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The Chicago Model is the largest, most detailed replica of Chicago. Here’s its story.

The model is 320 square feet and represents 400 blocks of the city and more than 1,000 buildings. Since its debut in 2009, the Chicago Model has become an icon, beloved by tourists and locals alike.

Located in the atrium of the Railway Exchange Building, it serves as the launching point for many of the Chicago Architecture Foundation's 85 tours. More than 100,000 people visit the model each year. It plays a critical role in our youth education and adult programming, and also serves as a centerpiece for many of our rotating exhibitions.

Constructing the World’s Largest 3D Chicago Model

The model is the physical manifestation of an idea by CAF President and CEO, Lynn Osmond. After visiting a model of the city of Shanghai, she was inspired to create a 3D view of Chicago’s Loop. However, there was a problem. When the project began, there wasn’t a digital map of downtown Chicago to reference.

Working closely with Columbian Model & Exhibit Works, Ltd., we began creating a digital map. Google Earth, Google Street View, Sanborn Map Company, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, various building owners and the Chicago Planning Department all played a crucial role in the design process.

With the digital map in hand, we partnered with Baxter International and DSM to 3D print all 1,000 buildings. In total, it took approximately 1,600 hours to print the entire model. The Railway Exchange building alone took 20 hours to fabricate.

We update the Chicago Model annually, removing demolished buildings and adding new city structures as needed. Since its construction, the model has had many famous visitors including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Mayor Richard M. Daley and architect Jeanne Gang.