Set Review – Chicago (LEGO Architecture 21033)

Let me start off by thanking Paul for the invitation to contribute to ArchBrick. It’s a pleasure to be supporting his blog and I’m sure we can all agree that his published content over the last seven months has been very insightful into the merit of this often over-looked niche of the LEGO community.

Now, onto the subject of this post, we give you the first article of 2017, as well as ArchBrick’s first review of an official LEGO set!

CHICAGO – LEGO Architecture 21033

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Continuing the skyline sub-theme introduced last January, Chicago is a welcome addition to the existing lineup (Berlin, Venice, & New York City), and was released today alongside the new London and Sydney skyline sets.  The set includes microscale versions of six Chicago landmarks, four of which are undoubtedly representative of the city’s unofficial designation of the “birthplace of the skyscraper.”  At 444 pieces, the set took roughly ninety minutes to build and was an enjoyable experience with quite a few surprising tricks up its sleeve!


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Having lived in Chicago for the past five years, I’ve had plenty of firsthand experience exploring the city from top to bottom, north to south, and everywhere in between. I feel this set conveys worthy, albeit very miniature, likenesses of each landmark and successfully provides a sense of place. It’s worth noting that I have also modeled each of these landmarks (with the exception of Cloud Gate) at 1:650 scale in LEGO as part of my effort to eventually build a large, contiguous model of the entire downtown area. I felt it was only fitting to build this set before the skyline view from my south side apartment bedroom (pictured left).

Packaging & Instructions

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The box itself, comparable in size to an 8.5″ x 11″ paper, provides a glimpse at what to expect inside as well as a brief introduction to Chicago, which is excellently expressed by the quote, “…the perfect image of a modern American metropolis.” Anyone who has visited the city would likely agree that the six depicted landmarks are among the most visited and most visible throughout the city. I could probably spend the rest of this article discussing the equally worthy omissions from the final lineup, but in the end, this set is an attractive top-of-the-shelf model, that I’m sure would satisfy tourists and city dwellers alike. I also find the price-point of 40 USD to be a relatively fair value for this set. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy extras as gifts for visiting friends or relatives.

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Inside the box are five separate bags, organized from large to small, with some underlying similarities in color as well as organization in terms of which landmark the parts make up.




Screenshot 2017-07-09 at 1.57.38 PMSpeaking of parts, there are several notable inclusions, as well as introductions, with this set. Making its debut are the Friends lipstick accessory in white, the 1x1x2/3 quadruple convex slope in tan, and the 3×3 plate in black.  Additional noteworthy parts include trans-black plates, a technic ball joint in metallic silver, 3×3 cross plates in black, and 1×1 quarter round tiles in light bluish-gray.

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As is tradition with the LEGO Architecture series, the instruction booklet is prefaced with informative spreads pertaining to the real-world landmarks. As a Chicagoan, I must say that this section does not disappoint! All the images are current and thankfully not outdated in terms of recent skyline density. The text covers the bases for each landmark, while the pictures provide the necessary context with sweeping street level perspectives.

If I had to nitpick with one thing from the informative spreads, it would have to be the passage on what we Chicagoans apparently call “Big Red.”  The official title of the actual building is CNA Center. While the building itself is not a tourist destination, it does, however, command a substantial presence in the skyline view from the east due to its red color. The decision by LEGO to name it “Big Red” seems to make as little sense as if they were to name the John Hancock Center (also listed on the same page) “Big John.” While I’m sure the reason has something to do with licensing, it does strike this Windy City native as strange.

The Build

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The build starts off as these sets usually do; the long base, with various jut-outs and connection points for the buildings on top. Some interesting base integrations here are the handle plates and green plates in the center, the purposes of which will become clear in time. I have to admit, getting to this very early point in the build was mercilessly tedious.  It takes thirty-one steps, placing only one or two plates at a time, to fully realize the un-tiled base.

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The build starts to pick up some much needed pace and interestingness when the tiles and various modified plates start to find their way onto what I’m calling the “street level.” Of particular note here are the 1×4 trans-light blue tiles which cover the green plates in the middle. Having used transparent and opaque LEGO elements for water in my own models, I can very much appreciate the level of aesthetic attention behind successfully balancing these two colors together. Let’s face it, no urban river in any global city is blue, but the green beneath the transparent tiles here provides a surprisingly accurate resemblance to Chicago’s own storied waterway. I suspect many locals will enjoy “dying” their Chicago River’s green for St. Patrick’s Day or blue for the long awaited Cubs World Series win in 2016!

CNA Center

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The first building to be placed is CNA Center, with it’s bulky red façade dominating the leftmost corner of the lineup. The parts usage here, grill tiles placed horizontally on their sides, is not unlike my own interpretation from 2011. You’ll notice that the narrow faces of the building are actually inset by a half stud, rather than flush with the four-stud dimension of the broad faces. Given the LEGO construction of this building, making these two faces flush could have been made possible through the use of brackets on the interior. Due to the availability of red brackets, though, I’m sure experienced builders will have little trouble reworking this if they choose.

Willis Tower

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Next up is Willis Tower (yes, I’m going by official titles here, and not the stubbornness of most locals :P). The tower sits centered on the jut-out portion of the base.  The street level entrance quite cleverly uses round plates sunken one plate into the base in order to convey the famous semi-circular entrance pavilion.


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The construction of the rest of the tower is about as simple as LEGO gets. The variation in setbacks and window plate arrangement is not as repetitive as you may think. One of the things I’ve most admired about the design of Willis Tower has always been its ability to arrange a very simple form in a surprisingly dynamic way. In contrast to the very first architecture set, Willis Tower 21000, this updated rendition is a welcome refresher to the series’ originally opaque model. One thing I love about the recently re-introduced trans-black plates, is how well they pull off the bronze sheen of this building in low lighting conditions. Something tells me this is one of the reasons that LEGO officially designates this color as trans-brown!

DuSable Bridge

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The next steps hop the river with the DuSable Bridge, which carries both levels of Michigan Avenue over the Chicago River. While this is a drastically simplified version of the actual bridge, I am glad that it was included in the final set design. To me, the arrangement of the buildings would not be as strong if the river were not dividing the two sides in the first place. Rivers have often defined the very fabric and growth of cities, and Chicago is no exception in this regard.

Wrigley Building

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As we cross the river, we come to one of the four anchors of the crossing, the Wrigley Building. Speaking from personal experience, the shape of this building is quite difficult to pull off, so I’m glad to see the use of 1×2 grill slopes helping to convey its slender wedge-shape. A 1×1 brick with four side studs stands in for the giralda clock tower. The most interesting parts usage, however, has to be the white lipstick piece which slides into the hollow studs at the top. This is just the beginning of the potential for architectural use of this particular piece. I imagine we’ll be seeing much more of them used decoratively in both official sets and MOCs alike.

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The Wrigley Building is then attached to the base on two of the 2×2 turntable’s studs, as well as the 1×1 plate adjacent to it. I’m not sure if such a 1×3 connection has ever been used before in a set. Either way, it is a very simple and tremendously useful connection.



John Hancock Center

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The most interesting building in terms of construction, has to be the John Hancock Center. Remember those handle plates in the base that I mentioned earlier? Well, those finally come into play here. The first element to be assembled is the internal core, consisting of a few SNOT bricks and yellow 1×1’s. The narrow corners of the building are then attached via clip-handle connection to both the street level base and the top of the core. The broad sides are then assembled using several long plates and grill tiles on the outside. This building is also a 2.0 for the LEGO Architecture series. John Hancock Center 21001 was released alongside the original Willis Tower as the two pilots of the LEGO Architecture line. This new version, in my opinion, is much more successful at conveying the tapered edges of all four faces, especially when considering it is roughly the same scale as the original. It is not, however, without its setbacks (pun intended). As is the difficulty in using long plates topped by tiles, the façade is subject to slight warping, which doesn’t allow the broad faces to fully attach to the core. This issue is only minor and does not compromise the integrity of the overall structure.


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This set is both a worthy addition to skyline sub-theme and a faithful homage to the city of broad shoulders. While some of the construction techniques leave a little to be desired, the overall composition and aesthetic balance successfully captures the likeness of each landmark, all the while providing a highly enjoyable building experience. Chicago will look great on any office desk or household shelf and I would highly recommend you pick one up!

Extra Parts

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Side Views

Thank you!

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