The model is the microcosm
The whole world in a nutshell
It was a small replica of an increasingly popular locomotive that ultimately moved Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to concern himself with the railway in his later years. He was highly skeptical of this radically new form of transport at the time. “It dances towards us like a storm, slowly, slowly – but it has set its course: it will come and strike,” Goethe wrote in Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Travel to describe the “overpowering machine” at a time when the age of rail was imminent. But Germany's greatest poet was never to witness the inauguration of continental Europe’s first steam-powered railway line from Nuremberg to Fürth in 1835. Thanks to friends in England – the birthplace of rail travel – he was, however, able to call a miniature of the era’s fastest steam locomotive – “The Rocket” – his own.
As for Goethe and indeed machinery, one thing still holds true today: A model is often the best way of understanding reality. Viewing a miniature version of something ostensibly so overwhelming and untamable in real life can be fascinating and even mesmerizing. However, the traditional pastime of modelmaking is now regarded as outdated and somewhat dull favoured by antisocial types – with nerdy men its only likely devotees. Small wonder that nobody anticipated the success of Frederik and Gerrit Braun when they set out to construct the world’s largest model railway in Hamburg. When the idea was mooted in 2000, it seemed unlikely that such an exhibition would appeal to the broad masses. But the skeptical response to their proposal only made the Braun twins more determined. It took 600,000 hours to create the miniature cosmos that is now housed inside a listed building in Hamburg’s "Warehouse City". There are trains, to be sure, but there's lots more action to be seen too. “We wanted to create a magical world that would capture the imaginations of men, women and children alike,” Gerrit Braun says. And they did. The world’s largest model railway now covers more than 1300 m². In December of 2012, it welcomed its ten millionth visitor.
For the love of detail
Still: size doesn’t always matter. Its sheer scale is not the only thing that sets the Miniature Wonderland apart from other model displays. The incredible attention to detail takes it to a whole new dimension. Each of the eight interlinked sections is brought to life by countless vignettes of everyday life. Tiny figures dramatize romance and social critiques, liberalism and tradition, melding reality with fantasy. Although a few features are purely fictitious (like a railway tunnel linking Hamburg and the US), much is true-to-life. The 300 or so cars actually adhere to the German Highway Code; cameras clock any vehicle that speeds. A petrol station displays real-time fuel prices, and the magnetic docking device used by ships in the Scandinavian segment is a copy of the system deployed by the ferries on Hamburg’s Alster lake. A miniature chocolate factory in Switzerland produces slabs of edible Lindt chocolate. Day breaks and night falls as well – albeit somewhat more frequently than in the real world: the cycle lasts a mere 15 minutes. In addition, some 335,000 lights go on and off to illuminate the hours between dusk and dawn.
And despite numbers not being everything, it's difficult to avoid being impressed. More than 900 trains travel along 6 km of visible tracks, with an additional 13 km behind the scenes where countless fiddle yards and stations join the complex technology. The entire exhibition is digitally controlled by 46 computers; 200 cameras keep the big picture in view. Numerous members of staff ensure everything runs smoothly, rushing to fix faulty switches or remove dust where required. Today the Miniature Wonderland employs a workforce of 300; it first opened with a team of 40.
The opening of a “Little Italy” is planned for 2016, with France and likely England set to follow. As for previous segments, the model builders are given a rough script on which they base scenes designed to bring the miniature buildings and landscapes to life. Visitors occasionally submit their own ideas for stories that are suitable to this small format. The result is a collage of narratives from all over the world. Architectural landmarks like the Colosseum are based on pictorial renderings; no ready-made pieces are ever used. Italy, under construction since May 2013, will soon be home to 30,000 miniature figurines. An estimated 120,000 hours will be devoted to this segment alone. To use Goethe’s words, it is dancing towards us "like a storm, slowly, slowly." As we know, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Miriam Holzapfel is a cultural scientist, author and editor for the Atlas.