Interview with Greg DiNapoli

When I got started in this hobby, I was inspired by a number of LEGO creations that I had found online, but I didn’t get a chance to see a skyscraper model for real until I attended my first LEGO event – Brickfair, NJ in 2017. The standout at this event (at least for me) was a very impressive 8-foot tall model of 1WTC (One World Trade Center in New York) built by Greg DiNapoli. Seeing this model gave me the impetus to work on models of my own that I could also display in LEGO conventions.

After we met at Brickfair, I reached out to Greg and he was kind enough to show me the ropes and give me tips for navigating the LEGO community. We have stayed in touch ever since (often using each other as sounding boards for ideas). I had the opportunity to display my skyscraper models alongside Greg’s model of the 1WTC at Brickfest, Philadelphia 2019 and we were also featured together in an article in Blocks Magazine.

As a LEGO builder, I hesitate to use the term ‘artist’ to describe myself but Greg is an artist in the real sense of the word. His painstakingly-created pencil drawings are stunningly realistic (often hard to distinguish from actual black and white photographs) and have won him multiple awards. And yes, he also happens to be an award-winning (Best Lighted MOC in Brickfair, NJ 2017 and Staff Choice Award in Brickfest, Philadelphia 2019) LEGO builder with a keen interest in skyscrapers.

I started this blog not just to showcase my own models but also to try to offer perspectives from outside my own narrow realm of experience. Towards that end, I couldn’t think of a better person to invite to add some fresh perspective to this blog, than my friend Greg. Thank you Greg for agreeing to answer these questions regarding your amazing model of 1WTC !

1) Let me get some obligatory questions out of the way – you know, the kind you get asked over and over again when you display your model in a LEGO convention. How many pieces ? How long did it take to build ? Did you really build the whole thing by yourself ? Just kidding about the last one, of course !

Ha ha. Well the build has 25,000 pieces. I built one section at a time (the street and plaza, the building’s pedestal, the main tower, and then the spire). I ordered pieces for each section as I needed them, and I was constantly changing things as I went, so the whole build took about 8 months. And yes, I did it all by myself.

2) As I understand it, you have wanted to build this model for a long time. What finally made you pull the trigger ? Did you have any problems sourcing the pieces you needed for the model ?

LEGO was my life as a kid, so as an adult who loved skyscrapers, I built 2 after I discovered Bricklink and saw I could get the parts I needed. In 2005 I built the Citigroup Center in New York City, and in 2006 I built the Sears Tower (Willis). I always said I would build another, but I got married and started a family. Growing up admiring the Twin Towers from nearby New Jersey, the World Trade Center rebuild fascinated me, and when they finally released the final plan for the new tower, I immediately wanted to build it in LEGO. I actually have a plan sketch of it I did in 2011, but I never pulled the trigger. I went to Brickfair NJ in 2016 as a spectator and was inspired to finally do a large build again, and to have it ready to display at Brickfair NJ, so that’s what I did. I placed my first parts order in November of 2016, and I finished it about 3 months ahead of time. I only had trouble sourcing the 1 x 2 trans dark blue pieces. I needed over 9,000 of them, and after about 5,000 they were getting tricky to find and more expensive. It slowed my progress down some, but eventually I got there.

3) Can you outline the process you used to ensure that your model would accurately represent the actual building ? How did you end up deciding how big the footprint of the tower was going to be ?

As an artist, math isn’t my strongest subject, so our ways of figuring out scale are very different, ha ha. I more or less “eyeballed” the whole structure. I knew I wanted the base to be around 30 studs wide based on my Sears Tower build from 10 years earlier. So I created some LEGO scale graph paper in the computer and I put an elevation drawing of the actual building on top of it with the base 30 studs wide, and more or less traced it. I knew I was limited to 8 feet (the height of my ceiling) so I worked around that. Luckily I was able to get the proportions pretty close without doing any math.

4) This is a very impressive model to begin with but what takes it to the next level is the lighting. Can you describe how you were able to recreate a realistic night-time look of the building with your lighting scheme ?

When I set out to finally build my 1WTC, my goal was to vastly improve on my previous skyscrapers and literally make it the culmination of my LEGO career. I wanted everything to be perfect. And for me, the only way to do that was to not only show what the building looked like in daylight, but at night-time as well. This was another aspect that I “winged” as I went along. I’m not an electrician, so I reached out to Rob at Brickstuff and he walked me through the Brickstuff system and helped me create what I envisioned. The “night-time” look was achieved by building the entire tower with a double wall, the outer layer being trans dark blue, and an inner layer with rows of white to mimic the internal steel structure, trans clear for “lit” windows and black for “unlit” windows. This took several tries to get right; I tried different color combinations and arrangements of the lit and unlit windows until I was satisfied with how it looked. I literally had half the tower built one way and I took it completely apart and started over because I didn’t think it resembled 1WTC at night well enough. And thanks to Brickstuff‘s tiny LEDs, I was able to cram 16 lights in the very skinny spire, so I am able to mimic different lighting color schemes like the real tower using trans clear colored plates over the LEDs.  Rob also programmed a white light to mimic the beacon at the top of the spire, as well as the red aircraft warning light to blink in the same sequence as the real building.

5) I know you are a perfectionist (I can totally relate to that) and can’t stop tinkering with your model. I remember you redid the plaza section of your 1WTC just last year (in time for Brickfest). Are there any other parts of your model that you are not entirely satisfied with and would like to redo at some point ?

The first thing that bothered me about my build when I was done was the trees. They were far too large, and I couldn’t have the actual number of trees in the plaza represented. I did some research on microscale trees, and I was able to adjust them. The plaza however still bothered me. I had originally created the angle of the street and plaza by staggering bricks, and it just looked sloppy and blocky to me. Like my pencil drawings, I wanted this build to look as real as possible. So I ordered some winged plates and ripped up the whole thing and redid it just in time for Brickfest 2019. I’m much happier with it now, and honestly there isn’t really anything more I’d change.

6) What kind of challenges did you have transporting this model and setting it up at shows ? I know you built the entire tower portion as a single unit before you decided to break it up into 3 separate chunks (which sounds quite nerve-wracking to me !).

One of my goals with this build was to display it at Brickfair NJ in 2017. Beyond that, I really never expected to display it again so I really didn’t think it through very well while I was building it how I would transport it. I originally had it as 3 sections: the base/podium, the 5 foot trans dark blue tower, and the spire. When I got to Brickfair NJ, I really didn’t want to set it up and display it on the floor, so I decided to put it on a table. Getting that 5 foot section of thousands of LEGO (with no glue) to line up to 8 studs on the base AND connect the wiring for the lights on a ladder was absolutely terrifying. I still don’t know how I did it. But, I figured it was destined to spend the rest of its life in my house so I didn’t change anything. I was then invited to display it for the day and an interview at One World Observatory at the top of the real building in New York City, truly a great honor. So I rolled the dice again. While it was easier to set it up on the floor, handling that 5 foot section was just too stressful, heavy and impractical. When I decided to display at Brickfest Philadelphia, I knew I had to change something. So I broke the main tower into 3 sections and altered the wiring inside to be able to disconnect at several points. It got a little messy, but LEGO is meant to be taken apart and put back together right? This proved to be much more practical, and makes me more confident about displaying more in the future.

7) When you started working on this model, did you have any inkling about how popular it would turn out to be ? It is not every day that a LEGO model makes the evening news. You were also able to take your model to the top of the real 1WTC (how cool is that ?).

Yes I built my 1WTC with the intent of displaying it (once), but I truly built it for myself. It was challenging on many levels, and with my love of architecture and skyscrapers, I wanted it for myself. If it wasn’t for the urging of my friend Jonathan Lopes, I wouldn’t have done anything more with it. But Jonathan encouraged me to send it to some popular New York websites, and somehow it went viral. It was well beyond my wildest dreams. It was a lot of fun, and I was thrilled so many people enjoyed my work.

You can follow Greg DiNapoli using these links

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