DSM in Legos: Local architect designs, builds Des Moines skyline Lego set

As a kid, building with Legos was an influence on Joe Feldmann’s later decision to go into architecture.

“As an architect, there is an assumption that I would like Legos, and you would be right. From a very young age, I found my creative abilities thrive when I was building models,” Feldmann wrote in a recent LinkedIn post.

Now an associate principal at OPN Architects, Feldmann uses Legos as a creative outlet. Working in architecture, the skyline sets are some of his favorites, he told the Business Record.

He said hearing the recent announcement of Iowa’s first Lego store coming to the Jordan Creek Town Center this year was his sign to design a Des Moines skyline set and showcase some of the capital city’s architecture.

His affinity for Legos had been building to this point, you might say.

Featured in Feldmann’s Des Moines skyline set are:

  • Krause Gateway Center
  • Pappajohn Sculpture Park
  • 801 Grand
  • Ruan Center
  • Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge with the Hub
  • Raccoon and Des Moines rivers with the new ICON whitewater design and Lauridsen Skatepark
  • Iowa State Capitol

View a full gallery of pictures of the skyline here.

Feldmann shares more about how and why he made the Lego set below. His emailed responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

What was your inspiration to depict Des Moines’ skyline in Legos?
I’ve been collecting all the architectural skyline sets over the years, and I have all of them. When the Des Moines Lego store was announced last fall, I was inspired to show off our skyline. I personally believe that Des Moines has one of the best skylines in the Midwest, and we are blessed with some fantastic architecture. The biggest problem was narrowing down the list. Des Moines is a city full of pride. We often find ourselves on the top of an “America’s best fill-in-the-blank.” I personally feel that Iowans have found a way to be proud and humble at the same time. We don’t often take the time to show off what we have, but I wanted to take a moment to highlight elements of our city.

When did you start designing and building the skyline?
I started designing it over Thanksgiving last year. Lego has a great program called Studio that allows you to design anything you want with pieces that Lego makes. The design was always, and still is, a work in progress. I tested multiple designs only to find out that certain Lego pieces cannot be found. I finalized my initial design and ordered the individual bricks direct from Lego.com’s Pick a Brick. It takes about a month to get the specialty pieces, so I was not able to start the build until January. The build itself took a couple hours. The total set is 1,234 pieces (I worked out the count). The size of the skyline set is larger than the standard. Keeping things small is harder than making them big.

What are the differences between designing Lego structures and buildings?
Lego requires creativity using the pieces available to you, which isn’t that dissimilar from architecture. Buildings are just more complicated, but the design process can be very similar. The biggest difference centers on the fact that buildings have a purpose, a function that needs to be designed around. Lego doesn’t have a “program” — it is complete freedom. Buildings require us to marry that creativity and art into something that our communities will use, love and maintain.

Have you looked into what it takes to get Lego to pick up your design?
Yes, it is currently on Lego Ideas. It would need to gather a ton of support — 10,000 supporters — to be reviewed by Lego officially. Honestly, it wasn’t my goal. I just took an opportunity to show off our city in a way I knew how. It doesn’t fit the standard Lego Architecture skyline profile and that’s OK. I also wanted to make it so it could be sectioned off. You could just do an 801 Grand model, or a Krause Gateway, or just a State Capitol.

How did Legos contribute to your interest in architecture?
Huge, but it wasn’t just Lego. I loved building models, drawing and using tools for makeshift tree houses and forts. I use Lego today as an outlet. It’s a way to quietly shut my brain off and focus on something simple.

What is a favorite building or something you admire most about Des Moines’ architecture?
There is often an assumption that Krause Gateway might be my favorite because I had the opportunity to work on that project and see it come to life. That wouldn’t be wrong, but it is not the only answer. I can pick multiple buildings for a variety of reasons. I tend to appreciate buildings for their purpose and impact. Each building is unique in that way. The ones that strive to elevate the human experience are my favorites.

What does innovation in architecture and building look like to you?
Let me pull out my crystal ball. Technology and building materials will always change, innovation happens within the design process. I am excited to have amazing new tools that allow us to create better, more sustainable buildings. The major innovation that I see is creating buildings with a lower carbon footprint. Finding out how to do more with less.