How Chris Burden Created Metropolis II, A Tiny City Where 1,100 Toy Cars Zoom

We speak with the artist about creating a years-in-the-making mechanical masterpiece.

How Chris Burden Created Metropolis II, A Tiny City Where 1,100 Toy Cars Zoom

The blogs have been buzzing about California artist Chris Burden’s toy-car megalopolis project, Metropolis II, for ages. The latest news: A collector bought the installation for “millions” of dollars, but was gracious enough to donate it to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for display over the next 10 years. (Whew!) But what does it take to design something like Metropolis II, and what does it all mean, anyway?


It took Burden and his chief engineer four years to make Metropolis II.

The first question is easy: It took Burden and his chief engineer Zak Cook four years of R&D and construction in Burden’s studio to make Metropolis II. (Burden, a performance-art superstar who once had a friend shoot him in the arm in a gallery, is no stranger to following his artistic means to extreme ends.) Burden tells Co.Design that his inspiration for the project was “that we spent so much time and effort on R&D on the first one” — a smaller toy-car city called Metropolis I that was sold to a museum in Japan, which exhibited it for six months and then mothballed it forever, like the final shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Whereas that version had “only” 80 toy cars whizzing around on single-lane highways, Metropolis II has 1,100 cars traveling on 18 roadways “including one six-laner,” says Burden. “We wanted to expand it and make it truly overwhelming — the noise and level of activity are both mesmerizing and anxiety provoking.”


Burden doesn’t have any particular interest in transportation or urban planning, he says, although he has used toys in his artworks since the 1970s. “Toys are interesting as objects — they’re the tools you use to inculcate children into adults,” he tells Co.Design. “They’re a reflection of society.” So what, then, is this hulking, cacophonous mini-city supposed to reflect? “It’s modeling something that’s on the twilight of extinction: the era of the ‘free car,'” Burden says, referring to the idea of jumping into one’s own car anytime and going wherever one pleases, how one pleases. “Those days are numbered, but think it’s a good thing. The upside is that cars can be faster and safer, and you don’t have to worry about drunk drivers. Think about it: The cars in Metropolis II are going a scale speed of 230mph. That’d be great to do for real in L.A.”

“It’s modeling something that’s in twilight: the era of the free car.”

But while Metropolis II is an optimistic vision of the future of car culture, that’s not to say that crack-ups don’t happen. The exhibit, when running, requires two full-time attendants: one standing inside it monitoring flow like a panopticon, and another pacing around the 20-by-30-foot installation watching for traffic snarls. “I’ve seen spectacular pile-ups involving cars that spill off the road and derail trains,” Burden says. “Every hour 100,000 cars circulate through the system, so you’re going to get some glitches. It’s not digitized.”


The braking comes from walls that rise when the roads curve.

Burden and Cook added some clever design solutions to control the traffic flow and minimize catastrophes. The subtlest, says Burden, are lane-dividing medians on the tiny roadways that taper to a point from the bottom to the top edge on straightaways, but remain fully vertical in curves. The reason: braking. When the cars enter a curve, the walls of the medians touch with rims of their wheels and the friction slows them down; when they come out of the curve, the tapered medians don’t touch the wheel rims anymore, allowing the cars to pick up speed again on straightaways and keep the flow moving swiftly. When they reach the bottom, magnets in the track catch on and pull them back up a slope to the top like a roller coaster, where they are released once again to gravity’s pull.

Burden also has Metropolis II‘s cars specially manufactured in China to his custom specifications — unlike Metropolis I, which just used off-the-shelf Hot Wheels toys. “The original toy cars have very thin axles that wear out too fast,” says Burden. Given that Metropolis II is supposed to run three days a week for the next 10 years, how will it avoid the “wearing out” problem? Burden’s no-nonsense answer: “We made a lot of cars.” He says Metropolis II will go on exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art sometime this fall.

[Images by E. Koyama; See more from Chris Burden at LACMA]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.