LEGO® up for America

Emma Clegg talks to artist in bricks Warren Elsmore who has created more than 40 models for a new LEGO® exhibition at the American Museum & Gardens, including Dolly Parton, the NASA rocket, the Chrysler Building, the Statue of Liberty and the Home Alone House.

Anyone who has had a small to medium-sized child in residence at any point in their domestic history is more than likely to have an assortment of LEGO pieces, either in current stages of construction, or in boxes, shelving units and attics. Scale that up a bit and imagine four to five million parts and around six or seven tonnes of LEGO.

“The room is covered on three walls with racking and trays and each of the trays is divided into little tubs. That’s where all our parts live. We have a specific place for every 1×1 brick in lime green. If you’ve got OCD, this is the place to be.” Welcome to the world (and the Edinburgh workshop) of Warren Elsmore, who describes himself as, “an artist in bricks and a lifelong fan of LEGO bricks.”
I suggest that for small brick enthusiasts an imagined life as an adult just doesn’t get more exciting than this. Warren is certainly living this dream. (Although he once said, “I have been told I have the best job in the world by a Nasa astronaut, which is kind of freaky, because I was pretty sure he did.”)

Warren’s company produces models to commission for museums or corporate companies and for exhibitions. His brick achievements include a cutaway model of Coventry Cathedral painstakingly created to scale with a full set of colourful stained glass windows; scenes of Exeter through the ages including a Tudor street and a medieval castle; and a model of St Pancras Station, measuring two by four metres and built from over 180,000 standard LEGO® bricks.

Warren’s latest project is a series of more than 40 models created for an exhibition at The American Museum & Gardens, Brick America: An Adventure in LEGO® Bricks, which opens on 22 July. Think skylines and buildings from Chicago, Las Vegas, New York, San Francisco and Monument Valley; the NASA rocket and shuttle; the Home Alone House; and the Boston Tea Party. Plus some classic food icons we all associate with the US, including a burger and a pizza slice.

“We tried to encompass as much of the US as we can, covering a range of different LEGO building styles,” says Warren. “The exhibition itself is split into four geographical sections, North East, South, Midwest and West with LEGO mosaics of Barack Obama, Serena Williams, Andy Warhol and Dolly Parton to represent each one.”

The mosaic pieces are built in 15cm square sections with a total of 36 sections for each portrait and each mosaic has about 16,000 different pieces. The process begins with a computer visualisation, but this is just a starting point, a point of reference that then needs human readjustment and modelling.

The World Record LEGO ship is 12 metres long, uses over a million bricks and weighs 2.5 tonnes

The process of designing a three-dimensional model depends on the building shape and complexity. “With something like the Golden Gate Bridge, which has a very straight, angular structure, we used a three-dimensional model to work out the sizes of every bit. But with Independence Hall in Philadelphia, we used a LEGO CAD system where we can actually draw the models digitally, which helps to speed up the process,” Warren explains.

I am convinced that the creation of these spectacular models must involve the design of bespoke pieces, but Warren says this is not the case. “All the pieces we use are standard LEGO pieces. There are no special pieces apart from one small detail on the Golden Gate Bridge model. There are no special colours. So you could go to a toy shop, buy lots of LEGO sets and create them all.”
There is a retail buzz in the life of a LEGO modeller, too, because Warren’s postman turns up with 10 or 20 parcels every day, mostly with deliveries purchased via third party marketplace called Brick Link, which Warren describes as “an eBay for LEGO.”

Warren’s company has two Guinness World Records for LEGO models. One is for the largest LEGO mosaic picture, which he describes as “a big mistake” because it came in at 143 square metres. The other is the largest LEGO ship, built in collaboration with DFDS, the Danish Shipping Company, which regularly tours the ship to all its offices and shipping locations across Europe. At 12 metres long, built using over a million LEGO bricks, and weighing 2.5 tonnes it needs a 40 foot articulated lorry to be transported.

With such big models it is possible to create more subtlety and realistic visualisation. “If we’re doing something that big, we can make it very, very detailed to the point where it doesn’t look like a LEGO model. So I generally need to ask if it needs to look like it’s made out of LEGO. With the models at the American Museum we’ve tried to make them look as accurate as possible, because people will be able to get really close to them, and you can still see that they’re made of LEGO bricks when it’s up close. But the larger ones, if you’re viewing it from a distance, you have to adapt a design to make it look like LEGO.”

One of the more complex models for the exhibition was the Coit Tower in San Francisco. “This is a round building, which is never an easy thing to do in LEGO – it arches at the top, on the inside, and all sorts of other challenging things. There are going to be more parts on the inside of that one to hold everything together than you can see on the outside. That’s pretty complicated.”
The Brick America exhibition, which runs until 31 December, is designed for participation. It includes exciting build stations and a chance for visitor creations to be a part of the Brick America Hall of Fame gallery. There will be a LEGO bricks graffiti wall and activities to download to take home.

When the exhibition launches on 22 July there is a 3-day, Big Build event, when visitors will be invited to work alongside Warren to create a giant model of the Hollywood Sign.

“If you build it he will come,” as Kevin Costner said in Field of Dreams (1989).

Brick America: An Adventure in LEGO® Bricks exhibition is open from 22 July – 31 December, Tuesday to Sunday, 10am–5pm (last entry 4pm). The Big Build event will be run from 10.30am–4.30pm on 22–24 July and will be a drop-in activity (no need to pre-book a slot);