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.

Designing a LEGO skyscraper – part I

What exactly is involved in designing a LEGO model of a real skyscraper ? I wish I had a knack for doing it by eye – intuitively figuring out how wide (in terms of studs) and tall (in terms of brick heights) the model needs to be just by looking at pictures of the real building. I am sure some people can pull it off but this approach is clearly a hit-or-miss for many others (which is the only way I can explain all the models I have seen that are badly out of proportion compared to the real building).

Being an engineer, I tend to rely on a more rigorous approach based on math (very simple math as it turns out) instead of using just my eyes and intuition. The first step is picking the scale that works best for the model. The scale is just the relative size of your model compared to the actual building – expressed as a ratio. So a 1/100 scale simply means that your model of a 500 foot tall building would stand exactly 5 feet tall. Now, this 1/100 ratio applies to all the dimensions in the model – not just the height. And so if the actual building is 100 feet wide, your model would have to be 1 foot wide or it would not have the right proportions (it would either look too skinny or too squat compared to the real building).

There is obviously a trade-off associated with scale. The bigger the scale, the more accurately you can represent all the elements of the original building in your LEGO model. But too large of a scale can also result in a massive, unwieldy model with a prohibitively high piece count and cost. On the other hand, using too small of a scale can force you to compromise on accuracy (probably more than you would find acceptable). I try to find the sweet spot with my skyscraper models – a scale that is somewhere between the tiny scale used in the LEGO Architecture series and the huge scale used for the models you would find in a LEGO Miniland. In fact, the scale I pick is usually the smallest one that would allow me to accurately represent the floor count and the window count of the original building.

Let me use the Empire State Building as an example – to show how I arrived at the 1/230 scale I ended up using for my model of this building. The first step is getting the dimensions of the real building and here Google Earth proves to be very useful.

As you can see from the 3D view in Google Earth, the Empire State Building tapers as it rises and there are 7 distinct sections that make up the building. The largest section is the main tower (as I call it) which spans 42 stories (floors 30 through 71) and I am going to use that to determine the scale of my model. Not everyone is aware of this, but you can use Google Earth to make very precise measurements. I can zoom into a specific area in the 2D view and hit the ruler icon to make a measurement. I did this on my phone and measured the footprint of the main tower to be 184 x 134 feet.

Next I take a closer look at the window configuration in the main tower. On the longer side the main tower has windows arranged like this

-xx-xxx-xx-xx-xx-xx-xx-xxx-xx-

(where x represents a window) with the middle portion recessed. There are 2-wide and 3-wide banks of windows but one nice thing about this building is that all the individual windows have the same width which is also similar to the spacing between the different banks of windows. So if we were to represent each window using one stud, the longer side of the tower would be 30 studs wide. The shorter side has 7 banks of 2-wide windows

-xx-xx-xx-xx-xx-xx-xx-

and that adds up to a total of 22 studs.

Next we figure out what scale we would be using if we have 184 feet represented using 30 studs. Here are some of the key dimensions of a LEGO brick – it is 0.8 cm wide and 0.96 cm tall. Three plates are equal to a brick in height and so each plate is 0.32 cm tall.

If each stud is 0.8 cm wide, 30 studs would be 30 x 0.8 = 24 cm wide. We need to convert the width of the real building into metric units as well. 184 feet is roughly 5608 cm (1 foot = 30.48 cm). So our scale ends up being 24/5608 or roughly 1/230. We arrive at roughly the same number if we use the dimensions of the shorter side (134 feet) and the 22 studs we would be using to represent it in our model (22 studs = 17.6 cm, 134 feet = 4084 cm. The scale is 17.6/4084 = 1/230).

Once we have the scale, it is easy to know how tall our model will be – just divide the total height of the Empire State Building (1454 feet) by 230 and you get 76 inches (6 feet, 4 inches). Next, we need to figure out how tall each floor of the building will be in terms of brick heights (actually I prefer to use the smaller unit of plate heights). In most older skyscrapers, each floor is typically 12 feet tall. This is also the number you get when you divide the total height of the building (1250 feet which is the roof height not including the spire) by the number of floors (102). So the main tower should be 42 x 12 = 504 feet tall. It turns out this estimate is close enough to the actual measurement of 502 feet from the drawing at this link.

So how many plates does 12 feet translate to ? 12 feet are equivalent to 12 x 30.48 = 366 cm which in our model should translate to 366 / 230 = 1.59 cm. This is equivalent to 1.59 / 0.32 = 5 plates. It is important to keep this in mind when we design the model. We may be tempted to just use 2 brick heights (6 plate heights) per floor to make our lives easier but that would just make the final model 15 inches taller than it needs to be (the proportions just would not look right).

Now, not everyone has the wherewithal to build a model that is over 6 feet tall using (as it turns out) 20 K pieces. So what do you do if you want to build something smaller ? Then, it’s basically a matter of balancing your target size/cost for the model with the compromises you are able to live with in terms of accuracy. The first model I built when I got into this hobby was actually a smaller version of the Empire State Building. It used a smaller scale (1/360). Here I used 19 studs for the wider side of the main tower instead of 30 and one of the compromises I had to make was to use a single stud to represent each of the 2-wide and 3-wide banks of windows. Clearly I was not happy with what I had to give up in terms of accuracy with this model and that is what led me to build the bigger, more accurate version that I now have.

Empire State Building – a comparison of the different LEGO versions

My daughter who helped me build my custom model of the Empire State Building also happened to build the most recent official version (set 21046). She built it all by herself which is quite an accomplishment for an 8 year old (especially given all the complex SNOT techniques that this set uses).

LEGO had previously released a much smaller stand-alone version (set 21002) which was just 7-8 inches tall and devoid of any details (I personally find it to be one of the most disappointing sets in the Architecture series). There was another version of the Empire State Building in the New York skyline set (21028) that LEGO released. This used the 1×2 grille tiles to add a little more detail but the scale was about the same as what was used on the original set. I am happy to report that the new set (21046) leaves the previous two versions in the dust. It is amazing how accurate the designers of this set managed to make it at such a (relatively) small scale. The very clever SNOT techniques used to clad the facade of the model with 1×2 grille tiles make the building process very interesting (albeit a bit tedious).

After watching my daughter build the 21046 set, I was tempted to do the same digitally. I took the opportunity to build all 3 official versions in stud.io so I could compare them to each other and also to my much bigger custom version.

LEGO model vs. the real building – a comparison

A true test of the accuracy of a LEGO model is putting it up against a picture of the real building to see how well it holds up in comparison. I have tried this with a couple of my models (using digital renders that match the real pictures as closely as possible in terms of the angle of the shot and lighting). Here are the results

Empire State Building – real vs. LEGO model
Transamerica Pyramid – real vs. LEGO model