24 December 2018

LEGO® Architecture: Rok Zgalin Kobe interview

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At the Recognised LEGO® Fan Media Days in Billund last summer, we sat down with LEGO Architecture designer Rok Zgalin Kobe to have a chat about the evolution of the Architecture line. The LEGO Architecture theme has so far has spawned 42 building sets and one big ‘do it yourself’ kit – and last week we reviewed another two upcoming sets, 21044 Paris and 21043 San Francisco, due for release on 1st January 2019. 

By now, the Architecture line has pretty much become a mainstay of the LEGO portfolio. Are you surprised by the success the theme has had?

Rok: I would be betting against myself if I said I was surprised! I’m happy that it has the success that I believe it deserves.

It’s very different from the other lines, apart from maybe to a certain extent LEGO Ideas, in that the sets aren’t really made to be played with, they are static objects to be put on shelves, more like exhibition pieces. How does that affect the design process?

Rok: Well, it certainly doesn’t make us exempt from any of the stringent quality standards that the LEGO Group has, so it’s still treated as a child’s toy, with all the safety and quality issues that come with that. You have to be able to do this with it (holds up a pre-built 21037 LEGO House set and shakes it), so it has to be stable, but at the same time, at any point in the building process, you must not be able to injure yourself in any way with it. You always have to imagine a small child falling on top of it, which could be quite bad.

So it has to be breakable enough.

Rok: Exactly, at any point of the building process. So if there’s a core in the model that’s there for stability, it has to be built in such a way that it’s never exposed or sticking out dangerously. A lot of thought goes into the flow, the process of the build; the elements might not only be there to make the instructions easy to follow and the set easy to build, you have to consider things such as safety as well. So I would say that for our product line, it’s different, but still the same.

What you’re saying is that sometimes things that may seem strange from a builder’s point of view might actually be in there to make the process flow better or to make it less dangerous.

Rok: Yes. It is all very well thought through by not only one person, but by a group of people of different professions within the company, to make sure that the product lives up to the LEGO standards.

In 2016 you introduced the Skyline sets, the first sets that didn’t consist of only one building. What was the reasoning behind this?

Rok: Evolution. These were some of the sets I worked on when I started here. It allows you to do certain things which might not be feasible in the core models. For example, you can do skyscrapers fairly easily, while in a standalone set you might run the risk of creating a really boring model. In combination with other features, it’s very feasible. You can do places which on their own might not necessarily be able to stand up to the familiarity of some of the other great icons, but together, as a city, they can easily do that. Case in point might be Shanghai: You might not particularly know it for one iconic building alone, but the collection, the skyline, works. The skyline sets also give us the chance to do more structures, and they come in smaller packages, which means they are able to reach more children or adults, a bigger target audience, a tourist or two – it’s an affordable package that you can actually carry – so it ticks a lot of boxes.
"If there’s one line that has no chance of running out of good stuff, it’s this"

Did the introduction of these sets have anything to do with the fact that after a while it might be getting difficult to find models that can stand alone?

Rok: Oh, if there’s one line – this is a personal opinion – if there’s one line that has no chance of running out of good stuff, it’s this. I mean, some other lines have been around far longer, but let’s face it: There are only so many spaceships you can make! Every year, this world will build a ton of future landmarks, if not immediate landmarks. So I’m hoping we’ll get to see a lot more different landmarks from around the world, great pieces of architecture, to add to our line.

How do you decide what buildings, monuments or skylines to use?

Rok: It’s a combination of factors. The most important thing for me is that the model looks good. That’s my prerogative. While for somebody else it might be that the model is as stable as possible, and somewhere else in the company somebody decides which price point we’re missing in our portfolio. But the thing that I care the most about, is how it looks, how it fits into the portfolio overall, and then we discuss all these things together.

Would you ever consider a building that no longer exists?

Rok: There are tons of historic buildings that might not be around anymore, but they have inspired the world of architecture immensely. So that doesn’t matter. There are works of architecture that were never even built, but which still managed to inspire the world of architecture.

But would you consider those for the Architecture line?

Rok: I’m an architect by heart, so the criteria of it being built, doesn’t seem important to me. It’s like asking how a book was published, was it a paperback or on a Kindle? It’s could still be considered a great work of art!

So for you, the Architecture line is more about the concept of architecture than the actual buildings. Which means that you could, in theory, do the giant lighthouse of Alexandria, or the Colossus of Rhodos?

Rok: Of course. I’m by no means dismissing the idea that something like this could happen in the Architecture line at some point.

How far ahead are you planning? How many sets ahead are already decided?

Rok: I am in a lucky position that I have been working on this for a long time, which means that during that, we’ve accumulated quite a lot of concept work that we can revisit. We have a bit of a portfolio which we can turn to. But we don’t set things in stone. Overall, how we work depends, but it is usually one or two years ahead.

How do you decide the scale? There are lots of different scales in the lineup. Do you look at iconic elements? Like, “this element looks like something…”

Rok: Different elements have different driving points. On some, it’s a combination, but it stems from the LEGO element, the possibilities and the limitations. That’s what dictates the scale. And in the skylines, I strive towards that all of the buildings in one skyline should be in the same scale. Then we have the family of skylines; with them it’s a bit looser, but you have the old cities, so to speak, without high-rises, like London and Venice, which are almost in scale with one another, just like Berlin and Sydney could be more in scale with one another, and Chicago and Shanghai are roughly in scale with one another. So there’s basically three different scales for the skylines. But again: When you replicate Big Ben, it could either be a 1x1, a 2x2 or a 3x3. It doesn’t make sense to build it with other techniques, so that’s kind of what dictates the scale.

For a skyline set, you normally end up with five to six iconic buildings or monuments. During the design process, how many more do you consider for each city?

Rok: We definitely have a few in reserve.

So there will always be a number six and seven that didn’t make it?

Rok: Or maybe number eight looked so much better when built with LEGO that it skipped over certain other ones. There are always some that are needed, that you can’t leave out and can’t live without.

And then others which just lend themselves very well to the medium?

Rok: Exactly. So a combination of these factors, and also how much cost would these buildings imply, or is there space enough… there’s a multitude of factors.

I would suspect maybe also colour combinations? Which colours go well together?

Rok: I certainly try to pay attention to the overall composition as well, of course, and also that it tells a story, like the Shanghai skyline does. The Bund area is next to the river, looking across where there is a bend in the river, to the new part of the town, and at the same time it shows the progress, the transition from the original, traditional buildings to the colonial influence when it became a world city, to then really growing into the metropolis that it is today. So I want to include that as well, and ensure that the combination looks good overall.

The LEGO Company will famously shy away from religious themes, and because of that, religious buildings have seemed off-limits to the Architecture series, even though some of the world’s most famous buildings are churches, temples, or mosques. But then you included St. Mark’s Basilica in the Venice set, and you have the temples of Shanghai. Could we see something like the Sagrada Família or the Hagia Sophia as a set in the future?

Rok: I’m not dismissing anything to begin with, as I’m trying to have an as open mind as possible to anything but of course, within the policies that the company protects.

But considering that this is all about the architecture, you’d expect that as long as the architectural value of the building maybe even overshadows the use of the building, then it could be something that could be possible to actually do?

Rok: I agree with you on that, from the architectural perspective. Some buildings have been through a lot, but it doesn’t diminish their value, or mean that they were in any way complicit in what good or bad may have happened there or with persons associated with it. That doesn’t even come into consideration when judging the building itself – from an architectural point of view. This is a business, though, and there is some delicacy about it. But I am not dismissing anything on principle.
I’m proud to say that in my portfolio of sets, I have never asked for a single new part"

You generally don’t get to introduce new parts…
Rok: I’m proud to say that in my portfolio of almost 30 Architecture sets that I’ve designed so far, I have never asked for a single new part.

In the fan community, whenever somebody posts a picture of a build where they’ve used an element for something different, something that nobody thought of before, people say: “NPU!” It's short for Nice Parts Usage, and I imagine it is essential when working with microscale, using parts to represent something they weren’t meant to represent in the first place. Does that force you to be more creative than if you were working with for example, say, minifig-scale sets?

Rok: Yes, but we also cater to a different building experience and a different audience. So while such a use might confuse a kid, or somebody of a younger age, “wait! It’s a hammer, but at the same time it’s also a…”, you know, that then becomes a plus if it’s an NPU in a different set, for an older audience. So in a way, sure, it’s important to be creative. Then again, creativity is also certainly present within the minifig-scale themes, because they have their own sets of limitations, and maybe they cannot use these elements in such a creative manner because it could be overcomplicated for their audience. It goes both ways.

The techniques are often very advanced in Architecture sets but younger kids, below the age mark, often build them, too. Do you have to take that into consideration?

Rok: We do consider that, and we do spend a lot of time and energy and productive discussions on that. Architecture itself is always in pursuit of pushing the limits of what exists in construction, and you could say that the same applies here: We’re pushing the limits of what’s possible with LEGO. But at the same time it can’t collapse, it can’t cause anybody headaches… both literally and when you’re just looking for an element.

I’m guessing that being creative with the parts would be one of the challenges that you would really enjoy, not least because you don’t get to request new elements.

Rok: Of course. We’re always wondering, “how am I going to do that?”

 One of the most interesting new sets in 2018 was 21042 Statue of Liberty. LEGO has done a few different versions of this monument before, so how did you end up with this size this time?

Rok: This scale ticked a number of boxes. Of course that’s always going to be a challenge – if you meet one target, you might miss another. The main design features that this one was able to capture are the crown, the torch, the width of the arm, and then the correct proportions of the pedestal, and it all just kind of works together. But you can see the compromises. For example, if I want a round torch, I can choose from a 2x2, 3x3, or 4x4 dish. And the scale then grows accordingly. It’s basically a compromise in that respect; it’s a bit wider than the original would be, but close enough. Same goes for the head. So it’s a collection of compromises to get to the best possible result. It didn’t have a single starting point, where everything worked from then on, it’s about finding things that can work together, with the smallest number of compromises when you add it all up.

One of the things that really stand out when you look at it, is the dress, which has a lovely flow to it. And one of the elements essential to achieving that effect is relatively new, the curved slopes with 45-degree cutout (Design IDs 29119 & 29120, shown on the right).
Rok: Yes, they’re often used as car fenders.

Were they essential to the design? Was it one of the things that inspired the way that you ended up building the model?

Rok: Actually, no, that was secondary. A lot of work had to go into the head, arm, book, and the beginning of the leg, just to have that in a package that would allow for stability. That meant the dress became a secondary consideration, it wasn’t guiding the design process. I explored a few ways to do it, and a few different things to accentuate, and finally I went with getting the lines of the dress right as well. I could have just gone for the form, for example. There were a few approaches, but this one really allowed me to get the diagonals right, to get the impression of a flowing robe that falls down from beneath the arm and repeats itself. And then I went a bit back and forth to basically create the form of the female body underneath the robe with the shadows, so that it is accentuated where it needs to be, to capture it from the full 360 degrees, not only from the front view. So sometimes you get lucky and there’s an element which you can make into exactly what you need. Other times we have to use something else – and then maybe that would look like it was the perfect fit. But if somebody says “it looks like that element was custom made just for that use” it means that it’s a job well done on our part. It’s a compliment.

Would you ever like to work on a different theme than Architecture?

Rok: I am on the Creator Expert team as well, and I do work there from time to time, though admittedly not a lot. I help out with things, a model here and there in other themes, or a B model for the 3-in-1 Creator line… or with the internal “boosts” that we have where we come up with ideas for other lines. But I have been, more than that, committed to the Architecture line.

Our last question comes from a Russian reader who wanted to know what you think about including sets of Russian buildings in the Architecture line.

Rok: I’m always considering the whole world. And the broader our portfolio becomes, the happier it makes me. So I hope that goes towards answering that question a bit. Every country in the world has its monuments!

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the interview. It is always good to hear from the official designers, as you can always learn abit more about the processes at LEGO.

    Addressing one statement from Rok "There are only so many spaceships you can make!"

    If that was true, there would only be so many buildings you can make! Obviously, not true in either case. Maybe he feels limited when exploring space ships. I guess that is why the space ship guys are working on space ships and he is working on architecture.