NEW YORK — Hot air balloons fly in the sky near the Eiffel Tower, children slide down “the Monster” in Jerusalem, chickens peck, and a man swaddled in warm clothing goes ice fishing in Russia. High above it all the International Space Station orbits Earth.
It’s a Lilliputian realm where 300 models of the world’s natural and manmade wonders — Niagara Falls and the Panama Canal — occupy the same space as Angkor Wat and a futuristic rendering of life on Mars.
It’s poetic license with a purpose, an idealized version of planet earth — a place where space exploration continues, where rising waters don’t threaten to forever flood Piazza San Marco in Venice and the only police on display are those in Egypt waiting to fine pyramid-climbing tourists.
“There are overlays of time periods and different stories being told. This world is very nice. It’s very utopian. There are no hospitals, no walls, no tragedies. It is the world as we would like it, not as it is,” said Eiran Gazit, as he led the way through this world of marvels.
In a private pre-launch tour for The Times of Israel, Gazit’s eyes twinkled as he moved from continent to continent, pointing out the pianist on a balcony in Italy’s Cinque Terre, the rendition of the new bus station in Jerusalem and yes, the Beatles, complete with a barefoot Paul McCartney, walking across Abbey Road in London.
A retired IDF officer, 62-year-old Gazit was born in Jerusalem and grew up in England. He remembers first falling in love with models during his childhood in the UK.
“I had hundreds of model airplanes in my bedroom,” he said.
But it wasn’t until after he retired from military intelligence and went to Europe “to relax” that he first conceived of the idea for the fictional world. Having visited Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg and Madurodam in the Netherlands, Gazit returned to Israel and throughout the 1990s oversaw the construction of Mini Israel, a 1:25 scale model of the Promised Land. Mini Israel opened in the Ayalon Valley in 2003.
Soon after the launch, Gazit moved on, wishing to do something bolder and more global. And so was born the idea for Gulliver’s Gate, an imaginative interpretation of our world built on a scale of 1:87 which renders a figure representing a 6-foot tall person 0.8 inches tall.
About 900 trains wind through cityscapes and pastoral scenes. Nearly 7,000 cars and truck zip, zoom and stall and boats skim the surface of the Nile, and nearly microscopic flowers bloom in tiny greenhouses.
The $40 million project, which had its soft open on April 4 at the old New York Times building in Times Square, was launched in May 2014 with $20,000 raised in a Kickstarter campaign.
Sharp-eyed visitors will note how in the world of Gulliver’s Gate time and space are layered. In Europe, the Colossus of Rhodes still stands but there is Space Shuttle getting read to be launched.
The Roosevelt Tram crosses Manhattan rather than the East River. Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons float above Park Avenue rather Broadway and the Freedom Tower sits in a direct line with the Empire State building. Scotland’s Edinburgh Castle appears to oversee all of Europe and the hands of Big Ben’s three clocks move backwards.
“We’re not a museum. We are about art,” Gazit said.
While the project intentionally plays with time and space, it is quite serious in its use of technology. Classroom space is being reserved for students taking part in STEAM programs (science, technology, engineering, art and math).
Seven design teams in workshops around the world collaborated on the 49,000-square-foot exhibit. They harnessed 3-D printers and laser cutters for much of it and for portions also used traditional model kits.
Anchoring teams around the globe allowed them to better reflect the character of their portion of the exhibit.
“Each region has its own tone, its own flavor, its own feel. I wanted the teams to reflect the country, to keep the authenticity,” Gazit said.
In Russia, 63 people worked for six months on a wintry landscape that features a bridge under construction, skiers in Sochi and a Christmas market with twinkling lights. When the Central and South America portion arrives there will be a working Panama Canal, Rio de Janeiro and Costa Rican rainforest.
Of course having teams positioned around the world had its challenges.
The China team couldn’t get visas to come and so shipped their portion. And two nights before shipping the Middle East portion of the exhibit, the leader of the Israeli team constructed a makeshift tent to protect the model — which was being stored on a balcony — from a rainstorm. He ended up sleeping under the tent to make sure it wouldn’t collapse.
To make sure nothing goes off kilter three technicians will sit in a control room and watch the entire project on 60 video monitors. Visitors to the exhibit will be able to speak with technicians and watch them do their job.
Likewise, model makers will be on site for repair and maintenance will work behind a glass window. They too will be available to answer questions.
The project will be interactive and inclusive.
RFID, or radio-frequency identification, lets visitors run the trains. Visitors will be able to push a button and light up a cross section of the Great Pyramid, revealing two intrepid archeologists. Another push of the button will raise the door of the CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Switzerland, to reveal the Large Hadron Collider.
Visitors can also get a photo taken of them, and in under a second the photo will appear on the Niagara Falls screen and get smaller and smaller until it becomes the size of a water droplet.
People can also become citizens of Gulliver’s Gate. Early supporters and visitors can get a body scan and then be recreated as figures in the display. They also get a framed photo of their miniature selves, and a Gulliver’s Gate passport.
“You can become a ‘model citizen’ and choose where you want to live,” Gazit said.