Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Hell's Bells

I've found it increasingly difficult to get excited about LEGO's Architecture theme. I admit I was pretty eager at first, picking up the first wave of sets on a visit to the LEGO Brand Store on Chicago's Magnificent Mile and then keeping my fingers tightly crossed on the flight home that the boxes wouldn't get crushed to oblivion in my luggage. Since then, however, my enthusiasm has gradually waned to the point where most of the releases barely seem to register now.

Set 21012 Sydney Opera House : ghastly
To me, there's a distinct feeling of style over substance with this theme. The packaging is extremely slick - elegant, stylish boxes open neatly without the need for minor surgery, and the beautifully put together information booklets further whet the appetite. The models themselves are generally found wanting, however - simplistic and in some cases plain ugly (yes, Set 21012 Sydney Opera House - I'm looking at you...). And even when I can see some aesthetic merit in the sets, such as Set 21005 Fallingwater or Set 21010 Robie House, the thought of the build, and more specifically stacking hundreds of tiny plates or tiles for hours on end, puts me off. And then there's the price - some of these sets have a reputation for being eye-wateringly poor value for money.

All that having been said, I was interested to hear that LEGO were planning to add a version of Big Ben to the Architecture theme, and given that it's a (fairly) local landmark and wasn't too expensive, I decided to pick up a copy when the set appeared at retail.

As usual, the packaging doesn't disappoint. The set sports the trademark swish black box (pictures above and below) and just about my only complaint is how easily the front of the box gets marked - every little scuff and fingerprint shows up on the surface. But if it's OK for Apple then I guess I'll let LEGO off on that one.

Access to the box contents is via a flap on the right side of the box - cut the seals, pull the flap and the front of the box lifts up exposing the contents. A million miles away from the horror of thumb tabs, which is what you normally have to contend with with a set this size. The box contains four sealed bags of parts, two loose black 6 x 10 plates, and a thick, heavy booklet. The booklet, which is I think is best described as 'lush', is sixty pages long and doubles as an information resource and the building instructions. The first few pages consist of photographs interspersed with informative text outlining the history and construction of the Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster ('Big Ben' is actually the name of the bell within the tower rather than the tower itself). Appropriately enough for the Architecture theme, a couple of pages are dedicated to two of the architects responsible for the design of the building.

Other notable content includes a page discussing the history of LEGO Architecture sets (they actually go back as far as the 1960's, apparently), scale diagrams of other sets in the theme, and even some thoughts from Rok Kobe, the designer of the set (below), who gives a high-level description of the design process for this model.

The building instructions themselves don't begin until page 14 of the booklet, by which time you're absolutely itching to start building ! A note about the building instructions : one enduring issue for as long as I can remember has been how difficult it can sometimes be to discriminate between the different colours in the building instructions. LEGO has been listening to our complaints, however, and has started to print a thin white outline around all the black pieces. I can confirm that this well and truly nails colour discrimination issues, at least so far as black pieces are concerned, so thank you LEGO ! Another cool thing about the building instructions is the way that little snippets of information are placed between some of the building steps. I never knew, for instance, that the Ayrton Light which sits atop the clock tower was named after A. S. Ayrton, Member of Parliament, and is only lit when Parliament is sitting....

I was intending to take a photograph of some of the more interesting or unusual pieces in this set, but truth be told once I'd looked through the parts listing I decided not to bother as there really aren't that many.... The black 1 x 8 tile with "Big Ben" printed on it that sits on the base of the model is obviously unique to this set, and the dark bluish grey 2 x 2 x 2 quadruple conxex slope which forms the top of the clock tower is only found in one set other than this one. Otherwise it's more a case of quantity over rarity - 57 tan 1 x 1 round bricks, 38 tan 1 x 2 plates, 34 tan 1 x 1 tiles and 32 tan modified 1 x 2 tiles with grille just for starters help to explain why such a small set has such a surprisingly high total parts count of 346. It also means that you know where to look if you're in the market for a tan greebles parts pack....

You can see the finished build above and below. Words that come to mind when I try to describe the building experience are as follows : compact, neat, repetitive, clever, fiddly. Lots of small parts to stack, and those of you as particular as me - you know who you are - will hate having to fight the compulsion to line up every 1 x 1 brick, plate and tile so that it's exactly straight... On the other hand, some genuinely neat building techniques are employed to achieve the final result, and I have to say that the finished model doesn't look half bad. In fact my only real complaint about the design is the way that the clock faces jut out, which doesn't look quite right to me. Otherwise it's an unexpectedly good rendition.

Aside from some distinctly duious designs, a criticism of many sets in the Architecture theme has been value for money; some of the sets have a truly terrible price per piece ratio. That isn't the case for Big Ben, however - 346 pieces for a U.K. RRP of £24.99 isn't too bad, even if the vast majority of those 346 pieces are small. Predictably enough, it's better value in the U.S., where the U.S. RRP of $29.99 equates to less than £19 at current exchange rates.

You can buy this set from LEGO Brand Stores, LEGO Shop@Home and Toys R Us in the U.K.;  in the U.S., you can also buy direct from Amazon. Just the thing to celebrate the 2012 London Olympics - Go Team GB !


  1. Thanks for this review! I was kind of wondering about the Lego architecture theme. I think it's nice how in the instruction booklet there is information about the building and it's history!

  2. I bought the Whitehouse set from the Architecture range, and was appalled by the low quality of the text in the booklet. It read as though whole chucks were lifted from random web sites, and the spelling/type-setting was amateurish. Has it got any better with Big Ben?

  3. Considering the premium price of the architecture sets, it's pretty disappointing to see that they've produced yet another one that has typographical errors in the "A Word from the Artist" section!

  4. Hi Dr.Dave! I just started a blog about lego, but more specifically about the fact that lego cracks as much as it does, and I wonder if you have any info about cracking lego you can share with me? Hope to hear from you!