Fanatics: Recreating Melbourne’s Iconic Shops and Venues in Miniature

In March 2020, visitors to Long Space Gallery in Newport were treated to an unusual art exhibition. Spread around the room were ten plinths, each holding a tiny building. Some would’ve been instantly recognisable to any longtime Melbourne resident, such as the legendary Sun Theatre (shown in 1995, pre-renovation). Others were more oddball choices - the Yarraville Racing Pigeon Homing Club or the brick exterior of an old switch house.

The artist behind the work was David Hourigan, whose eye for detail goes beyond just the facade of each miniature he creates. If you look through the window of one of his builds, there’ll often be a fascinating level of detail inside - a full kitchen inside a doughnut shop or a stereo repair outlet filled with perfectly miniaturised ghetto blasters and televisions.

Hourigan came to his current work via a fanatical interest in model making, which was a hobby passed down to him by his father (and which Hourigan is now passing on to his own child). He started out making the standard range of models available - military vehicles, cars, and ships. He was drawn to ‘scratch builds’ which is when a background is created for a model from scratch - for example, an armoured vehicle might be placed within a desert scene that includes a worn down building, a drinking well, and rocks scattered on the ground. 

This work led him to start his own YouTube channel and Facebook page a few years ago, where he shares his work and the techniques he’s used to create it, such as airbrushing over salt to get patterns of colour, using a hot foam cutter or even, how to use whisky bottle tops for model making!

Yet it eventually struck Hourigan that the scale models he was making had no personal significance to him:

‘I have never flown in a Spitfire, why am I making one? On the other hand, every day I would walk around Melbourne and see buildings that I connected with. I love old buildings - places that tend to be overlooked or run-down. All that weathering really tells a story to me. So I decided to take the skills I had learnt building models, and use them to tell a story that I felt had meaning - scratchbuild miniature buildings that I felt a connection to.’

Hourigan began by recreating buildings from his own neighbourhood. Rather than picking famous or well known buildings, he found himself drawn to buildings that were otherwise overlooked, but which had their own unique charms:

‘My first was the Yarraville Racing Pigeon Homing Club, which is a tiny, insignificant wooden cottage on a suburban side street. I just liked the weirdness of a racing pigeon clubhouse. I decided that if I could do justice to that fairly simple structure, I could maybe make a go of this. I didn't expect much interest from other people, to be honest, but it's been phenomenal to me just how much they have resonated with people. Almost three years later, making these miniatures is my full-time job and I love it.’

Artist David Hourigan's 1-20 scale urban miniature artwork of the Yarraville Racing Pigeon Homing Club1-20 scale urban miniature artwork of the Yarraville Racing Pigeon Homing Club compared to a photo of the building // PHOTO: Courtesy of David Hourigan

One element that makes Hourigan’s builds particularly striking is his love of small details. In most architectural models, the aim is to present a building in its ideal state, but Hourigan’s models show the messy reality of everyday existence - whether this means weeds going up through the pavement, a crumpled cigarette packet, or metal roofing discoloured by rust. Hourigan believes these ‘touches of life’ are what makes his models believable and visually interesting:

‘A wall is just a wall, I don't really get a buzz from making a tiny brick wall. But when it's time to add the details - pipes, vents, signs, flaking paint, graffiti, some discarded rubbish or a weed at the bottom of the wall - that's the stuff I enjoy. That's when it comes to life for me and it goes from a model to something more. Although I do have standard techniques that I use, there is always something challenging in each build that I have to solve. Every single one has its own "what the hell do I do to replicate that?" moment. I enjoy that challenge, otherwise it would become formulaic and boring for me. I also try to push myself with my choice of subject, making each one more challenging or more complex than the last.’

From the start, Hourigan’s focus on unloved, decrepit buildings leant his work a nostalgic quality. However his work took on a new level of poignance when he turned his attention to recreating buildings that no longer exist. This meant it was no longer possible to visit the original to take measurements of the building and scale it down perfectly, so Hourigan had to find a new approach.

The first historic building he took on was the Olympic Doughnuts van that used to sit outside Footscray Station:

‘It was removed around 2010, which meant I couldn't work from visiting the real thing, but it was an absolute institution and I loved it and missed it. Luckily there are lots of photos of it online, so I was able to use those for the overall look and feel. I couldn't take measurements, but there was a milk-crate in one shot and I realised that milk-crates are a standard size, so I could extrapolate from that to how big the other dimensions were in that photo. It all fell into place. Once I did that, I had a light bulb moment where I realised I could make any building, from any point in time, if I had a couple of photos to work from. That was pretty exciting.’

In one case, Hourigan worked only from a single image - a black and white photograph of a corner shop milk bar that was demolished in the 1970s. Nonetheless, he tried as hard as possible to get the colours right and to source the era-appropriate logos for use on the products in the window.

Artist David Hourigan's miniature model of the Olympic Doughnuts van that used to sit outside Footscray StationArtist David Hourigan's miniature model of the Olympic Doughnuts van that used to sit outside Footscray Station // PHOTO: Courtesy of David Hourigan

Last year, the ongoing lockdowns in Melbourne led Hourigan to a new run of builds:

‘I was unable to visit any pubs or see live music, so I decided why not make them in miniature form? Sure, there's no tiny musicians inside and the smell of beer-soaked carpet is missing, but it was a way for me to still experience the city I love. It was also a way to help other people through the last couple of lockdowns, because there was no sense of fun or novelty this time around, it was a more grinding isolation in 2021. By making these models, I could remind people that the music venues were still out there, just waiting for us. Melbourne is a cool city. My miniature versions of it are just me distilling that coolness into a concentrated package, the buildings are the heroes.’

Artist David Hourigan with his miniature model of The ToteArtist David Hourigan with his miniature model of The Tote, which even includes the little out front details - cigarette butts and an empty VB bottle // PHOTO: Courtesy of David Hourigan

Over the years that Hourigan has been making his miniatures, he has come to appreciate that sometimes the feel of a structure is just as important as its precise details:

‘It's all about making it look right to the eye. When I started, I was pedantic about scale correctness. Now that my head is in more of an art space, I'm more focussed on getting the look and feel rather than stressing over whether an angle is a perfect 90 degree right angle. Don't get me wrong, I still strive for verisimilitude and try as much as I can to replicate it exactly, but I'm not using calculus to work out perfect dimensions anymore. As long as my audience connects with it and feels an emotional response seeing something that they love or something they didn't expect, then I'm happy. The biggest compliment I can receive is for someone to see a close-up photo of one of my miniatures and not realise they aren't looking at the real thing.’


MAIN IMAGE: A miniature corner shop milk bar from the 1970s, complete with products on display in the window // PHOTO: Courtesy of David Hourigan

You can keep up with Hourigan's work on his Facebook or Instagram.

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