It’s Chicago Architects Versus Kids in a Battle of LEGOs

There’s a 15-year-old kid in Iowa City named Rasmus who’s better equipped to design buildings than I am. It’s slightly unnerving, but I’m OK with it. As Dirty Harry said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

Designing a building, evidently, is not my forte.

Last night, I joined a handful of architects and some lay folks to try our hand designing stuff at the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s ArcelorMittal Design Studio (224 South Michigan Avenue). Our medium was LEGO bricks. Thankfully, I wasn’t entrusted with designing and building using real bricks.

Work by Iowa City Future Architect Rasmus

Work by Iowa City Future Architect Rasmus

The structure designed earlier in the day by young Rasmus looked far more sophisticated than the buildings I created.


My work had questionable architectural and structural integrity. Let’s just say that if the design of the Willis Tower were left in my hands, well, we might have a disaster of epic proportions.

Our first assignment was a desk. Mine looked something like a desk. Then, they ratcheted up the difficulty: a one-story building. It was easy enough to create, a few walls and ceiling, nothing too fancy. Call it a classic Chicago bungalow if you will.

Building Designed By IngridIngrid, the legit architect at my table, showed off her skills and put windows in her structure. She threw in a fence, as well. By comparison, my crummy building looked like a fishing shack on the banks of the Calumet River.

The next assignment: a three-story building. To make sure we properly established the scale of our model, we learned the use of an architect’s scale. We also had a teeny tiny little man to fill in for a six-foot-tall real person. Now, my head was spinning. Should I use my LEGO bricks to create an art deco style structure? Chicago School? Or, go way out on a limb and attempt an homage to Bertrand Goldberg?

With about five minutes to dig through the LEGO box, I opted for simplicity. Mies would be proud.

CAF Design Studio--Work By REAL Architects

CAF Design Studio–Work By REAL Architects

What this is all about is giving us design-challenged folks an opportunity to learn some of an architect’s thought processes. Wednesday through Sunday, the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s studio is open from noon till 5 p.m., so anyone can come in and learn to build—for free.

The C.A.F.’s mission is “We’re all designers,” and the design studio gives everyone a chance to design and build his or her own structure.

The studio opened in September, 2013 and has been a popular addition to the C.A.F., with nearly 2,500 people creating buildings. Chicago architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill suggested the C.A.F. meet with LEGO, and the Danish toymaker said, sure, we’ll give you some kits. The CAF figured it would be 15 or 20 kits. Instead, LEGO provided a half million bricks.

Catherine Tinker

Catherine Tinker, Columbian Model & Exhibit Works

Each month, the studio chooses a different theme. In July, the C.A.F. is celebrating the exhibit of Women Building Change. So, Catherine Tinker, who heads up Columbian Model & Exhibit Works, led off the presentation by explaining how she got into model-making. Tinker was an attorney, and quite a good litigator.

“But I got tired of litigating,” she said. “So, I took over the business that I used previously to make models for the courtroom, and now I’ve been doing it for 25 years. We were lucky enough to make fancy scale models for real estate developers during the real estate boom years.”

And if you visit the C.A.F. and see the scale model of the City of Chicago on the main floor, well, it came directly out of Tinker’s shop.

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Location: 224 South Michigan Avenue, The Loop

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at

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