Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


The Twin Cities’ 8 best architectural ‘scalies’ of 2015

Here are our picks for the best of these virtual people — who give renderings scale — from 2015, and the projects they honored with their presence.

They’re called scalies.

At least that’s what the architects say they’re called. Architects, however, have a peculiar sense of humor. So this could all be some delicious inside joke that we have fallen for, and fallen hard.

Article continues after advertisement

For the sake of this article, however, we’re going to stick with the facts as we know them: that the little illustrations of people who appear in architectural renderings are called scalies because they are meant to show the scale of the rendering. That is, if we know the size of the average human, we can get a sense of how large a building or bridge or bench is.

“Whatever we prefer to call them, we can all agree that these folks are exceptionally hip, physically active, and diverse, with an artful sense of the proper distance to stand from one another,” wrote Christopher Hudson, editor of Architecture MN. Hudson also let us in on a little secret: We might in fact see the same scalies in different renderings because most of the images are governed by Creative Commons licenses, which means they’re available to any of the rendering renderers. 

In honor of these virtual people — who give local project renderings such scale and hipness — here are the top architectural scalies of 2015, and the projects they honored with their presence. 

1. Straw Hat Guy (Nicollet Mall)
Some politicians have termed the revised Nicollet Mall in Downtown Minneapolis as our “High Line,” after the elevated park in Manhattan. It isn’t on an abandoned rail trestle like the High Line, but it is long and sort of skinny like the High Line, and the lead architect, James Corner Field Operation, is one of the lead architects of High Line. So, close enough.

Nicollet Mall Project

The $50 million project is the second renovation of the mall, which opened in 1967. And apparently it will be so fabulous that Richard Attenborough made the trip all the way from England, or wherever he lives. And he even reprised his straw hat from Jurassic Park. In other renderings, the sidewalk Attenborough is strolling down includes a lawn bowling court that can become a curling rink.

2. Person With Dog (Macy’s Renovation)
St. Paul is rightfully excited about the pending repurposing of the old Macy’s department store in the heart of downtown. Initially the plan was to tear it down and make way for a hip, mixed-use development where hip St. Paulites could work, play, go to movies and check their cellphones, at least according to the scalies people-ing those renderings.

Rothweiler Group

But demolition costs kicked that idea in its hip stomach. Plan B is to renovate the existing building for a variety of uses including a new Walgreens drug store, some restaurants, breweries and offices. But the highest profile use — other than that drug store —  is a rooftop practice ice for the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, the Hamline Pipers and even the general public.

The tiny scalies in this rendering do not look like they are having nearly as much fun as those in the Nicollet Mall renderings. And there aren’t very many of them. The woman with the dog in the foreground, therefore, makes the list as a means of sending a message to architects: Virtual people are virtually free of cost. If you want to show how a project with an invigorated downtown St. Paul, GET MORE SCALIES.

3. ‘Furious Makeout Session’ Guy (Downtown Commons Park)
This new park that might rise on the ashes of the Star Tribune’s former building and former parking lot isn’t Minneapolis’ High Line. Maybe it will be Minneapolis’ Bryant Park — if the final design is ever finished, and if the $20 million or so is raised to build it.

Financial uncertainties haven’t discouraged the design team, led by San Francisco-based Hargreave Associates, from coming up with all sorts of proposed uses for the 4.2 acre park. Renderings depict downtown workers eating lunch, kids running in the grass, people playing in the snow, people listening to concerts. And wait, are those people lawn bowling?

What is it with architects and lawn bowling?

Downtown East Commons

At one of the first design presentations, Ward 3 City Council Member Jacob Frey couldn’t contain his enthusiasm in describing the proposed park. For example, Frey said he wanted to come back in 10 years and hear stories from people who recall playing Frisbee with their children there, or look back longingly about how they found respite during a busy workday. Frey also said he hoped to “find someone who says, ‘You know, 10 years ago I was over on that bench making out furiously with your mother before you were born.’”

So there he is, in the left background of this summertime scene, out of sight of the frolicking children (thankfully). There’s virtual Jacob Frey furiously making out with the virtual mother of his future children. No, he’s there. Look harder. They assured us he was there.

4. Endangered Rider (St. Paul bike loop)
The third rail of St. Paul politics isn’t higher taxes or expensive public office buildings. It appears to be any attempt to charge for parking outside of downtown. But once that idea was put to death by a pitchfork-wielding mob shouting “Park Free or Die” (or something like that), another political death-wish replaced it: bike lanes.

St. Paul government officials want to make the city more accommodating to bike riders and their two-wheeled contraptions. And because St. Paul is pretty much built out, any use of right of way for bikes and bike lanes means current uses for things like cars and cars, or perhaps cars, has to give a little. People who drive cars don’t want to give up very much. Such is the way political conflicts are born.

Department of Public Works

The issue will come full circle, so to speak, as the city begins to build its downtown bike loop over the next several years. The idea is to create protected lanes that form an oval of sorts through the downtown core. That loop would then connect to lanes and trails that fan out across the city. This rendering shows how it might change Jackson Street with the lower composite photograph showing a guy on his bike just before a guy in a car clips him while trying to parallel park on the protected bike lane.

5. The Lonesome Baseball Fan (Target Field Club)
The Minnesota Twins are hard at work over the off-season not only trying to improve a team that just missed out on the playoffs but improving the ballpark. Gone will be center field seating. In its place will a new club called Catch for season tickets holders willing to put out up to $85 per game for the privilege of being 450 feet or so from home plate. Above that will be another new venue, a pub open to all fans.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Twins

The renderings show typical hip, young and vibrant people having fun while they eat and drink and — for the most part — don’t watch the actual game. The scalie of the year winner in this rendering is the woman at the railing. I’m not sure what she’s wearing. I’m not sure what she’s taking a picture of. But other than that Joe Mauer fan giving a sidelong glance at something, she appears to be the only person in the new venue who is paying the slightest attention to baseball.

6. Ghosts of the Future (Kenilworth Trail)
We need to speak softly here out of respect for the scalies in this rendering who apparently have passed on to the Great Scalie Beyond. They are displayed as they might have appeared before some cataclysmic event cut short their brief yet hip lives. They were enjoying the landscaping that designers of the proposed Southwest Light Rail Transit project hope to install after the beloved Kenilworth Trail is torn up to accommodate construction of the line between Target Field Station and Eden Prairie.

Metropolitan Council

Little is known of what led to their demise and their current ghost-like appearance, but we’re pretty sure it had absolutely nothing to do with oil trains.

7. Upside Down Selfie Woman (Nicollet Hotel block)
For reasons known only to architects, nothing says vibrant-and-happening quite like an attractive woman taking odd photographs of unknown things. This one is situated in the plaza that designers of the United Properties’ mixed-use tower at the Nicollet Hotel Block want at the ground level. The building itself would rise on what is now a parking lot and transit center next to the downtown library. It is proposed to be 36 stories and include retail, hotel rooms, apartments or condos, and perhap the city’s first streetcar passing through the middle.

United Properties

Therefore, the upside down woman might be taking a picture of said streetcar. Or she might be taking a selfie. A vibrant and happening selfie.

8. Giant Architect  (St. Paul River Balcony)
St. Paul has a cool idea of developing a long, linear park that will hug the bluff over the Mississippi River at roughly the level of downtown streets. It will be St. Paul’s High Line. The city would like it to be incorporated in any buildings that are developed on the river edge of downtown and become a way of connecting, visually and physically, the city with the river.

It is still in the early phases and the images and props are still in the works, though the University of Minnesota Metropolitan Design Center has come up with a massive 3D model that shows what it might look like, if the entire city was white like the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, sans Ferris Wheel.

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

There were no scalies included in the model, but this rendering shows what it would look like if a giant architect — an out-of-scalie, perhaps — was standing hip deep in the Mississippi to fix the model of a railroad bridge should it ever become dislodged, say, by the sleeve of a reporter taking a video of the model.