Inside Job: LEGO Master Model Builder

Time Out's John Ovans tries bricking it as a LEGO Master

The truth is that I was never much into LEGO as a kid. I was (and still am) a diehard Sylvanian Families fanboi – and fuzzy felt woodland creatures and tiny plastic brick people just never looked right together at a tea party.

It turns out, however, that my LEGO experience has come later in life – first, thanks to a team-building workshop that Time Out staff recently undertook which used LEGO to explore company dynamics, and now as an apprentice to Daiyuan Xu, Shanghai’s first and only LEGO Master Model Builder. The Master Builders are the ones responsible for the really big pieces that make the LEGO theme parks such a sight to behold – the six-metre-tall giraffe outside the LEGOLAND Discovery Centre in Putuo district, for example, which took four people 450 hours and 42,828 blocks to build.

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Unlike me, Xu has been playing with LEGO for almost 20 years. It seems, in fact, that LEGO is a completely immersive lifestyle for him. At home, he’s got 400 drawers full of the stuff, and incredibly, he’s even managed to find a girlfriend who plays with it too. Since most modern relationships revolve around watching Game of Thrones together I find this rather aspirational and resolve to introduce such an activity with my other half, once I’ve found such a person. Alternatively, I could just build them out of LEGO.

When Xu heard there was a LEGOLAND Discovery Centre opening in Shanghai, he immediately applied for the role of Master Model Builder – there can only be one per centre – and was entered into a rigorous selection process. This culminated in a day-long public competition in which the final 20 participants went head-to-head over three rounds which required them to build pieces according to certain themes. Those that were deemed successful then qualified for a final interview.

Xu’s office is probably a bit like his house – a library of LEGO-filled drawers, with blocks and parts separated by colour and type. There’s a desk littered with various projects: a collection of numerous Dorys from Pixar’s Finding Nemo, a Captain America statue, and an awesome sword that I brandish menacingly at the children staring at us through the office window. I’m looking forward to getting stuck in and building something spectacular – but according to Xu, I’d better hold my LEGO horses.

‘There’s no way to actually teach you to become a LEGO Master,’ he reveals, to my disappointment. ‘If you want to build something, you need to know all the LEGO bricks first.’ He has me study the stock for ten minutes, before seating me to recreate a Dory fish, which is simple enough to copy. I tell Xu I want to come up with something myself – a lion, specifically, because I like lions – and he is resistant, telling me there is no point. ‘The logic we LEGO builders have is to not create whatever we want to create, but to look at what LEGO blocks we have and create from there,’ he states.

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‘If you really want to create a lion, you may have to buy over 100 different LEGO pieces online.’ Eventually after much wheedling, I convince him to let me make a lion, and I grab handfuls of yellow and brown bricks from the drawers. I end up making something resembling a pancake with a brown shelf attached to it, and am about to concede defeat to Xu’s theory when he decides to build his own, which does in fact resemble a lion.

This cruel life lesson ends as children begin pouring into the adjacent room. The LEGO Master leads four daily workshops to show youngsters the joys of LEGO building. Kids are distributed with mini packs of LEGO and take their seats at desks arranged in a circle around a central table where Xu sits with a camera hanging over the table, so the children can see in detail on-screen what he’s doing. I’m informed I’m not allowed to lead this workshop myself, on account of being about as capable with LEGO as an under-five.

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When the workshop is over, we go out into the Discovery Centre to visit a spectacular LEGO recreation of the Shanghai skyline. Every morning, Xu must scrutinise the model for anything that may have fallen over, or needs a clean. I remove my shoes and enter Shanghai with a new perspective – that of a great big stomping Godzilla. I try my best to avoid any mass destruction as I hoover the buildings, but it’s hard as mini LEGO cars whizz around my feet. However, the model is fantastic and I want to live in it forever.

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Feeling like Godzilla is an addictive sensation and I tell Xu that I should like to become a LEGO Master one day. He scoffs and says because I have not played with LEGO forever, I will ‘never’ become one. It seems I’ll have to wait for a Sylvanian Familes Discovery Centre.