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the architourist

Little Canada. Union Station.Dave LaBlanc/The Globe and Mail

“I love to get small; it’s a wild, wild drug. Very dangerous for kids, though, because they get really small. … One night I got really small and got inside a vacuum cleaner, and the drug wore off. I retained the shape of a vacuum cleaner for about two weeks.”

-Steve Martin, Let’s Get Small (1977)

Right now, and for as long as Little Canada exists at the corner of Yonge and Dundas streets, I will continue to be small. Three-quarters of an inch tall, to be exact, wearing a red porkpie hat, a yellow Hawaiian shirt and pointing at my favourite Toronto building, Viljo Revell’s City Hall.

And you can get small, too, and join me. Or have your tiny self, your “Little Me” as they are called, placed in the Distillery District or St. Lawrence Market, in Mississauga, Hamilton, Niagara Falls, Ottawa, Gatineau Park, Quebec City or, if you wait for the build-outs to be complete, Montreal, the Rockies, the West or East Coasts, or even “Little North.”

Or just come for the (tiny) architecture, since it is absolutely fascinating.

“So this was our first completely 3-D-printed building,” says Camille Wodka, Little Canada’s communications leader, as we marvel at Toronto’s Old City Hall, tiny gargoyles and all, which is correctly placed next door to Revell’s City Hall (some buildings have unlikely neighbours, but that’s what happens within miniature worlds). “I think one kilometre of 3-D printing filament was used to put this one together, and hand-painted and everything.”

Little Canada began almost a decade ago with downtown Toronto, Ms. Wodka tells me, to “showcase to potential investors” what a Canadian version of Hamburg’s Miniatur Wunderland might look like. The brainchild of Jean-Louis Brenninkmeijer after he quit working for the family business – the clothing multinational C&A – things began to really take (tiny) shape once the Dutch-German immigrant hooked up with David MacLean of the Model Railroad Club of Toronto and the first buildings were completed using a combination of standard parts and custom-made pieces.

  • 346 Spadina.Dave LaBlanc/The Globe and Mail

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Working first in Mississauga warehouses, as the team and their creations grew it was time to find a home, so everything was moved, very, very gently, to 45,000 square feet over two floors of 10 Dundas St. E. by 2019. Stalled by the pandemic, the attraction finally opened in August, 2021.

Today, says 35-year-old design specialist Andre Markovic, there are 37 people who work solely on the design/build side of things. “We have three distinct teams: the physical world team that deals with large structures and terrain; a team that deals with structures and stories – so smaller structures and more narrative-driven scenes and assemblies; and then the animations team.”

A long, slow walk around Little Canada bears this out. Tiny cars drive along the Don Valley Parkway or the Prince Edward (Bloor) Viaduct, the subway runs underneath the viaduct as it should, GO trains do their thing in the distance, and tiny folks on bicycles actually pump the pedals up and down. When day cycles to twilight and then nighttime, thousands of tiny windows glow to life and, over in Ottawa, a very Canadian light show illuminates the Parliament Buildings as micro-fireworks burst in the background.

But as much fun as it is to study the Rogers Centre, with the Blue Jays and their fans inside, or Union Station, complete with a lineup of taxi cabs and Francesco Perilli’s Monument to Multiculturalism statue out front, it’s the little workaday buildings, the ‘filler architecture,’ that fascinates this author most. So how does the team go about creating those?

“Photographs and Google Maps, Google Earth, are your best friends,” Mr. Markovic says. “If you can visit the site, even better. I have a background in art and drawing and sculpture. … Even if an image is skewed I know that the base and the top are going to be the same width, and so I can start measuring from there. We kind of assume that a regular-sized door is about an inch [tall] in our world … but if it’s a larger door in real life then I’ll scale it up, and that will then start telling me how tall a floor is.

“And, funny enough, architects love to make round numbers for the most part,” he continues. “As you start looking at the images you notice patterns and ratios, and that starts informing, more and more, how things are supposed to be in proportion.”

Sometimes, however, a building must be cut down in order to fit this Lilliputian land. For instance, when the designers were figuring out the Art Gallery of Ontario, an accurately scaled version would’ve come out at 25-feet long and dominated that portion of the exhibit. So, Mr. Markovic asked himself: “What still reflects the spirit of the AGO, stays true to all [Frank Gehry’s] curves and doesn’t look too truncated?” From there, he cut away portions and manipulated scale as required.

Once one is aware, this can be spotted frequently in Little Canada: First Canadian Place, for instance, almost reaches to the height of the CN Tower’s radome (the white donut that shields the microwave equipment) … but this doesn’t take away from the fun in the slightest.

In fact, visitors to Little Canada who aren’t architecture aficionados (or hardcore nerds like myself) will take pleasure in the many ‘Easter eggs’ to be found, such as the red panda from the Pixar movie Turning Red in Chinatown (or the iconic yellow-and-green façade of 346 Spadina Ave. before the terrible re-clad of 2018) or the cutaway of suite interiors at Ottawa’s Château Laurier, where each room has a pop culture ‘theme,’ such as James Bond, The Shining, or rock stars busting up the furniture.

Little Canada is big, big fun, and a wonderful way to while away a summer afternoon with the kids. And with so many more tiny treasures still to be built, we’ll all be able to get small for years to come.

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