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December 6, 2014

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A passion to recreate most iconic architecture

WITH simple tools, Zhang Huifang has created his kingdom in cards during the last decade. Stepping into the small living room of his home in the Pudong New Area is like embarking on a tour of remarkable architecture of Shanghai, where the 67-year-old was born and raised. 

Despite being almost blind in one eye, Zhang has helped create detailed models of a dozen of the city’s most iconic buildings that include Shanghai Science and Technology Museum, the zigzag bridge and pagoda of Yuyuan Garden, Shanghai Oriental Art Center and Shanghai Symphony Hall. He has also designed a model of a siheyuan, or courtyard house in Beijing.

“Van Goethe once described architecture as frozen music, but the architecture I make is flowing. It is the creation of people’s wisdom and hard work and also tells the story of the city’s development. So hopefully my models will render a different way for people to appreciate the buildings,” he tells Shanghai Daily. 

Zhang picked this hobby late in life — at the age of 56 when he worked at the Shanghai Youth Science and Technology Education Center.

With two other colleagues, they produced a series of card kits for children to use in modeling world-famous architecture. One was responsible for designing models from scratch, another for making the models, and Zhang was in charge of using a computer program to draw the draft. 

“The card models of buildings we made were basically Western architecture except for Tian’anmen Square and the Temple of Heaven,” Zhang recalls. “Then I got an idea that we could make more kits for Chinese architecture models for local hobbyists.”

From sketching the draft to designing the models, Zhang is a self-taught expert. His former experience — working as a tailor, a computer programmer, a page layout designer and a typographer — was conducive to his success in designing.

His tailoring skills give him an advantage in working out a way of incorporating curves of the buildings into card models, and the skills in layout design make it easier for him to master digital designing software to draw patterns for the models. 

“The time I started to make card models, I was hitting the low ebb of my life. But amazingly, when I was dedicated to designing and making models, all the unhappiness vanished. Now, when I make models, I forget everything, even eating and sleeping,” he says. 

Zhang, who now works by himself, spares no detail in making his architectural models, which closely resemble the actual buildings, even though he has no access to the official technical drawings and blueprints. His models are made of tiny cards and are small enough to stand on an A4-sized card sheet.

The first step is to take hundreds of photos. This process can take him several days, as he needs to capture everything from the patterns of the bricks to the reflections in the windows, from trees and flowers to details of the advertising board in front of the building. 

“The most complicated pattern I’ve encountered so far is the wall of the Shanghai Symphony Hall,” he says about his most recent work. “The pattern is composed of bricks of three different colors, of which I took more than 300 photos.”  

Then it’s time to transfer a three-dimensional structure into flattened print, which later needs to be folded into the model. It can take months, punctuated with numerous errors and several trials, before he finally accomplishes the work. 

“The spherical parts of my models were tough. But I worked out a supportive structure that can make the model both solid and elegantly curved. It took me about two weeks to come up with the idea,” he says, adding that the sense of achievement after finishing a new structure and design makes the endeavor all worth it. 

Zhang’s most complicated scale model to date is the China Maritime Museum in Shanghai. “The shape of the two sails of the building is irregular and curved, with an oval-shaped ball inside,” he explains. Thus, he came up with a hollow structure for the main building. 

Zhang says the models he makes are not only for his hobby; he likes to use his designs for production of card kits for children. He obtains patents for each model to protect his commercial interest.

“The designing and making of the scale models require the ability to think and imagine in spatial terms. When children are building these models, their capacity in this respect is trained. Consequently, modeling will help their study of geometry. Also, it will help them to be more organized,” he says. 

Zhang also teaches card model-making to elementary students from third grade to fifth grade in Pudong’s Weifang Community.

“Nowadays there are not many opportunities for children to train and enhance their manual dexterity,” says Zhang. “So this course can be a good chance. And I am glad that students can make use of the models as a way to enrich their time in and after school. Building models can help them release pressure from study.”


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