Q&A with scale model builder Michael Burke
November 4, 2019

What’s tall and slender, with a beautiful profile and a knack for catching the perfect light? These words could be describing the towering glamazons found on catwalks from Paris to Milan, but they’re equally appropriate as a descriptor for the towering scale models that grace sales centres across the continent. And, for the last thirteen years, Michael Burke has been turning out some of the best.

In the late 90s Burke was an architecture student at Ryerson University, regularly pulling all-nighters to build models for class. After graduation he scored a job at a professional model shop and five years later, he launched Myles Burke Architectural Models, with business partner David Myles. Today, the firm produces around 50 models each year for some of the biggest names in development. We sat down with the partner, co-owner, and model maker to find out what exactly goes into building a mini-dream. Super indeed.

Scale models are a very particular niche – how did you end up in the industry?
MB: I was at Ryerson studying architecture and one day, outside of the library, they had a scale model, built by a professional model building company. Until then I had only really seen our student cardboard and wood versions and this model blew my mind - I couldn't believe the level of detail and the accuracy! I couldn't figure out how anyone could do that... what materials were they using? How did they get the materials to look so real?

I discovered that a girl in my class was working at a model shop and in fourth year, when she and the rest of my classmates went out and got “real jobs,” her position opened up. I interviewed and got the job.

I really had no idea what I was doing, but I was eager to learn and excited by every new challenge and responsibility. I thought I had the coolest/funnest/most interesting job in the world.

I had only been working there about six months and then this other kid got hired – his name was David Myles.

David and I hit it off right away. We were the same age, had similar interests, and we were really into our jobs.

After about 5 years we felt we were ready for a new challenge, so we started Myles Burke
Architectural Models in 2006 and never looked back.

What's the largest scale model you've ever built?
MB: Some of the larger models we’ve produced at Myles Burke have been The World Towers (Lodha, Mumbai), a full 14’ tall; and Rivington (Toll Brothers, Connecticut), an 11' x 16' model with a total area of 176 square feet. The largest model I've ever worked on in my career was the Burj Khalifa. The tower was 21' tall, the base was 32' in diameter. I went to Dubai for the install. It took 14 days to set up.

Give us the scoop, were you super into Lego and building blocks as a kid?
MB: You guessed it, Lego was totally my thing. I'd build for hours, mostly making stuff up on my own rather than following any instructions in the kit. I also had a train set and I loved building dioramas for school projects.

Why is it important to have a scale model of a project?
MB: Scale models seem to have a unique appeal - they're part art installation/exhibit, part technical construction. I think people gravitate to them because they're beautiful, complex, and analogue. They tell the complete story of a project – with just one glance you’re able to understand the size, shape, spatial relationships, etc. of a design. Most people can't understand a set of architectural drawings but they can understand a scale model in an instant. There’s also an element of authenticity, of truth - scale models, by nature, have to be accurate (their inherent “scale” is found directly in the name), so people experience an immediate sense of trust.

Are you worried that technology may render physical models obsolete?
MB: When it gets to the point when VR is indistinguishable from reality, perhaps physical models will become obsolete, but I'm not worried about it for two reasons: one, when it does happen, I'll finally get some time off work; and two, I expect to be retired by then.

Seriously though, people always try and tell us that we should just 3D print our models. We're more than happy to print a model for someone, if they're looking for an expensive piece of junk, but in my opinion, they don't hold a candle to what we do. Our work is the real deal.

How many hours did it take to build the Tretti scale model? And the model for Nordic?
MB: Tretti took nearly 588 hours. Nordic has been 695.88 to date.

What's the strangest thing you've ever been asked to replicate?
MB: The strangest thing I've been asked to build was a model of a flat earth for a flat earth convention. I declined the job - I refuse to contribute to such a anti-intellectual conspiracy and outright denial of obvious and testable truths about the oblate spheroid shaped earth.

What's the average budget for a scale model?
MB: It ranges. The models that we work on aren't usually less than $10K, average around $25K, and have gotten up to $180K.

What's your favourite part of the process?
MB: I've been doing this for nearly 20 years and I still get excited in the final days of the project when everything comes together. It's pretty sudden actually – all the parts, fresh out of the paint booth, get glued in place, the trees get installed, the furniture gets added. It’s amazingly satisfying to watch it all take shape.

Finish this sentence, "If I weren't a scale model builder, I would probably be..."
MB: If I weren't a scale model builder, I would probably be a starving musician. Thank goodness scale models paid off.

Visit the Collecdev Sales & Design Centre and see some of Burke’s work in living colour with the scale models of Tretti and Nordic, our latest communities.