BY Mark Morris in Opinion | 04 APR 03
Featured in
Issue 74

Honey I Shrunk Europe

Brussel's Miniature Theme Park

BY Mark Morris in Opinion | 04 APR 03

Holiday snaps from Mini-Europe in Brussels are a bit of a puzzle. For most visitors the promise of this EU project - which presents, in miniature, 100 or so models of European monuments - is frustrated by something disturbing on the horizon. Beyond the confines of the Mini-Europe park there looms a massive structure, representing a single atom magnified 165 billion times. Built for the 1958 World's Fair and designed by André Waterkeyn, the Atomium's nine electron spheres (each measuring 18 metres across) are connected by thick tubes containing walkways and escalators. Photos of the park can't help but include its enormous curves, mixing up the microscopic and the monumental, the scaled-up and the scaled-down.

Mini-Europe is pretty high-minded as theme parks go. Art historians - as opposed to tour operators - selected the miniaturized monuments, lending it a rarefied air: Mini-France includes Le Corbusier's Ronchamp but not Notre-Dame; Mini-Italy, Palladio's Villa Rotonda but not the Colosseum; Mini-Britain, Bath's Royal Crescent but not Buckingham Palace. Belgium, as host, is represented by a disproportionate number of models - over 15, compared to Finland's one (Olavinlinna Castle), making for a curious mélange. Maybe this is why Mini-Europe has limited appeal as a tourist attraction. Kids seem to be bored by the park, and most adults tire midway through the visit, just past Spain's gem-like Escorial. The place is really best suited to architects, designers and literati, just the sort of people who wouldn't be caught dead in a mini-anything (save, perhaps, for a car). Even for the demi-monde there are a number of drawbacks. Despite the park's intention to forge a common 'European spirit', great pains were taken to include buttons beside each model which, when pressed, play the appropriate national anthem. In an effort to make things more interesting, children run from model to model, pushing button after button, creating a pan-European cacophony.

One way to pass the time in places like Mini-Europe is to compose photographs of the miniatures that trick the eye, or at least the camera lens, presenting the model as the real thing. This is best achieved by crouching down for a close-up, your stomach flat on the floor. Another option is to play with the illusion by inserting a person into the scene. Inevitably, while the intention may be to turn the person into a giant, the results always emphasize the monuments' miniature status. At Mini-Europe, however, the presence of the Atomium complicates such shots. The monster atom makes the monuments positively subatomic or, in a funny way, disturbs the scene so much that the models seem large again. In the face of something so alien in the distance, standards of comparison start to fizzle out at close range. Such images illustrate the unsettled relationship between terms such as size and scale, which are so often substituted for one another that we've forgotten their true definitions.

Size is quantitative and bound to measurement. Scale, on the other hand, is both qualitative and relative. When something is thought of as big, it is big only in relation to something else, something smaller. One can measure one thing and then another, but 'bigness' depends on a comparison between the two. Oddly, such nice distinctions between size and scale are to be found in the Mini-Europe Guidebook. While it indicates the models' scale (1:25), it makes much more of the Atomium's size and the precise dimensions of its parts. Here it hardly matters that the model Houses of Parliament are 8 feet tall, and the Atomium is presented as, first, a 100 metre-high steel structure and only secondly as a model of something much, much smaller. Size is mathematical, knowable; scale is not.

Scale is one of the things that make an object sublime. Measurement plays no part in this aesthetic assessment beyond a vague impression of lots of parts (the parts themselves may be any size) - a forest teeming with trees or a building made up of millions of bricks. In a familiar way the Atomium is sublime in the same way as the Great Pyramid. It dwarfs the viewer, seems impossibly large and stretches the imagination in a cognitive quest to contain it. But what of the Mini-Parliament? Immanuel Kant acknowledged that 'nothing can be given in nature, no matter how great we may judge it to be, which, regarded in some other relation, may not be degraded to the level of the infinitely little, and nothing so small which in comparison with some still smaller standard may not for our imagination be enlarged to the greatness of the world.' Within the logic of scale Kant allowed for what he termed the sublime of the telescope and the sublime of the microscope. Both the Atomium and the EU models are sublime. Whether Mini-Europe actually works to foster 'unity in diversity' (the official motto of the EU) is a moot point, but, coupled with the Atomium, it participates in a universal aesthetic proof.

In truth, Mini-Europe proves rather dysfunctional. It sells itself short as just another venue for educational family fun and boasts a dreary café and gift shop. For all the pains it takes to distance itself from the competing attraction of the Atomium, the theme park draws its conceptual strength from its juxtaposition with Waterkeyn's structure and from the play of scales and sizes that that juxtaposition generates. Gaston Bachelard, in his Poetics of Space (1958), wrote that the miniaturist 'must love space to describe it as minutely as though there were world molecules'. Mini-Europe provides both mini-spaces and, thanks to its neighbour, a molecular world writ large. Bachelard further mused that the small conjures up infinity more easily than the large: 'Platonic dialectics of large and small do not suffice for us to become cognizant of the dynamic virtues of miniature thinking. One must go beyond logic in order to experience what is large in what is small.' It is only through the small, he argues, that we may think about the truly large and vice versa: 'Miniature is an exercise that has metaphysical freshness; it allows us to be world-conscious at slight risk.' This seems the set-up at Mini-Europe, where visitors are allowed to be Europe-conscious at the risk of having a nice day out.