It's wonderful to see that The LEGO Group's confidence in the Architecture Series has increased enough for worldwide landmarks to appear! In what might seem opportunistic timing, with the fast approaching 2012 Olympics being held in London, TLG has revealed that its latest Architecture set will model what is probably London's most iconic landmark: the clock tower of Big Ben.
As has been pointed out innumerable times, Big Ben is actually the name of the huge bell which resides within the tower, itself forming the north-west corner of the Palace of Westminster; the tower itself is known simply as the Clock Tower. But if you say 'Big Ben', I imagine people from around the world will immediately picture this famous tower.
This review is a team effort by Pandora and myself (with a little extra help from a certain someone at a crucial point ). The opinions presented here are ours; fortunately we agreed on pretty much everything so there was little need for discussion!
Anyway, with further ado, Pandora and Rufus are proud to present....
Review: 21013 Big Ben
Name: Big Ben
Theme: Architecture (Landmark Series)
Release: 1 June 2012
Parts: 341 (our count)
Price: US $29.99 | EUR 29.99 | CAD $39.99
Links ... Brickset ... LEGO Architecture
We'll update the price information, links and the official set description as they become available.
The smart but rather austere box livery of the Architecture range continues with this set. I see no reason to change it! Big Ben sits atop a technical drawing which may well represent architectural plans of the Palace of Westminster, but who's checking. The eagle-eyed among you might note that this latest addition to the Architecture range is designed not by Adam Reed Tucker, but instead by Rok Zgalin Kobe, a Slovenian architect.
The back of the box is more colourful, sporting a scale render of the model, with some pictures of the real building in atypical English weather:
The text is a language lesson describing the enclosed booklet, which is in English, and mentions the two Architects of the tower, Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin.
The narrow sides are well suited to a tall, narrow model, and allow the boxes to be stacked on shelves vertically. The left side features a beautiful low-down shot of the tower:
... while the right side, which forms the flap of the box lid, shows an interesting 'exploded' render of the model beside the 'Choking Hazard' warning in a vast array of international languages.
A very small part-rendered picture graces the top of the box, and the bottom reveals that parts were sourced in DENMARK, HUNGARY, MEXICO, and the CZECH REPUBLIC. We suspect this represents different manufacturing sources for different regions.
Interestingly, this set - despite being considerably larger - comes in a box no bigger than those of the smallest sets in the range. It is of identical size to 21002 Empire State Building, or 21000 Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, Chicago, pictured here:
It is, as you might imagine, considerably heavier, and clearly requires two extra years of building experience to build it.
We love these Architecture boxes! There's a certain sense of nostalgia for the days of intricate packaging which heightened the whole LEGO experience. Admittedly these don't have the (expensive, we've no doubt) plastic inserts and lifting lids of the 80s, but it's clear that TLG have gone to some pains to make the box as collectable as the set. You can even flatpack the box for longevity without tearing or cutting!
The box is almost as smart on the inside:
This one is remarkably full, which helps to preserve the instruction manual. You are instructed clearly to 'Enjoy your building experience.' as you open the lid. It's a really nice touch, and emphasises the lengths TLG has gone to to maximise the ... um ... building experience.
Out of the box are pulled four polybags, and two loose plates. As Siegfried/Sinner mentioned in the Sydney Opera House review, it's a shame that not all of the parts are bagged, but we can't really blame LEGO for this in this case. It's only two pieces, and would probably require much larger bags, which might in turn necessitate a larger box to allow automated packing.
Looking at this picture, you immediately get a sense of the rather small parts variety - there are only 33 different pieces in the set, including different colours of the same part.
Some serious thought has gone into this instruction manual. It is quite thick, and beautifully presented, being printed on high quality paper, like all the sets in the Architecture range. Aside from the difference in orientation, the cover is similar to the box front, but does reference the Architecture website.
The rear cover of the manual features an alternative view of the tower from behind:
but is otherwise rather plain.
Most of the interest is contained inside the manual, where can be found ten pages of facts about the tower and its construction, an example of which is shown here:
The text is superbly written. It is a potted history, packed with facts and interesting to read, without being a daunting mass of text. We learned quite a lot ourselves!
Following the tower facts comes a double-paged biography of the architects:
The pictures here are reprints of oil portraits of the long-departed designers of the tower. Again, kudos to LEGO for going the extra mile to add interest and value.
The instructions themselves are clear, and nicely paced to avoid confusion without being patronising. About every eight or nine pages is a little inset depicting further little factoids about the building:
It's easy to miss these, if you are concentrating on the building. We'd recommend taking your time when building, and enjoying these little tidbits of information when you encounter them! They are a really nice touch.
Otherwise, there are some parts in similar colours (particularly black and dark bluish grey), which could cause confusion; however, if you follow the build order then there shouldn't be any problems. You would notice if you used a dark bluish grey 1x2 tile on the base, for instance (unless you're building in the dark ).
Towards the rear of the manual is the now-standard parts inventory:
Again, the small variety of parts is readily apparent, and belies the size of the set.
Finally, we are treated to a discourse from the Artist himself, and an intriguing look at Architecture in the early days of LEGO (including the invention of the plate!)
We're pleased to note that Rok Zgalin Kobe refers to SNOT (Studs Not On Top), implying it's the acronym used by LEGO designers themselves! We're easily pleased.
But enough about paper, what about the plastic? We've arranged the parts according to the polybag they came in, which is roughly dictated by size.
The largest bag contains the large tiles, including the unique printed 'Big Ben' piece, and a sea of tan.
Most of these parts are commonplace; even the 2x2 clock face is often found at the Pick-a-Brick wall. Of note are the dark bluish grey 'Slope 45 1x2 Double', found in two other sets, and the 'Slope 75 2x2x2 Quadruple Convex' in DBG and the two earth green 2x3 Plates, each found only in one other set. Not rare, though useful, are the nine 1x1 bricks with four studs ('dalek pieces', as we've heard them called).
Generally, part variety is small but quantity high:
We're certainly not complaining about the 57 round bricks and 32 grille tiles in tan, useful for architectural MOCs.
2x1 tan plates were at the PaB wall recently, so we're not short of those...
... but jumper plates are always useful.
Finally, we have the ubiquitous round 1x1 plates, and 1x1 tiles in tan are most welcome.
Not a cheese wedge in sight! Overall, it's a part selection that won't get too many people excited, with only a small number of rare elements, although the quantity of some of the parts might make this useful as a parts pack.
Let's put these plastic blocks together! As you might expect, we start with the familiar Architecture base:
Immediately, you can see by the jumper plates that the model uses a half-stud offset for the entire structure. This is presumably to centre the model, which is an odd number of studs in length. The jumpers make a surprisingly strong connection, meaning you can build the model whilst holding it, rather than on a flat surface, although it's worth noting that the two black plates at the base are only connnected via three tiles, giving them a tendency to separate slightly if you do do this.
The 'trick' behind the SNOT wall detail is revealed in this shot:
SNOT bricks - with 1 (white), 2 (light bluish grey) and 4 (black) studs on sides are used to attach 1x2 plate-grille tile pieces to give the sides their ridged detail. The 'gap' that remains under the grilles is filled with 1x1 tiles. This technique is a little fiddly, but surprisingly strong and effective, and is used throughout the model.
For the second layer, rinse, and repeat... well, nearly.
Here you can see that only black 'dalek' pieces have been used to add SNOT to the sides, rather than the two-sided stud pieces. Although this might at first glance seem odd - it prevents adding 1x1 bricks in between, which might weaken the structure - there are two reasons for this. One is that the side-facing studs are also used in some places - to hold SNOT tiling at the side, and the mysterious upward-pointing dark bluish grey tile you can see here - and the second is that the 'open stud' on the top of the dalek pieces is required to attach the roof at a half stud offset (similar to the use of technic 1x1 bricks in the White House, or Empire State Building)
With the roof-pieces attached, the odd DBG tile fills a gap caused by the half-stud offset :
As we add height to the tower, things get a little repetitive, with three identical layers to construct.
As we approach the top of the tower, four single-stud SNOT pieces are added which will hold the clock faces:
And here we can have a nice look at the rear of the building .
Finally, the rather intricate roof is built:
And we're done! The build takes about 30 minutes if you're rushing, or an hour if you're leisurely (and read the history while you're at it). It's a little fiddly in places (making sure the 1x1 tiles sit squarely is a pain, but this is always a problem), and gets a bit repetitive, but being a smallish model this is counteracted by the feeling of the tower taking shape. Some of the SNOT techniques, especially the roof, are a nice surprise.
The Complete Set
Now let's take a look at the finished article. Big Ben stands proud and erect in all his slightly phallic glory:
This angle shows clearly how effective the half-stud offset is at centering the tower. We like the use of the SNOT grille-tiles for adding the ridged detail which is crucial for adding realism, and the differentiation between the various levels of the building is brought about quite neatly and simply by the use of 1x1 bricks or round bricks at various points. It's highly effective.
Now, let's get this out of the way: the major flaw of this set is the clock faces, which stand proud of the tower by two plates, unlike the real clocks which are if anything slightly recessed. This is a product of the designer's decision to make the entire building three studs wide, which is necessary to make the building affordable, keep consistency with the rest of the Landmark Series, and itself makes the build more interesting in places. Moreover, the design of the 2x2 round tile on which the clock sits - with a cross in the centre of the underside, rather than an anti-stud - necessitates the use of the extra 2x2 plate, therefore exacerbating the problem.
A possible solution to this would be to build the clock section of the tower in four-studs wide, at a half-stud offset. One day we'll try this. Maybe the designer did, but chose this method in the end.
Now that's out of the way, let's continue enjoying the view. Here's the rear:
The tower (obviously) looks the same from every angle, but here you get a view of the snippet of the rest of Palace of Westminster. It's 'cut off' from the rest of the building; the blank tiles/bricks indicate where the building would continue: here, and on the left side. Note the 1x1 round plates instead of cones at the rear: this approximates to a real feature of the building, which doesn't have spires on the inward facing parapets.
Side views (left and right respectively):
The left side features a little dark green, representing a small lawn area in front of the tower where politicians and press gather from time to time. Note again the cut-off where the building would continue to the river edge. The right side faces Parliament Square, where the tower sits flush with the edge of the Palace.
Finally, a shot representing the most common view of the tower:
Another slight niggle, and again due to the use of the three-wide scale, is that the lower part of the roof doesn't slope particularly gracefully, but the use of round studs is probably the best compromise the designer could achieve.
Now lets compare the set to the real thing. Being rather camera-shy, Pandora and I grabbed an unsuspecting random American tourist to help with these shots.
The model is rather small (as is the LEGO set ) making direct comparison difficult. It's approximately 1:350 scale, after all. Still, you can see that the overall impression of the model is pretty accurate, which we think is as good as could be achieved at this scale.
Getting both the tower and the model in focus together was nigh-on impossible. This is about the best we could do:
The blocky roof isn't so noticeable here; unfortunately, the sticky-outy clock faces are. But the time is uncannily correct.
Our contract with the Random American Tourist demanded more than just one picture:
He made himself useful, and got us into the London Eye for some aerial views:
Well, we'd love a massive Architecture set of the entire Palace of Westminster, but that isn't going to happen anytime soon...
... so here's a shot focused on Big Ben himself, from a similar angle as the last set picture:
We should mention here an interesting observation. On the way out of the London Eye is a gift shop filled with souvenirs (many relating to the forthcoming Olympics). This (and many other souvenir shops around the area) would be an ideal place to sell this set - it'll appeal to chance customers who wouldn't normally even consider buying LEGO. The set makes a great souvenir - it is instantly recognisable, despite its flaws, and this market would perhaps be rather more forgiving than the average AFOL. We hope TLG have already thought of this.
Bus and Grenadier Guard not supplied with set.
We were a little disappointed when we saw the preliminary pictures, but having seen the set 'in the flesh', as it were, we think this is actually rather a nice set. Sure, the protruding clock-faces aren't ideal, but they're certainly better than stickers, and the flaw is balanced by the level of detailing which is astonishing for such a small scale.
Moreover, if the preliminary prices are correct, this set represents far better value than most of the smaller Architecture sets, and perhaps hints that the line is firmly hitting the mainstream.
The Big Ben set, together with its attractive packaging and informative manual, makes a wonderful collectors' item, and indeed potentially a lucrative souvenir piece (if TLG takes our advice on this ). I'm sure they've already thought of this, as the timing of its release with the 2012 Olympics hints.
A larger-scale model might allow more detail, solve the clock problem, and enable perhaps a bit of gold decoration on the tower; but would restrict the target market to the die-hard LEGO fans. Perhaps TLG have deliberately decided to accept the smaller scale compromise; we think that, overall, the set is pretty good for the scale.
Design 8 Were it not for the clock faces, we'd give this 10. It's remarkably detailed for the scale.
Build 9 A pleasing build, sometimes a little repetitive, but with some interesting features along the way. If you follow the manual carefully, it is an enjoyable experience.
Parts 7 It's not really a set for rare part hunters, but might appeal as a parts pack if you need tan grille tiles or round bricks.
Value 8 We haven't seen the UK price yet, but going by the US and European pricing, this does seem to be better value than many of the smaller Architecture sets.
Overall 8/10 Big Ben might not appeal to die-hard sticklers for accuracy, but it's a detailed and recognisable rendition of what is perhaps London's most iconic landmark. We were rather pleasantly surprised.
Thanks for reading! We hope you enjoyed the review. Many thanks to CopMike for making this possible, TLG for allowing us an early look at the set, and Hinckley for being such a good model!
Pandora and Rufus.
More pictures on flickr.
Edited by Rufus, 02 March 2013 - 02:38 PM.