After Schmidt took early retirement five years ago, he joined the 30-strong model building team at Hamburg’s Miniatur Wunderland.
“If you know how much work is put into these models, you just have to love them,” he says and gazes thoughtfully at the tiny red, orange, yellow, and violet wooden houses. The green hills of Tuscany rise gently up behind them. The artificial grass is electrostatically charged so that the blades stand upright as in nature.
Rome, the Ligurian coast, Venice, and Tuscany depict four highlights in the new section that will be finished at the end of the year. The small wondrous world that it will become a part of attracts 1.2 million visitors from all over the world to Hamburg’s Speicherstadt, or City of Warehouses. A one-of-a-kind microcosm has been built on 13,993 sq ft (1,300 sqm) in 580,000 man-hours so far, and it keeps on growing. “We are doing everything possible to make sure the exhibit’s visitors come in smiling and leave enthusiastic,” co-founder Frederik Braun says. The idea has been a success since it opened in 2001. The Miniatur Wunderland Hamburg is ranked 6th on the list of Europe’s most popular permanent exhibits.
A lion lurking in the arena
What would Rome be without its Colosseum? Teresa Liening is building a replica of the biggest amphitheatre of all time. Well, only half of it, to be exact. That’s because the model is cut in half so visitors can see into the interior. There is a lion already lying in wait for a miniature condemned plastic man. “For the first photographs,” Liening says with a chuckle, just coming from the milling workshop with new components. The walls are hollow to accommodate the elaborate wiring. Countless LEDs are supposed to immerse the imposing ancient Roman structure in special lighting effects. White? Yellow? Yellowish-white? The color is still being discussed.
930 trains on 8 miles (13 km) of track
In addition to the detail in the model buildings, 930 trains with a total of 10,000 cars add to the fascination. The total length of track amounts to over 8 miles (13 km). The system is operated by an observable control center with 76 monitors. Forty-six computers control the model train system. What’s more, 10,000 cars are components of this immaculate setting, of which nearly 300 move on the roads as if by magic. They signal, obey traffic lights, overtake, accelerate, get caught in actual working speed traps, are stopped by the police, and drive back to the charging station when their batteries run low.
The computer calculates the status of each vehicle 20 times a second. Many move without a programmed destination. They have already traveled 869,919.7 miles (1.4 million kilometers) that way. Small magnets at the steerable front axes steer the cars. They find their way via wiring that is embedded in the driving lanes. The vehicles display headlights, tail lights, blinking indicator and warning lights, brake lights, various emergency vehicle lights, front flashers, fog lights, interior lighting, and even flood lights.
The airport sets new technical standards
“One of our principles is to confront every technical challenge we come across, even if it seems hopeless at first,” explains Gerrit, who created the miniature world jointly with his twin brother Frederik. “With that attitude we have found technical solutions again and again that amaze visitors.” That especially applies to the airport, their most demanding project so far.
The “Hamburg Airport” emerged after six years and 150,000 hours of work. The highlight is the simulation of takeoffs and landings at one-minute intervals. On occasion an oversized bumblebee finagles its way between a Boeing 757-300 and an A380, which is one of the thoroughly charming touches the Hamburg model builders added, even though it is sometimes deplored by other model builders.
Striving for perfection
One of the perfectionists is Jens Körner. He has been in charge of everything on wheels since 2003. “You need a certain amount of insanity in combination with enthusiasm for the job,” he opines. Many of the vehicles are created wholly by him and his colleagues. That includes the large number of street sweepers on the road in Rome. “We examined the traffic very closely on location. These machines caught our eye,” according to Körner. Technical details like flash frequency or the shape of the brushes are as important as the colors and inscriptions. “Perfection is when you can get very close and have to think about whether it is genuine or a model.”
Days are 15 minutes long in Wunderland. It grows dark and gets light again with that frequency. The nights are animated by a twinkling backdrop of 335,000 LEDs. Ideal for spectacular activity. In the fictitious city of Knuffingen the fire department is called to an emergency every ten minutes, with up to 34 vehicles responding. The fires are always reliably extinguished; only the arsonist escapes regularly. So Knuffingen Castle has caught on fire more than 700,000 times during its 16-year existence.
Additional countries are being planned
A number of details in Riomaggiore, such as balconies, clothes lines, furniture, curtains, and many painstakingly placed figures are still waiting for model builder Schmidt to complete them. After all, the visitors will be able to look into a lot of rooms later on. Vesuvius is being built in the next room. Constructed from kinetic sand (which doesn’t dry out), and equipped with suitable atmospheric lighting and sound effects, the volcano is set to erupt and send dramatic streams of lava into the valley when finished. There’s no doubt: Schmidt and his co-workers will not run out of work any time soon. The France, England, and Australia sections are in late-stage planning or already under construction. The universal model building motto applies in Hamburg as well: the tinkering is the main thing. That’s why the system can’t ever be completed. Ever.
Text: Michael Thiem
Photos: Julia Marie Werner