Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Post ModerN Modeling: Nothing is almost still too much

In my studies in college, we talked a lot about Post Modernism, the evolution and rejection of "modernism". It's tough to pin down a definition of "post modern", but this is the best I could pull from Wikipedia .

...postmodernism tends to refer to a cultural, intellectual, or artistic state lacking a clear central hierarchy or organizing principle and embodying extreme complexity, contradiction, ambiguity, diversity, and interconnectedness or interreferentiality.

I've realized that the rejection of traditional modeling concepts has driven me toward trying many different things in my modeling. While many traditional modelers will often try to pack as much "railroading" as possible into a space, I've been determined recently to do almost the exact opposite, and pack as little railroading into a space as possible.

I was presented many possibilities for my home layout when I began it. Many of these suggestions were that I needed "more" in the space. My good friend Lee has built an entire paper mill and junction on his layout (online at WMRYWesternlines.net) in the same square footage that I afforded to a ridge of trees.

This drive makes many things tricky, like incorporating any operational interest in a small space. I believe in making scenes as large as they deserve to be, and I find trying to scale these things down to manageable and modelable sizes is an even steeper challenge than I bet it is for many others out there.

Take my recent work on a oNeTRAK module for BANTRAK for example. I struggle to fit prototypical scenes into my door sized layout at home, but fitting something that I felt worth modeling into a 1'x4' module poised an even larger challenge. At first I thought about trying to model something very mundane, which is also part of what I feel makes my modeling thought post modern.

My first thought was just a stretch of track, on a slight embankment, like in Macungie PA or this scene at Strasburg. (Just look at how post modern THIS is, it's even of the rear of the engine!)

I had thought about doing something like a simple block signal. This is something that is barely ever done on a model railroad. It seems like every signal is there for an junction, an interlocking, or just for show. I thought that doing an intermediate, boring, block signal location would be a fun change of pace, and something novel. I may still revisit this in the future, as I still think it is an interesting idea.

After discussing the clubs needs though, I realized that what was more important was a "destination" scene. Somewhere that would make some sense for trains to be going to. I agonized with this though, because I'm not good at this type of thing. I'm too aware of the actual sizes of things in real life (thanks there Maps.Live.Com and your damn 3/4 view), and this was making coming up with a convincing concept difficult.

After pouring over some Conrail ZTS maps, I realized that the ideal "industry" to model wasn't an industry at all. It was an interchange. But even with this minimalist maximalist destination, I'm still struggling.

This all made me realized I'm really into modeling "nothing", that space between the scenes that everyone else is building. For every junction in real life, there are miles of boring straight track, that can be interesting in its details, but never gets any modeling attention. For every "hot spot" where 6 different lines all cross there are millions of more simple interlockings where it's a simple crossover between two tracks. For every bridge over a river, there are hundreds of more small bridges over creeks, and for each one of those, I'm betting there are 50 culverts over drainage ditches. I feel compelled to model more of these "mundane" things than the big ones. I'm not sure if this is just rebelliousness toward the modeling I was "brought up on" (and yes, I learned how to read with Model Railroader, and it took me a while to figure out that most of the world thought 2-8-2 actually meant negative eight), or maybe it's the desire to make a better representation of the real world in my modeling.

Either way, I can attest to this. It makes planning anything "operational" a real pain in the ass.


Lee said...

The place to go to really get a feel for this is the old Stewartstown RR from New Freedom, PA to Stewartstown.
It's only about 7 miles, but there's probably less than a mile that you might consider "model-able" scenes. The rest is truly tracks in the midst of nothing.
I hiked it in 1979 back when it was between hurricanes. Between the 70lb rail, the rusty bridges, the broken and rotting ties, it was like walking through a time warp.
It's not the same now, with all the development that's occured, but when I think of sleepy branch line operation, that's what I think of.

I often consider chucking the whole "Big Layout" scheme and building a point to point like the Stewartstown. Probably with a Penn Central theme, bad track, knee deep weeds, a bunch of sidings that no longer serve abandoned factories, yet enough traffic at the end of the line to justify keeping it open.

From a layout design standpoint, I don't think you can accomplish this without it being an "around the wall" shelf type layout. That format lends itself better to the lineal nature of the prototype, and provides a better opportunity to obscure the track with stands of trees, the backs of Main Street, or just a meadow.

Now by the same token, long stretches of nothing take place on the major trunk lines as well. I'm thinking of US22 along the Juniata River. I recall looking out the window of the car for miles and miles, seeing the winter afternoon sun glinting off the then-four track main of the Middle Division. There'd be the occasional trackside hamlet, the obligatory stone arch bridge, but otherwise vast stretches of river, rail and ridge.

It's difficult to translate this into a layout room. Ask Jerry Britton. Or me for that matter. I look at google earth, and pine for the expanses of nothing between Cumberland and Connellsville.

So we settle for photo diorama sized snippets that fit into our overall track plans, which are by necessity compressed to fit between the closet and the water heater.

Gives you the impression of distance, without actually achieving it.


Ed said...

I agree, the Stewartstown is a really cool little piece of railroad. Especially considering it's still in existence (not that they run anything, from what I understand, the Board of Directors are all about 90 years old, and the line is washed out in a bunch of places.). I've heard some rumors that it may be returned to active service though.

I agree about the branch line concept, I think the thing might be quite a bit of fun. The hardest thing with all of these notions floating around in my head though is the actual practicality of putting them to use in a layout.

Jeff G. said...

I suppose if you wanted to model "nothing" (or as close to that concept as possible), how about the Nullarbor Plain in Australia. I believe it is the longest stretch of straight track in the world and it's about as bleak and barren an environment as you could imagine.

bfons said...

Hey Ed

I liked your blog post. I had a similar feeling about all of my layouts, until this one. Even at 15 x 39, though, this one still leaves me a little desirous of something more. I always thought something was lacking, my layouts weren't railroady, or "railroad-esque". Nor did they make me feel any sense of purpose. I also liked all things generic along the line, not spectacular trestles and gorges, but the seemingly never-captured plain-jane ROW. I think for me the catalyzing thing for railroad design was my unfulfilled desire to work on a railroad. So model railroading is a sort of entertaining career pursuit, a goal to reach for and enjoy at the same time. Once I got to that point and realized I had Koester-ed myself, everything changed. Operations was the big thing missing, and second to that was the plain jane effect. Less one-off cars and more trains jammed full of shitty old rust bucket leaser boxcars from 20 shortlines, with car numbers rented by GE. THAT'S moving paper. Not trains of fantasy crap or 30 cars of one-off wild paint schemes. Fleet-appearing engines, ready to work not win shows, boxcars that are out to earn their car hire, that sort of thing. A ROW that despite being N scale reeks of creosote and makes your feet hurt from working on imaginary ballast under your boots. That is what I wanted. Thankfully, I am finally at a point where I am building that layout. DCC, headset radios, OCS train order forms and a rolling stock collection that mirrors what the SLR is dragging around.

My next layout concept is already shaped - a small branch, from Plymouth to Lincoln NH. A 6 track yard in Plymouth with a TT and small shop, nice station, freight house and a few road and passenger jobs wheeling through on the main. The layout will start there and meander through a whole basement, hitting 2-3 towns and a terminus in Lincoln where the rickety old East Branch & Lincoln meets it at the wye - with lumber and paper out, coal and some chemicals in. Good work if you can get it.

I think your essay speaks to a lot of us out here. I have really enjoyed watching a friend of mine evolve in his modeling desires along a very similar course as yours. Keep sharing.

Michael said...

I agree with your sentiments fully! My childhood experiences with trains were all very postmoderN. I grew up in the country - trains were something that burst out of the treeline, or chased you along the fields for miles. They were defined against a backdrop of 'nothing' and to this day thats how I see them. I'm not interested in a 'railroad' - but simply a scale model of that which I enjoyed... nothing!

Today I still struggle with my own modeling efforts as every time I finish a scene etc. I step back and think "Doesn't look 'railroady' enough". Which translates into "I didn't cram every possible detail/industry into this small area." I still dream of the day when I have the courage to model a scale 100 acre field with a railroad in the background...

Anonymous said...

the "nothing" between points is life my friend, its what we do from day to day until an occasion, weekend or night at the movies with a close friend comes around the bend. If you stop and look back at it and focus in on the detail of it, it's wonderful just like the times that fill our photo albums