How to Build an Urban Icon ... Out of LEGOs

Brick City, released today, offers models of buildings and infrastructure that span continents.

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Courtesy of Brick City

LEGO blocks are often a child's first foray into architecture, creating an ad-hoc barter system and a mini-exercise in city planning. For better or worse, most adults swap out this childhood pastime for other careers.

Warren Elsmore is one of the few (among a small crowd of 15 or 20 by his estimation) that has managed to make a living building structures out of LEGOs. An artist in LEGO bricks (not LEGO artist, as he doesn't work for the company), Elsmore is frequently called upon for trade shows and PR work to build models and marketing tools such as minifigs (the little LEGO dolls) emblazoned with a company logo.

When he was approached about a year ago to write a book on LEGOs, he already had somewhere between 10 and 20 models in stock (he has a studio in Edinburgh as well as a warehouse in Glasgow). He built some others, as well as searched for the best work from artists around the world.

Released today, Brick City: Global Icons to Make From LEGO is the culmination of that work. The models span continents (Europe, Australia, the United States) as well as scale (New Zealand's Sky Tower, a New York City taxi).

Each model comes with specs (real-life architect, designer, size, number of bricks, and scale) or DIY instructions. The latter are pure fun. What kid wouldn't want a red London phone box in his city?

Elsmore points out that scaling these urban icons down can be tricky, especially when including the LEGO dolls, which are shorter and wider than real people. He does rely on modeling software for some of this, but does a lot by eyeballing.

While there's considerably less at stake in building a LEGO structure than a life-sized building, Elsmore says that he encountered some similar architectural roadblocks, such as strength and stability. "I don't have to worry about earthquakes and high winds," he says. "I do have to worry about actually picking the buildings up and carrying them around." He notes that several of the models are scheduled to go on tour.

One of the major challenges of small-scale building, Elsmore explains, is paring down an famous building or scene to its most iconic part. "The White House [model] has got 15 parts in it, when you reduce something to that scale, what is the key element of that building that makes it that building," he says. In this case, it's the rounded dome.

"There are some things that are iconic that are not necessarily correct," he says. Elsmore's model of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is a good example. "I have seen photos of the parade, but I have no idea if balloons of an elephant, a dinosaur, [and a dragon] have ever gone down the street." But he's right, it doesn't matter.

It's instantly recognizable.

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