Making a Model of Chicago

16 January 2020

The City of Chicago model that includes 1000M, created by Columbian Model & Exhibit Works, at the Chicago Architecture Center.
The City of Chicago model that includes 1000M, created by Columbian Model & Exhibit Works, at the Chicago Architecture Center.

 

Chicago is a big city that adores miniature things. From the beloved Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago, to the City of Chicago model at the Chicago Architecture Center (CAC), there’s nothing quite like seeing the world with a new perspective. We’re proud to share that 1000M recently took its spot in CAC’s City of Chicago model, with a miniature model of the building placed into the interactive installation. 

We were lucky enough to sit down with the team behind the model, Columbian Model & Exhibit Works, to learn what it takes to make a model of the city, complete with a tour of their studio to observe the process firsthand. 

 

A Model on the Move

The Chicago Model first debuted at the Railway Exchange Building in 2009, made possible by 3D printing when the process was still little known. The model is a 1:600 (1” – 50’) scale model of the city. Locals and tourists alike flocked to see the city shrunken down; 100,000 people have visited the model each year since.

First conceptualized by CAC President and CEO Lynn Osmond, the model was created to last only three months for a temporary exhibit. However, the model has been able to thrive past its original lifespan due to the dedication and care of the Columbian Model & Exhibit Works team, who perform routine maintenance on it two or three times a year, removing demolished buildings and introducing new additions to the cityscape. 

After the exhibit, the model remained on view in the atrium of the Santa Fe building outside the CAC offices. In the fall of 2018, the model moved into CAC’s magnificent new building, expanded the model’s scope by nearly 50%, with 3,200 new buildings across 630 additional city in blocks. For the expansion, Columbian Model & Exhibit Works has included Chicago’s unique topography on the model’s newer and sturdier base. 

 

1000M standing tall in the Chicago Model at the Chicago Architecture Center.
1000M standing tall in the Chicago Model at the Chicago Architecture Center.

The Makers Behind the Model

1000M was recently added to the Chicago Model now that construction is officially underway, since a building earns its wings — a place on the Chicago Model — when construction begins. Columbian Model & Exhibit Works keeps tabs on demolition and building permits, allowing them to reach out to the architects and owners of new buildings in the city. They share: “In the Chicago architectural community, everybody loves the CAC model.” 

3D printers hard at work at the Columbian Model & Exhibit Works studio.
3D printers hard at work at the Columbian Model & Exhibit Works studio.

Columbian Model & Exhibit Works creates each individual building in resin by stereo-lithographic 3D printing using 3D Sketchup digital models. In lay terms: they make a model in virtual space that is 3D-print ready, simplifying drawings into a watertight shell. With this basic shape, the software takes what is essentially a CT scan, layer by layer. These layers let the 3D printer break down the project, and build up thousands of layers to create a full model. 

The actual 3D printing is donated by DSM Functional Materials, the manufacturer of the acrylic resin used in the process, Once printing is complete (sometimes taking more than 80 hours for a single building), the handiwork begins. The team cleans up printed models, making sure each detail is pristine and free of excess material. They then paint the building models in three shades of gray to help differentiate them. Each new building model is later carefully placed onto the existing Chicago Model during regular maintenance performed by Columbian Model & Exhibit Works. 

Columbian Model & Exhibit Works are also the creators behind the show-stopping presentation-scale model of 1000M in our Sales Gallery. Stay tuned for more on that project, and insights into their fascinating studio and process!