Closes May 31st:

Competition: make a LEGO font

17 November 2016

London Skyline: set review and LEGO® Designer interview

The LEGO® Group have released several sets in 2016 that have a British connection (which is handy given that they just so happen to be opening a new flagship store in London's Leicester Square today). We’ve had 10253 Big Ben, 21029 Buckingham Palace, 40220 London Bus as well as 21306 The Beatles Yellow Submarine and 21307 Caterham Seven 620R. Now we can reveal another: 21034 London, part of the ‘Skylines’ series from LEGO Architecture. It is now available from the Leicester Square store (limited to one per customer) ahead of its worldwide release on January 1 2017. It costs £44.99 and the designer of the set is Rok Žgalin Kobe, who I had the honour of speaking to at the special pre-opening event at Leicester Square yesterday, and he mentioned many interesting facts about the model.



It features Trafalgar Square (comprising the entrance to the National Gallery, the fountains and Nelson's Column), "Big Ben" (actually Elizabeth Tower and a small section of the Palace of Westminster, the same as is depicted in the previous two Big Ben LEGO sets), the London Eye and Tower Bridge with a boat sailing down the Thames. I asked Rok if he alone gets to choose the landmarks or if it is decided before he starts any work. "It’s a back and forth, it’s quite a dynamic process," Rok explained. "For example, if [a certain landmark] just doesn’t work and you just can’t design it at certain scales, no matter how much Marketing want it, it’s no good. But also vice versa; no matter how much I love a certain landmark and am able to capture it, if it doesn’t have the same visibility as Tower Bridge or Big Ben, you won’t see it in the final product."


The Skylines sub-theme began in January 2016 with three neat, classy sets that introduced a fresh approach for the LEGO Architecture series: multiple landmarks in microscale, compressed into one long thin display model. 21034 London is a little wider — 29cm compared to 25cm for the first three Skylines — and significantly deeper at 8.6cm to accommodate the London Eye at the rear. This additional layer of depth alters the feel of the model, and the shape of the Eye also gives the composition more balance overall, as does the rectangular shape of Tower Bridge. This cluster of icons is beautifully arranged. In the earlier sets, each building has its own distinct place along a line whereas this one feels closer to the kind of compressed, overlapping skyline much like you would find on a souvenir, which is presumably the primary market for these sets, so this is no bad thing.

The box comes fairly full with 468 pieces (and 17 spares), considerably less than the 598 in 21028 New York City which feels like a smaller model by comparison but was a more parts-intensive build. Naturally, each building is represented in a different scale but in my opinion, only Tower Bridge feels out, looking too large compared to the others. Does it matter? Of course not; the designers are using their talent and artistic license to balance reality against the attractiveness of the model and the joy of using LEGO elements to represent famous architecture in microscale.

Before I discuss the build process in more detail, let’s look at the interesting parts that come in this set. There are no brand new parts, of course, as Rok explains. "We’re proud of that in the LEGO Architecture line: that we don’t go creating those specialised elements that could solve any of our issues." A couple of parts are rather new though, and they are in new colours.

Recoloured Parts


Immediately, I was drawn to the Medium Blue parts used for Tower Bridge - the same shade of blue that was used for 10214 Tower Bridge in 2010, and very accurate it is too. There are two parts new to Medium Blue here, and coincidentally I included both of them in our current parts festival, The New Black, so you can find more uses for them in other recent posts on this site. Bar Ø3.2 W/Tube Ø3.2 Hole (6178242 | 23443) is a very new LEGO piece and the other part is older; TLG call it “Flex Rod 7M” and BL call it “Soft Axle”, (6178243 | 32580). There are four of both included.

Also very noticeable in the model are the two White “Technic Wishbone Suspension Arms” as BL calls them, and TLG calls them “Lt Suspension” (6174941 | 32294). Lt…? Perhaps an abbreviation for lateral? Anyway, I’m sure Technic folks will be very happy to discover this recolour. It has appeared in six colours prior to this.

This next part is a bugger to name. BL went with “Slope 45 2 x 1 Double / Inverted” but I rather like TLG’s “Attic 1X2/45°”. It’s a very old part indeed, dating from the late 1950s, but has never appeared in Dark Stone Grey [TLG]/Dark Bluish Gray [BL] (6174938 | 3049) until now, although there were two sets with it in (old) Dark Grey in 1999. Only one is provided in this set.

I was eagerly anticipating the appearance of the new 1x1 quarter-circle tile in Medium Stone Grey [TLG]/Light Bluish Gray [BL] (6176433 | 25269) in next January’s new Modular Building but it’s here already! This set has four plus one spare.

Printed Parts


As you would expect there is a 1x8 tile printed with the name of the set, i.e. it simply says ‘London’ (Element ID 6174611). The other printed element is more fun; a Brick Yellow [TLG]/Tan [BL] 2x2 brick with Big Ben’s clock face on one side (6175701). It would have been really special had they been able to afford to print it on four sides but Rok confirmed this would was "prohibitively" expensive to do. In terms of using it within a wall on your MOCs, one face is just fine.

Rarer parts


Also of note is the solitary White 2x3 tile (Element ID 6156667 | Design ID 26603) which first appeared just recently in 21306 The Beatles Yellow Submarine, but sits at the rear of the National Gallery so will remain unseen by most viewers. The White trophy figure (6073432 | 90398) represents Nelson atop his column, which has only appeared in two other sets, both LEGO Architecture 2016 sets. You get one plus a spare.

I was very pleased to see “Brick, Modified 2 x 2 Curved Top with 2 Top Studs” in Medium Stone Grey (6150310 | 30165) as last time I checked, these had only ever appeared once in a 2005 set, but I now see that it came in another 2016 set: LEGO Friends 41125 Horse Vet Trailer. That only had one; there are four here.

The Build

The base has two projecting arms, to fit the National Gallery and the London Eye. 

Six 2x6 SNOT plates range along the front so that tiles can be placed sideways at the front of the model, as is usual for Skylines sets. Rok explained that they include this long line of tiles not for aesthetic reasons, but structural. Anyone who has built a LEGO Architecture set (or built large areas by sandwiching multiple layers of plate) will have probably experienced 'plate bending', which I think occurs due to minute differences in the dimensions of differently sized plates. This is especially a problem in these sets because the bases are so long and shallow. Adding a line of pieces along a different plane cross-braces the structure.

Tower Bridge is the most varied section of the build, featuring interesting connections and some SNOT techniques. Erling bricks are utilised for their faces that have square holes (the back and the base). This means a stud protrudes on the opposing face, into the area occupied by the adjacent brick and so to solve this, a Technic 1x1 brick is used in one instance and a 1x1 corner panel in another. The former (shown on the left of the image here) is especially interesting; I was surprised that this is considered 'legal' by the LEGO Group, for two reasons. One is that you place the Erling down first and then the Technic brick, so the protruding stud of the Erling gets nudged ever-so-slightly. It's not a problem, and clearly would not have been approved if it were; it's just unusual. Secondly, the Technic System is fractionally different to regular LEGO System, in particular that the height of Technic pin holes are not the same as the height at which side-studs are positioned on SNOT bricks. You'd never notice, but they are, and so it is for example not permitted to connect a regular 1x1 SNOT brick with a Technic brick. That's why the Erling surprised me, but as Rok explained, the microscopic geometric differences permit it in this instance. Technic holes have a groove around them to accomodate the ticker middle section of a Technic pin, and the side-stud of the Erling just sits inside the space of that groove.

The soft axles are a clever solution to deftly represent the suspension rods and the way they are connected (into mechanical claws inserted into Technic pins) is neat. The construction of the lower sections of the bridge achieve a lot with few parts, and as Rok gleefully pointed out as he moved the bascules, "this one even has a play function!" He then plucked the red double-decker bus from the nearby 21029 Buckingham Palace and put it on the bridge to prove that it fits the scale of this model, near enough! (I'm pleased about that as I can now re-create the climactic scenes from Spice World: The Movie.)

The width of the bridge has been truncated, as it was in the earlier LEGO Tower Bridge set; a nice touch, similar to the Big Ben representation I mentioned earlier. The other nice aspect is the use of textured bricks, especially the various modified plates with teeth that create effective details near the top. These are a perfect example of how this set often opts for using LEGO elements that mimic architectural details over realistic dimensions. These help create the characterful, hyperreal representation of the bridge at the expense of some realism; note how far the 1x2 plates with 3 teeth project from the towers.

The National Gallery and Nelson’s Column are effective, detailed builds very much in the typical style of the earlier Skylines releases. I was pleased to see a 3x3 cross plate (Design ID 15397) used as the base of Nelson's Column; this could not have been achieved by using multiple plates instead.

The London Eye, however, demands a wholly different style of building. The two Technic wishbones perfectly emulate the support towers and are neatly connected with the use of a little offset. There are no spokes; Rok confirmed that attempting to achieve them at this scale did not work at all as they are too thin in real life. Instead, the wheel itself comprises flex tubes that are initially connected via the clips and transparent 1x2 plates that form the passenger pods. This is a fiddly arrangement that requires lining them up against the 1:1 scale diagram in the instructions.


The completed arrangement is connected with Technic pins at the top, which unfortunately cannot be provided in White to match, as Technic pins are one of the elements that the LEGO Group have 'colour-locked' to avoid confusion during building. Rok pointed out this would not have been necessary had the flex tubes been twice as long to create a full circle, so if it bothers you, you could buy long white flex tubes to achieve this. It was not possible to do it in the official set because they would simply be far too long to fit in a box! "It’s a small compromise; far from being a dealbreaker," said Rok. Ah, the myriad of problems LEGO designers have to consider.



Technic angled connectors are used at the bottom where it connects to the main model, resulting in a shape that is not perfectly circular. After some massaging of the flex tubes it looks much rounder and once connected into the back of the model the worst gets largely hidden, so you don’t really notice so much. The London Eye actually looks much better from the side of the model as the support tower is especially accurate.

Having a whole chunk of an official set based upon flex tubes is highly unusual, as Rok confirmed. "This is not something that crops up in every set! We did quite a bit of work proving that it actually works, that people are able to put it together — and by people I mean regular people, not lovely LEGO designers." The target age range for this theme also helps unusual building methods to be approved. "We are a bit more focused on the more mature market with the LEGO Architecture line. We can push the envelope, but this doesn’t make us an exception within the LEGO Group; there are of course many things that we all have to do."

Next comes Big Ben, which I think is a superb balance of simplicity and effective use of parts. Once a plate is added to the bottom and top of the clock brick, a perfectly square frame is achieved. 1x2 grille bricks on the tower and 1x2 log bricks on the main building are effective representations of the textures and the four rotated Dark Stone Grey space guns (which TLG have named "Butts", tee hee) are an inventive way to represent the turrets.

Conclusion

As a fan of LEGO Architecture who has lived in London for over two decades, my expectations were high. My first look at the box filled me with more excitement as the way these landmarks are arranged is a really beautiful design. On closer inspection I felt disappointed as it seemed the build was less complex and more "tourist souvenir" than the earlier Skylines sets. Then, upon building it, I was struck more than anything by the wide and original range of techniques and styles offered in the set.

The London Eye will likely prove the most controversial aspect to this model among AFOLs and indeed the OCD gremlin inside of me finds it hard to get over the fact it's not perfectly round. However, the London Eye is a structure that falls into the category of "well, it's a hard thing to represent in LEGO form". The solution here is unusual, original and makes use of the less-traditional connections available in the LEGO System which is to be applauded. Whether LEGO customers actually enjoy building like this remains to be seen. "I’m looking forward to the feedback", Rok told me. "My hope is that fans are looking forward to the advancement."

I love the simplified forms of the structures, the playful use of specialised LEGO pieces and the self-referential nods to earlier LEGO versions of these landmarks - almost as though these are simplified LEGO representations of the larger LEGO representations of the real thing... ever more simplified, ever more iconic. I do feel, however, that the National Gallery looks slightly more realistic and has finer details overall, whereas the features of the other structures feel more chunky and exaggerated, almost ‘chibi’ in style in the case of Tower Bridge. It sounds odd but, much as I like this representation of the National Gallery on its own, I would have made it less detailed to match the others, perhaps representing the eight columns of the porch with a 1x4 fence piece instead of vertical grille tiles.

Overall, this is a nice piece of design and satisfies the target market extremely well. It's a fun and extremely varied build, but might not be to everyone's taste. For those of us aching for "proper" LEGO Architecture sets, the release of 21030 United States Capitol Building earlier this year suggests the line will continue to provide both 'scale model' sets and 'souvenirs'.



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6 comments:

  1. You cant really just buy longer white flex tube. UCS General Grievous is the only other set ever to have had white flex tube, and there is only one of the tubes for sale on bricklink right now, from a seller who isn't shipping to very many countries, so you'd have to buy the whole set to get the stuff.

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    1. True... I should have made that clear. What I should have said was, there are other companies that make flex tubing of the same diameter as TLG which many AFOLs buy and use, depending on the degree of their purist leanings!

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    2. I was surprised there was no mention of how rare white flex tube is, especially long straight lengths. This is the main reason I'm excited about this set (I use miles of flex tubing in my builds...).

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  2. First of all, very nice review (as always). Secondly, this is one, or probably the most, beautiful architecture sets till date. Very small size and yet a lot of detail and a lot to see

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  3. I am not sure why the headlight+Technic brick combination would be illegal. The headlight brick's side knob has a hole in it and no LEGO logo, so it should have the same geometry as a regular 1x1 brick. It's even legal to put the headlight brick against a 1x1 brick---you do not need the hole of the Technic brick at all, except for aesthetics of course!

    A similar technique is used with the "Apollo" stud in the Ferrari F40; the regular 1x1 round plate would be illegal but the hollow one has no logo and thus is legal.

    (First comment after lurking for a long time, sorry if I was too verbose!)

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