A new book, Brilliant Builds: Amazing Creations in Lego, collects architectural masterpieces from the world’s top builders. Here’s an excerpt; intro by Nathan Sawaya

Nathan Sawaya
MIllennial Celebration

I got my first set of Lego bricks when I was five years old.

My parents encouraged creativity, and there were always things we could use to draw, or sculpt with: they once let me build a 3.3sqm Lego city behind the sofa in the living room. It made for a solid conversation piece when the neighbours stopped by. But the thing about my city is that I built it by following the instructions, step-by-step, meticulously putting each brick exactly where the instruction booklet told me to put it.

That changed when I turned 10-years-old. I wanted a dog, but was told ‘no’. So I tore down a couple of buildings in my Lego city and I built a life-sized Lego dog. I took those bricks and built something that I wanted to build, rather than recreating what was on the front of the box. At that moment, I realised I could build whatever I wanted. If I wanted to go to the moon, I could tear down another building and build myself a rocket ship; if I wanted to be a rock star, I’d build myself a guitar.

Years later, that child had grown into a corporate attorney. I spent most of my days in sharply tailored suits sitting in boardrooms thrashing out very important contracts. But I wasn’t happy. Actually, that’s not strong enough: I was beyond miserable.

After my days at the law office I’d go home in desperate need of a creative outlet. At first it was drawing, sometimes it was painting and occasionally it was sculpting out of traditional media like clay and wire. Then one day I thought about that toy from my childhood.

Could I create legitimate works of art using Lego bricks? So I would spend my days negotiating deals, then go home to my apartment and crawl around the floor – still in my suit – snapping bricks together. My New York apartment started to fill up with Lego sculptures, but more surprising was that people were starting to buy them and commission new pieces.

One day, I made the leap: I walked into my boss’s office on the 42nd floor of the Met Life Building and announced I was done. I was embarking on a ridiculous adventure: to be the first person to take Lego into the art world. People often ask me why I chose Lego bricks as my art medium. The simple answer is that I wanted to be able to create artwork that was easily accessible.

Everyone has snapped a few Lego bricks together at some point, so it made my artwork more relatable and inspirational. So find your inspiration and just start building. If it doesn’t look right, take it apart and try again. Build whatever your heart tells you to, create anything you can see, piece together the things you imagine. Make your own mark and remember: you don’t have to follow the instructions.

Millennial Celebration

The Millennial Celebration of the Eternal Choir at K’al Yne, Odan, to give it its full title, is based on a story that Mike Doyle created around the themes of spirituality, near-death experience, UFOs, and meditation.

Over a period of eight months, Doyle spent about 600 hours meticulously assembling his micro-scale build, where one plate in the model equals one floor in the building. Remarkably, this is not only Doyle’s first micro-scale build, but also the largest model he has ever made, thanks to its six foot by five foot footprint and towers that rise five feet into the air.

This large scale was not entirely intentional, though, as the model seemingly took on a life of its own, growing way beyond the initial plans and putting its builder in “constant purchasing mode” as he needed more and more pieces.

Like many great builds, it was not without its challenges, and Doyle spent many hours working by flashlight after a hurricane knocked out his power for more than a week. However, his persistence paid off, and the result is a spectacular vision of an alternate world.

Once the model was finished, Doyle photographed it — which is the ultimate goal for all his work — and then began the painstaking process of dismantling it, carefully filing the pieces back into the bin cabinets in his build space, ready for his next project.

The Collectivity Project

For The collectivity project, Danish artist Olafur Eliasson delivered three tons of Lego bricks to a public square in Tirana, Albania. Here, people were invited to build their vision of a future city. Since Eliasson’s democratic community project first appeared in 2005, it has also been instigated in Oslo (2006), Copenhagen (2008), and most recently in New York City (2015).

In each instance, the artist has installed two million white Lego bricks that the public has been encouraged to use to build and rebuild. Over time, structures are created, buildings evolve, and as the installation’s promotional material declared: “The inevitable entropy of the piece begins to soften the hard edges of the designed structures, and mounds of loose pieces gather in the corners between buildings.”

I would spend my days negotiating deals, then go home to my apartment and crawl around the floor – still in my suit – snapping bricks together.

Metaphorical Horizons

The inspiration for Danish artist Lene Wille’s sculptural installation was her fascination with the line of the horizon, which ultimately meets to create a perfect circle. Metaphorical Horizons was Wille’s graduation project when she studied Architectural Design, and started with a six-month design process. During this time the position of each identical white brick in the grid-based structure was determined — one mistake at this stage and the entire form may not have worked.

Once it had been designed, the project relocated to the lobby of the World Trade Center in Amsterdam where it was pieced together on site over a fifty-day period, in full public view. Exactly 274,400 white bricks later, Wille’s work was finished; a magnificent circular design created from more than a quarter of a million standard rectangular Lego bricks.

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Metaphorical Horizons is a truly transformational piece. Viewed from above, the sculpture appears as two overlapping circles, while looking at it from eye level reveals two straight lines that cross at one specific point, and then gradually increase in height as the circle slopes around. Depending on the lighting, the sculpture can also change its appearance: from a minimalist white structure to something more textural when shadows are created on its surface.

Point Dume Residence

By day, César Soares is a Lego model designer, working on the company’s Star Wars line, but in his free time he likes to pursue more “down to earth” block builds. Soares has always been a fan of contemporary architecture and is fascinated by how some houses can also be considered “works of art.”

This meant he was naturally excited when an architecture company asked him to build a Lego model depicting the “ultimate modern dream house.” Soares looked at hundreds of real examples of modern architecture, initially deciding on a “house in the hills” style setting. However, one day he was driving near the beach when it hit him: if the house had its own private beach, with the door just a few yards from the sand, that would help it look even more dreamy.

The Point Dume Residence was born — a fictional house set in a real location in Malibu. The build took Soares about seventy hours using original Lego pieces, which he assembled traditionally, without glue. Balancing stability and realism was a key concern, but the biggest test was the pool. Soares wanted it to look like real water, but that’s not easy to do with Lego bricks. A combination of translucent blue parts and a bit of imagination gave him the result he wanted.

Victorian Heap

When Mike Doyle was looking to build the third model in his monochromatic Abandoned House series he intended to construct a flooded building. However, while researching the model the Fukushima tsunami hit Japan. Prompted by images of the aftermath of the tragedy, Doyle decided to change the direction of his build.

Rather than a flooded building, the house would sit on top of a giant mud heap littered with all sorts of debris (the refrigerator that has crashed into the second story was directly inspired by images of a boat that landed on top of a house).

It took Doyle more than 500 hours to complete the build, with the most challenging part being the construction of the “mud hill” the house sits on. After exploring a number of options, the builder settled on a technique that used flexible Lego tubes anchored on the ground and running up to the foundation of the house.

Doyle then attached plates to the tubes that could be angled in any direction and built up with other pieces to create the organic hill form. So, while it appears solid, the hill is just a shell with a thin layer of suspended bricks creating the illusion of solidity. As with all of his builds, Doyle didn’t glue his model, so once it had been photographed (and the photographs had been retouched) his Victorian Heap was dismantled and the monochrome pieces returned to their containers.

Samurai Code

Ben Pitchford started his build with the aim of creating a Ninjago City for his son. However, this soon morphed into a much grander vision, based around a mountainside village in feudal Japan.

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In his basement crammed with boxes and bags of Lego bricks, Pitchford built the samurai village over a nine-month period, painstakingly piecing together more than 100,000 bricks. The finished build consists of ten unglued sections that slide apart when Pitchford wants to transport the model and then come seamlessly back together again to form the mountainside diorama.

While Pitchford’s build has won awards such as the “Best Individual Layout Award” at Brickworld Chicago 2016, at heart it remains true to its original premise: to provide his son with a setting to play with his Ninjago Minifigures.

Consequently there are plenty of fun elements to the build, such as skeletal remains in hidden caves, motorized training weapons that can knock an unsuspecting Minifigure off its feet, and an optional zip line that can be used to make a rapid descent from the highest peak.

Brilliant Builds: Amazing Creations in Lego is out now, published by Mitchell Beazley, priced £10. For more information log onto octopusbooks.co.uk

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