island kingdom of Lilliput in Gulliver’s Travels to the modern tourist attraction that is Legoland almost three centuries later, enjoyed equally by children and adults alike?

Part of the answer, at least, is that they help us to make sense of the physical world in microcosm, demonstrating man’s imposition of order and his conquest of nature.

Swift wrote his book, first published in 1726, as a satire on contemporary politics and religion. Conflict was defined by those who cracked open their boiled eggs at the thin end and those who chose the fat end. If only life was so simple.

For centuries architects have used models as a means of working out massing and complex relationships between the whole and the sum of its parts; and more especially as a very potent method of ‘selling’ their designs to gullible clients and planning committees made up of laymen. They don’t come cheap: in a Honeysett cartoon in Punch, in 1971, the architect has to explain his latest scheme to a couple of perplexed developers by saying “There must be some misunderstanding, the three and a half million was just for the model”!

Since its launch 10 years ago, New London Architecture has featured a giant scale model of central London at its headquarters, at The Building Centre in Store Street, off Tottenham Court Road. As new areas have benefited from investment and infrastructure, so the model has grown, and increasingly this has meant not only outwards but upwards, like the Shard on the South Bank at London Bridge. One project can have a dramatic impact not only on its immediate surroundings, but to the whole skyline and how we perceive our capital city. King’s Cross and Battersea Power Station would be other examples.

The New London Model, to be launched formally on 20 May but already on free public view, takes model-making to a sophisticated new level: it covers more than 85,000 sq km, with approximately 170,000 buildings across 19 boroughs, including 34km of the Thames and its corresponding 21 bridges. Based on data supplied by Ordnance Survey, the 1:2000 scale model is 12.5m in length and extends from King’s Cross in the north to Peckham in the south, and Old Oak Common in the west to Royal Docks in the east. It was built by Pipers.

What’s more, it is interactive. Armed with touchscreens, and sophisticated projection and lighting systems, visitors – local residents, tourists and industry professionals alike – are able to summon up key facts and figures about current and future projects; the impact of the Mayor’s London Plan; the ongoing influence of the Great Estates (Cadogan, Grosvenor, de Walden, et al) and the rise, and rise, and rise of tall buildings. No fewer than 223 of these are planned or under construction.

Transport links are tracked, including HS2  and Crossrail 1 and 2.

The new model, like central London itself, is not a static display, however. It will continue to grow and evolve over the next 10 years just as its predecessor did in the past.

There are five bespoke films tracing key moments in history. For example, the Great Fire of 1666 is dramatically presented by the Square Mile appearing to burn down in the conflagration, while the rest of the city is plunged into darkness.

NLA was opened in 2005 as an independent architecture centre and information resource. It organises forums for discussion and debate. To mark its tenth anniversary this year, new research has been commissioned on the role of the public realm – that’s the space between buildings; and an ideas competition to find 100 new ways to meet the needs of the housing crisis.

Members of the public will also be asked to vote for an overall winner of the 10 Best Buildings of the Last 10 Years.

With the capital’s population expected to grow to 10 million by 2030, it is perhaps surprising that it has been left to this private, commercial initiative to plug so many gaps in people’s knowledge and experience of their own city. A largely laissez-faire approach to planning and development has been one of the principal hallmarks of London down the centuries, and the twenty-first century seems to be following the trend – but at an accelerated rate of growth and change.

London’s enhanced status as a virtual city-state within a state is set to continue for the foreseeable future.

The New London Model opened to the public on 23 April and will have a formal launch on 20 May. The NLA Galleries are open Monday to Friday, 9am til 6pm, and Saturday 10am til 5pm. Tel 020-7636 4044.


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