Wednesday 30 March 2016

Playing Catch-up

I consider myself very fortunate that the first of LEGO's Modular Buildings, Set 10182 Cafe Corner (below), was still on the shelves when I emerged bleary-eyed from my LEGO Dark Ages in the late 2000s. I've written previously (here) about my love for the Modular Buildings, and have coincidentally just submitted what amounts to a eulogy on the subject of Cafe Corner to Bricks Culture magazine which will appear in Issue 5. Cafe Corner provided me with my first ever experience of building an adult-oriented LEGO set and it was a game-changer for me, opening my eyes to the potential of LEGO like no set before it or since. For the next few years I eagerly snapped up every new Modular Building that LEGO released within days of release, and everything else LEGO-related would immediately grind to a halt while I built it. Set 10185 Green Grocer was next to be acquired, and to this day remains possibly my favourite of all the Modulars. That was followed by Set 10190 Market Street, with Set 10197 Fire Brigade and then Set 10211 Grand Emporium next in line. While I definitely have my favourites, all of those sets share to a greater or lesser extent the same characteristics which drew me to Cafe Corner in the first place, fundamentally a sense that I was building something special, and with a level of polish far beyond any LEGO set I'd encountered previously.

It couldn't last, though. With the growth of my LEGO hobby in various different directions, not to mention work and family commitments, I haven't been able to keep it going. While I've continued to buy the Modulars as they've been released, life no longer grinds to a halt when they arrive, and to my shame I've still not built some of them. To some extent, the availability of quality online reviews and photographs, in tandem with seeing the completed sets on display in my local LEGO brand store, makes it feel like I've already built them all, but it's obviously not the same as building them myself. I'm therefore going to do something about it - basically, the plan is to crack open some of the Modulars that I haven't built yet, with a view to displaying them on my City Layout. First up is Set 10243 Parisian Restaurant, released in January 2014.

The front of the box (above) shows the completed set in all its glory. The Parisian Restaurant was only the second Modular to carry the Creator Expert branding, with the discrete Creator Expert logo visible top right. The set's 2,469 elements make this the second largest Modular to date in terms of the parts count, while the 16+ age recommendation whets the appetite for the advanced building techniques to come. The back of the box (below) highlights various views and features of the completed model, and there's also advertising for the three Modulars that were available at retail at the time of the set's release.

The box is opened by cutting a couple of tape seals, revealing a total of 18 sealed bags of elements, a light bluish grey 32 x 32 baseplate and dark bluish grey 8 x 16 plate loose in the box, and a sealed packet containing some instruction booklets plus a sheet of cardboard to keep them flat. There's thankfully no sticker sheet.

The set includes three instruction booklets and you can see the front cover of the first booklet in the picture above. Between them, the instruction booklets contain 177 pages not including their front covers; apart from three pages of advertisements (sample page below) and a three-page inventory of elements at the back of the third booklet it's building instructions all the way.

The set contains a total of 5 minifigures. All of them are exclusive to the set, although many of their constituent parts are commonly available elsewhere, notably their generic minifigure heads, unprinted legs, hair and chef's hat. That's not the case for some of the torsos, though - the female artist (below, far left) has a torso print which has only ever graced 3 minifigures, while the blonde-haired business man (second left) has a torso which has appeared as a part of just eight minifigures in total. The prints which decorate the torsos of the chef (below centre), the waiter (second right) and the female with ponytail (far right) are less rare, with all of them having appeared in more than ten other minifigures.

You can see a rear view of the minifigures minus their hair and hats below. Only three of the five minifigures have backprinted torsos. The female artist features a torso backprint of a dragon; there are no prizes for guessing that the only other two minifigures which share this torso backprint are both versions of Sensei Wu from the Ninjago theme.

And so to the build, which the instruction booklets break down into four stages. Stage 1 kicks off with the assembly of three of the set's minifigures plus a red scooter. The scooter (below) appears to have been modelled on a classic Vespa and features a one-piece body which was new and exclusive when the set was initially released but which has since appeared in a further five sets.

The build proper starts with a light bluish grey 32 x 32 baseplate; this is the only time that a 32 x 32 baseplate in this colour has ever appeared in a set. Tiles are dropped into place on the baseplate to represent the pavement outside the building, a strip of red carpet at the restaurant entrance, and the patterned floor inside the building. I had a real sense of deja vu as I gradually mapped out the ground floor of the building and filled various areas with tiles as every Modular Building I've ever assembled started out this way. Tan 1 x 1 and 1 x 2 plates are used to spell out the first part of the restaurant's name - "CHEZ" - on what will become the floor of the front outdoor dining area; once this area has been completed, and tables and chairs have been installed, the lettering is all but obscured, but it's a nice little detail all the same.

However much I might enjoy building Modulars, I can't say I was overjoyed to discover that the kitchen floor consists of almost 50 white and dark blue 1 x 1 tiles - I've always hated tiling with 1 x 1 tiles, mainly as it's so fiddly to line them up neatly. With the tiling done it's time to furnish the kitchen. A number of kitchen units are constructed which incorporate a sink, hob, oven, drawers and assorted work surfaces upon which plates, wine glasses and various foodstuffs are placed. There's even a large turkey complete with a couple of detachable drumsticks. Indoor and outdoor seating is then installed, and the boundary between the outdoor seating area and the pavement is decorated with flowers and fenced off with black chain-link fencing. The outdoor floral displays are planted in pots each consisting of a dark red 2 x 2 round brick with dome bottom; these were brand new elements at the time of the Parisian Restaurant's release. Stage 1 concludes with the construction of a number of indoor and outdoor tables for the restaurant's diners; the indoor tables are decorated with lamps which feature the same dark red 2 x 2 round bricks with dome bottom that were previously employed as plant pots, albeit used upside down in this instance.

Stage 2 of the build starts with assembly of the final two minifigures, after which work recommences on the ground floor of the restaurant. Lots of lovely olive green bricks are used to build the walls of the restaurant's ground floor - 1 x 1, 1 x 2, 1 x 3, 1 x 4, 1 x 6 and 1 x 8 bricks all feature, together with olive green 1 x 1 and 1 x 2 plates, so there's a decent selection for those builders looking to build their own olive green MOCs with the contents of the set. None of the olive green bricks used in the set have made an appearance in more than a small handful of other sets, and the olive green 1 x 3 and 1 x 8 bricks are unique to this set as things currently stand. As the walls start to increase in height, a nice brick-built rolling pin plus a selection of kitchen knives are mounted on clips on the kitchen wall, while an attractive sideboard is placed against the back wall of the main dining area and a painting in the form of a dark tan 2 x 2 tile printed with sailing ship and moon pattern is mounted on another of the interior walls. Eight reddish brown 1 x 2 x 3 windows plus transparent window panes are incorporated into the walls at the back of the restaurant; at the time of the set's release these elements had never previously been included in a set in this colour, although they've appeared in a few more sets since. Floor to ceiling windows are then installed along the front of the building together with a large glass door, and decorative lintels are placed over the top of each of them. The spaces between the windows and doors are occupied by ornate white columns featuring some clever detailing, for instance repurposed mechanical arms previously seen in the likes of the Exo-Force theme.

With the windows, doors and columns in place, an eye-catching facade was starting to materialise; this became even more impressive thanks to the addition of some sumptuous-looking brick-built dark blue curtains. The ground floor walls are then raised by another couple of bricks in height before being topped off by a layer of light bluish grey tiles in preparation for the placement of the second floor. Additional outdoor fixtures and fittings are then added at the front of the restaurant, notably some rather lethal-looking vegetation in the form of green flexible 3.5L spikes which have only ever appeared in five sets, a menu on a stand which makes use of a 2 x 2 printed tile that's unique to the set, and a dark red awning upon which a new 2 x 4 tile printed with the name of the restaurant, Chez Albert, is mounted. The awning features some rare dark red elements - a pair of 3 x 3 33 degree slopes and a pair of 3 x 3 33 degree double convex slopes - which have only ever appeared in a total of three and four sets respectively. A cast iron-effect awning is then attached above the outdoor dining area, and three lamps are hung from it; this awning will later be covered with vegetation, but not until the very end of the build for some reason. Hand rails are then installed on the outdoor staircase, after which we move to the rear of the building (below) and make some additions; vegetation in the form of large and small plant leaves decorated with 1 x 1 red flower heads and bright green carrot tops is hung from the rear wall, and a black vertical drainpipe is attached. We also get a small green dustbin and a brick-built blue dumpster complete with some hot dogs, bones and magenta cherries to put in it; we're even provided with a light bluish grey rat to sniff around the dustbin.... The final act of Stage 2 is to return to the front of the building and install a white lamp post on the pavement.

Stage 3 of the build consists of construction of the second floor of the restaurant, including the rear corner terrace (below) which is built first. The rear corner terrace is constructed on a patchwork of dark bluish grey plates and comprises seating and tables similar to those found in the outside dining area at the front of the restaurant, plus handrails and a pair of lamps complete with cute hanging baskets.

You can see how the rear corner terrace attaches to the completed ground floor section in the picture below. The terrace links up nicely with the staircase to the right of the building, and it also provides access to the second floor of the building which is next to be constructed.

The second floor comprises a small bedsit complete with a bed, a kitchen diner, a fireplace and a cosy tan armchair plus a glass-topped coffee table. The kitchen diner includes an oven and a hob complete with a frying pan; kitchen storage is provided by some drawers and a high-level wall-mounted cupboard. A dark tan and medium blue bed folds away neatly into the back wall to create more space in the cramped living quarters, and there's a floor-standing lamp in the corner which once again makes good use of the inverted dark red flower pot element described earlier. Out front there are window boxes and a glass door which leads out on to a small balcony framed with white columns (below); attractive detailing featuring decorative arches fashioned from white car mudguards is dropped into place above the windows, and the second floor is topped off with tiles in preparation for the placement of the roof.

Two doors lead out from the back of the second floor (below). One of these doors provides access to a tiny balcony while the other leads out to the previously constructed rear corner terrace and also to a flight of outdoor stairs which ascend to the as-yet unbuilt top floor of the building. Fences and hand-rails are installed to enclose the outdoor walkways including the stairs, and a section of vertical drainpipe is attached to the back wall.

Attention now shifts to the last of the three instruction booklets and Stage 4 of the build, which entails construction of the roof and the studio within. Some of the most eye-catching aspects of the completed model are constructed at this stage and can be seen at the front of this section (picture below). A highlight is the pair of large, white ornamental structures embedded in the roof. When I saw the first promotional pictures of the Parisian Restaurant it was these that immediately stood out, and they're fashioned at this stage of the build. The centrepiece of each of these structures is a white clam shell which, to my surprise, dates back to 1998 in this colour and has appeared in more than 20 sets to date. The clam shell is framed by a pair of vehicle mudguards which are mounted opposite each other to form an oval. Additional detail is provided by a pair of white croissants which were exclusive to the set at the time of its release, although have subsequently appeared in two more sets. There's also some lovely detailing consisting of repeating, closely-packed dark bluish grey feathers which are arranged in a row where the roof meets the floor below.

The front roof section clips in at an angle to create a sloping roof. It's fashioned from alternating dark blue 3 x 1 and 4 x 1 curved slopes, a technique which creates an interesting textured effect that you'll either think looks really neat, or else a bit messy (I definitely vote for "really neat"). At the rear (below) there's a pair of window boxes which utilise a number of bright green and red round 1 x 1 plates with flower edge. There's also a small yellow and white awning which brings to mind Cafe Corner. The angled rear roof section cleverly incorporates three Velux-type windows, and there's also a back door to the studio.

The rear roof section is hinged and drops open to reveal an art studio within the roof (below). The studio includes a couple of tiled canvasses, a brick-built easel and a paint palette which first appeared as an accessory supplied with the Artist Series 14 Collectible Minifigure. The studio also incorporates a fireplace which is covered by a hinged, iron-effect door.

With Stage 4 of the build done and dusted, all that's left to do is stack the various sections, attach some vegetation to the top of the cast iron awning on the ground floor, and the Parisian Restaurant is complete (below). The row of closely-packed dark bluish grey feathers at the base of the roof section that I mentioned earlier can be seen a little more clearly if you zoom in to the picture below.

From the back (below) you can see how the rear corner terrace, outdoor staircase and rear doorways connect. There's an impressive amount of detail on view at the back of the model given that many builders will likely display the completed model in such a way that the rear won't even be visible; it's just another reminder of the care and attention that's lavished on the Modulars by the set designers.

So what's the verdict? Well, I absolutely love this set. Moreover, I reckon that it's probably my favourite Modular Building since Set 10185 Green Grocer which is really saying something since Green Grocer is my pick of all the Modulars. It's a bit of a relief, actually - having already formed a very positive impression of the set from reading reviews, scrutinising photographs and seeing the completed build at my local LEGO brand store, there was always a risk that it might not live up to my expectations when I finally got around to building it; in fact, I now have a heightened appreciation of all the little details and clever building techniques, and I like the set all the more as a result. I think the olive green and dark blue colour scheme looks great, and the overall design and proportions work beautifully. There's also some truly impressive detailing, and critically I think that these details genuinely enhance the overall appearance rather than feeling gratuitous and out of place which can sometimes be the case.

In the interests of balance I guess I should highlight a couple of possible niggles. Firstly, while I personally think that the model is elegant and nicely proportioned, some might feel that it's a bit small and not great value for money; certainly there's a fair bit of empty space on the baseplate out front and round the back, and the presence of the external staircases and the rear corner terrace further reduces the size of the actual building.  Also, there are a few incongruous patches of tan and black showing through on the outside walls as a consequence of attaching various wall-mounted interior decorations. It would however have been hard to avoid this problem without the use of a double-walled building technique similar to that employed in the recent Ghostbusters Firehouse HQ set, and in all honesty it's not a sufficiently big deal to justify the cost of all the extra bricks that would be needed. It is slightly jarring, though.

In summary, therefore, I can wholeheartedly recommend this set, both to Modular veterans (who will admittedly almost certainly have already bought it long ago....) and also to those who are new to the world of Modular Buildings and may be looking to dip a toe into the water and see what all the fuss is about. As I write, the set is still available from LEGO brand stores and online from where it'll set you back £132.99 / US$159.99 / 149.99€. Best buy it before it's retired from sale, though, or you might find that it shoots up in price on the aftermarket, similar to what's happened with many of the other best-loved Modulars. Don't say you weren't warned....

Monday 7 March 2016


Regular readers of Gimme LEGO might recall that I signed off last time with the picture below. For the uninitiated, the picture shows a pile of LEGO 9 volt (9V) track. LEGO no longer makes 9V track, and in fact it hasn't done so for the best part of ten years now. Unlike the currently available LEGO track, which incorporates plastic rather than metal rails, 9V track is electrified via the mains electricity supply. I've written previously about the merits of 9V versus plastic track, for instance here, but in summary one of the advantages of a 9V set-up is that the trains which run on it don't need to carry their own bulky batteries, battery box or remote sensor - all you need to do is incorporate a svelte 9V motor into your LEGO train and it'll run forever. Or at least until the motor burns out or you forget to pay your electricity bill....

So that's all well and good then, but there's a catch. Because LEGO don't make 9V track any more, and because 9V is the system of choice for many LEGO enthusiasts who build and exhibit train layouts, the supply of 9V track and compatible electric motors is limited and ever diminishing. So it's hard to find in any real quantity and expensive, basically, particularly if you want your track to be dark bluish grey to match the rest of your layout rather than the more common older dark grey.

My plan had initially been to use currently available plastic track at ground level as there wouldn't be the same issue with line of sight leading to possible problems controlling the trains as there was for the enclosed lower track loop. In the end, however, I had a change of heart and decided to go with 9V track instead as it'll enable me to run a host of classic older LEGO trains such as the Santa Fe Super Chief and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Locomotive on the upper track loop in their original, unmodified form - delicious! Thankfully, as you can see from the picture above I just about managed to find what I'd need to fashion the upper track loop plus some track sidings on Bricklink, although the switch tracks (or points if you prefer) were pretty hard to find.

Laying the 9V track was very straightforward and I was quickly able to complete most of the upper track loop as you can see in the picture above. As I'd done previously when constructing the lower track loop I used dark bluish grey plates to raise the straight track sections off the base by one plate in height and rested the curved track sections on dark bluish grey tiles. I did briefly consider trying to anchor the curved sections to the base in a few places via judicious use of 2 x 2 turntables or 2 x 2 plates with one stud, but it became clear that it wasn't necessary as the curves were anchored securely at their ends and the tiles beneath offered sufficient support. I'd previously experimented with covering the exposed dark bluish grey studs on the track sections with reddish brown tiles to give the appearance of wooden sleepers, filling the gaps between sleepers and the area just outside the rails with ballast in the form of 1 x 1 dark tan plates, and adding a few plants for good measure; having been pleased with the overall effect I'm planning on decorating the rest of the upper track loop in the same way and I started with the curved track section below.

Prior to dropping the last few track sections into place I needed to spend a bit of time getting things prepped for the addition of some track sidings which would attach to the upper track loop on the right side of the layout  My first job was to extend the network of red scaffolding modules so that they ran along the entire length of the right side of the layout. With the scaffolds completed and in place I was then able to drop a number of dark bluish grey baseplates on top of them. Obviously baseplates don't have anti-studs on their lower surface, so at this stage the baseplates were just 'floating' on top of the scaffolds; the scaffolds are however specifically designed to be just the right height to support the baseplates at the same height as the neighbouring plates.

As was the case for both the lower and upper track loops, dark bluish grey plates are used to lift the track sidings up by a single plate in height, as well as securely attaching the track sections to the baseplates below. You can see the area beneath the track sidings in the pictures above and below, all ready to receive the track sections. Dark bluish grey tiles are used instead of plates where there isn't anywhere for studs to attach on the underside of the track sections but where some support is nevertheless still required, for instance beneath switch tracks.

With the area beneath the track sidings suitably prepared, all that was left to do was to attach the track sections which make up the sidings to the baseplates below and then complete the upper track loop. You can see the results in the picture below. The baseplates, which had previously just rested on top of the supporting scaffolds, are now held in position as a consequence of being attached to the tracks above, and everything seems to stay in place pretty well.

What's much more obvious in person than in the photographs is that the dark bluish grey baseplates which underpin the track sidings are significantly lighter in colour than the neighbouring dark bluish grey plates. This presumably reflects the fact that baseplates are thinner than standard plates. Given that most if not all of the baseplate area will eventually be covered with ballast or trackside structures this shouldn't be a problem, but I thought I'd mention it as the difference in colour is so marked.

Having completed the upper track loop and sidings I connected the newly-laid track to a 9V speed regulator and power adaptor and plugged the adaptor into the mains to run a quick test; I can confirm that everything is working fine, and when I've gotten around to putting together one of my classic 9V trains I'll shoot some video to prove it.

Previous City Layout update here.