Notre-Dame rises again… in Lego

Arnaud Gaudillat, a history professor in France, remembers bursting into tears when he saw television coverage of the flames that destroyed Notre-Dame Cathedral 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 roofs and electrical wiring by the end of the year, Gaudillat will not be left on the sidelines. He will build his own Notre-Dame. One made with 4,383 Lego pieces.

Lego, the world’s biggest toy company, on Saturday released a model of Notre-Dame Cathedral, complete with rose windows, steeples and a central tower 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,” Gaudillat, 25, said of the Notre-Dame setting. He started building complex Lego sets a few years ago and was hooked.

The Danish toy company is best known for its colorful sets for kids, including its best-selling animal sets, train sets, and Harry Potter-themed sets. But since 2020, when Lego launched a new category of toys marketed to over-18s, the company has doubled the size of its range aimed at adults. About 20% of the company’s sets for sale are aimed at adult Lego fans, known as AFOLs.

The Notre-Dame set, sold for US$229.99, has been gaining attention for its design and for being the first religious structure the company has launched in 67 years, according to Lego’s official historian.

A Lego model of a church from 1957.Credit…Lego

Thomas Lajon, a writer 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, was to him.

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

Construction of the (real) Notre-Dame Cathedral 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 in Notre-Dame, and the cathedral fell into a state of abandonment.

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

Genevieve Capa Cruz, head of adult product at the Lego Group, said in an interview that the company’s adult Lego fan base has grown in recent years, especially among those she described as adults in high-pressure jobs who see building sets. Lego as a way to relax.

The company is trying to reframe gaming with Lego sets as “a legitimate leisure 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 as “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars,” she said. Adult Lego fans are important to the company not just because adult sets are more expensive — the Star Wars Millennium Falcon model costs $850 — but because they tend to buy Lego gifts for children as well, she said.

Lego reported a 4% increase in sales last year, even as other toy companies like Mattel and Hasbro reported a decline. In this context, Lego plans to open at least 100 more stores in the next 10 months, said CEO Niels B. Christiansen in an interview with Yahoo Finance.

Sonia Hudson, an intensive care doctor at a hospital outside London, said she planned to buy two Notre-Dame Lego sets. She will build one to display in her living room and buy the other for her bricks, to add to her collection of about 500,000 pieces, 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 means of construction. I could build with wood, I could build with clay, but if I made a mistake I would 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 build it in the same stages as the real cathedral was built, rather than from the bottom up, tracing almost 900 years of history.

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

The scenario design process involved experimentation, requiring daily trips to a room at the company’s headquarters in Billund, Denmark, which contains versions of all available Lego blocks for creating new projects.

Just like Dr Hudson, the doctor who often plays with Lego sets to relax, Gordon Finlay, 62, picked up the bricks again after not playing with them for a long time. He and other Lego fans refer to this period, between the time people stopped playing with Lego sets as children and the time they rediscovered them as adults, as “the dark ages.”

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