Certified LEGO professional Ryan McNaught at work on the Marina Bay Sands Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

Meet Ryan McNaught

In 2014 Ryan McNaught, Australia's own LEGO® certified professional and one of only 12 worldwide, took on a new challenge. Piecing together 18 iconic scale-model skyscrapers.

Originally shown at the Museum of Sydney in 2014/15, Towers of Tomorrow with LEGO bricks, was a world premiere exhibition that turned eighteen astonishing skyscrapers across Asia and Australia, each ground-breaking buildings in their own right, into an eye-popping line up of towering creations. At the heart of the exhibition was a hands on public construction zone, where brick-wielding visitors added their own ‘towers of tomorrow’ to a sprawling and steadily rising LEGO metropolis. 

To build our eighteen iconic towers we asked Ryan McNaught to come on board. As Australia's very own LEGO certified professional, Ryan's job was to reproduce each tower with as much architectural detail and accuracy as he and his team could muster. Which was plenty. 

Visiting Ryan’s brick-filled workshop in Melbourne, we asked him a few questions about his work as a certified LEGO pro and the enormous job he was asked to do.

computer drafting of Tokyo Skytree tower showing various line drawings of sections, building details, surface texture and horizontal slices for exhibition development
Architectural renderings of the Tokyo Skytree showing exterior building detail and sequence of cross sections. Drawing Kieran Larkin © Sydney Living Museums
 
LEGO certified Professional is a cool title - what does it mean?

RYAN McNAUGHT: Being a LEGO certified professional means I get to build LEGO for a living - that's my job, which is pretty awesome. I'm one of twelve people in the world licensed to work with the LEGO company and their approved partners, like Sydney Living Museums, taking on interesting projects that reflects the LEGO brand and its values and engages and excites the public.

What [did you do] for Sydney Living Museums?

RM: Well, I got a phone call from Kieran Larkin (SLM exhibition designer) about the idea of building 18 iconic buildings, both Asian and Australian, for an exhibition called the Towers of Tomorrow with LEGO bricks, which was pretty cool. They’re all well-known skyscrapers, mostly built in the last few years, although some like the Sydney Tower and Perth’s Central Park, are a bit older. There’s the Tokyo Skytree and Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands which are just finished and pretty much instant classics. Then there’s the mighty Shanghai Tower, the biggest challenge of all to build, which isn’t even completed.

The common thread [was] that they’ve all broken boundaries. Each one is, I won't say a revolution, but a kind of evolution of architecture at the time. The job [involved] not only building the models but making sure they [could] be displayed safely and securely, and [could] come apart in sections at the end. The exhibition [had] a busy public building area, so we [supplied] plenty of loose LEGO as well.

TOWERS OF TOMORROW

TOKYO SKYTREE (634m)
Tokyo Japan

SHANGHAI TOWER (632m)
Shanghai China

TAIPEI 101 (509m)
Taipei Taiwan

INTERNATIONAL COMMERCE TOWER (484m)
Hong Kong China

PETRONAS TOWERS (452m)
Kuala Lumpur Malaysia

MARINA BAY SANDS (200m)
Singapore Malaysia

SYDNEY TOWER (309m)
Sydney Australia

BARANGAROO HOTEL
Sydney Australia

SOUTH BARANGAROO RESIDENTIAL 1 (225m)
Sydney Australia

SOUTH BARANGAROO RESIDENTIAL 2 (190m)
Sydney Australia

SOUTH BARANGAROO RESIDENTIAL 3
Sydney Australia

SOUTH BARANGAROO COMMERCIAL 1 (217m)
Sydney Australia

SOUTH BARANGAROO COMMERCIAL 2 (178m)
Sydney Australia

SOUTH BARANGAROO COMMERCIAL 3 (168m)
Sydney Australia

INFINITY TOWER (249m)
Brisbane Australia

CENTRAL PARK TOWER (249m)
Perth Australia

Q1 (323m)
Gold Coast Australia

EUREKA TOWER (297m)
Melbourne Australia

Ryan's job was to reproduce each tower with as much architectural detail and accuracy as he and his team can muster. Which was plenty...
Tell us about your team

RM: There’s myself and Ashley, my right hand man, plus Mitchel. Then there's a project manager who looks after scheduling and deadlines. Basically, Ash and I divided up the eighteen buildings in a way that [balanced] out the time scale and [made sure we finished] our allocated projects at roughly the same time. 

Ash [tackled] more buildings than me, although my buildings [were] more complex and time-consuming. Ash and I have worked together for a while now and tend to bounce ideas and stuff off each other in a really useful and productive way. Ash is highly skilled in sorting out fine details and mechanics where as I tend to do more sculpting and shaping. And we’ve found that these quite complementary skill-sets usually combine to produce an excellent result.

What do you do that other builders don’t?

RM: Now that's a hard one. I guess the thing for us is that it's not just a handy and colourful toy ‘to build things with'. It's a bit more consuming than that for us. It’s about thinking carefully about engineering and form and delivering an ‘experience’ that’s both imaginative and technically interesting. This means creating something amazing and inspiring, while pushing the possibilities of LEGO.

So, whilst anyone can build an impressive model - and there are certainly better LEGO builders out there than us - what we offer is the full package, plus the wow-factor. We take it to the next level to show that it’s more than a toy. We also discuss, explain and share our work by interacting with the general public and through the large and very enthusiastic network of LEGO fans. You could say we’re all-round LEGO ambassadors.

What makes LEGO so special in your opinion?

RM: It's pan-generational for starters. Most kids now have parents who played with LEGO when they were kids and in some cases their parents' parents played with it when they were young as well. There aren’t many toys that applies to. A lot of parents today want to re-live the experience they had when they were young and, at the same time, see LEGO as a great way to inspire and encourage creativity in their children.


 
close up of lego mat with examples of the official colour range for 2013.
Official LEGO colour range for 2013. Photo Gary Crockett © Sydney Living Museums
Tell us about LEGO colours

RM: LEGO has an active palette of about 50 colours at any one time. When colours get added there's always other colours dropped off. Whether that’s a logistical issue for warehousing and accounting I'm not sure, but that's a basic rule. The plain old yellow brick is actually called ‘bright yellow’ because there's several different colours of yellow - cool yellow, warm yellow, etc. Then you have shades of blue like medium azure and dark azure. There’s a set of pastelly colours like lavender and medium lavender. Then you've got sand colours - sand green, sand blue, which is kind of a duller greyish blue colour. In addition to the solid colours, there’s a whole range of clear and translucent colours for windscreens and headlights and those sorts of things. [One building which we built] for Sydney Living Museums [used] three different kinds of translucent colours - a clear transparent element, a translucent blue colour and a dark translucent brown. 

So it’s a fairly wide, ever changing and always interesting colour range. The colours we’d dearly love to have more of are shades of red. There's not enough red in the palette - plenty of blue and green, but surprisingly not red. A few years back there was an excellent shade called ‘sand red’ which sadly LEGO removed. On the day it comes back, we'll buy a semi-trailer of it, so we'll have plenty of the stuff to go on with forever.

What is your favourite colour?

RM: Every project has different colour needs so it’s hard to say. Ash and I do actually debate our favourite LEGO colours from time to time. ‘Earth blue' is a pretty neat dark blue colour. We both really like that. And earth green - that’s a really dark, deep green – is a colour we're keen on as well. 

For some reason I end up using white more than any other colour. Just why I couldn't say – maybe because it’s more in demand, or practical, or neutral. Maybe it just looks neat. 

Today's a turning point isn't it [in 2014]?

RM: Yeah, today’s a big milestone for the project. [We placed] an order with the company in Denmark to get everything shipped back to Australia on time. There [was] a lot of work behind the scenes to even get [that] far, like testing colours and textures and prototyping sections where we lay out shapes and cross sections. In some cases Ash and I have sat down, sometimes for days, to work out certain building schemes and strategies and do the maths on bricks required. In the last few months [leading up to the exhibition we] probably worked for two to three weeks without even playing with actual bricks. Hundreds of theoretical calculations, endless spreadsheets, research, administration and thinking about architectural plans is really time consuming. 

[The order day was] also a bit of a make or break point. If we [made] a mistake [then] we [wouldn't] have [had] the elements and colours needed to finish the buildings completely. So, like with all large building projects, there [were] a lot of double, and triple, sanity checks. 

a pair of laptops in the workshop of ryan mcnaught calculating lego order for forth coming exhibition towers of tomorrow.
Spreadsheets, number crunching and design work underway in Ryan McNaught's LEGO workshop. Photo Gary Crockett © Sydney Living Museums

The building which we're currently building for Sydney Living Museums are using three different kinds of translucent colours - a clear transparent element, a translucent blue colour and a dark translucent brown.

nothing like this has ever happened in Australia before – we’ve never seen structures of this calibre, quality and subject matter ... that's the first thing. The second thing is an almost timeless fascination in tall structures, particularly awe inspiring, futuristic towers.

How much LEGO are we talking about?

RM: Well, there's the best part of half a million bricks, [used] in the buildings, plus another 200,000 bricks for the kids to play with in the exhibition. 

And then what …? 

RM: All of the bricks [arrived] in separate batches, individually marked for each building, so [we knew] roughly that these bricks are for this particular building and those are for that particular building. [We did] some basic work in setting up projects, laying them out, and then each of us [attacked] them, one building at a time. We [had] already decided which order they [were] built in. Not necessarily easiest to hardest, or hardest to easiest, just an order which we think works and flows and keeps things under control. We also balanced the levels of complexity so we [were] not working on two difficult ones at any one time. We kind of mixed that up. We know that buildings come together at different speeds – some taking a week, others taking a month - so scheduling and project management [were] crucial. All in all there's a process and a plan - nothing manic. 

You can't rush LEGO can you?

RM: That's right. There's no way to speed it up. There's even a point of critical mass where only so many people can work on a project before they start getting in each other’s way. Some buildings can have several people working on them together, but others, like this building (pointing to the partly completed [at that time] Central Park Tower in Perth), are strictly a one-person job. Any more than one, we'd go crazy and get in each other's way. So there's a finite resource to it - not like a real building where you can bring on fifty extra labourers to get it done quicker... 

So finally, what [made] this exhibition amazing? 

RM: There's two reasons why I think this is great: firstly, nothing like this has ever happened in Australia before – we’ve never seen structures of this calibre, quality and subject matter. I think that's the first thing. The second thing is an almost timeless fascination in tall structures, particularly awe-inspiring, futuristic towers. So I think the combination of a popular building material, something that never dates, and riveting architecture. Put those things together and you've got an amazing exhibition.

I guess if these buildings were made of plywood or matchsticks they'd still attract people, but the fact that we [combined] a very cool medium - LEGO - and interesting subject matter: I’d call that a double win.
 

Kieran Larkin and Ryan McNaught with unfinished lego model of Central Park Tower in Ryan's lego making workshop
Kieran Larkin and Ryan McNaught with unfinished Lego model of Perth's Central Park Tower. Photo Gary Crockett © Sydney Living Museums

there's the best part of half a million bricks, that we'll use in the buildings plus another 200,000 bricks, for the kids to play with ...

About the Author

smiling man seated on the back of a boat wearing cap and sunglasses with red ensign flag waving, with blue water and Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background, under blue sky.
Gary Crockett
Curator, Interpretation
Curatorial and Exhibitions
It was the dog‐eared world of Rouse Hill House, back in 1991, that inspired Gary Crockett to become a curator.
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