Walking into Peter McCann’s architectural model firm in Toronto feels like stepping into a miniature city, albeit a rather scattered one. Small-scale condo replicas fill every corner of the room, some concealed in plastic wrap while others are placed proudly on the wall, like a work of art.
McCann founded the firm in 1983, where he and his team of 13 work tirelessly to build miniature versions of structures being constructed around the world, from the Plaza Hotel in New York to Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest skyscraper in the world.
While most scale models don’t exceed 15 feet, the Burj Khalifa replica was built to be 27-feet tall, which is equivalent to a three-storey building. Following six months of meticulous craftsmanship, McCann and his team had to use 20 large crates just to transport the entire model to Dubai. The model remains there today.
Just as the 828-metre Burj Khalifa is now the centrepiece of downtown Dubai, scale models tend to become the main attraction of a condo sales centre. Hundreds — and sometimes thousands — of hours are spent assembling, perfecting and pulling the odd all-nighter or two before the big reveal.
The more advanced varieties even feature bright interior lighting and pint-sized furniture. Depending on the size and number of fancy finishes, a model can cost anywhere between $20,000 and $40,000.
McCann has also built many scale models for noteworthy Toronto projects, such as Concord’s CityPlace, Five Condos and even the Art Gallery of Ontario.
“Many of the models we build are built to last throughout time,” McCann said. “We take care in how we build them and they don’t fall apart after many years.”
While these intricate structures gain the attention of the public when on display, their fame is fleeting. Once a presentation centre closes its doors, a model’s whereabouts is often a mystery to buyers.
McCann is quick to explain that most models are still preserved well after the sales centre closes. Sometimes a developer will display the condo replica in their main office or the architect will ask to keep it. Some are even donated to various companies. But if a new home is not found and McCann doesn’t have room for it, the model is recycled.
Whether the majority of scale models find another home or not appears to vary from firm to firm. Michael Burke, president of Myles Burke Architectural Models, says 80 per cent of the scale replicas that he and his team construct are rarely returned.
“Unfortunately the reality is that a lot of them get chucked,” Burke said. “We don’t even get the opportunity to reclaim many of them.”
Burke exhibits the standout pieces on a large mezzanine that wraps around his office in Vaughan, Ontario, hoping to hold onto as many as he can. He recalls the time he built a scale model for The Edge, a master-planned waterfront condominium in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It featured an aquarium to represent the East River along with two interior amenity spaces — miniature treadmills and all.
“You’ll think it’s a typical looking development but then something will be unique about it and we’ll have to think on the fly and figure it out,” Burke said. “Those are the sort of things that stick with you — the challenges.”
After spending five months building the elaborate model, it was transported to New York City on a 50-foot tractor trailer. Burke and his team even had to park the vehicle diagonally across a busy intersection in New York.
“I remember the truck at that intersection blocking it and how stressful it was. I remember how heavy that fishtank was.” Burke said. “I guess it’s things like this that make me attached to these models. There is an emotion attached to it.”
Burke is thankful he still has the first major project his team ever built displayed on their office mezzanine. They call it their first born. Yet eight years later, he says each model he constructs is distinct. The process never gets old.
“You’ll think it’s a typical looking development but then something will be unique about it and we’ll have to think on the fly and figure it out,” he said. “Those are the sort of things that stick with you — the challenges.”
And while waving farewell to a scale model can be difficult, Burke tends to make the most of the situation, often holding a ceremony for the miniature structures. Sometimes he and his employees will shoot hockey pucks at one until it breaks. Though he has more sophisticated methods of destruction in the works.
Two 14-foot models sit outside Burke’s firm, acting as large pillars that greet people as they enter. He worries these models will eventually need to be destructed once they run out of space. So he’s crafted a plan: bring the two structures to a wrecking yard and let a crane operator drop a car on both models. Another one of his grand schemes? Set the model in a field and fly a kite entwined with wire beside it, hoping it gets struck by lightning.
While these scenarios sound unrealistic, the entire process, from start to finish, is a creative one for him.
“Nothing against accounting — accountants are great and there work is important, but if I were just looking at a spreadsheet and outputting numbers all day, I don’t know if I would feel that sense of reward that I feel when we build these little things.”