Interview: Rok Žgalin Kobe on LEGO Architecture
Brick Architect interviewed Rok to learn more about the most recent sets in the LEGO Architecture series, and the creative process in designing a great LEGO set.
Last year, I interviewed Rok about the first two years of the Skylines series for Blocks Magazine. That’s why the focus of this interview is on the standalone sets in the LEGO Architecture series. This was the first time we were able to meet in person.
Designing great LEGO Sets
Brick Architect: How do you decide which buildings to make into a LEGO Architecture set? Is it based on market research, your passion, or to coincide with when a new LEGO store is opening?
Rok Žgalin Kobe: It’s actually a combination of them all, and really depends on the model. One might stem from a good idea of a great model that we think is feasible, another might stem from the underlying idea. We go through a funneling process and also look at some of the ideas we disregarded in the past. We need to take into account everything from how many sets we’ll have that year, and the price points we would like to have them at, to how the overall portfolio looks like. Of course, we are glad for the ones that just work out.
Brick Architect: How much of your time do you spend building models versus research and all the other things that lead to these amazing creations?
Rok Žgalin Kobe: We have parceled off the process throughout the year, so it depends. There isn’t a single recipe for all models, because some demand a bit more prep work even in the concept phase while other ones might be sketched in only a day or two.
Brick Architect: I understand you sometimes help other lines as well… Is there a lot of collaboration with other teams at LEGO?
Rok Žgalin Kobe: Yes, it is encouraged of course.
Brick Architect: Which sets outside of Architecture have you helped with?
Rok Žgalin Kobe: I got to help with Creator 3in1 b-models and the new Harry Potter sets. I also helped with some of the ground work for the Creator Expert Café Corner, and advocated directions for us to investigate. I am glad we’re going into other styles as well in LEGO Creator Expert, such as Art Deco.
Brick Architect: It’s great when other themes such as the Modular Buildings are able to incorporate architectural details that are accurate and well done.
Rok Žgalin Kobe: That’s easy because Creator Expert and Architecture are part of the same team—we have a working symbiosis. We share the design meetings, so we get to comment on one another’s work.
Brick Architect: Is it interesting to be one of the few people with a formal background in Architecture at LEGO?
Rok Žgalin Kobe: There are quite a few other architects here! What is perhaps rarer, I came to LEGO in my thirties, I was already a practicing architect before coming. And by being in Academia before as well, I can be a bit of a professor type at times.
Brick Architect: The Skylines series is still a new addition to the LEGO Architecture theme, and until this year we haven’t seen quite as many large architecture models. Do you think there is a tension between selecting famous landmarks versus buildings that are architecturally important? Do you need to educate your colleagues at LEGO to better understand those buildings that are architecturally important?
Rok Žgalin Kobe: I can relate to that one… At the end of the day you need to fulfill quite a few criteria, to begin with, making it a lovely LEGO set. A lot of things that are great Architecturally would not necessarily translate to a great LEGO set.
What is well known amongst aficionados of Architecture might not be well known globally, so that of course plays into it. There are a lot of buildings that are well known for what they are (and what they were), but not as much for their architecture. At least for many buildings of significance, a certain amount of effort was put towards the architecture of the building.
The #21030 United States Capitol Building is a case-in-point; you can’t argue it’s architectural merit, but it is also the Capitol. It ticks all the boxes, that makes it easier in that respect. Same with the Statue of Liberty.
Rok Žgalin Kobe: At the end of the day, the Guggenheim Museum doesn’t come up as one the top 10 attractions in New York, but yet it is here as a LEGO set. Hopefully that shows that pure Architecture still has its place.
Brick Architect: Do you believe that you are designing Architecture sets for adults, or for anyone who loves architecture that is fairly savvy with LEGO?
Rok Žgalin Kobe: We still have the age mark – do keep that in mind. At the same time, when somebody picks up an architecture set, they might not be an avid LEGO builder. So, I do pay a lot of attention that while the build may seem complicated and use complex building techniques, it is still a very pleasant building experience that won’t get anyone frustrated.
Brick Architect: I hadn’t thought about how these sets might be the first LEGO set an adult had built for 10 or 20 years…
Rok Žgalin Kobe: That’s where the instructions of course come in. We collaborate on the process and the construction has to accommodate this. The small Radisson Blu Hotel on the #21039 Shanghai Skyline for example, seems like an easy enough building, but we have parts facing in six directions. It is built in such a way that you would be hard pressed to make a mistake.
Making it look good, that’s the easy part. Fulfilling all the stringent quality criteria that LEGO has then that is the in-depth work. the gratification comes from not sacrificing the look. Between the concept model and the final model there are a ton of changes.
Brick Architect: Does the interior structure change most during the review process?
Rok Žgalin Kobe: Of course. With the architecture models, almost every element is visible. I have to ensure that the model is strong enough, but the next step is to prevent another problem—not to be a stabbing hazard. You have to assume that a child or anyone else building it might fall on the model. You are looking for a compromise between being too strong and safe.
Brick Architect: Do you design the exterior of something like the #21042 Statue of Liberty first to make sure it looks good, then design the internal structure?
Rok Žgalin Kobe: Yes, of course. I wouldn’t be able to design that internal structure as I go. It is very much like the architectural design process where you start with an idea phase.
One of the cool things about the Statue of Liberty is that you can pick it up from the top or bottom and hold it sideways, and it doesn’t break. That is not as easy as it looks, especially with a bottom-heavy model like this. For the final version, I employed tension cables, since you only need tension from the base to the middle of the statue.
Brick Architect: I agree that the Statue of Liberty is Architecture; it includes both a beautiful sculpture and a beautifully detailed architectural base. I like when the limits of what is architecture is challenged slightly.
Rok Žgalin Kobe: That is the whole point of architecture. Architects have to pay considerable attention to not only how it looks, but also how it stands and works, in this case how to attach the copper panels on the statue. These are some of the ideas you try to replicate to a certain extent and to abstract in a LEGO Architecture model. You run into some of the same challenges as well. In this case, the Engineer was Gustaffe Eiffel, and the base was built on an existing star shaped fort. The United States provided the pedestal.
Brick Architect: The top of the Statue of Liberty is pure sculpture – was that an interesting challenge for you?
Rok Žgalin Kobe: It was definitely cool, especially since it is all the same color, which creates a few challenges. We used a lot of Left and right Plate 1X2, W/ Bow, 45 Deg. Cut which stemmed from the Speed Champions. It is a fairly new part, but has the classic DNA of the LEGO Brick. As you might have seen, we try to be faithful and not use overspecialized pieces – that is never acceptable.
Brick Architect: Using the NEXO Knight Shield for the face was an unusual choice. Did you try lots of other options or was that the first idea.
Rok Žgalin Kobe: No, no, of course we had different executions, but that one just works. It is an abstraction. I know it is a contested choice. It could be a manner of principle—to show what is possible with system without molding a custom face.
I think there was only one new part in the entire lifetime of the LEGO Architecture line. For the 30 sets that I’ve worked on, we didn’t ever have to create a new element. I think that’s a big plus, as it shows that you can solve it with the existing system. If you created a new mold for every problem you might end up with a die-cast model in the end. That’s not the point.
(The only new mold I’m aware of was the 3×3 Corner Slope introduced with #21010 Robie House. Adam Reed Tucker has acknowledged that it was new for that set, but it’s an obvious part which would have eventually been created for use in another product line.)
Brick Architect: The other new standalone set is #21041 Great Wall. Because it is quite small, it is more of a study of the wall in the landscape. This also means that the architectural details are very tiny. I was curious to hear more about how the scale was selected for that model. Was it was driven by the price point or something else?
Rok Žgalin Kobe: Yeah, the bigger the set is the more things you can do, but you also want to explore what can be done at a minimum. I know some people would be happy to see architecture sets at the #75192 Millennium Falcon price point, but that wouldn’t make the kids happy since it would not be accessible. You optimize for where it makes sense. That’s part of our selection process as well. Hopefully we have satisfied the needs by making it extensible, you can add more or extend it or even build it by yourself.
Brick Architect: Is it based on a specific place or the idea of the wall?
Rok Žgalin Kobe: It is based on the idea of the Great Wall. It has some of the iconic curves, like the Mutianyu section where it really snakes along the hilltops. It’s a combination.
Rok Žgalin Kobe: That was the first product I started working on. That’s the way I got into LEGO, because of my architectural background and architectural perspective.
I was involved with the book included in that set since the beginning. I helped with the content, worked on the exercises and the LEGO generated illustrations. It was important to make it accessible, but still true to the architectural profession. It was definitely something else; a very ambitious product.
Brick Architect: The only similarly open-ended product since then is the new BrickHeads #41597 Go Brick Me set, which came out about the same time the LEGO Architecture Studio was retired. It feels important to have sets which contain a big bag of LEGO parts for you to build your own idea.
Rok Žgalin Kobe: We have LEGO Classic on the shelves full-time, which is basically boxes of LEGO bricks. I just want to point it out because, there are lots of products out there that are perhaps getting overlooked by IP sets or the really large sets. I like that the core LEGO experience is always there; go and buy a bag of bricks with the wheels and build.
Brick Architect: Can you talk about the delay to the Las Vegas set?
Rok Žgalin Kobe: Not yet.
(Check out the Brick Architect article exploring the reasons #21038 Las Vegas set was delayed, and potential changes for the revised design.)
Brick Architect: I see you brought two versions of the Guggenheim…
Rok Žgalin Kobe: (While holding both versions of the Guggenheim set…) You can see some of the evolution of the Architecture models, from the first sketch into what we see today.
The first proper study [for the revised set] shows you what can be accomplished without limitations; a no limitations set which captures the majority of the features of the building.
The final version after the exercise of reducing the size and part count–this is a far better value. So here is the way we look out for the people getting it, a more affordable price, but you still wouldn’t miss any of the things from the larger prototype.
Brick Architect: I see you brought several prototypes of #21037 LEGO House set. Was the design process different for this, since it is a contemporary building and you were designing it before the building was finished?
Rok Žgalin Kobe: I followed the plans for the House. This is my town, so I passed the construction site every day on my way to work. The major construction was done when I finished the model.
Brick Architect: I’d love to see the highlights from the prototypes, and how they show the story of the building.
Rok Žgalin Kobe: This one was the first official set, I did not work on it. As you can see, it captures the basic idea, but was based on the competition model that Bjarke Ingels Architects submitted. The design of the final building changed. The volumes are different, for example they were all at the same elevation in the first design.
I do not design the model to be in perfect scale, I design it to be looked at in perspective. I adjust the height relations in the model to fit the filling you get in real life; 100m in distance is nothing, but 100m down is scary. Those are the principles that the ancient Greeks learned and incorporated in their architecture, and it doesn’t hurt if you pay some attention to this. This is one of the places where education in Architecture is helpful.
I really tried hard to ensure that when you look at the model of the LEGO House, you will see where the effort went into the real building.
The LEGO House is purely white when looked at from the street level, but colorful from above. LEGO model follows that.
The building looks like it is constructed out of 21 separate volumes/blocks. LEGO model is built out of smaller modules as well. The final model combines the volumetric and colored roof designs and that makes the build quite complicated.
The original building has no internal supports in its main space. It is an open square even though they could have saved a lot easily by adding a few columns. Those would have saved a lot of structural complexity. I wanted to capture the main ideas of the original which is why I also am not using any supports. For example, I could have put an extra transparent piece in the middle which would make the whole LEGO build a lot less complicated, but that’s not the point. It is close to the design of the real building, and has some of the same problems transferring the load.
That’s the part where one asks why do we do that, make things hard for ourselves-it is the human condition. Precisely because it is hard, it presents a challenge. Such a complicated building demands experts in many fields, and that’s what drives everything forward. I love that spirit, and I try to capture some of it in the LEGO model as well.
Brick Architect: Thank you for sharing your love of LEGO Architecture in this interview. It is a great pleasure to finally meet you!