Tobu World Square’s model of New York. Photo by Naoya Hatakeyama
When I was a kid, my grandparents would take me on vacation to Victoria, BC. The highlight of the trip—for me, at least—was always a visit to Miniature World, an odd little museum tucked into the north wing of the Empress Hotel. There, I would race past dozens of dollhouses, castles and spaceships to the museum’s centrepiece, a giant model railroad. I liked it not for the trains, but for the cities: tiny recreations of everything from Victoria to Halifax, strung along the tracks like beads on a necklace.
My curiosity with models was revived last month by Naoya Hatakeyama’s exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Scales, which runs until February 3, 2008. Hatakeyama, a Japanese photographer whose work has dealt in large part with the relationship between nature and cities, was asked by the CCA in 2003 to turn his lens to three different scale models of New York and Tokyo. In the twenty-four photos that came out of the project, Hatakeyama questions, with curiosity and humour, the relationship between architecture, photography and our perceptions of reality.
Two of the models depict New York. One, found in the Windows of the World theme park in Shenzhen, China, is a strange, cartoonish vision of the city, a dilapidated landscape of crooked, colourful buildings. The model seems haphazardly constructed, like the set of a cheap disaster movie. In one photo, an approach to the Brooklyn Bridge abruptly ends in mid-air. The bridge itself is cracked and disjointed, cars scattered across it as if there had been a massive earthquake.
New York in Shenzhen’s Windows of the World
In sharp contrast to this is the model of New York found in Japan’s Tobu World Square—as detailed and realistic as Windows of the World is abstract. If you didn’t look too closely, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was the real New York. Hatakeyama, shooting in black and white, has created the illusion of reality, evoking the strongly-shadowed, iconic Manhattan of the imagination, or at least in the famous early twentieth century photos of Alfred Stieglitz.
The point here, however, is not to fool us, but to give us subtle hints that we are, in fact, looking at a model, an idealized vision of New York. Despite the cars and pedestrians on the streets, even the graffiti painstakingly drawn on the walls, there is a strange lifelessness about these buildings, their windows empty like dead eyes. In one shot, the side wall of the Plaza Hotel is inexplicably blank. In another, we see a ballcap-wearing man looming between skyscrapers like some bizarrely mundane giant.
Hatakeyama’s photos of the third model, an aerial view of a huge and incredibly detailed rendition of Tokyo, are presented as a black-and-white triptych. It’s hard to tell that the city depicted is not, in fact, the real thing.
Earlier this fall, I sat down with Hatakeyama at the CCA to talk about his photos. His goal, he said, was to study the way that photography is connected to the notion of scale.
“In my mind, there was already photo I wanted to make, which was Tobu World Square. I wanted to make as if it was real. Because the small doors are only seven centimetres high, the camera [was] placed at the same height as the eye of the door. So I had to lie down. I used a shift lens which will give you the precise perspective,” he said, lying on the ground to demonstrate his technique. “Photographs are models. We make photographs to get the image and keep it, so I think there is a similarity [between] making models and making photographs. Sometimes we can find something very small in the picture that looks like just a toy.”
In that sense, Hatakeyama’s show is similar to an earlier exhibition at the CCA, Olivo Barbieri’s Site Specific, which featured a series of aerial photos taken of Montreal landmarks. By using a tilt-shift lens, Barbieri made the city appear toy-like and unreal, as if it was itself a scale model. Both his photos and Hatakeyama’s attempt to do the same thing: confound the way we perceive cities by playing with our sense of scale.
“Does image have size? We have physical size, our bodies, our buildings. If you can touch it, it has a physical size. But in the world of representation, nothing has a certain size. It can be big or small. When I take photographs, I’m always working with that,” said Hatakeyama. When he takes a photo from the top of a skyscraper, he added, the result is a vision of the city that is miniaturized – you can see everything in a tiny frame. “Before the nineteenth century, people could not experience that kind of shock of change in scale. But we don’t [notice] that kind of thing today.”
It sometimes takes a child’s curiosity to look at things anew. “I used to ask myself, ‘Why are people in the distance so small?’” said Hatakeyama. “It’s the question of a child, but it’s a big question. You can answer rationally, but the child won’t understand. It’s difficult.”
Tokyo model in the Mori Building
This article originally appeared in Maisonneuve on November 22, 2007.
Tags: Maisonneuve, Montreal, New York, Photography, Scale Models, Tokyo, Views from Above