Interview: Deep Shen

Deep Shen specializes in “micro” Art Deco skyscrapers. While the scale is too small for Minifigures the outstanding models feature quite a lot of bricks. This is ArchBrick’s third conversation style interview and ninth overall. You can checkout Deep’s Flickr account here.

Deep, thanks for taking part in the ArchBrick Daily interview. Your LEGO New York skyscrapers are very well done. Could you tell us how you started building your models?

Thank you for your kind words. I really appreciate your support and everything you do to highlight architecture-themed LEGO builds from around the world. I got started in this hobby almost on a whim. Many AFOLs talk about their “dark ages” before something reignited their childhood passion for LEGO. In my case, I was completely in the dark about LEGO until my daughter started playing with it a few years ago. I grew up in India and had never even heard about LEGO as a child. Once I moved to the US I did come across LEGO in various stores but I always dismissed it as a children’s toy – that is, until I had a child of my own.

My daughter had received a LEGO Creative Bucket as a birthday gift and after playing with it for a few weeks, she got bored of building the same stuff over and over again (using the instructions that came with the set). She wanted me to help her build a “really tall building” and the one that immediately came to my mind was the Empire State Building. Being an engineer I wasn’t content to randomly stack some bricks and call it the Empire State Building. I wanted to help her build something that had the right proportions and at least looked like the real thing. A few internet searches opened my eyes to the world of AFOLs, all the wonderful things people had built with LEGO and of course the creative possibilities that this medium has to offer.

The first model of the Empire State Building I came across was the one built by Sean Kenney (I believe this was displayed for a while in the gift shop of the actual building). There was something about it that made me want to build a version of my own. I could not believe that something so amazing could be created using the same LEGO bricks that my daughter was playing with (we would need a lot more of them, of course). At the same time it looked like something that would not be too difficult for us to build if we put our minds to it. I immediately started making sketches of the floorplan of the building, mapping the various dimensions (measured on Google Earth) to LEGO studs and figuring out all the pieces I would need. I may have gotten a little carried away since then, but less than 2 years later, I have models built (with my daughter’s help) of 4 different NYC skyscrapers (using a total of over 65,000 bricks).

You mention that you sketch floor plans of your builds. Do you also use any software for designing?

I have not used software to design any of my builds so far. My day job involves working on a computer all day and so I didn’t want to use a computer for this hobby as well. It was also a lot more intuitive for me to design my builds the old fashioned way using paper and pencil. All of the models I have done so far are those of Art Deco skyscrapers from the early Depression era. Buildings of this period all had a distinctive tapered shape with tiered setbacks designed to conform to the zoning regulations that were in effect back then. In order to design a LEGO model of one of these buildings I had to first study it using Google Earth to figure out all the different sections that would make up my model. I then created a master floorplan showing a view from the top of all the sections overlaid on each other. Then for each section I created sketches of the odd and even layers of LEGO bricks showing how the bricks would be laid out (including transparent bricks for windows). For something like 70 Pine Street with it’s complex scheme of setbacks this worked out to over 20 distinct sections and quite a thick stack of sketches! But when I had my sketches done, all I needed was some simple math to figure out how many parts of each type I needed to order from Bricklink.

I realize that using LDD or something like that would have made this a lot less tedious and time consuming. But with so much automation in every aspect of our daily life, it felt oddly relaxing to do something the hard way for a change. The only downside to this design approach that I could see, is that I could not visualize how something would look until I actually built it.

Ah yes, I also tend to shy away from digital designing when possible. It’s much easier for me to conceptualize with physical LEGO. Have you considered designing skyscrapers with different architectural styles?

Yes, I would definitely like to try my hand at skyscrapers (or even regular buildings) with other architectural styles. After I completed my model of the Chrysler Building (my third build) I wanted to work on something totally different – maybe the Brooklyn Bridge or a bigger (than the official set) version of the Taj Mahal. But I found that these projects were either too ambitious (in terms of size and piece count) or that my skills as a LEGO builder were not yet up to snuff to be able to handle them. Ultimately I returned to my comfort zone to do another Art Deco skyscraper (40 Wall Street – this one does have a neo-Gothic influence as well). Although the 4 skyscrapers I have done so far belong to the same architectural style (Art Deco), each one has presented it’s own unique challenge that I had to overcome (the roof sections of the Chrysler Building and 40 Wall Street were especially tricky to pull off).

As for other skyscrapers I could do, I am not a huge fan of modern skyscrapers with their blocky shapes and extensive glass facades. I would rather work on something like the Woolworth Building (which will be quite a challenge to do at the 1/200 scale I typically use) or the Manhattan Municipal Building (I was in New York just the other day marveling at the wealth of older skyscrapers and buildings that it has – any of which could be the subject for my next LEGO model).

Earlier you mentioned Sean Kenney as a source of inspiration. Have any other builders inspired your work?

Yes, after I came across Sean Kenney’s model of the Empire State Building, I spent quite a bit of time scouring the web for architecture-themed LEGO builds that other people had done. In the process I discovered a lot of other great builders whose work continues to inspire me to this day. Among them are Rocco Buttliere (he usually builds to a much smaller scale than I am used to, but I admire the ingenuity that goes into his work), Greg DiNapoli (whose incredible model of One WTC was the first skyscraper model I had seen in real life),

Jim Garrett (I still can’t imagine all the work that must have gone into his amazing minifig-scale models of the buildings of Detroit), Jonathan Lopes (who has built an impressive array of models based on NYC landmarks) and Spencer Rezkalla (who is most well known for his 1/650 scale models but has also done some larger models – including a great model of 70 Pine Street). 

Rocco Buttliere and Spencer Rezkalla are also two of my favorite builders. Can you discuss any upcoming projects or ideas?

I don’t have any specific projects in the pipeline at the moment. In the short term I am working on making improvements to the 4 models I already have. When I first built each of these models I had to omit a number of details for time or logistical reasons or just because I could not figure out how to implement them. Now that my skills as a builder have grown, I have the opportunity to revisit each of my models and add the details that I missed the first time around.

In the longer term I would definitely like to take a crack at doing a model of the Woolworth Building and maybe 20 Exchange Place. I also have some preliminary ideas for original designs that are inspired by the Art Deco builds I have done but not based on any actual buildings.

We all cannot wait until your next project, whether it’s a replica or original design. Do you have any tips for aspiring LEGO architecture builders?

I still consider myself a novice builder and I think the 4 builds I have done have barely scratched the surface of everything that is possible with architecture builds using LEGO. However, these are some of the things that helped me with my builds – Google Earth is invaluable for anyone looking to create models of real buildings or structures, Bricklink is a great place to browse the catalog of LEGO parts and colors that are available and to get an idea of how much they cost.

It is also important to figure out the scale you will be using and the limitations and trade-offs that are associated with it. The scale determines how the dimensions of the real building get mapped to LEGO, what details from the real building you can represent in your model (and which ones you will need to skip) and of course the size and piece count of your model (not to mention the cost – unless you choose to only build it digitally). Happy Building!

Do you have any closing thoughts? 

Earlier I had mentioned by name some of the builders who have inspired me. I am sure there are countless others that I may not be able to name right now, but whose work I discovered thanks to your blog (which remains an indispensable resource for LEGO architecture enthusiasts). I would like to thank you again for this opportunity!

You can checkout Deep Shen’s Flickr account here.

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