I’m so excited to write about the new layout. This is not that post. I’m not writing as much as I want to and these posts are not in order and I’m sorry. Bear with me. We’ll get there. If you’re on Facebook, I post regular updates on the Prince Street Facebook page with the intention that they will seed longer format posts to better document my work. In this post my plan is to focus on a design concept I’m exploring in this layout.

  • It is built on top of a bookcase.
  • The layout is modular but what does “modular” mean to me?

A bookcase is a box. Like the traditional “shelf layout benchwork” the bookcase is between eight and twelve, maybe even fourteen, feet long and a foot deep. It’s about four feet high (well, maybe, a little taller). The bookcase is the foundation on which the layout lives. I’ll confine this layout to the bookcase so that no part extends beyond it and our design is then a conversation to explore how we use the space inside the box. (i.e. on top of the box, the layout rests on top of the bookcase)view 1

That cold grey slab is the top of the bookcase. Even in its simplest interpretation the layout, shown here in green, is a broad arc. Freed from the demands of structural elements it adopts a concave form that invites the viewer to enter into the scene. What if we cut into this form?

view 2 first cut out

We’re already used to the idea of a modular model railroad where modules are added end to end to form a line of modules. What if we added modules in front of or behind to supplement the scene?

Shown in red is just such a module. I don’t need it at all to enjoy operating model trains. Its profile matches the layouts surface as would the scene itself. It simply extends the scene forward and provides a foreground that the trains will operate behind. Perhaps if I was taking photos of the layout this might provide additional foreground to help frame that scene and it certainly provides supplementary contextual data to help communicate my vision of this scene to the viewer.

view 3 second cut out

At this point the term “layout” starts to refer to both the core and the supplementary elements. This “core” should still be considered the area shaded in green. It is where the track is placed and through which the main electrical elements are run. To operate the layout, I need only the core.

We’ve been adding modules in front of or behind the layout to expand the scene where additional real estate supplements the story we are telling in our composition. What if we cut more precisely into the core to place structures?

This variation on the scenery-only module brings another opportunity. When the layout is initially under construction the focus will be on the overall composition. I might not know final details of structures. A module such as this, limited to one model building, could be first constructed to be little more than a massing model, a silouhette of the building to come. As the layout matures and interests shift the original module is removed and replaced with something finished to a higher presentation style.

view 6 structure callout

The modules share a common recipe for landscape textures and colours; the fascia is always a consistent colour. The smaller module with the building has a contrasting colour for its fascia. This is used to accent a prominent structure or key element in the scene the same way a spotlight draws attention to the main actor on a stage.

view 7 structure callout with tag

Our eyes are attracted to this moment of contrasting fascia and I wonder if we could actually apply a label to the fascia as an aid to the operator. If this is the salt unloading shed why not tell the operating where it is so they can spend their attention on positioning the next hopper’s bay doors to drop that next load of road salt.

The bookcase addresses basic structural form. Freed from structure the layout now is stripped down to only a basic element just to hold the track. As scenery is needed it is added when it contributes to the story for that time. It’s a form of minimalism and this is where I’m headed. Thank you, as always, for actually reading this far.

4 thoughts on “Cake

  1. Well, I am delighted to see you writing again. You are one of the top three or four thinkers in our hobby-craft-art.

    That said, I am not happy to hear that your primary repository for your writing is Facebook. Many in the US will not use Facebook because of Facebook’s irresponsibility as a corporation. Thank you for your alternative here.

    I will continue to rain on your parade by saying that the idea of calling out micromodules with color rather than light is likely to prove a non- starter. You can break the Fourth Wall in the theatre but it is risky. Given the competition for the viewers’ attention on a layout, it seems to me to be disfunctional.

    All that said, thanks for reinvesting, and I await eagerly anything you have to say!

    1. Hello, before getting any further into this reply: thank you. It’s wonderful to hear from you. Thank you also for the quality of the comment. It is one of my great regrets aimed at modern social media that instead of providing a platform for good communication it can feel even more oppressive than we felt before we were so encouraged to be so open. In the context of this post, I appreciate the feedback from friends whose opinions I value – these contributions only make the work better.

      Facebook will never be the major repository for my writing. It’s just not a suitable platform to host it. This blog’s origins were to provide a place for equally nimble content. Not fully developed thinking but random bursts of interest I could return to later for future consideration. I felt like I was letting this site down and using the Facebook piece is like a bandaid but it is not a cure and I’m comfortable with the balance.

      You’re correct about the highlighted modules. On something larger, like a real building, I like when projections or similar built features are rendered in contrasting colours or textures to further distinguish them from the major face of the elevation. Here on the layout though they would likely be too much of a distraction. For the design of the layout to be successful I’ll need to rely more heavily on unity in colour and texture of fascia to carry the viewer laterally across the scene. Changing the colours only introduces a kind of punctuation that interrupts the line.

      Thank you again. Thank you for investing in the conversation and for making it this far.


  2. Welcome back, Chris! You may be interested that some exhibition layouts are built this way already. The first time I saw it in print was in one of Iain Rice’s books. I think he calls it a jigsaw construction, and the intent is to control and hide joins in the scenery.
    I was going to echo Marshall’s concern about drawing attention to the fascia, but now that I think about it, I think you raise an interesting question. We usually think of the fascia as a frame for the piece, but what if it is the piece? Especially in a shared living space, a traditional layout presents as three bands: the sky – a narrow band of scenery – the fascia. Maybe it’s time to recognize that the fascia is the second most dominant element anyway, and dress it accordingly.

    1. Thank you! I’ve yet to be lucky enough to see one of these style of layouts in person but I believe in the idea. I’m not sure why I couldn’t recall that I’d seen it before and I appreciate your help with the linkage. Rice does a much better job of illustrating the idea of a jigsaw construction (I think that’s what he calls it too).

      Looking back at my own previous projects, especially those in N scale, I am confronted by the simple composition you described. In terms of my typical dimensions, this reads from top to bottom as:
      4″ strip of Masonite as a valance behind which layout lighting resides;
      24″ band of blue sky;
      2″ to 8″ band of scenery (“the layout”) on which a train only 1″ tall moves;
      6-9″ fascia;

      We think of the layout on a horizontal plane but as an installation it presents a flat, two dimensional, presence. Should we consider how it’s framed? Could we coordinate that frame so it compliments the scene inside?

      Missing from the above calculation is that void between the bottom line of lower fascia and the floor. The higher up the layout is placed, vertically, the greater this void. Proportionately it’s a peculiar issue: the purpose of the installation is the layout yet against a typical eight foot high wall the layout’s vertical presence is only a sliver of activity. To test this theory, run a strip of painter’s masking tape across the wall. It’s a stripe and that’s our layout. Like matting around a photo that fascia should remain nondescript to remove conflicting visual information (our eyes aren’t comparing the family photo hanging on the wall next to the layout to the layout). When the lights are down and the layout is operating that fascia blends into the surrounding darkness but in daylight it does beg a question of style.

      In selecting one element of the fascia for a highlight colour I wondered about wayfinding and that kind of information we provide to the viewer but finding ways to help without it being so visually loud it is more annoying distraction that useful information. I was thinking about all those times when I’ve joined a crew to operate on a new layout and how often it’s difficult to figure out where that industry from your switchlist is on the layout among all those places in front of your eyes or how hard it can be to relate the schematic drawn on the fascia to the fan of turnouts in the yard so you can line the right turnouts to get into the right siding.


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