The Dubai man who designs life in miniature

Dani Bterrani, chief executive of 3dr Models, explains why size and attention to detail matters in the fascinating craft of the maquette – model making for architects designing the landmark buildings of the future.

3dr Models made 84 of the models displayed at this year’s Cityscape. Lee Hoagland / The National
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The dining table is set, complete with salt, pepper and a bottle of olive oil. Knives, forks and crockery are laid out ready for the family to sit down and eat.

The television set in the lounge is showing a basketball game, and the husband and wife are taking in a view of the ocean from the luxury yacht moored outside their three-storey house.

It is a perfectly normal sight, except that everything is in miniature. It is like peeking through the windows of a doll’s house. Although unlike a doll’s house, this model is the centrepiece of a sales pitch worth millions of dirhams.

It is one of thousands of models that Dani Bterrani, chief executive of 3dr Models, dispatches around the world each year to help architects, designers, developers and governments to plan their building projects.

The company has made miniatures of virtually every ambitious concept there is: underwater hotels, twisting towers with mechanical movement, and a sundial-shaped building designed to turn with the sun.

“In the last year, models that we sent out a few years ago are coming back and companies are asking us to clean them up and remove the crazy or illogical parts, to make them more straightforward and realistic,” he says.

“They were used and then when the recession hit, they were put on hold. Now that plot will be developed but the design will be more sensible. I think 2006 to 2009 was a Dubai architect’s playground.

“I feel more confident in the market now. I’m happy we don’t have this crazy stuff, I feel secure.”

3dr Models dispatches two or three items every day, and only a quarter of those are destined for the UAE. While the company’s headquarters are in Dubai, the factory is in China, and there is a satellite office in Hong Kong.

Mr Bterrani, who moved to the UAE 33 years ago, has come a long way since he was a teenager making models out of tissue boxes.

“I became interested when I was working as an office boy in a model company in Canada. To get a few pennies for spending money, I used to clean the office.

“In my free time I used to cut things and make models in the workshop.”

Mr Bterrani, a father-of-three, moved to Dubai with his parents when he was 14. His father was an architect, but miniature models were not common.

“I used a tissue box to make a model of one of my dad’s projects. The client was like, ‘What is this? Can I take it?’. It was really horrible, it was a tissue box, but he wanted it.”

Word spread among his father’s clients and it was not long before an oil company contacted him to ask him to build a miniature replica oil rig.

“They called me up for a meeting. I had never even been to a meeting, I didn’t even know what a meeting was; I was only 14 or 15. I walked into the room and there were 15 people around a table. The guy said, ‘Do you really think I’m going to trust you with this much money?’.

I told him to give me the job and not the money – if he was happy, he could pay me. He liked my attitude, gave me the job and the down payment.”

For his early models Mr Bterrani was forced to improvise with the materials. He used cauliflower heads painted green as trees. “It looked great, but then the client called me and said, ‘There’s a bad smell’.”

After cauliflower he moved on to painted pasta spirals. Today he employs a team of 33 women who spend all their time making trees.

The factory staff are split into teams of 10 and 11, each specialising in specific areas such as cars, trees, people or roads.

The landscapers, responsible for creating miniature gardens and parks, are bona fide farmers and gardeners.

“They know nothing about architecture or drawings and they can’t write their own name. We put them with an architect, he can understand the drawings and they add a richness to the landscaping.

“If there is something that needs landscaping, the head of that team will make one piece so they can understand what we want, and the team will do it. They do amazing landscaping. If an architect was landscaping it would look dry, too clean-cut and too unrealistic. You need a gardener to do it, it’s his thing.”

Mr Bterrani also employs a master carver who makes all of the small templates from which thousands or millions of moulds can be taken. He uses an old hammer and a wooden block, refusing to embrace any new technology that Mr Bterrani tries to introduce to the factory.

“The wood on his hammer has fingermarks on it because he has been using it for so long,” he says.

The biggest model the company has made was an 80x40-metre bird’s-eye view of Qatar, for the Qatari government. “I had 80 people zooming in on Google Earth and taking pictures,” says Mr Bterrani.

“I strongly believe every country should have a model of their country, it’s the only way to monitor the progress.”

3dr Models made 84 of the models displayed at this year's Cityscape, including the Swarovski-themed Sparkle Towers.

Adel Rahman, 34, originally from Kerala, India, is a designer at the company’s Dubai office.

“You have to have a very strong eye for detail,” he says. “Without all the small details it won’t look as good. I get to see a lot of stuff that makes me go ‘wow’.”

The models of office spaces are lit with bright white light, and residential spaces are lit with a much warmer, orange glow.

One of the models ready to be dispatched has model cars doing laps of the road outside the tall office building. The mechanics look complicated.

“It’s a bike chain with magnets, that’s all,” says Mr Bterrani.

The details of the models are determined not only by the development, but the country to which the model is being sent.

Models bound for Saudi Arabia, for example, must not contain any miniature uncovered western women, and models going to Qatar must have a higher ratio of Qataris than expatriates.

In the UAE there are fewer rules but in general, bigger is better. One of the larger models stored in the Al Quoz warehouse is of the Mall of the World project, which shows people buying bunches of flowers in a florist, looking at art, and families strolling through a central tramway complete with trees, benches and an old-fashioned red British telephone box. Another of the larger models unveiled recently by 3dr Models is for the La Mer project in Jumeirah. At 143 square metres it was the biggest on display at Cityscape.

As chief executive, Mr Bterrani gets to see the Dubai of the future, but remains tight-lipped about most of the projects he has been introduced to.

The Dubai Canal Project, he says, is just one of many megaprojects that will transform the city in decades to come.

But as far as his business goes, he likes to keep it traditional, refusing to swap man for machine.

The warehouse’s 3D printer is tucked away in a side room and is used more by Mr Bterrani’s seven-year-old daughter than his employees.

“I personally feel it’s a waste of time,” he says. “My people are faster and it’s much better quality.

“To be successful I think you should always give a little more than what you contractually agreed to. Don’t scrimp. Don’t try to save money by putting in fewer trees. It will not look good. It’s the details that people want to see.”