Today, the real Colosseum, completed in 80 AD, is surprisingly intact. A sizable portion of the outer wall collapsed in the 14th century, although it did not compromise the remaining structure. And Rome has undertaken multiple restoration and repair efforts for centuries; the most recent one began in 2013 and took three years. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world, attracting over 6 million visitors each year.
We Build the LEGO Roman Colosseum
LEGO packaged the Colosseum in a massive black box. Inside are four smaller boxes, numbered I, II, III, and IIII (sic), each of which contain their own instruction booklet. It’s a great way to approach this build: as four individual experiences that create a summative whole.
The LEGO Colosseum is mounted on a black and grey elliptical platform, which comprises the first quarter of the build. Prior, massive builds, like the LEGO Fairground rides, were built on multiple LEGO plates, which made them difficult to move and prone to falling apart. The Colosseum, on the other hand, is built on a mesh of LEGO Technic pieces, which gives the final model both solidness and stability. Next, you build a number of right-angled wedge pieces, which attach to the sides of the base and give it a smooth, rounded finish.
After building the platform, you build the Colosseum–starting with the Hypogeum, the building’s underground area filled with twisting corridors. In ancient times, this was the backstage area for the larger amphitheater; it’s where the animals and gladiators would be held prior to the fights; wooden elevators could transport them above ground in theatrical fashion. The LEGO designers portrayed the ruined appearance of the Hypogeum by flipping the bricks upside down, showing us their bottom tubes rather than their signature studs. It’s a small, but effective subversion of expectations; any LEGO builder typically aspires to hide the seams and imperfections of their work. But in this model, the visibility of the bricks’ undersides–not to mention the bricks’ crooked arrangement–is a clever reference to the actual Colosseum’s ruined state.
Then, you build the Colosseum’s interior wall. Think of the LEGO Colosseum as a series of individual cake slices, which you bind together with multiple balls and sockets before mounting them onto the platform. You slowly work clockwise around the model, eventually reaching the part of the outer wall that’s still intact.
The real Colosseum has three types of columns on its outer wall: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The designers created corresponding LEGO interpretations for each of them; they used pre-existing bricks to convey the Ionic columns’ curled, scroll-like appearance When you build each wall, you’re continually alternating traditional LEGO bricks with studs; the resulting shadows evoke the real structure’s pock-marked appearance–created when robbers tore the bronze clamps from the stonework.
The bulk of the LEGO Colosseum’s build is repetitive. To be fair, no “slice” is exactly alike; likewise, each corresponding part of the real Colosseum has crumbled differently. But they’re similar enough that by the end of the build, the foundation for each slice becomes rote; it’s the surface details that have the more interesting variations. Then again, the entire point of the real Colosseum was its symmetry; you ought to know what you’re getting yourself into if you’re building this.
The solution is to space the build out. Once you finish one bag, take a break–for several hours or even a day–before resuming with the next bag. To attempt this build in a handful of marathon sessions would quickly turn from play into labor.
The last step is to build additional, enhancing details, such as additional archways, a piece of the floor that’s still intact, and the jagged rim of the interior wall. The latter is accurate enough to real life that when I looked at photos of the Colosseum after building its LEGO counterpart, I recognized individual imperfections.
Some additional, important notes: The LEGO Colosseum contains no mini-figures; this is LEGO at its most “adult” and self-serious.
The model is self-reinforcing. When you bind all the slices together, the Colosseum’s own elliptical shape will push back on itself, keeping it from falling apart. The final build is sturdy, but until every piece is in place, it’s fragile. You do not want to get into a situation where you bind two slices together, find some small detail that you missed, and need to take them apart. When you connect the slices, push firmly but evenly, lest they come apart from the pressure.
The LEGO Colosseum does not take any shortcuts; there are few “long” pieces that would simplify the build process or make it more efficient. Instead, the entire build is composed of small bricks– many of them three studs wide or less–that build to a larger, cumulative effect. Assembling 9036 pieces feels like assembling 9036 pieces. No doubt, this was the point–to drive home what a physical undertaking it must have been to build the real building in ancient times. The micro process of assembling this model gives it incredible detail. Despite the monochromatic appearance, it is fascinating to look at, from every angle.
As stated previously, it is difficult to understate the presence and size of this model; the promotional photos don’t do it justice, because there’s very few images that demonstrate its comparative size. Here is an attempt: I took the photo below, which shows the LEGO Colosseum alongside my six-year-old son. It comfortably occupies half of my dining room table.
When I visited Rome in 2008, it struck me how the Colosseum was integrated into the modern city that surrounded it. Cars drove past it. Roman citizens, desensitized by seeing it constantly, paid no mind to the close-to-2000-year-old structure in their midst. The LEGO Colosseum takes those modern trappings away. There are brick representations of cars, trees and bushes surrounding the building, but they are dwarfed by the main attraction rather than co-existing alongside it. This is the Roman Colosseum as it exists in our minds, and bringing it to life was well worth the effort placed into it.
The LEGO Colosseum, Set #10276, was created by LEGO designers Jamie Berard (Lead) and Rok Zgalin Kobe. It’s composed of 9036 pieces and retails for $549.99.
Kevin Wong is a LEGO aficionado. Talk about your favorite sets with him on Twitter at @kevinjameswong.