Squaring the Circle – Building Round Shapes using LEGO

LEGO is not a medium that is inherently suited to building round shapes. After all, the basic building block – a 1×1 brick has a square footprint and a LEGO baseplate has studs placed in a regular square grid. And yet, there are many wonderful LEGO creations out there that include round shapes – all kinds of cylinders and even spheres. I did not have much experience building these shapes out of LEGO until I started working on my own version of the Taj Mahal. The focal point of this well-known landmark (which happens to be one of the modern wonders of the world) is its massive dome which sits atop a cylindrical base called the drum (that is an actual architectural term !). The minarets (slender towers) that sit at the 4 corners of the plinth of the Taj Mahal are essentially stacked cylinders too.

Needless to say, I had to take a deep dive into all the techniques out there that can be used to create round shapes using LEGO – I basically scoured the web looking for any information I could find on this topic. Every step of the way, I was amazed and inspired by the endless creativity of the AFOL community (I also tapped into some of the tools created by the Minecraft community). While I can’t claim to have invented any of the techniques listed in this article, I am happy to catalog them here for future reference (giving credit to the inventors wherever possible).

So what exactly is involved in creating round shapes out of LEGO ? The title of this post refers to “squaring the circle” which is an age-old mathematical problem that people tried to solve for centuries until it was proven (in 1882) to be impossible to solve. However it is possible to get close enough by using an approximation of the number π (pi). In much the same way, all the techniques described here try to use square/rectangular bricks or plates to create the best approximation that is possible of the round shape. The result is never perfect and the limitations of the LEGO medium are always apparent in the jaggedness of the curves and the gaps that you may see, especially when you are looking at your model up close. But the trick is creating a pretty convincing illusion of a round shape at least when you look at your model from a few steps back.

1) Using SNOT to create small cylinders

For the minarets of the Taj Mahal, I did not want to be limited by the small selection of cylinder pieces that LEGO has. I wanted to try a different way of building cylinders that could be scaled to whatever height I needed. I was already familiar with using curved slopes and SNOT to create round shapes (I had used this technique to build the crown in my model of the Chrysler Building). The same technique can be used to create cylinders with various diameters. All the cylinders in the picture below can be built in height increments of two studs.

The smallest cylinder was just right for the minarets of the Taj Mahal, based on the scale I was using. Ideally the minarets should taper as they rise – the way they do in the real Taj Mahal. Unfortunately there was no easy way to reduce the diameter of the smallest cylinder any further.

2) Bending LEGO walls to create round shapes

A “brute force” way of building round walls using LEGO is by building straight walls and then bending them to form a circle. The longer your wall, the more flex it will have, making it easier for you to bend it into a complete circle. The number of 1×2 bricks needed in each layer to build a stable round wall tends to be around 72, give or take a few bricks. But I have seen round walls built using far fewer plates in each layer.

Check out the work of Jeff Sanders who specializes in “brick bending”. He has an impressive portfolio of creations, made by bending LEGO brick walls not just into circles but various other shapes as well.

Please note that most brick bending techniques are illegal, strictly speaking, because you are using LEGO elements in ways they are not intended to be used and subjecting them to undue stress and possible damage. An obvious downside to this technique (other than it being illegal) is the fact that it cannot be replicated digitally in stud.io.

A few years ago, I embarked on a LEGO project unlike any other that I had worked on before. I wanted to try doing a studs-up mosaic in a round shape. I came up with my own pattern of intertwined snakes and used a little over 14000 plates to build this round thing that I like to think of as some kind of a vase (because a trash can isn’t as appealing). This sits in a corner somewhere in my basement because I still haven’t figured out a good way to finish this and create something worth displaying. Any suggestions would be welcome, of course !

3) Mixing regular bricks with round 1×1 bricks to create round walls

This uses the same approach as above – except for the fact that we use 1×1 round bricks (or plates) in our wall to allow it to be bent more readily (and legally !). If we alternate say 1×3 bricks in our wall (1×2 bricks also work) with 1×1 round bricks, the round bricks act like hinges to some extent, allowing the wall to be bent to form a circle. This method allows round walls to be built with smaller diameters than is possible with the previous method. The only downside is that the texture of the wall is uneven due to the 1×1 round bricks. It is possible to use tiles to hide the round bricks and create the effect of a real brick wall (credit goes to Steve DeCraemer on Flickr). The 1×3 bricks here are replaced with 3 headlight bricks with their top studs facing out. These headlight bricks are joined together with a 1×3 plates while 1×4 tiles are attached to the face of the round wall creating the look of a brick wall (which should work great for castle builds).

4) Round walls using hinge bricks/plates

We have seen that hinge pieces can be very useful for creating angled walls and various polygons (hexagons, octagons, etc). The greater the number of sides in a regular polygon (one where all sides have the same length), the closer it starts to approximate a circle. We can take advantage of this fact to use hinge pieces to create round walls.

One tutorial I came across on this topic is this one by Eggy Pop (flickr user name) – https://www.brickbuilt.org/?p=9015

I have re-created the round wall shown in this tutorial in stud.io using 14 1×4 hinge plates to complete the circle (which is essentially a polygon with 28 two-stud wide sides). One of the neat things about this particular round wall is that its diameter (18 studs on the inside, 20 studs on the outside) is a whole number in terms of studs. As you can see, the hinge plates on 4 sides line up with the LEGO grid allowing the round wall to be attached firmly to a base. So what is special about the number 18 ? Let us see if we can use some math to figure that out. Assuming the inside of the wall is close enough to a circle, its circumference would be the diameter times π (pi) = 18 x 3.14 = 56.52 studs. Now divide that by 4 (the length of a 1×4 hinge plate) and you get 14.13 which is close enough (for practical purposes) to a whole number 14 – which happens to be the number of hinge plates we used.

Don’t count on the same working for round walls with inner diameters of say 17 or 19 studs. What are some other numbers that work ? The two numbers closest to 18 that work are 14 and 23 (I used 23 for the drum in my Taj Mahal). As you can see from the pictures, these two numbers don’t work as well as 18 and the hinge plates on only 2 sides line up with the LEGO grid (which is usually good enough). Can we explain why ? In the case of 14, the number of hinge plates needed is (14 x 3.14) / 4 which is approximately 11. Since the number of hinge plates is not an even number, you don’t have the hinge plates lining up with the LEGO grid on all 4 sides. In the case of 23, the diameter itself is not even. And so, if you line up the hinge plates with the grid on one axis, the other axis is offset by half a stud (you could use jumper plates to attach the round wall to the base on the other two sides if needed).

Once issue with round walls is that when you have just 2 or 4 connection points to the base, the rest of the hinge plates are free to move and so the round shape can easily get distorted. There is no elegant solution I could think of, to get the wall to maintain its shape (I guess you could use long plates as cross members joining each side of the polygon to the one on the opposite side and then have these cross members attached in the middle using turntables). For now, I just built a regular inner wall as close as possible to the round wall, and attached cheese slopes, curved slopes, etc. to the inner wall using SNOT to fill the gaps the best I could. Since the drum has an outer diameter of 25 studs and I needed to center it on a 24×24 base, I ended up using jumper plates. I also needed jumper plates to center the dome (which is built with a core that is 16×16 studs) on the top of the drum.

While it is quite straight-forward to build these round walls using real pieces, how do you do it in stud.io ? The hinge tool allows you to select a piece and rotate it around a hinge point. In this case, the piece being selected would be one half of the 1×4 hinge plate. When you click on the piece with the hinge tool enabled, you will first see a blue arrow. You can click and drag this blue arrow to manually rotate the piece. Or you can click on the blue arrow to get a white text box where you can enter the precise angle to rotate the piece by.

With round walls it is important to make sure all the hinge plates are rotated by just the right amount or the two ends of the wall will not line up correctly to allow you to complete the circle. To figure out the right angle to use, just divide 360 by the number of sides of the polygon you are building which in the case of the first circle (18 studs diameter) would be the number of hinge plates times 2 = 14 x 2 = 28. 360 divided by 28 is 12.85 degrees which is the number you need to enter in the text box. I tend to apply this rotation to one hinge plate and then copy and paste the hinge assembly (both halves together) as many times as I need.

One tip regarding the use of hinge plates in stud.io – in order to be able to rotate the hinge you need to use the two separate halves that make up the hinge plate (the swivel base and swivel top). However, when it is time to place your Bricklink order(s) and you upload the parts list from stud.io, be sure to edit your wish list to replace the two halves with the complete hinge assembly. The hinge assembly (both halves together) tends to be way cheaper than buying the two halves separately.

5) Building spheres by stacking regular bricks or plates

To understand how spheres are built using LEGO bricks, I have found it useful to first look at the world of Minecraft. There are some parallels between Minecraft and LEGO in that both use building blocks with square footprints that are placed on a square grid. One important difference is that the blocks in Minecraft are perfect cubes while a basic 1×1 LEGO brick is not (it is taller than it is wide). More on that later. Anyway, there are a number of resources available in the Minecraft community for building spheres and other shapes using Minecraft blocks and I was wondering if I could leverage some of them for building LEGO spheres.

Before we look at a 3-dimensional sphere, let us look at a basic circle in 2 dimensions. Minecraft enthusiasts often use what is known as a circle chart. It shows the placement of blocks (or pixels) in a square grid that best approximates a circle. The chart shows circles with different diameters and as you can see from the chart, the bigger the diameter, the more convincing the illusion of the round shape is.

Minecraft circle chart

In the Minecraft world where the building blocks are perfect cubes, you can also look at one of the circles and think of it as the side view of a sphere. You can think of each row in the chart as one of the layers of blocks in the sphere you are building. So you would essentially start with a layer of blocks placed in a circle having the diameter of the sphere you want to build (that would be the biggest circle you need). You would then stack layers with successively smaller circles (as you go up) until you reach the smallest circle you need. Repeat the same on the bottom (with the circles getting smaller as you go down) and you have a complete sphere. Of course, it could be a lot of work to figure all this out by hand (even with the help of a circle chart). Thankfully, an online tool (Plotz Sphere Generator) can automate this process for you. You just enter the diameter you need and presto, a sphere is generated for you (with 3D and 2D views showing how the sphere is constructed layer by layer).

That sounds simple – right ? Unfortunately, there is a lot more work involved if you want to build this sphere using LEGO bricks. For one, the sphere generator just shows blocks which are equivalent to 1×1 LEGO bricks but you know these bricks just can’t be stacked the way you see in the 3D view. You need to convert the 1x1s into longer bricks that form an interlocked structure that holds together well. You also need to make the walls of the sphere at least 2 studs deep, allowing each successive layer (which is a smaller circle as you move away from the middle layer) to rest on the layer immediately below it. There is one last hitch – if you replace all the blocks in the Minecraft sphere with 1×1 LEGO bricks you will not end up with a perfect sphere. Your sphere will be a little taller than it is wide – just like a 1×1 brick. Thankfully there is also a Plotz Ellipsoid Generator available on the same site and you can use that and compensate for the shape of a 1×1 brick.

For the sphere I built using LEGO bricks, I used Plotz to create an ellipsoid with a width and depth of 36 units and a height of 30 units. Why did I pick a shape that is a little squat compared to a perfect sphere ? Notice that the ratio of height to width of the ellipsoid is 5/6 which is the inverse of the proportions of a 1×1 LEGO brick (which has a height to width ratio of 6/5). And so when we use LEGO bricks which are taller than they are wide, the proportions even out and we end up with a perfect sphere.

The sphere looks good but it is a little blocky. Is there a way to smoothen the curves – perhaps by using LEGO plates which are 1/3rd as tall as bricks ? We go back to the Plotz Ellipsoid Generator and this time the numbers we use have to reflect the shape of a 1×1 LEGO plate with a height to width ratio of 2/5. I used a height of 50 units and a width of 20 units which gives us a height to width ratio of 5/2. This way when we replace the Minecraft blocks with 1×1 LEGO plates (combined into longer plates as needed) we get a perfect sphere. Looking at this sphere from the side, we can see a definite improvement compared to the earlier sphere. The curves are much smoother thanks to the smaller gradations achieved by using plates instead of bricks. But the limitations of this approach are quite apparent when you turn the sphere and look at it from the top. From this view, the curves once again appear blocky. As it turns out, using plates to build the sphere only makes the curves smoother in one of the three dimensions. Another downside to spheres built by stacking bricks or plates is that the undersides of the bricks and plates are visible when you look at the bottom side of the sphere.

Is there a way to achieve smoother curves in all 3 dimensions without any of those pesky undersides of plates being visible ? If we could take just the top part of this sphere that is smoother and somehow use it in all 3 dimensions (all 6 sides), we would have a sphere that looks smooth all around – correct ? That is exactly the idea that AFOL extraordinaire Bruce Lowell had back in 2002. His invention sort of revolutionized the construction of round shapes (not just spheres) using LEGO, earning him the distinction of being the only AFOL (I know of) to have a building technique named after him – the Lowell Sphere !

6) Lowell Spheres

A Lowell sphere consists of a SNOT cube (with studs in all directions) with 6 identical curved panels (built using LEGO plates) attached on all 6 sides. Each panel is longer than it is wide allowing the 6 panels to interlock perfectly without any visible gaps. Bruce Lowell’s original Lowell Sphere had a diameter of 6.8 studs and it had an inner core that was 4x4x4 studs wide. But in the years that followed, this technique has taken on a life of its own, finding applications in not just spheres but other complex sculptures as well.

While the original 6.8 stud wide sphere is pretty easy to figure out, how do you apply this technique to build bigger spheres ? Another AFOL who has been key to making this technique accessible to everyone is Bram Lambrecht. He developed Bram’s Sphere Generator which allows you to create a Lowell Sphere with any diameter that you need. Just enter the diameter (in increments of 0.2 studs), tweak a few settings and you are ready to save a Ldraw file that can be imported into stud.io. There is an option to use half stud offsets (jumper plates) to get more detail but I have not found that to be practical for larger spheres. One very useful setting is “use alternating layer colors” and with this selected, different colors are used for the layers of plates that make up each of the 6 identical panels. You may wonder why that is useful. The Ldraw file has sub-models for the 6 panels. But when you release (ungroup) one of these sub-models, you will see that each panel is built entirely out of 1×1 plates. So there is some work involved here, going layer by layer and replacing the 1×1 plates with bigger ones. You have to pick the plates in such a way that the entire panel holds together as one unit (by ensuring that the seams between plates don’t line up between successive layers). The good news is that once you have worked on one panel, you can save it back as a sub-model and use that for all the 6 sides. The Ldraw file also doesn’t include the core and so you will have to build that as a SNOT cube with studs in all 6 directions (just a handful of connection points for each of the 6 panels is usually sufficient).

For the rounded dome of the Taj Mahal, I created a Lowell Sphere with a diameter of 27.2 studs. This is made up of a core that measures 16x16x16 studs and 6 curved panels that are each 14 plates thick (so the diameter is 16 studs + 28 plates which is equivalent to 16 + 11.2 = 27.2 studs). Clearly, I didn’t need the bottom part of the sphere and so I had to truncate it. I ended up removing the bottom panel of the sphere entirely and reducing the height of the core by 2 studs to 14 studs. I also had to crop the bottom portions of the curved panels on the 4 sides (since the panels are oriented two different ways, I had to create two variants of the cropped side panels). The bottom portion of the dome which sits on the drum ended up having a diameter of 16 studs + 22 plates = 24.8 studs which was very close to the outer diameter of the drum (25 studs).

The concept of the Lowell Sphere can be extended to other shapes. Lsculpt also developed by Bram Lambrecht, allows you to convert a 3D model into a LEGO sculpture that is structured much like a Lowell Sphere with a SNOT core (that is not necessarily a cube) that has curved panels attached in all 3 dimensions. Here’s a heart sculpture that I built digitally using Lsculpt.

There are several other ingenious ways of creating round shapes using LEGO that I have not been able to cover here. I am hoping that this post at least gives you a starting point for your own exploration into some of these techniques. I would welcome any questions or suggestions that you may have. Happy building !

Interview with SPQR Bricks

Italy has some of the most impressive architecture that can be found anywhere in the world (some of it dating back to the earliest days of Western Civilization). It is probably no coincidence that Italy is also home to some of the best LEGO builders specializing in architecture. Now two of these builders – Luca Petraglia and Antonio Cerretti have teamed up to form SPQR Bricks.

Their first collaboration so far has produced a custom version of the Colosseum. Unlike the official LEGO set of the Colosseum (that was recently released) which depicts this world landmark as it can be seen in the current day, the version that SPQR Bricks has created imagines the Colosseum as it originally stood back in the glory days of the Roman Empire.

I have been following (with great interest and admiration) Luca and Antonio’s work on Instagram for a while and so it is quite an honor to have them as guests on this blog. Thanks again Luca and Antonio for agreeing to answer these questions !

1) I know most of Luca’s models so far have focused on Italian landmarks that were built much later in history than the days of the Roman Empire that the name SPQR refers to. Antonio on the other hand has done builds depicting structures from Ancient Rome. What led to you both deciding to collaborate on some LEGO builds?

We have known each other for some years now and it did not take us long to discover that we share the same vision of building with LEGO bricks. We have the same passion for detail, for architecture and especially for challenges, and so it was natural for us to decide to collaborate. We are also very good friends and that makes it so much more interesting and fun.

2) Was your decision to do this build of the Colosseum spurred on by the release of the official set? Or was this something you had been planning even before the official set was announced? I can totally relate to the desire to depict the Colosseum in its original glory instead of the ruins that most people are familiar with. Is there any reason you chose to use white bricks instead of the tan bricks used in the official set?

The construction of a model of the Colosseum had been in our plans long before LEGO announced the release of the official set. We have worked on several projects, even more demanding than the Colosseum, but for various reasons we didn’t get a chance to realize this particular model until recently.

As for the use of white, if you look at the part of the Colosseum that is still intact, you can easily see that the color is much closer to white than to tan. Furthermore, all historians are sure that the facade was made of Roman travertine, which has different shades of white.

3) What kind of research did you need to do to figure out the original structure of the Colosseum and all its details with some historical accuracy? Clearly time has taken a toll on the structure and the ruins that remain now only give us a hint of the glory of the Colosseum as it was originally built.

We drew on different sources, both on the internet and in print, and we also visited the Colosseum to ensure that our model would represent the original structure as closely as possible. But we were also aware that the relatively small scale of our model would force us to make some compromises.

Some have pointed out that we have not used any colors in the corridors. But at this scale it is practically impossible to do a 100% faithful reproduction. Also, no one really knows what colors were originally used and how they were arranged and so to avoid making a mess we decided to opt for something more elegant and clean. In any case, we are extremely satisfied with the result.

4) I have not had a chance to study the instructions of the official set versus your version. Did you go with the same scale? Was your model influenced in any way by the official version ? While it sounds easier to build a complete, symmetrical structure than it is to recreate the ruins, I am sure your version had its own unique design challenges. Can you comment on that?

The scale is not the same as the LEGO set which uses the 1×4 arch piece as it’s basic unit. We have not studied the LEGO set either, but any similarities in the techniques used are purely coincidental. In fact, this project is based on a draft of a microscale amphitheater that Antonio had done well before the official set was released. We adapted that design to make the Colosseum with the 80 arches per floor that it had at the time of its greatest splendor.

5) I know you are offering instructions for your version of the Colosseum on Rebrickable. Have you also built the whole thing for real? If not, do you have any plans to build it eventually?

For now we have only built the model digitally, but we will surely build it using real bricks at some point soon. We may even build two – as a symbol of our collaboration.

Unfortunately, the virus prevents travel and at this time it would be quite difficult to build something together. That is why we decided to only publish digital renders for now.

6) I am assuming that you plan to continue building other structures from Ancient Rome (whether they still exist in some form or not). Is there anything specific you have in mind for your next build?

We are already publishing other models, and all of them will connect with each other and with the Colosseum, to create an ever larger and more complex diorama. In particular, we can already announce the publication of the instructions for LEGO models of the Temple of Venus and Roma (the largest temple in Imperial Rome and one of the largest of antiquity) and of the Basilica of Massenzio (sections of which have survived to this day).

7) You are probably familiar with Rocco Buttliere’s amazing microscale recreation of Imperial Rome. It is clearly unrealistic to do that whole thing at the scale you are using for the Colosseum but maybe you can try to do some key sections of Imperial Rome? It would be something to put on your to-do list right after Luca finishes building the entire Piazza del Duomo, ha ha …

We know the work of Rocco Buttliere very well. He is a master of microscale construction. His reproduction of Ancient Rome is fantastic but the scale he used is really small. Our scale being a little bigger, will allow us to include more details. With our project we want to cover as much of Ancient Rome as possible – probably even more than what Rocco did.

Piazza del Duomo will take a long time and of course a lot of bricks, but who knows, maybe one day we will be able to finish it.

You can follow

SPQR Bricks

Luca Petraglia

Antonio Cerretti

Interview with Alexandre Canavarro

In the interest of continuing to provide perspectives other than my own, I am happy to invite my third guest to this blog – Alexandre Canavarro. He is an AFOL from Brazil who has been working for the last couple of years on a very ambitious LEGO cathedral project. It is still very much a work in progress, but what Alexandre has managed to accomplish so far is already very impressive. I have been following Alexandre on Instagram for the last two years, watching this amazing project take shape. With its massive scale, soaring columns that come together in stately arches and colorful “stained glass” windows that are built using multi-colored transparent bricks, Alexandre’s cathedral is definitely turning out to be a LEGO build for the ages. Not being content with the amazing exterior of the cathedral, Alexandre has also gone the extra mile to pack the interior with numerous details including an altar, pulpits and pews, chandeliers and even a pipe organ. I am grateful to Alexandre for agreeing to answer a few questions for this blog.

1) This LEGO project is clearly something you are very passionate about. Were you inspired by any real cathedral in particular, or is this an original design using elements borrowed from various cathedrals? Did you have to do a lot of research in order to come up with the design?

I would like to thank you for all the support during this project. It has really become a big passion in my life for the past two years and I feel truly honored by this invitation.

Like many of us AFOLs, I had played with LEGO during my childhood years. LEGO reappeared in my life a few years ago, thanks to my son. He asked me for a LEGO set and so I went to the store to buy it. I was amazed by all the great stuff on the market and I knew at that very moment that I was going to get drawn into this hobby once again.

Here in Brazil, Catholic churches are everywhere. Religion has always been present in people’s lives and it didn’t take long for me to make the connection between LEGO and churches.

This cathedral model is my own creation and the design came out of my mind. It incorporates elements from several real cathedrals and I took inspiration from other people’s designs and techniques as well. I originally thought of building something small on a 32 x 32 base plate. But then I wanted to use the minifig scale – I just love LEGO minifigures ! I also wanted the model to have an interior. I remember taking all the pieces I had and starting to build a model guided only by images that I had in my mind. At that point I wasn’t focused on details – it was all about the shape and size.

Then I did a separate and more refined build for the top of the tower, which remains the same today, and this pretty much dictated the size of the current model. I soon realized that this was going to be a very large model and that I would need tons of pieces to make it happen.

At this time, I started doing a lot of research on real churches and cathedrals. I also found some beautiful projects built out of LEGO. I remember seeing a church – a convent actually, that I found on the Beyond the Brick YouTube Channel. It is from a Portuguese builder, and it is all built in white bricks. It was just gorgeous! After seeing it, I knew that the choice of white bricks would be great. Here is the link to this wonderful project – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5sqRWtJiadw

2) I would love to hear more about your process for designing this build. I recall seeing some pencil sketches you made on graph paper. Did you plan the entire thing out the old fashioned way ?

Yes, I did. The whole process was, and still is, done the old-fashioned way. I just love freehand drawings.

I remember reading a book about design. The author said that the beginning of any creative process should always start with pencil and paper. Even today, with all the technological marvels available to us, this is an important first step to take before turning to a computer. I totally agree – there is a lot of great design software out there, but paper sketches are a great way to quickly visualize your ideas and start working on them right away.

In fact, when I first started I only had some ideas to do some freehand building. Once my model started to take shape, I used a pencil and paper to make some sketches. Then I kept going back and forth between doing sketches and building with real bricks. Of course, I had to do many calculations for the number of pieces. To do that, I used paper and Excel spreadsheets.

Later on, when I started working on the sides of the building, I made a microscale model, which helped me a lot and gave me a better idea of ​​the size and proportions. In general, you can say that this has been a process of trial and error, but a very fun process nevertheless.

3) When you started this build (which I know is still a work in progress) did you have any idea how big the overall build was going to be ? I am assuming you didn’t just start with a small section and keep adding to it as you went along.

I knew from the very beginning that it would have an interior. I also wanted to include some elements that are present in real churches and cathedrals such as a pipe organ, a bunch of seats and a decent altar. The first elements of the current model that I built were the tower and the pipe organ. The tower gave me an idea of how big this model was going to be. As for the pipe organ, I thought it was too small and I knew I would have to make it bigger. More space would be needed. Once I had the tower, the organ and the altar finished, I built the first section – the front section, which is three 32 x 32 base plates wide by one 32 x 32 base plate long. I guess that was the time when I realized that this thing was going to be huge !

4) This model is chock-full of interesting elements and details. How did you go about figuring out how to build these using LEGO (feel free to use examples) ? Are there still some aspects of the build that you haven’t completely figured out yet ? I know that you still have to do the roof above the main hall (which does look very challenging !).

I spend hours and hours just enjoying, admiring and studying real cathedrals and other LEGO MOCs of castles, churches and cathedrals. Every single element captures my attention. So I take some pieces – some generic and some more unusual, and start experimenting with different possibilities to recreate what I have on my mind. I usually start with the main element of what I am creating.

An example is the pipe organ. What calls my attention the most are the pipes. I instinctively thought about using the 1 x 1 round bricks. Then I saw a very unusual piece, at least for me. A technic piece that I later discovered is LEGO part number 62462. It is like a pipe with a slot. I remember having only one, in orange color, but that piece was just perfect for that use! I calculated the necessary amount and put it on my wish list so I could later buy it in the appropriate color – light bluish gray.

The pillars were another thing that I created playing around with some pieces. I was thinking of using the 2 x 2 round bricks, in white color. But I found them to be very expensive. So I thought about using the 1 x 1 regular white bricks, but they were just square. Then I saw some 2 x 2 light bluish gray round plates and started to stack them together. I just loved the result – these plates added more texture and color variation to the build.

The high arches were another problem. LEGO does have a great variety of arch pieces, but they are limited in size. I found the solution by searching the internet for custom LEGO arches and I found great creations using different types of inverted slope pieces. The roof above the main hall, also known as “crossing” in cathedrals, used to be something that scared me a little. Recently I figured out how to do it and now I know it is just a matter of getting the rest of the pieces I need and finishing it.

There is actually one section that I am still worried about. It is the back section of the cathedral. I have some ideas but I still have some doubts as well.

5) As I understand it, you had to move this build from one location to another. Did you plan for this build to be modular, so you could break it into multiple sections for easy transport ?

Yes, I did. From the very beginning I knew that it would have to be moved at some point. I planned to divide it into four main sections. You can think of slices along the longitudinal axis – the front section, two middle sections and finally the back section. The tower can also be taken apart into two sections.

This is a very sturdy model. It contains many structural elements and some of the walls are made up of three or sometimes even four layers.

6) Related to my previous question, do you plan to display this model (once it is completed) in LEGO shows or any other locations outside your home ? I am sure that a lot of people would love to see this model in person.

Yes, I really want to do this! It is really cool to see the reaction of some friends and relatives who had the opportunity to see this model in person. I find it very difficult to capture all the details and the atmosphere of this cathedral with photos or videos. This is a big model and nothing can really recreate the experience of standing next to it in person.

I know that there are some LUGs (LEGO User Groups) here in Brazil. Here in my city, there is usually a LEGO exhibition every year in December. I am afraid that this year we won’t have any exhibitions due to COVID-19, but I am not going to be done with this project this year anyway.

I have a dream of taking it (once it is finished) to some of the LEGO exhibitions in the US some day. You have this wonderful LEGO community there and it would be an honor to participate in one of these exhibitions and hang out with some fantastic LEGO builders.

7) If you had to take a guess, when do you think you will be completely done with this build ? I understand that any timeline you have in mind may now be subject to change due to COVID-19.

I would say that it will hopefully be finished by the end of next year. For us in Brazil, the only option to get separate LEGO pieces and in large quantities is through Bricklink. There are no Pick-a-brick walls in the (unofficial) LEGO stores here. LEGO’s official website in Brazil also does not offer separate pieces.

The economic consequences of this pandemic have also affected the exchange rate of our currency vs. the US dollar making LEGO pieces much more expensive. Fortunately, things are improving here and we are heading towards a quicker recovery than we had imagined. I see good things happening for us in the LEGO community in 2021.

Thank you Alexandre for the opportunity to feature your amazing cathedral build on this blog ! I look forward to see this model once it is finished – hopefully in person if you do make it to one of the LEGO events in the US !

You can follow Alexandre here

and watch a video posted by Bevin’s Bricks here

Interview with Michael Haas

One of the great things about being an AFOL is that you belong to a community of builders from around the world who share the same hobby as you. Although our paths may never cross in real life, there is still a sense of camaraderie among us AFOLs on the internet (especially on social media) with all of us supporting each other’s work and of course learning from each other.

Nearly all of my LEGO models have been based on American skyscrapers and yet I have found a lot of inspiration in the work of my guest Michael Haas who is based in Germany. His models of classic European buildings are often stunning to behold – with a level of facade detail that you would not believe is possible with LEGO. It’s no wonder that he has become one of the most popular LEGO builders on Instagram. Michael was kind enough to agree to answer some questions for this post and it is definitely a great honor to have him as a guest on this blog !

1) It is clear from your work that you are passionate about classic European architecture. There is probably no shortage in Germany of these amazing buildings to draw inspiration from. How do you pick the buildings that you would like to convert to LEGO form ? As I understand it, some of your models have been based on buildings that no longer exist.

Yes, indeed here in Germany there are many examples of great old architecture – especially in Berlin where there are a lot of amazing buildings. What inspires me the most are commercial-use buildings. Around 1900 there were a lot of big so-called “warenhäuser” (department store) buildings that were built. There were two big players – one was Wertheim and the other one was Tietz. They had a battle going on to see which would have the bigger and more beautiful department store. The results were these amazing commercial cathedrals, which sadly don’t exist any more. But smaller commercial-use buildings are also super interesting for me. Of course I always have a look, to see if they can be built with LEGO but mostly I go with the ones that suit my taste, ha ha.

2) Once you have selected a building, what is your process for designing the LEGO model ? Do you use sketches or any other methods to plan out your builds ? Also, how do you decide how big to make the model in terms of studs ? Do you try to use a consistent scale for all your models so you can eventually combine them into a street layout ?

Once I select a building, I start building the model from scratch. I use the minifigure scale for all my builds, so that I can combine them. A dream of mine is to have a complete street view. Sadly I don’t have space for such a street or should I say thank God, because that would be my financial ruin. But thanks to you, I found my way to stud.io (which I can use to do virtual builds) and so there are no limits any more on what I can build.

3) You are a true master at replicating the wonderfully detailed facades that these older buildings have, using LEGO – a medium that is not particularly suited to this task. How do you go about figuring out the best combination of LEGO pieces needed to achieve each of the details ? Is it a fairly intuitive process for you or do you have to go through a lot of trial and error before you settle on something you are happy with ?

Thanks so much for the compliment. I truly believe that anyone can achieve this by trying and not giving up. I started building with LEGO only three years ago (and never played with LEGO before). If I could do it, I am sure that everybody else can do that as well. I always study the details from photographs of the building I want to build, and then I try to join the bricks until I am happy with the form, proportion and the overall look. If it doesn’t look right to my eye, then I redo it until it is perfect for me. This can be very time-consuming sometimes but for me it is like meditation. That is the whole reason why I started building with LEGO.

4) Do you ever find yourself frustrated by the limitations of the LEGO medium ? Maybe you have a building in mind that you would really like to create a LEGO version of (but haven’t been able to, because there is no easy way to replicate a certain aspect of the building using LEGO) ?

Yes, indeed my biggest challenge is to create corner buildings with round corners and beautiful, realistic towers. I am too obsessed with getting the details and proportions right and with the limitations of LEGO, it is too difficult to create the kind of build I would like to have. It really frustrates me. So I don’t even start building any models of corner buildings, because I already know that they wouldn’t meet my expectations. Do you know what I mean? And what’s even more frustrating for me is that the most beautiful old buildings were the corner buildings.

5) Have you ever taken your models outside your home ? Do you have any interest in displaying them in LEGO conventions ? Is this a consideration for you when you design your models (making it easy to separate them into sections and to transport them)

No, I never showed any builds of mine outside of my home, because I am new to the community. I usually am not aware of where and when the conventions take place and by the time I find out, it is too late. I have also not considered attending conventions because of the limited amount of free time I have (with my job) but I would definitely love to, in the future.

6) I know that you have recently started doing digital builds in stud.io. How has that experience been ? Do you find building digitally to be just as fulfilling as it is to build using real pieces ? Do you have plans to convert any of your digital builds into real ones at some point ?

Oh yes, as I mentioned before, I love to build with LEGO digitally. It opens up so many possibilities, because you have an unlimited number of bricks you can use. You can easily change the colors for the bricks that you want to use even if they don’t exist for real in those colors. It’s really great to plan and build with stud.io. As you can see in my Instagram posts for the last few weeks, I have been using stud.io constantly. Maybe in the future, when I am retired and LEGO releases a 3D printer that you can use to print your own bricks, I will build all these models using real bricks.

7) Your models occupy a small niche within the LEGO hobby (just like my skyscraper models). Do you have any interest in exploring other kinds of LEGO builds ? If so, what other kinds of models would you like to try building ?

That is a very good question. Hmm …. I would love to build a skyscraper model like you but at a much bigger scale. That way I could dive into the details like I do with my “normal” buildings. For example I would love to build the Woolworth Building in New York with such details (both on the inside and the outside).

Thanks again Michael for taking the time to answer these questions ! I am looking forward to seeing a skyscraper model from you some day, with the stunning level of facade details that we have come to expect from you.

You can follow Michael Haas here

The Rockefeller Center built with LEGO – a closer look.

Did you know that from the early 1930s to the late 1960s, the 5 tallest buildings in the world were all located in New York ? They were the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, 70 Pine Street (aka Cities Service Building), 40 Wall Street (aka Bank of Manhattan Trust Building) and 30 Rockefeller Plaza (aka RCA Building). Having built LEGO models of the first four, I was starting to feel that my portfolio of iconic NYC skyscrapers would not be complete without a model of 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

Being a stickler for getting the floor count and window configuration accurate in my LEGO models, I wasn’t sure that I could do justice to 30 Rockefeller Plaza at my usual scale of around 1/200. Each side of the building has columns of windows broken into banks of 3 windows each. The spacing between the banks is about 1.5x that between the windows in each bank. When this is translated to LEGO, if I make each window and the spacing between the windows within each bank one stud wide, I could make the spacing between the banks either 1 stud or 2 studs wide, because there is no such thing as a brick that is 1.5 studs wide.

The other option of course, is to use a much bigger scale where each window is 2 studs wide, the spacing within each bank is also 2 studs and the spacing between banks is 3 studs. Although I was planning to build this digitally, I wanted to have the option of building it for real at some point, and that ruled out the bigger scale for me. Ultimately, not wanting to let perfect be the enemy of good, I settled for a scale of 1/180 with a 1 stud spacing between the banks of windows. Even if the window spacing was not accurate, I could hope to represent the overall shape and proportions of the building as accurately as possible.

Once I had the model of 30 Rockefeller Plaza built, I decided to keep going and do a couple of the other buildings from the Rockefeller Center. What had started as a relatively modest effort to build just a model of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, somehow ended up snowballing into an ambitious project to build the entire Rockefeller Center (at least all the original 14 buildings) out of LEGO ! I have posted renders of my completed model of the entire complex before, but I wanted to do a post covering each of the buildings in more detail.

30 Rockefeller Plaza (RCA Building) & 1250 Avenue of the Americas (RCA Building West)

30 Rockefeller Plaza is a 66-floor, 850-foot-tall building that anchors the entire complex. Opened in 1933 as the RCA Building, 30 Rockefeller Plaza was built as a single structure occupying the entire block between Sixth Avenue and Rockefeller Plaza. It has three main segments: the 66-story tower rising from the eastern part of the base, a windowless segment in the middle of the base that houses NBC Studios and a shorter 16-story tower on the western part of the base at 1250 Avenue of the Americas.

1260 Avenue of the Americas (Radio City Music Hall), 1270 Avenue of the Americas (RKO Building) & 50 Rockefeller Plaza (Associated Press Building)

Radio City Music Hall at 1260 Avenue of the Americas, occupies the southwestern portion of the block between 50th and 51st streets. The hall opened in 1932. The 121-foot-high Music Hall seats 6,000 people, and since opening has seen over 300 million visitors.

The other building on the block between 50th and 51st streets is 1270 Avenue of the Americas, a 31-story structure with a setback on the sixth floor. Originally the RKO Building, it was built over the Music Hall and shares many of the same exterior architectural details. Construction of the building was complete by 1932. The building’s entrance design, blending in with that of the other buildings in the Radio City section, is marked by three sculptural bas-reliefs created by Robert Garrison for each of the building’s three bays, signifying muses of Contemporary Thought, Morning, and Evening.

50 Rockefeller Plaza, formerly the Associated Press Building, is located on the west side of Rockefeller Plaza between 50th and 51st streets. It was constructed in 1938. The only building in the Center built to the outer limits of its lot line, the 15-story building took its shape from Associated Press’s need for a single, undivided, loft-like newsroom as large as the lot could accommodate – namely, a 200-by-187-foot blocky structure with no setbacks.

45 Rockefeller Plaza (International Building), 626 Fifth Avenue (Palazzo d’Italia) & 636 Fifth Avenue (International Building North)

The 512-foot International Building has the address 630 Fifth Avenue to its east, or 45 Rockefeller Plaza to its west. The tower stands at 41 stories high. The building, located in the middle of the block between Rockefeller Plaza and Fifth Avenue, contains a central plaza on its east, facing the Fifth Avenue entrance, which contains the famous statue of Atlas (there is no easy way to represent this using LEGO at the scale I am using). The Palazzo d’Italia and International Building North serve as six-story retail wings of the International Building. The Palazzo d’Italia is located at 626 Fifth Avenue, on the south side of the plaza, while International Building North is located at 636 Fifth Avenue, north of the plaza.

610 Fifth Avenue (La Maison Francaise) & 620 Fifth Avenue (British Empire Building)

La Maison Francaise at 610 Fifth Avenue, opened in 1933. It is a six-story standalone building with a limestone facade with a sixth-story setback and a garden on the east side of the seventh-story roof. Immediately across the Channel Gardens to the north of La Maison Francaise is its twin, the British Empire Building (which currently houses the LEGO Store) at 620 Fifth Avenue, which also opened in 1933. It is also a standalone building, with exactly the same massing as La Maison Francaise, down to the setback and rooftop garden.

1 Rockefeller Plaza (Time & Life Building) & 600 Fifth Avenue (Sinclair Oil Building)

The 36-story tower at 1 Rockefeller Plaza, on the east side of the plaza between 48th and 49th streets, was originally called the Time & Life Building. It opened in 1937. 600 Fifth Avenue is located at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 48th Street and was built after the other buildings in the main complex, opening in 1952. The 28-story tower was once known as the Sinclair Oil Building. Its L-shaped footprint surrounds another building at the corner of 49th Street and Fifth Avenue (608 Fifth Avenue which was not a part of the Rockefeller Center).

1230 Avenue of the Americas (US Rubber Company Building) & 10 Rockefeller Plaza (Eastern Airlines Building)

The western half of the southernmost block of the complex along Sixth Avenue, between 48th and 49th streets, contains the former U.S. Rubber Company Building at 1230 Avenue of the Americas. The last structure in the original complex to be built, it was topped out in 1939. The 23-story building contains two 7-story wings on its north and south sides. 1230 Avenue of the Americas was expanded to the east in 1954 after the Center Theatre adjacent to it was demolished. The 19-story annex, has a glass facade on the lowest two stories and a limestone facade above the second story. It is aligned with the axis of 10 Rockefeller Plaza on the eastern side of the block, and its northern and southern elevations contain five setbacks.

10 Rockefeller Plaza is located opposite 1 Rockefeller, on the west side of the plaza. The building was known as the Eastern Air Lines Building. 10 Rockefeller was built as a 16-story slab, basically a miniature version of 1 Rockefeller.

75 Rockefeller Plaza (Esso Building)

75 Rockefeller Plaza at 51st Street on the north end of the complex, was built in 1947. It was the first of the later additions to the complex. The building contains a low base that is level with the rooftops of the low-rise buildings on 51st and 52nd Street, as well as a tall slab rising from the base, aligned in a north-south direction. The 33-story, 400-foot building was originally called the Esso Building.

Lower Plaza

At the front of 30 Rock is the Lower Plaza, located in the very center of the complex and below ground level. The plaza’s main entrance is through the Channel Gardens, a 60-foot-wide, 200-foot-long planted pedestrian esplanade running westward from Fifth Avenue between the British Empire Building and La Maison Francaise. From there, a flight of the steps descends toward the sunken plaza, then splits into two different stairs heading both north and south. The western end of the plaza contains a statue of Prometheus (which was also impossible to represent using LEGO at this scale) which stands in a 60-by-16-foot fountain basin in front of a grey rectangular wall. The northern, southern, and eastern sides of the plaza are surrounded by a walkway that is several steps below street level, with staircases at either western end as well as at the plaza’s Channel Gardens entrance.

Rooftop gardens

The gardens atop Rockefeller Center’s roofs were designed by Ralph Hancock. They were installed on 10 Rockefeller Plaza, 30 Rockefeller Plaza and the four International-themed retail buildings. The largest and most grand of the gardens was the 0.75-acre “Garden of the Nations” which was installed on the eleventh-floor roof of 30 Rockefeller Plaza and opened in 1935. They were originally composed of thirteen nation-specific gardens whose layouts were inspired by the gardens in the respective countries they represented.

The gardens on the top of La Maison Francaise and the British Empire Building were fully restored in 1986, but unfortunately the gardens atop 30 Rockefeller Plaza did not survive in their original form. The addition of various utility buildings over the years had reduced the footprint of the gardens and years of neglect had taken a toll on whatever remained. In 2018 NBCUniversal restored and reopened the rooftop gardens at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. While the new gardens are not based on Ralph Hancock’s design, they succeed in evoking the beauty and serenity of the original version.

Putting it all together

Once I had all the individual buildings built, I was left with the task of putting together the entire complex including all the streets, sidewalks, etc. It made sense to add the Lower Plaza and the Channel Gardens to this layout.

In the end, with over 102K (digital) LEGO pieces, this ended up being the biggest model I have built, by far. While the prospect of building something like this for real, is pretty daunting (and the expense of all the LEGO pieces I would need, is enough to give me pause), my dream is to have this built and displayed in a public venue some day, for fans of the Rockefeller Center (and of course LEGO) to enjoy.

Designing a LEGO skyscraper – part II

Do you know how modern skyscrapers are different from the tall buildings that preceded them (like the Philadelphia City Hall which was the tallest building in the world from 1894 to 1908) ? Unlike masonry-built tall buildings, skyscrapers don’t have load-bearing walls. Instead, they have a steel framework to which “curtain walls” made of brick, stone or glass are attached. These exterior walls form the facade of the building but don’t actually support any weight.

Ironically, my LEGO models of skyscrapers are built very much like conventional masonry structures with walls created by stacking bricks. The models are hollow for the most part, with no internal framework to support the walls. The reason of course, is that it is a lot easier with LEGO to simply stack bricks, than it is to try to mimic the structure of a real skyscraper.

The 1/650 scale models of skyscrapers built by Spencer Rezkalla and Rocco Buttliere hew closer to real skyscrapers in terms of how they are built. They have internal structures usually built out of technic elements, wrapped with external facades that are composed of plates and other elements like 1 x 2 grille tiles. This is done more out of necessity than anything else, because the small scale they are using doesn’t allow for regular walls created by stacking bricks.

Continuing with my process for designing LEGO models of skyscrapers, we return to the example I was using in Part I – the “main tower” of the Empire State State Building. We had determined the scale (1/230) we were going to be using for the model and what that translated to, in terms of LEGO dimensions for the main tower (30 x 22 studs). Next, we look at how the walls of the main tower are actually built.

Looking at pictures of the Empire State Building, we see that the windows alternating with the gray accent panels form unbroken vertical lines on the exterior of the building. In LEGO terms, if we were to use tan for the wall color, we would only see tall stacks of tan bricks that are 1-stud wide between the banks of windows on the outside of the model. These would span the entire height of the tower and there would be no way to add any tan horizontal cross-members (needed to hold the model together) at least in the outer layer of bricks. But if we were to make our walls two studs thick, we can have bricks or plates placed horizontally in the inner layer that is hidden from view. It is still not clear what we can do about the corners where we will need tall stacks of 1 x 1 bricks with no easy way to attach them to the main structure.

When I originally designed this model, I decided to focus on finding a solution for the corners, and here is the technique I came up with. It would be considered illegal (strictly speaking) but works well enough. It involves attaching 1 x 1 bricks with studs on 2 adjacent sides to 1 x 1 technic bricks with holes. This creates a 2 x 2 corner brick that combines two different colors (in this case I am using Dark Bluish Gray for the window accents). Using this “corner” brick I can attach 1 x 1 x 5 or 1 x 1 x 3 bricks in the corners.

If you recall from Part I, the 1/230 scale we are using calls for 5 plates per floor. With 1 x 1 bricks used for the accents, we would have 2 bricks or 6 plates per floor (assuming we use trans black bricks for the windows themselves). This is the only instance (out of all the skyscraper models I have designed) where I was forced to compromise on getting the floor count accurate in my model. In order to use 6 plates instead of 5 for each floor, and still maintain the correct proportions, I needed to scale down the number of floors in the main tower. Instead of 42 floors I ended up having 42 x 5/6 = 35 floors in the main tower (the floor count in all the other sections had to be scaled down in a similar manner).

Now, let us look at the two layers of bricks that make up each floor (with a total height of 2 bricks or 6 plates). The layer with the windows mostly has 1 x 2 bricks (tan and trans black) placed perpendicular to the walls. This way, the windows can be transparent all the way through, making it possible to light the model from the inside (something I have not explored yet). The layer with the window accents has 1 x 1 bricks (tan and dark bluish gray) on the outside and longer tan bricks (1 x 3, 1 x 4, 1 x 6) on the inside, placed parallel to the walls. The dark bluish gray bricks in the corners are 1 x 1 technic bricks with holes allowing the tan corner bricks to be attached. Alternating the orientation of bricks between layers creates an interlocking structure.

However, that is not sufficient to hold the model together, because there are seams in the inner layer with the longer bricks (which line up with seams between the 1 x 2 bricks in the window layer and the 1 x 1 bricks in the accent layer). To work around this, we need to offset the longer bricks by 1 stud between the odd and even floors to create two separate variants of the floor design. I have changed the color of every other brick in the inner layer to light bluish gray to illustrate how the bricks are offset by 1 stud between the odd and even floors. It doesn’t really matter what color we use for the bricks in the inner layer anyway, since it is hidden from view.

Shown below is the entire main tower assembled by stacking all 35 floors (alternating between the odd and even variants). Yes, in real life, this is as tedious as it sounds, but when you work digitally in stud.io, it is as simple as creating sub-models for the odd and even floors and assembling the entire tower using copy and paste.

We can follow a similar process to create all the 7 sections that make up the model of the Empire State Building. The top section with the spire as well as the base require some SNOT detailing, but the rest of the sections are built very much like the main tower that I have used for my example.

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.

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LEGO Building Techniques – Angled Walls

If you look at a LEGO baseplate, you will see that the studs on it are arranged in a regular grid with any two neighboring studs exactly 0.8 cm apart (measured center to center). However, this is true only if you are measuring the distance parallel to one of the sides of the baseplate. If you were to measure the distance between two studs that are next to each other diagonally, the distance would be slightly longer (√2 x 0.8 = 1.414 x 0.8 = 1.13 cm to be exact). Herein lies the problem – you can place bricks every which way on the baseplate as long as they are parallel to one of the sides of the baseplate. But as soon as you turn the bricks to an angle different from 0 or 90 degrees, the studs no longer line up.

The trick to placing bricks at a different angle (with good stud connections at both ends) is making sure the triangle you form satisfies the Pythagorean Theorem. Most people haven’t encountered this since high school math, but it basically states that in a right angled triangle, a2 + b2 = c2 where a and b are the adjacent sides that make up the right angle and c is the hypotenuse (or the longest side that is opposite to the right angle). The smallest Pythagorean triple (set of 3 numbers that satisfy the theorem) is 3, 4 and 5 (and that is because 32 + 42 = 9 + 16 = 25 which is equal to 52).

How does this Pythagorean triple (3, 4, 5) translate to LEGO ? Basically, if you place your brick or plate at an angle such that it forms a triangle (3 studs long on one side and 4 studs long on the other), then the studs at the two ends of your brick or plate (but not the ones in the middle) will line up perfectly with the studs directly below. Then, does it make sense that we are using a 1 x 6 plate in the first picture ? Yes, when you consider the fact that the sides of our triangle actually intersect at the centers of the studs, the distance that matters is between the studs at the two ends of the 1 x 6 plate which is 5 studs. The same applies to the other two sides. However, when we use hinge plates to create our triangle, the longest side has 5 studs instead of 6 (because the sides of the triangle now intersect at the corners of our plates).

What are some other Pythagorean triples ? 5, 12, 13 is the next one before we get into much bigger numbers that are not very useful. If we limit ourselves to Pythagorean triples, there are not many to pick from (especially with practical applications in LEGO builds). But if we use LEGO hinge plates to build our angled walls, the little bit of give that these have, allow us to use triples that are not Pythagorean triples (strictly speaking) but are close enough. Most angled wall applications call for the walls to be at 45 degree angles which means the two sides (a and b) of our triangle have to be of equal length. There are no Pythagorean triples where a and b are equal but there are many that are close enough. Consider for instance 5, 5, 7 and 7, 7, 10.

I happened to use 5, 5, 7 to create the angled corners in the base of my model of the Hearst Tower.

Pythagorean triples also work if you multiply all the numbers by 2 or halve them. If you use 7, 7, 10 as an example of something close enough to a Pythagorean triple, then 14, 14, 20 and 3.5, 3.5, 5 should also work. But how do we create a triangle in LEGO with 3.5 studs on its side ? Using jumper plates, of course !

I used angled walls extensively in my model of the Tribune Tower. Here the main tower used 5, 5, 7 for the angled corners. For the octagons in the crown, I used 7, 7, 10 (for the smaller one) and 8.5, 8.5, 12 (for the bigger one) to create the angled sides. The flying buttresses also needed to be attached at an angle (though not 45 degrees) and for that I used another triple that was close enough – 4, 7, 8.

LEGO Building Techniques – Half Stud Offsets

When you are building with LEGO, you are always working with a grid of possible locations where you can place your bricks. For each layer of bricks you place, this grid is determined by the layer immediately below it. All the locations in this grid are separated by increments of a stud (which is the width of the basic LEGO unit – a 1 x 1 brick). For instance, if your first layer is a 32 x 32 baseplate, the bricks in your second layer have to be placed such that their studs line up vertically with one or more of the 32 x 32 studs in the baseplate. 

Say you are stacking bricks to build a tower that is supposed to taper as it rises. The smallest amount you can normally set back a layer of bricks relative to the layer below it is a single stud. Depending on the scale you are using for the tower, a full stud setback at each step may not give you as smooth of a taper as you would like. What if there was a way to set your bricks back by just half a stud instead of a full stud ? Fortunately there is a way, and that is using jumper plates. These are plates that have studs located halfway between where the studs would normally be, on a regular plate. They allow bricks to be offset by half a stud in one or both dimensions.

Tapering in one and two dimensions with full stud and half stud offsets

While the 1 x 2 and 2 x 2 jumper plates have been around for a long time, the 1 x 3 and 2 x 4 jumper plates are more recent additions to the LEGO catalog.

Jumper plates can also be used to push windows or wall sections back by half a stud to add more subtle detail. Here are examples from two of my skyscraper models. In the case of the Empire State Building, I used jumper plates to create recessed wall sections at the top of the building and also to taper the portion of the building that leads up to the spire.

I did something similar in my model of 70 Pine Street. Here, jumper plates were used to create recessed windows as well as for the taper at the top portion of the building that culminates in the spire.

Three of my skyscraper models (Transamerica Pyramid, John Hancock Center and Vista Tower) use half stud offsets extensively to create tapers that stretch the entire length of each building. One complication with half stud offsets is that the edges of your bricks are no longer in a straight line and so, if the portion of your wall that uses half stud offsets needs to meet a regular wall, you are left with ugly gaps. I had this issue on my model of the Transamerica Pyramid where the “wings” of the building intersect the main tower. I ended up using tiles attached to the wings to plug these gaps as best as I could.

In the case of the John Hancock Center, I had to deal with a different kind of issue. Based on the dimensions of the real building, I realized that the wide and the narrow side of the model needed to be tapered by different amounts in terms of studs. So I couldn’t simply use the 2 x 2 jumper plates like I did on the Transamerica Pyramid. I had to use a mix of 1 x 2 jumper plates (oriented lengthwise or widthwise) along with 2 x 2 jumper plates to taper the model by one stud (half stud on each side) every 6 floors (on the long side) and every 8 floors (on the short side).

LEGO Building Techniques – SNOT

Did you know that my skyscraper builds have taken a lot of hard work ? In fact, you have no idea all the blood, sweat, tears and SNOT that went into them ! Sorry I couldn’t resist, but SNOT here refers not to a bodily fluid but a LEGO building technique (it stands for “Studs Not On Top”). Who came up with these LEGO acronyms anyway ? From AFOLs to MOCs to SNOT, the acronyms used by the LEGO community are anything but elegant, but I guess we are stuck with them for now.

Anyway, SNOT refers to a technique where, in addition to stacking LEGO bricks, plates and tiles the normal way (one on top of the other) we are also turning them on their sides and attaching them to the faces of other bricks. As the LEGO system has evolved over the years, more and more elements have been added to the LEGO catalog that are designed to facilitate this – especially bricks that have studs not just on the top but on their sides as well. Here are examples of some SNOT elements that I have found to be very useful.

SNOT is not as straight-forward as it sounds and the reason is the geometry of LEGO bricks. A basic 1 x 1 brick has a footprint of 0.8 cm x 0.8 cm and a height of 0.96 cm. In other words although the footprint of a brick is a perfect square, it is taller than it is wide. If we use a plate (0.32 cm high) as a unit of measurement, a brick is exactly 3 plates high but only 0.8 / 0.32 = 2.5 plates wide. A stack of two bricks would be 6 plates high but a 1 x 2 brick turned on its side would only be 5 plates high. To match the height of the 1 x 2 brick turned on its side, we would instead need a stack of 1 brick (3 plates) and 2 plates. This 2 studs = 5 plates equation is something that always comes into play with SNOT.

I cannot possibly cover all the different applications for SNOT here, but I can give some examples from my own skyscraper builds where it would not have been easy for me to achieve a certain detail or shape without using SNOT.

My first example is some simple SNOT I used for the base of the Empire State Building. Here I wanted the windows to be slightly recessed compared to the walls and an easy way to achieve that is by attaching tiles to the wall sections between the windows. With the 1/230 scale I was using, I needed each floor to be 5 plates high anyway and this was perfect for SNOT. I had layers with bricks sandwiched between layers with plates. I used the 1 x 1 modified bricks with two adjacent studs in the corners and 1 x 1 modified bricks with single studs everywhere else and attached 1 x 6 tiles to the wall sections between the windows to achieve the recessed windows effect.

It was a little trickier to create the same effect on the base of my model of the Hearst Tower. Here the scale is bigger (1/156) and calls for 7 plates per floor. To be able to attach 1 x 8 tiles to the faces of the wall I needed to somehow get the studs on the faces of the walls to be 5 plates apart even if each floor was 7 plates high. I ended up having to mix bricks and plates within the same layer (so to speak) to achieve this.

Next we look at a more complex example of SNOT. I couldn’t think of an easy way to recreate the curves of the crown of the Chrysler Building. Simply stacking bricks or plates would have created a very blocky structure and I knew I had to find a way to incorporate some curved slopes pieces which have smooth curved surfaces. After quite a bit of experimentation using LEGO graph paper, I figured out a way to do each of the 6 arch panels (of varying sizes) using a combination of regular bricks and plates as well as their SNOT counterparts with studs on their sides, in addition to tiles, brackets, etc. I also found a way to join these panels together to create a sturdy structure for the crown that would hold together without any glue.

My last example is another tricky roof – this time it’s the roof of 40 Wall Street. Again, there was no easy way to build the green pyramidal roof of this building just by stacking bricks or plates. I figured I would need to build the green roof panels entirely out of plates and have them angled using hinges. Each roof panel was exactly 30 plates wide so that it could be attached to the base that was 12 studs wide. Also each panel was built in two halves (with studs facing opposite directions) that were joined together using SNOT.