From tiny buildings to big ideas, the miniature realities of architectural modelmakers Adam Throgmorton and Shawn Bicker
“I don’t see a difference between the model and reality,” says architectural modelmaker Adam Throgmorton in his home studio in November. To him, the only difference is scale; the reality of a model and its full-scale analog are exactly the same.
If this sounds a bit romantic — the world view that you expect from a guy who’s been making pieces of the world in miniature his whole life — that’s because you haven’t spent time in Throgmorton’s Henderson studio. The studio could not be more prosaic: It’s his garage. But inside, you find yourself seeing the world as he does, where size or scale doesn’t determine essence. Care and passion do.
In this world, a model of a building or place reflects reality and shapes it. “It translates, it educates. They don’t just show off a new design. They show them how to see a new thing,” Throgmorton says. The model is a way station between an idea and its built manifestation. Some models might show designers what it is they are working with. Others can help sell a project.
“You can insult a project greatly if you produce a bad model,” he says. But a good model can make people believe and make investors open their checkbooks. “When people see it in a model, they believe it’s going to happen in reality.”
Throgmorton’s firm, ModelWorksAJT, has been building models for hotel and resort clients in Las Vegas for more than 20 years. Throgmorton has completed models for Mandalay Bay, for Paris Las Vegas, for Luxor and Excalibur. In addition, he’s modeled office parks, casinos around the country and other retail residential projects.
He and his partner, Shawn Bicker, have also done work for clients as varied as Disney, Tesla and the Mob Museum. For Disney, the pair designed a small replica entry door — front and back — to Disneyland’s fabled Club 33, a private restaurant and club. For Tesla, they designed two models of the carmaker’s enormous Reno gigafactory. The first shows details of the plant’s operation. The second shows the plant in the context of its surroundings. A small portion of that model is marked with a black rectangle, which denotes 1 million square feet. The model gives the clearest idea of just how insanely large the gigafactory is.
Most ingeniously, the designers modeled an exhibit for the Mob Museum depicting the 2015 prison escape of Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
Throughout, the details are everything. For a giant resort in the Bahamas called Baha Mar, the pair illuminated their models with hundreds of capillary fiber-optic lights, all of which could be controlled by iPad. They then fashioned a convincing beach and oceanfront with a deft mix of resins, epoxy, gelatins and paint. The Club 33 doors feature tiny doorknobs and a faux mechanical locking mechanism on a model that measures just two inches across. On the backside is a tiny metal table with creases in the resin tablecloth. The El Chapo model includes a tiny security camera unable to observe Guzmán’s escape.
Throgmorton, 44, always had a knack for sweating the small stuff. As a kid growing up in Florida near Disney World, he loved seeing models like the ones of EPCOT. He was frustrated he couldn’t get his hands on them. So he started building his own out of paper and clay and metal.
“I hated the models I was seeing at a time,” he says. “They were plasticky looking. They were flat looking. No dimensions as far as gradients of color, details. That’s why I got into it.”
He began when he was about 12. For six or seven years, he played around and dabbled in designing roller coasters. “I didn’t see any that worked. I wanted to build something that worked. No plan to be a professional.”
But when he moved to Las Vegas to attend UNLV in the early nineties, he became friends with Andrew Pascal, Steve Wynn’s nephew. That chance encounter led to Throgmorton getting hired by Wynn’s architect, the late Joel Bergman — who developed the tri-wing design that shaped a generation of Strip casinos — to do model work for Bellagio and Treasure Island. Just like that, Throgmorton’s hobby became a career. He was 18.
“It proves that if you stay doing what you love, something will happen with that, if you do it well. Do what you do and do it well, and you can’t go wrong.”
Throgmorton started his own model-making business in 1994. Bicker, meanwhile, had always been obsessed with what he calls “little worlds.” One of his favorite books as a kid was Beverly Cleary’s 1965 novel The Mouse and the Motorcycle, about an adventure-seeking mouse who learns to ride a human child’s toy motorcycle. “Even as a kid in the sandbox, I’d be cutting cardboard boxes up all the time, putting windows in them, making streets,” he says. Growing up, he built models and forts, and went on to study exhibit design at Bemidji State University in Minnesota. Now 44, Bicker worked as an exhibit designer in Las Vegas and around the country for 20 years.
He collaborated on the side with Throgmorton for several years before joining him full-time a few years ago. Throgmorton says, “I thought I had it down. But (Shawn’s) knowledge of technology and CAD programs has brought a level of model-building that I thought I had already hit. It’s only plussed it many times over.”
Their garage studio is a workshop of small and precise implements: tiny rolls of tape, a panoply of specialty glues that can bind different materials; tiny brushes about the size of a pen tip. Even the large laser cutter can etch and cut with the subtlety of a scalpel.
When you speak with modelmakers, inevitably talk turns to the models they dream of making. We talked about World’s Fairs: the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and especially the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. “You can’t really imagine what it was like to walk through it anymore,” says Throgmorton. “What better way than to see a re-creation in miniature? I’d love to build a fully detailed accurate representation of it.”
Closer to home, the pair have conceived an equally audacious idea — to build a scale historical model of the Las Vegas Strip as it was a generation or more ago. Imagine a model of the Strip in 1959 or 1969.
Throgmorton doesn’t have anything like that in his studio. But he might have something better: a wooden roller coaster. There it sits in his dining room, an impressive structure of peaks and valleys. It operates like a real wooden roller coaster — a chain lift carries a car up, and gravity sends the car down and around and through the imposing wooden structure.
Throgmorton spent years, off and on, on it. He knew the basic design. He knew he wanted big movement on both sides, and big flying buttress-like supports. He built the models up starting with the tracks, supported by foam. Then he added the wood around it.
“It’s moody,” he says. “It breathes.” Indeed, on some runs, the coaster cars glide along the rails. On others, they seem to move a bit slower. But the little car, as it rhythmically “whooshes” along the track, actually does seem to breathe, in a way.
He finished the coaster several years ago, but still wants to add a Victorian-era station house. And he’s looking for a name. The High Roller? Taken. The Adam Smasher? Clever, but somehow not the right tenor. For this gargantuan coaster is not a brute. It’s a piece of majesty. Throgmorton purposefully did not attach a scale to it. Maybe 154 feet tall at its highest point if you built it for real? That’s about as tall as the Statue of Liberty replica at New York New York. As I watch the roller coaster make its rounds again and again, asking, with a child’s enthusiasm if I can see it go one more time, I’m hit with the reality of Throgmorton’s work. The model is real.
It’s a reminder, too, of why we yearn for the fantastic. The Strip is a fantasy made manifest. But reality already intrudes on that fantasy: traffic, long lines, expensive meals, assaulting noise, disorienting layouts, long and endless hallways, a succession of the tacky and gaudy, underwritten by a thousand corporate entities.
The longer you live here, the more the magic of the Strip is best preserved from a distance: the sky lobby at the Mandarin Oriental, the High Roller, the 215, where the cluster of hotels has a kind of Emerald City aura to it, a sense of the impossible.
But I find myself mesmerized more by Throgmorton’s ingenious dining room roller coaster. We spend billions trying to bring dreams to life, and it is admirable how well we have done here, in the most inhospitable of climates. But the imagination doesn’t require quite so much infrastructure.
It’s a lesson app designers and casino planners and visual effects wizards and architects routinely forget. The poets tend to get it right. As does Throgmorton. Here, you watch the roller coaster go up, and then gravity shoots it through the wooden structure, and the room fades away, and the thing really is alive. And, in that moment of simple perfection, so are you.