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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Notre-Dame Rises Again … in Lego


Arnaud Gaudillat, a history teacher in France, recalled bursting into tears as he watched television coverage of flames tearing through the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in 2019. “We couldn’t do anything but just watch it burn,” he said.

Now, five years later, as hundreds of architects, engineers and metalworkers race to finish rebuilding the cathedral’s roof coverings and electrical cabling by the end of the year, Mr. Gaudillat will not be sitting on the sidelines. He will be constructing his own Notre-Dame. One made out of 4,383 Lego pieces.

Lego, the biggest toy company in the world, on Saturday released a model of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, complete with rose windows, bell towers and a central spire surrounded by statues. The set, designed for adults, will be part of the company’s collection of sets based on architectural feats, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and his Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

“I just want to have this beautiful thing in my house,” Mr. Gaudillat, 25, said of the Notre-Dame set. He started building intricate Lego sets a few years ago and became hooked.

The Danish toy company is best known for its colorful play sets for children, including its best-selling animal sets, train sets and Harry Potter-themed sets. But since 2020, when Lego started a new category of toys marketed for people ages 18 and over, the company has doubled the size of its range targeting adults. About 20 percent of the company’s sets for sale are intended for adult fans of Legos, known as AFOLs.

The Notre-Dame set, which sells for $229.99, is gaining attention for its design and because it is the first religious structure that the company has released in 67 years, according to Lego’s official historian.

Thomas Lajon, a screenwriter and director in Paris, said he wanted to buy the Lego Notre-Dame because of how important the real cathedral, a jewel of medieval Gothic architecture, is to him.

“It’s a moment to reconnect with the cathedral by going there or rebuilding it with Lego bricks,” said Mr. Lajon, 28, who designed the Orient Express Lego model through a company program that solicits design concepts from fan bases.

Construction of the (real) Cathedral of Notre-Dame began in 1163, during the reign of King Louis VII, and was completed in 1345. During the French Revolution in the 1790s, a mob decapitated statues of kings at Notre-Dame, and the cathedral fell into a state of disrepair.

Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame,” highlighted the state of the cathedral and spurred momentum for its renovation, which took place from 1844 to 1864. The architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc designed and added a spire.

Genevieve Capa Cruz, the head of product for adults at the Lego Group, said in an interview that the company’s base of adult Lego fans had grown over recent years, particularly among what she described as adults with high-pressure jobs who see building Legos as a way to unwind.

The company is trying to reframe playing with Legos as “a legitimate leisure-time activity” for adults, she said. “The same way you would invest time and money in making ceramic bowls.”

Themes that resonate with adults include architecture, flowers and movies, such “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars,” she said. Adult Lego fans are important for the company not only because their sets are more expensive — the Star Wars Millennium Falcon model costs $850 — but because they tend to also buy Lego gifts for children, she said.

Lego reported a 4 percent increase in sales last year, even as other toy companies like Mattel and Hasbro saw a decline. Against that backdrop, Lego plans to open at least 100 more stores in the next 10 months, Chief Executive Niels B. Christiansen said in an interview with Yahoo Finance.

Sonia Hudson, an intensive care doctor at a hospital outside London, said she plans on buying two of the Notre-Dame Lego sets. She’ll build one to display in her living room, and the other she’ll buy for its bricks, to add to her collection of about 500,000, which she uses to create her own designs.

“I don’t see Lego as a toy,” said Dr. Hudson, 50. “I see it as a building medium. I could build with wood, I could build with clay, but if I got it wrong I’d have to start all over again.”

Rok Zgalin Kobe, the Lego designer who created the Notre-Dame set, said he designed the cathedral so that users would have to construct it in the same stages in which the real cathedral was built, rather than from the bottom up, tracing nearly 900 years of history.

“Once you complete it, you can actually look through the front door,” he said. “You get the sense of the space, the sense of majesty that comes with it.”

The process of designing the set involved experimentation, requiring daily trips to a room within the company’s headquarters in Billund, Denmark, that contains versions of all Lego bricks available for creating new projects.

Like Ms. Hudson, the doctor who uses Legos to unwind, Gordon Finlay, 62, picked Legos back up again after not playing with them for a long stretch. He and other Lego fans refer to that period, between when people stop playing with Legos as children and when they rediscover them as adults, as “the dark age.”

Mr. Finlay, who lives outside Glasgow, said he plans to build Lego’s Notre-Dame next month, just before 15 million tourists are expected to visit Paris for the Olympics.

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