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Lego Marina City: IIT Student Rocco Buttliere Shrinks Landmark Towers

By Lizzie Schiffman Tufano | March 27, 2013 6:22am | Updated on March 27, 2013 10:36am

THE LOOP — Reduced to a fraction of their actual size, the building components of Chicago's iconic Marina City towers might be about the size of Lego pieces.

So the mixed-use residential and commercial building at 300 N. State St. was a perfect candidate for first-year architecture student Rocco Buttliere's latest project: a precise replica of the towers and neighboring buildings to add to his collection of landmark reconstructions.

Buttliere has been recreating famous buildings from around the world since he first started tinkering with the popular toy in 2009. He's since built 25 precise replicas, 13 of them Chicago buildings.

"Usually the buildings I do are well-photographed," he said. "It does take research ... and then usually around three or four months [of assembly], for a typical model, from when I think of doing it and start the designing to when I finally am able to order the pieces and start building."

For Chicago buildings, the Illinois Institute of Technology freshman usually walks the perimeter, snapping photographs of every angle and visualizing how the structure can be translated to his standard 1:650 scale.

Buttliere said he's wanted to tackle Marina City for a long time, but for months he was stumped on a Lego piece that could mimic the semicircular balconies that wrap around Bertrand Goldberg's towers.

Six months ago, Buttliere had a lightbulb moment: He stumbled upon a piece called a 1-by-8 technic plate with rounded ends while perusing the aftermarket Lego sale sites he regularly skims for new components.

"The piece came out in 1982, but the fact that I just realized how to use it recently is why I was finally able to do this model, even though I've wanted to for so long," he said.

In January he visited the neighborhood he hoped to shrink, and the model was completed on Valentine's Day.

But Marina City's honeycomb towers weren't the only challenge that forced Buttliere to get creative on this project.

After some trial and error, he found that the legs from an R2D2 figurine created for a "Star Wars" set were the perfect shape and size for some puzzling stilts on the exterior of Hotel Sax.

For the House of Blues' fluid-looking rooftop, Buttliere stretched the fabric cape from a Lego knight over tiny scaffolding on the building's interior.

Buttliere's Lego recreations span the globe, including structures from Shanghai, New York, Dubai, and even a Lego Eiffel Tower. But the Buffalo Grove native said he'd be happiest if his future career designing full-size buildings keeps him in Chicago.

"I'd love to end up here," Buttliere said. "I've been here my whole life, and I love it."