I admit that my interest in the LEGO Architecture series always has been rather limited. In my small flat I don’t have enough room to keep the models around in a nice, representative way (which is one of the main points with this series) and there are some other things that always bugged me about it.
For my taste, due to the small scale, the models are way too dependent on the intrinsic shapes of the elements they are made of representing the details – hollowed out parts stand in for windows, studs act as anything from decorative stucco elements to battlements and so on. Also the parts-to-price-ratio isn’t that great a lot of times. One tends to pay quite a bit for lots of 1×1 sized and other similarly small-ish elements. This often comes down to the fact that the series doesn’t appear to be much a hot seller, so there aren’t always the best discounts plus strangely enough even the vendors that carry the product line do not necessarily have every model. Therefore chasing for a specific set can become a trying and expensive experience.
With the first wave of this years new models several of these things seem to have changed to a degree, mostly for the better. The models in question, the Great Wall of China (21041) discussed in this review and the Statue of Liberty (21042), are designed to larger scales which in turn means that more emphasis is put on actually building the shapes, rather than relying on the optical illusions the bricks themselves can deliver. Additionally more focus is put on representing more details in a naturalistic way instead of going all too abstract. This is no doubt to better appeal to a mass market, which is not a bad thing because more sales mean more competitive pricing and better availability. So I decided to give it a try, after all.
To keep things simple and cost-effective I started out with the Great Wall set, which with its 550 pieces can be had for 35 Euros. This seems reasonable and fair, in particular since it contains a good number of the dark green parts. Thinking strategically, those could always be used to simulate roofs and other bits once the model was disassembled again, which in my case was sooner than I had thought. More on the reasons why further down.
Though it’s called The Great Wall, it of course isn’t necessarily just one big, contiguous wall. With parts of a system of walls having been built, torn down and rebuilt over the centuries, even scientists can’t quite agree on some things. There are also considerable gaps and huge variations in style across different sections and regions. As such, any model can only represent either a specific tiny fragment of the whole shebang, or as LEGO did, a generalized abstraction of the overall concepts, based on the parts that are visible and accessible today.
With The Great Wall spanning thousands of kilometers and covering different landscapes and climate zones, color choices could have ranged from rusty desert colors to olive greens for a dry steppe to greys and even whites for different types of mountain ranges. As such settling on a Dark Green seems only fair and sensible. Whether you want to interpret it as a surrounding dense forest is up to you. It’s just as valid as viewing at as a reference to dark green Jade, as I prefer to think of it. Either way, it provides a nice contrast to the sandstone colored wall itself while at the same time being a calm, neutral color.
Given that the target demographic for these types of model will mostly people who may be looking for a decorative showcase item without spending too much time assembling the set, the build can be a bit challenging for them if they have no prior LEGO experience. One of the issues is that the Dark Green parts are many times a bit hard to discern on the black page background of the instruction booklet. Not in the way that you can’t see them at all, but rather where they go, sometimes behind other elements, and how some of the pieces need to be oriented correctly.
The other issue is that the actual wall components are quite literally plugged on to the landscape once that part is done. As a result, at times the build doesn’t seem to make sense and you don’t seem to make much progress. Additionally, and that is my first big criticism, it results in this odd building technique, where the wall is relatively loosely plugged onto some elements that were put into place long before you even knew what they were good for.
That wouldn’t be so bad if there were a) more of those connections and b) the wall in itself would be stable, but this is not the case, either. Instead the wall segments and watch towers are built in a kinda sideways technique onto hinges and tilted plates and have to carry themselves like the vertebrae of your spinal column. This is further exacerbated by the small scale not allowing much room to fit extra elements into the gaps.
You are basically are building a bunch of 4x4x4 cubes and the slopes that are supposed to act as wedges to fixate the angles dangle on only one stud on a modified brick protruding sideways. Not great, especially since it means that depending on how accurately you align those items, each and every model will look slightly differently plus if you accidentally touch those elements after you are finished, you can throw things out of whack again.
One thing I almost consider an epic fail is the all too obvious forced symmetry. First there’s the much-marketed ability to endlessly connect multiple models, which totally does not work for me. You just need to look at the marketing photos to see how ridiculous it actually looks. The thing is that it would be totally awesome – if only they had bothered to come up with a second model for variation. In the current state, however, I doubt that it looks compelling enough to get people to buy two or three of those sets just to construct a longer wall.
Aside from the above, even a solitary model shows severe signs of a weird constructivist symmetry disorder. Even the mountain parts look almost identical on both sides and this becomes painfully apparent in the top-down view. Granted, it’s probably rarely going to be viewed this way, but regardless…
And with that we arrive at what probably can be the only conclusion: How you rate this model really, really, really depends massively on how close you get to it. I’m more than willing to believe that it looks okay in some big corporate conference room on one of those huge tables or in a cleverly lit glass showcase against a dark wall, but 50 cm away on your computer desk – perhaps not so much.
From a near distance the shortcomings in the design become obvious and I simply found it too frustrating to look at all those cracks and wonky connections. This isn’t helped by some white bricks used on the internal support structure peeking through on some edges – yes, white bricks indeed. At least that could have been easily avoided by substituting them with Dark Green ones as well, a few of which are already included. why not go the full mile? Hard to understand the reasoning here.
Once more this is a bit of a letdown for me. I’m not saying it couldn’t work for other people, but I was too teed off by the sloppy building and the resulting cracked-up look, hence as I’m writing this the parts constituting the model already rest in a box waiting to be used for something else. I strongly believe that with a bit more effort (and more bricks) this could have been much better.
Making the model a bit larger would in particular have allowed to employ more traditional vertical building techniques on the wall itself. that alone would have eliminated some of the more apparent issues. And of course offering a genuine alternative B-model to build an extended wall would have done a lot. In fact I even might try that one day if I can manage to purchase two or three additional sets for a good price. The overall idea still has its appeal, LEGO just didn’t get it right…