LEGO master builder Greg Nuse has spent the last seven years constructing intricate snap-together models at the LEGOLAND Discovery Center in Schaumburg. But his most recent project, a model of Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, was the first to combine his self-professed obsession (architecture — old buildings in particular) with his hobby (music).
Trained on trumpet and French horn, the former teacher played in ensembles pre-COVID, and he looks forward to rejoining them. When the opportunity arose to build architect Daniel Burnham’s historic classical-music venue, home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1904, he was thrilled by the serendipity and even more excited than usual to dive in.
Comprising 7,416 of LEGO’s iconic plastic bricks, a small handful of them custom-painted, Nuse’s Orchestra Hall was built to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Symphony Center, an expansion of the original landmark venue. The LEGO model measures 25 inches wide by 30 inches high and could easily fit on the CSO conductor’s podium. But since that would leave no room for the conductor, it’s on display in Symphony Center’s Rotunda until early February — shortly after International LEGO Day on Jan. 28. Then it heads back to the Discovery Center’s LEGO Miniland, a small-scale cityscape that includes buildings and places found in downtown Chicago.
As you might imagine, re-creating iconic architectural structures with LEGOs is a complex feat that involves a lot of trial and error as well as sophisticated planning. To determine which pieces went where, Nuse made physical mock-ups of certain sections (the building’s arched windows proved especially challenging) in his shop.
Next, he created a computer version of the hall with special software that told him whether various pieces he planned to use were actually a “true fit” according to official LEGO specifications (no fudging allowed!). It also compiled a “bill of material” that listed the parts he would need. Once everything was in place, Nuse began building. The entire process, from planning to completion, took 85 hours.
“I usually try to build the most difficult part first,” Nuse says. “Because once I have that finished, I can build everything around it. Oftentimes that causes me to build things from the top down, which is very counterintuitive and creates its own challenges. But with Orchestra Hall, the most difficult part was the bottom, so I worked on it from there.”
Not everything went smoothly. At one point he needed transparent bricks to use behind the front windows so people could see into the building. After learning that those clear bricks were out of production, he called the LEGOLAND theme park in Florida. They had them in stock. Minor crisis averted.
“The LEGO master builders have our own little communication network,” Nuse says of his elite group that numbers around 20 in North America. “We help each other out a lot.”
So what would Burnham, Orchestra Hall’s mastermind, think of Nuse’s plastic rendition?
“I hope he’d like it,” Nuse says. “One of the hardest things was the fact that the building is attached to other buildings on both sides. To make it a free-standing structure, I couldn’t just have empty walls. So I had to put a fire escape or some doors or some boarded-up windows on the side just because there needed to be something to see there.
“Hopefully he wouldn’t ding me for that embellishment.”