Local Arts

Legos come together to simulate sky-high creations in Towers of Tomorrow exhibit

Some of the world’s greatest architectural feats will stretch their spires in uptown this summer, a collection of iconic skyscrapers fashioned from the most magical of materials — Lego blocks.

There’s more than a ton of them expertly arranged in Discovery Place Science’s exhibition “Towers of Tomorrow with Lego Bricks,” replicas of 20 urban giants including New York’s majestic Art Deco twins — the Empire State and Chrysler buildings — and the 1990s skyscraper they inspired in Atlanta, the 55-story Bank of America Plaza, the tallest building in the southeast.

They’re exquisite wonders in their own rights but pure wizardry when rendered in a detailed 1:200 miniature. Those gargoyles leering over Gotham near the summit of the Chrysler Building? Yes, even in Lego blocks they scowl with a wicked stoicism.

Other architectural gems include the soaring CN Tower in Toronto, Taipei 101 in Taiwan, Japan’s Tokyo Skytree, Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers, Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands and the Infinity Tower and Crown Sydney Hotel Resort at Bangaroo South in Australia.

China’s Shanghai Tower is the most complex in the forest of structures. It took about 105,000 Lego blocks to model the 128-story cylinder that overlooks the world’s most populous city.

New York’s Empire State and Chrysler buildings are among the famous skyscrapers built with Legos in the Towers of Tomorrow exhibit at Discovery Place in uptown Charlotte. Also on display are models of the CN Tower in Toronto, Taipei 101 in Taiwan, Japan’s Tokyo Skytree, Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers and more. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Ryan McNaught is the hand behind the creations. He’s an Australian who’s 46 (and going on 13, he admits) based in Melbourne, and he commands a team of seven for his commercial design firm that uses Legos as its medium.

He’s also one of 14 people on this planet of 8 billion who are certified Lego professionals. That’s a pretty rare distinction — rarer than getting to be an NFL quarterback or winning the Nobel Prize. And it’s about as difficult to achieve.

One of the chosen

McNaught was an executive of an information technology company who was doing contract work for Lego about a decade ago. His creativity impressed his customer, and he was asked whether he’d be interested in a career in construction— using Legos.

“It was like, you can stick with your regular day job,” McNaught said, “or build Legos all day.”

Ryan McNaught, one of only 14 certified Lego professionals in the world, has led the team that brought 20 Lego skyscrapers from Australia to Discovery Place in Charlotte. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

It wasn’t a tough decision. McNaught had been a Lego enthusiast since he was a boy. He doesn’t work directly for Lego, but handles artistic commissions through his own firm for the Denmark-based company and other customers.

He’s the only Lego certified professional in Australia. He and his team have created from the blocks many eye-catching Australian natives, including koala bears, duck-billed platypus (one of the few mammals that lays eggs), crocodiles and, naturally, kangaroos.

Lego has no kits, no instructions for these kinds of works. They must spring from the imagination.

“We’ll draw a lot,” McNaught said. “We do basic shapes at scale and take measurements.”

If you’re a little off on the original design, it’s no problem, mate. “Legos are like a piece of clay,” he said. “If you make a mistake, it’s a pretty forgiving medium.”

For the intricate work on the models, McNaught and his team have about 8,000 unique pieces from the Lego palate to choose from. Even radar dishes from the space collection can find multiple uses in other applications.

About 250,000 Lego bricks sit in bins beneath the 20 skyscrapers built at Discovery Place, waiting for visitors to use them. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

“Part of the art of what we do is being creative in how Lego pieces are used and what they can re-purposed for,” he said. “Some people call us artists. I see myself more as a crafts person.”

McNaught and his team use millions of Lego pieces annually, and yes, they must buy each one. “There is no free lunch in Lego-land,” he said.

McNaught’s creativity isn’t necessarily limited to work hours. He has twin sons, now 12 years old, who are still Lego fans.

Rooted in wood

Lego was launched in 1932 by a Danish carpenter named Ole Kirk Christiansen who made children’s blocks and toys from wood. Its name is a contraction of a Danish phrase meaning “play well,” and Chistiansen’s motto was “only the best would do.”

In 1958, the company developed the now-familiar plastic blocks, and the manufacture of wooden toys faded afterward. More than 400 billion Lego bricks have been cast through the decades, enough to reach from the Earth to the moon 10 times.

Discovery Place will offer a variety of programs to demystify engineering in connection with the Legos exhibit. In one, visitors can experiment with strategies to dampen earthquake damage to structures. Another will demonstrate the relative strength of certain shapes. One other will allow visitors to design the frame of a house to learn how the bones of a building make it stand strong.

Ryan McNaught’s Australian team has five Lego exhibits with various themes traveling the world. The models at Discover Place in Charlotte stand up to 12 feet tall. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

And yes, of course, there will be buckets of Legos to build with — about 200,000 blocks, just waiting for imagination to be applied.

McNaught has five Lego exhibits on various themes touring the world. For the skyscrapers exhibition, he wanted to choose 20 of the world’s modern buildings that were standouts in their class, yet offered a variety of styles. They stand up to 12 feet tall.

“Most of them are iconic for one reason or another. They represent a certain type of architecture,” he said. “Everyone who looks at them knows what they are. Those buildings sort of chose themselves.”

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

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Towers of Tomorrow

When: June 1 to Sept. 2.

Where: Discovery Place Science, 301 N. Tryon St.

Admission: $22 adult, $18 child, $3 member

Details: DiscoveryPlace.org or 704-372-6261.