Brick Jockey Building Downtown Chicago One Lego at a Time

Downtown Chicago in Lego. Courtesy of Rocco Buttliere

Downtown Chicago in Lego. Courtesy of Rocco Buttliere

Who of a certain age doesn’t love Legos?  As children we used piles of the multi-colored magic to turn our fantasies into reality, while barefooted nocturnal fathers cursed the tiny bricks, and indifferent mothers Hoovered them into clattering oblivion.

No such tension exists in the Bronzeville home of Rocco Buttliere, where the IIT student is re-creating Chicago’s architectural nexus out of thousands of shiny plastic morsels.

We heard about Rocco through Loop North News, and we did an interview with him about his project early last week.  Here’s what he had to say about his envy-inducing work:

EditorHow long have you been working on this Lego project?

Rocco Buttliere: My lifelong interest in LEGO transitioned more toward an architectural application around the time I began to grow interest in the Chicago architecture scene. In 2009, I began to design custom skyscraper models at a common 1:650 scale. Starting with Willis Tower, I have since designed more than forty individual models of buildings from Chicago and New York as well as a few from Shanghai, Dubai, Paris, Toronto and Los Angeles. Over the past couple years, I grew more interested in expressing a contiguous urban fabric through the LEGO medium, rather than standalone landmarks. Having already acquired a few of the more notable North Loop skyscrapers, I began to fill in the blank spaces between. While my immediate preference is usually to include buildings of note, I have found it enjoyable to also faithfully replicate the smaller high- and lowrises along the main corridors that connect these individual models. In my North Loop Layout, I have done this along both Wacker Dr and Michigan Ave, for instance. The individual skyscrapers that make up my North Loop Layout have all been designed within a five year period since 2010.

Lower Magnificent Mile in Lego. Courtesy of Rocco Buttliere

Lower Magnificent Mile in Lego. Courtesy of Rocco Buttliere

EditorHow long do you think it will take to complete?

Buttliere:  My eventual goal is to build all of the downtown area of Chicago. And what I find most important about this first big step (which I have dubbed “Phase 1”) is that it has really allowed me to test out this ambitious plan on a large area of the city and discover that it is actually doable. To me, the process of designing these models and building them is and always should be a process of discovery. My focus is, therefore, on discovering how LEGO will lend itself toward replicating an actual urban landscape. At my current rate, I’d estimate this project will take no less than ten years to realize. Obviously there are a ton of variables that would go into a proper estimation of a one-man project of this scope, but ten years seems like a realistic window in which it could very well be completed.

EditorHow far do you think the project will go? Will you try to do the entire Loop?

Aon Plaza in Lego. Courtesy of Rocco Buttliere

Aon Plaza in Lego. Courtesy of Rocco Buttliere

Buttliere:  It’s too soon to say exactly where I would draw the lines on this layout. I’ve always imagined Roosevelt as the likely boundary for the southern edge, with the possibility for an expanded section covering the museum campus. The western edge is definitely, I would say, the most likely to change. There are lots of projects, including supertalls (*fingers crossed*) planned for the West Loop. It’s way too soon to even guess where that boundary would eventually fall. To the north, I’d say somewhere between the 900 and 1200 block. Maybe I’ll end up taking it to the North Shore Beach though. Similar to my desire to eventually get around to the museum campus, I’d like to show enough of the context to allow the maximum number of viewers to orient themselves based on their experiences and everyday lives throughout the city. Call it crowd-pleasing if you will, but I see it moreso as having ample sentimental and geographical backing.

EditorIs this your first time trying to recreate a city in Legos?

Michigan Plaza in Lego. Courtesy of Rocco Buttliere

Michigan Plaza in Lego. Courtesy of Rocco Buttliere

Buttliere:  This is the first time anyone, let alone myself, is attempting to replicate a city in LEGO. In terms of my desired level of detail, uniformity of scale, rigorous consistency toward geographic conditions, and sheer quantity of parts usage; nothing like this has ever been done before in LEGO.

EditorWhat is it about Legos that people find so fascinating?

Buttliere:  From my experience, people are most fascinated by the LEGO brick’s ability to adapt. Attending Brickworld for the first time as a member of the public back in 2008, I was blown away by the endless possibilities. Everyone thinks differently, which means everyone is capable of using LEGO in a unique way.

EditorDo you see yourself as an artist working with Legos as a medium, or a Lego enthusiast who just happens to create art?

Buttliere:  I see myself as both an artist whose medium is LEGO, as well as a LEGO enthusiast. I see the two as working together. I have an idea that I want to express, so I use the medium that I know best; the one that I have used since I was a child. I never experienced what some adult fans call “The Dark Ages,” where you put the bricks away for years and come back to them later on in life. For me, LEGO has always been an unwavering constant. How could I not, therefore, be passionate about the medium as well as the source?

EditorWhat has been the hardest building to recreate so far?

Pioneer Plaza with Forever Marilyn in Lego. Courtesy of Rocco Buttliere

Pioneer Plaza with Forever Marilyn in Lego. Courtesy of Rocco Buttliere

Buttliere:  There are always particular instances that prove challenging in every building I design. If that weren’t true, I doubt I’d find any enjoyment in designing them. I certainly would say that some models were more challenging than others for various reasons. From an engineering standpoint, my model of Marina City was quite difficult to develop. It took a few years before my light-bulb moment for how I would design it occurred. In terms of a contextual design challenge, the bend in the river along Wacker, between Wabash & Michigan, forced me to redesign the base of my Trump Tower model three times, since building it in 2010, before I got it right. After that, it proved equally challenging to properly incorporate the Wacker Drive street frontage along the bend.

EditorAre there buildings that you look forward to building, and others that you dread?

Buttliere:  There are certainly buildings I look forward to tackling. The Merchandise Mart and Field Museum, to name a couple, are challenges I feel up to. On the other side of the coin, though, are buildings like Crain Communications (Smurfit-Stone) which I dread as much as I look forward to. Buildings like that often force me into artistic license decisions; basically making it work within the limited palette of the medium. I never know till I try. I tried Aqua, and that has been one of my most well-received models to date!

EditorHow important is realism to you in this project? Do you find working in Legos restrictive?

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza in Lego. Courtesy of Rocco Buttliere

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza in Lego. Courtesy of Rocco Buttliere

Buttliere:  Realism is, without a doubt, my most prioritized control factor when I design these models. Thinking back to the sentimental weight, however, I like to also pay homage to LEGO as my medium. Where this has controlled rather than realism, for instance, is my depiction of Forever Marilyn in Pioneer Court. Yes, it’s probably 10 feet over-scaled in every dimension, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to depict such a well-received installation with such a commonly-known symbol of LEGO. Any restrictions of working with LEGO tend to go back to the consistency of scale. LEGO pieces are their own modules, meaning one piece can be used at any scale for whatever purpose. It’s finding the right piece at my scale for the right purpose that can be restrictive.

EditorHow do you find just the right Legos for each building?

Buttliere:  Usually finding the right piece to use for a building is the very first step I take. I like to picture a moment or quality of the architectural fabric that would translate nicely into a combination of pieces I am picturing in my head. Sometimes this can take years, as was the case with my Marina City model. The nice thing going forward, though, is that lots of buildings feature some of the similar motifs as others. Already having a sizable chunk of Chicago has and likely will make things quicker in the design stage, as I prepare to expand my layout.

EditorIs it fragile?

Downtown Chicago in Lego. Courtesy of Rocco Buttliere

Downtown Chicago in Lego. Courtesy of Rocco Buttliere

Buttliere:  I’d say that on the “oops-it-dropped-scale,” if you will, of shattered to solid, I have quite the range of stability in my models. Every model has at least a few delicate attachment or ornamental accents that are more prone to falling off. In terms of overall stability, each model depends on how the inner workings will end up holding together the façade details. Some of these engineering solutions are quite fragile (as is the case with my Tribune Tower model), while others are quite robust overall (i.e. Trump Tower, Michigan Plaza).

EditorHave you had any tragic mishaps? Like the dog sat on Tribune Tower and ruined a month’s work?

Buttliere:  Fortunately, I’ve been lucky with keeping everything intact. Nothing has managed to fall apart on its own yet either!

EditorHow tall can you build a Lego skyscraper?

Buttliere:  I suppose LEGO skyscrapers follow the basic structural principles of real-world skyscrapers. Most importantly, the taller the building, the larger the footprint. Obviously you can cheat a little more easily than real-life with LEGO, but theoretically, I’d say any free-standing structure could be built with LEGO (at a significantly smaller scale of course).

Downtown Chicago in Lego. Courtesy of Rocco Buttliere

Downtown Chicago in Lego. Courtesy of Rocco Buttliere

EditorDo you think recreating these buildings gives you special insight into how they’re designed?

Buttliere:  It is interesting to see how some models turn out to be quite similar to their real-world counterparts in terms of structure (such as my Eiffel Tower model). I find that for the majority, however, the LEGO version is rarely telling of the actual structural innovations, if any. In my John Hancock Center model, the structural X-braces are translated into the model as purely aesthetic applications.

EditorAre there other cities you’d like to recreate?

Buttliere:  I think Chicago is enough to keep me busy for the next decade or so!

EditorWhat will you do when you’re done with it? Sell it? Donate it to a museum?

Buttliere:  I don’t think I could imagine anything better than having this model shared at venues across Chicago and beyond, either during its continued expansion or after eventual completion. I think it would be a testament to not only LEGO builders, but to anyone who has experienced part of downtown Chicago to one day walk into the Museum of Science & Industry and be confronted by a one-of-a-kind model of the city, built from an equally relatable medium that has also been present in most people’s lives in some form or another.

Thanks so much for your time, Mr. Buttliere.  To see more photos of his downtown Chicago Lego recreation, visit his space on the Lego fansite MOCpages.

Downtown Chicago in Lego. Courtesy of Rocco Buttliere

Downtown Chicago in Lego. Courtesy of Rocco Buttliere


Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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