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I saw this post today on Lynn Becker‘s blog, about building the Nagakin Capsule Tower out of Legos:

via Lynn Becker

Compare with the original building

It’s strikingly similar; and it got me thinking – what influence has Lego had on modern architecture?  Old, ornate buildings like the Taj Mahal require special pieces and a lot of them, but a lot of more contemporary buildings are recognizable even with only basic bricks:

Sears Tower, via Lego.com

Famous skyscrapers, via BrickStructures

Then there’s some buildings that look pretty Lego-inspired.  I searched for an hour today to re-locate a photo I saw of a new art center (or school?) in Chicago, that is basically a short box striped in Lego colors.  (Anyone have any idea what it is?)

[will post photo when I finally track it down]

THEN there’s an actual fusion of Lego and architecture, in which building design is all at Lego scale, and/or Lego bricks are physically integrated into the building.

Exhibit A:  Flickr pool of Lego Architecture and Design

Exhibit B:  Artist Jan Vormann, who “repairs” cracked and damaged buildings with Lego bricks

Lego brick building repairs, via Urban Prankster

Exhibit C:   The (now demolished) Lego House

Lego House exterior, via Daily Mail

How could one go about studying the influence of Lego on architecture – not just its color scheme and blockiness, but its modularity and flexibility?  After all, it’s been around for 50 years now… by now there are multiple generations of architects who have no doubt played with them at one time or another…  Would interviews or surveys work?  Study of Lego sales to architecture studios and offices?  Attendance at Lego conventions?

Hmm… I bet there’s a story there for someone who wants to pursue it.


UPDATE:  I still haven’t found that building I had in mind, but maybe this was it – Blair Kamin just posted about a youth center on Chicago’s South Side.  I think it’s safe to say you could Lego that up pretty handily!

Christ the King School, Chicago

Gary Comer Youth Center, Chicago

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Family, friends, and cleaning have kept me from some quality LEGOing during the break, but I will at least take the time to write up a few tips about LEGO photography.  I need to preface by heartily emphasizing that I am not an expert, or even an experienced amateur, in this area.

For more skilled endeavors into taking brick pictures, check out the following links.  Or, just search for “Star Wars LEGO” on Google Image.  I can guarantee thousands of hits.  Thousands.  [Note:  I checked, it’s 2,500,000.]

The Brick Testament – LEGO versions of classic Bible stories

LEGO365 – Day-by-day photoblog of miscellaneous LEGO scenes

via Wired – “Lego Tableaus Re-Create Classic Photos

via Wired – “Historic Moments Recreated in Lego

Based on what I’ve done so far, I can offer a few helpful tips:

Setting the scene

  • Orientation.  Even if you’re taking photos from multiple angles, consider the scene as you would a stage – remove any of the “fourth wall” obstructions, unless you want them to be out of focus in the foreground.  A temptation might be to set up your photo as though it was candid and not contrived, especially something like a street scene or battle, but it won’t appear the same way as you intend from the photo’s single vantage point.  Also, it’s LEGO.  It’s going to look a bit contrived, not to say, plastic.  If you want to show interiors of buildings, consider building a cutaway, as I did in this condo build:

Cutaway of Condo Interior

  • Background.  If you’ve already browsed some of the above LEGO photo sites, you’ll noticed that often the background is very blurry.  This is usually a function of the camera’s macro setting (see below) but can be avoided by using relatively two-dimensional scenes.  Depending on the scene, a background may or may not be appropriate; occasionally the set’s original box will make a decent stand-in for a more complicated scene.  Posters, magazine images, and (for underwater scenes) that plastic “wallpaper” you can buy for the back of fishtanks also work great.  But in a pinch, any colorful surface can be put into the background for a generic non-white or -black background.
    Depending on the scene or scale of your build, using an outdoor scene might be useful.  A blue sky might be a nice “looking up” shot at your work.  Beware, however:  for minifig scale shots, things like grass, concrete sidewalks, or flowers will generally clash with your intended scale.  Unless you’re going for that Alice-in-Wonderland-caterpillar-scene look.

Sometimes just a wood floor is a decent background

For complete scenes, however, a blank background diminishes the effect

  • Poses.  I haven’t put much effort into LEGO tableaus which require a great deal of challenging poses.  The best I can offer here is, even if you’re only taking architectural photos, put a bit of thought into what your minifigs are doing in the scene, besides existing for scale.  Are they sitting or standing?  Talking or alone?  On the phone?  Reading?  Walking or running?  What are their hands doing?  Little details like this can make them more realistic, as it were.

These minifigs, a doctor and a woman of means, are waiting expressively for the bus

Taking photos

  • Use the macro setting.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  Every (digital) camera has a macro setting – the little tulip/flower on the menu options.  (Note:  if your point-and-shoot is in “Auto” setting, it may not display this option – switch to “Manual” for more options.)  Not only does it focus on and maximize the sharpness of close objects – and because LEGO builds are small scale, you are inevitably right in front of them with your lens.  It also adjusts the flash so the light does not wash out the nearest objects.  Even if you don’t use the flash, macro mode can improve the clarity of your images.
    The two (potential) disadvantages of macro mode are:  1) extremely close focus tends to make the background very blurry, even when not far from the camera either; and 2) having a close flash will substantially darken the space behind the closest object, making a faraway black or very shadowy.  These can be adjusted for to some degree, but it is somewhat in the nature of LEGO photography to lose some of the depth of life-size photography.  The photos below illustrate the difference in quality between regular and macro mode – I’m still sold!

Bus stop photo, normal focus mode, with flash

Same shot of bus stop, macro (flower) focus mode, with flash

  • Flash or no flash?  As the above photos illustrate, macro mode makes a big difference.  Depending on the scene you want, light levels also make a big difference.  Because the flash tends to be very reflective, even in macro mode, sometimes it’s best to try to use directional light sources to achieve the effect you want.  If you have the option of shooting outdoors, this can also be a great way to light the scene (especially if you can get natural shadows from morning or afternoon sunlight).  Controlled lighting also gives you some crazier options, as shown below.
    While I’m not a fan of flash photography in most cases, I make an exception for LEGO.  Because I have a lot of white building pieces and, from my most recent purchase, even more of those, I tend to build white buildings with a red roof.  Using the flash indoors brings out those bright colors, whereas incandescent or fluorescent lighting can make the white too warm or cool.  This can be somewhat corrected in post-processing software (see below).  Generally speaking, however, a daytime LEGO scene is best lit with directional light with minimum shadows.

Even in macro mode, the flash can add excess glare and odd shadows in low light

I'm still not sure how the camera did this, but dramatic lighting can create interesting effects!

  • Vantage point.  When documenting your creation or setting up a tableau, consider your vantage point.  Shooting from straight above, or at an angle looking down, will produce a photo of a LEGO build; shooting at ground level will make the photo appear to scale for a minifig; shooting too low will be pretty much unrealistic.  While this seems obvious, even subtle changes in angle may make a difference – play around until you figure out what you want your camera height to be.  I am still perfecting this one myself.

Not quite right - the background is too blurry, and the camera is perhaps a bit too low

Getting closer - the height might be a bit off, but feels more realistic

Final edits

  • Adjustments.  Tweaking photos would be a series of posts in itself, so I’ll be brief.  Grab your favorite photo-editing software (both Adobe Photoshop and Corel PaintShop Pro have their merits, if you can afford either; GIMP is a generally-functional open-source freebie)  Unless the light you used completely washed out the photos, you generally don’t need to mess with saturation or contrast to make them realistic-looking – LEGOs are shiny plastic blocks that come in mainly primary colors, so they don’t need much help in the color department.  In fact, if you’re printing the photos on a regular printer, I’d recommend stepping back the saturation about 15% to adjust for ink levels.
    The main things I would recommend would be increasing some of the lights and shadows to compensate for the flash.  If you took photos outdoors on a sunny day, definitely balance out highlights and shadows.  And finally, you can enhance the difference between a clear focal point and surrounding objects by playing with the sharpen and blur functions in the program.  If the background was already blurry you can’t do much about it, but if you want to enhance the effect it’s easy to do with layers and lens blur.
    Also, don’t forget to crop out the stuff around the edges, especially if you only built the scene to extend to a certain point.  Easier to do in software than with the camera.

Binky's house, pre-retouch in Photoshop

Not a very precise job, but toning down Brightness and using Burn/Dodge adds some color back to the shot

Happy LEGO-ing and photo-ing!

I’m still having residual geek-out episodes, and probably will for the rest of the week.  Suffice to say, Brickworld was awesome.  I took lots of photos, and some video.

Click here to see photo album via Facebook

Click here to see video via Youtube (to see all, search for my other photos via username)

What I learned:

1) Lego is an extremely versatile medium.

2) “AFOL” = Adult Fan of Lego; MOC = “My Own Creation,” i.e. a piece built from a creator’s original design, rather than a specific set (though it may use one or more elements of a particular set).

3) “Dark Ages” = the term for the period of time between when one originally played with Legos as a kid, and the time when they rediscover and/or repurchase a set of Legos and get addicted again.  (By this timeline, I would be in the very early Renaissance).

4) There are other conferences around the US, as well as Lego-building clubs which meet regularly and put on displays at conferences and other events.

5) The closest meet-up to Ithaca, NY is the one in Washington DC, and I need to try to make it there next year.

6) Legos really do make the world a more awesome place.

And a final note:  my especial admiration and thanks to everyone who built for the conference – I’m so glad I was able to see so many awesome pieces of artwork and design!  I haven’t added any names to the pieces in the photos but I am definitely not trying to take any credit for their work – only share it with more people.  Please add comments if you want to include more info about this awesome event and the people who build!

My one "artsy" photo - a close-up of the Sears Tower and Chicago Spire, large-scale (7+ foot) models built by Brick Structures of Chicago

My one "artsy" photo - a close-up of the Sears Tower and Chicago Spire, large-scale (7+ foot) models built by Brick Structures of Chicago

The stars have aligned.

Brickworld, described on its site as “an event created by Adult Fans of LEGO (AFOLs),” is in Chicago.  Or rather, out in Wheeling IL, a short drive away.

Thursday and Friday are for registered conference attendees (it looks like a lot of building goes on in those days!) but Saturday and Sunday are also open for the public to view their creations.

I am so. freaking. there.

Check out photos from last year’s conference on Flickr (linked from their site)

Three cheers for RSS feeds!

I’ve recently started following Lens, the New York Times photojournalists’ blog.  Topics range from current events to slow-exposure photography of New York City to images dug up in the archives.  I just had to post this entry in particular – “Nature Triumphant,” a collection of post-2008-flood images from Iowa and Texas.  In spite of the tragedy of the event itself, these photos are utterly beautiful.  #5 is my favorite – the reflection of painted boats in real water.

It’s high time for another LEGO post.  In the meantime, marvel at the work of Brick Structures and the new Frank Lloyd Wright sets.  I can only hope the LEGO version of Fallingwater is more structurally sound.

The "other" bricks

The "other" bricks

I reiterate:  this blog won’t be ALL about LEGO urbanism.  But this post pretty much has to be.

One of my goals for getting back into “LEGOing” (correct verb? dunno) is to recreate some of the Chicago and city sights in LEGO form… not so much the Sears Tower and famous landmarks, but more ordinary things like a street corner, a rehabbed 3-flat, possibly a courtyard building or a vacant lot with a construction trailer.  No direction-following here, my friends!

My first project was a new Bucktown-style condo, complete with roof deck, two-story interior floor plan, European-looking car, and dude with a newspaper:

Project 1:  Bucktown Condo (exterior shot)

Project 1: Bucktown Condo (exterior)

Before deconstructing I got a cutaway shot of the first floor.  The high-res image reminded me that these LEGOs probably need a clean…

Project 1:  Bucktown Condo (interior, first floor)

Project 1: Bucktown Condo (interior, first floor)

More awesome than this, however, are the advanced-level yuppie LEGO sets available in their store.  If you’re not wowed by Star Wars, the Taj Mahal, or that lame farm set, check these out.  I recently purchased the “Green Grocer” set (comes with a cat and mouse and croissants!!!) but you can also get the “Corner Cafe” and “Market Street” (urban factory) sets – and THEY LINK TOGETHER.  The website claims you can even link 4 of the cafe sets together in a block, but this begs the question of who would spend $600 for multiples of the same set.

In any case, these sets are delightfully European and/or yuppie, and listed as Ages 16+, so it’s totally fine.

LEGO Store: Green Grocer set | Corner Cafe set | Market Street set

I also purchased a decidedly suburban set, the standard white-and-red House set.  Two notable features:  set includes a full complement of red 45 degree roof pieces, totally worth it; and it has directions for a few different layouts, all of which would fit comfortably at the end of a cul-de-sac.

And in a major throwback to the 1950s, LEGO also re-released their Town Plan set.  I was tempted to buy it if only to recreate some of Lake Street in Oak Park, but decided I wasn’t into it, beyond the old cinema building.

More legitimate thoughts on urban planning (and more LEGOs) to come.

For my post it seemed appropriate to start at the beginning of many a journey in the city … waiting for the city bus.  While the palm tree suggests this is not in fact in Chicago, it might as well be.  No doubt three #2 buses are tailing each other a few blocks down the road after badly-timed traffic lights and having to load a long line of people at every other stop.  But at least the doctor and fancy lady look too happy to have been waiting long.

Waiting for the 2 Bus in LegoLand

Waiting for the 2 Bus in LegoLand

I can promise this blog won’t be exclusively urbanist-LEGO humor, but gotta start with the important stuff.