Sébastien Cuomo didn't expect the 3000+ notifications that animated his phone when he posted a photo of his latest LEGO build on Facebook. Although countless iconic buildings have been replicated in plastic and in miniature thanks to the versatility of LEGO, comparatively few landscapes have been built brick by brick. For Sébastien, the Mont Blanc Massif provided the perfect architectural challenge: 20km x 16km of glaciers, granite, meadows, forests and urban landscapes were topographed layer by layer to create a 160 x 128 'stud' model built more-or-less to scale. While many pined for the outdoors during lockdown, Sébastien built his very own mountains in miniature at home.
Having chosen an area of 4km x 4km on a map, Sébastien scaled it down to twenty 32 x 32 stud baseplates. 1x1 LEGO tiles each represented a dimension of 125m x 125m x 50m. He created special maps for all twenty baseplates, drawing a grid to be filled with the 1x1 tiles. Then, Sébastien deciphered the contour lines and built the landscape relief up in layers using a variety of online mapping tools and photographs to assist him. On the top layer, he assigned colours to the different features of the landscape with the help of a grid and colour key. The project took him roughly ten months to complete.
Sébastien is 47 years old and lives in Faverges, France. He works as a service technician on the roads in the Haute-Savoie department. In his spare time, he likes to build LEGO models, which he shares with an online LEGO community under the alias 'Legolas'. His recent Mont Blanc Massif creation is an example of what is known in the LEGO world as a 'MOC' - My Own Creation, as opposed to a LEGO set with building instructions.
A mountain lover since childhood, Sébastien enjoys hiking in the French Alps and exploring in the Bauges, Beaufortain and Vanoise massifs. 'I was attracted to mountain landscapes from a very young age,' Sébastien says. 'I love stories of famous mountaineers, such as Scrambles Amongst the Alps by Edward Whymper or The Mountains of My Life by Walter Bonatti.'
LEGO was a parallel childhood passion, and although he outgrew his early playsets, Sébastien rediscovered LEGO in 2009, when he became aware of a new product line by the brand geared towards adults. 'I was amazed at that time by sets like Cafe Corner or Green Grocer,' he explains. 'Today, LEGO has further developed its focus towards the adult market with more technical sets, which are more advanced and more expensive and far away from the classic "Police" and "Fireman" sets of my childhood. So it's hard for me not to fall for sets like Old Fishing Store or Treehouse.'
But like many LEGO creators, Sébastien finds most satisfaction in designing and building his own models. 'The main interest of LEGO is in being able to imagine and make your own creations,' he says. 'You just have to look at dedicated blogs to be blown away by the variety and complexity of what can be created. Some approaches are almost artistic!'
Sébastien had been planning his own major work of art for several years. 'I had the idea to create a relief map, and of course, there couldn't be a better subject than this legendary massif,' he says. The project brought together his desire to create with LEGO, his passion for mountain landscapes and his interest in topographical maps. 'I thought it was an original idea and a great challenge. I had been following the creations of the last few years and I'd never noticed this type of construction.' Sébastien knew it would be a long-term project. 'So I talked to my girlfriend about it before I started and she encouraged me,' he adds.
The most difficult aspect was managing his stock of parts, as he was conscious of running out of bricks and tiles. Over the years, Sébastien has collected a huge variety of bricks (more than 100,000) from new and used LEGO sets. To fill in the gaps -a lack of white and grey bricks in particular - he ordered supplementary parts via Bricklink, an online LEGO brick market.
Sébastien primarily used the aerial views in Google Earth 2D to define the textures and colours. Once finished, he used Google Earth 3D for photo comparisons.
Despite his meticulous calculations and adjustments, Sébastien has no clue how many individual pieces he used in the construction: 'I have no idea, but jokingly I would say "Not enough for me and too many for my girlfriend!"
The model is made entirely of LEGO parts, with some hollow spaces created by ladders and similar larger, space-making pieces to provide internal structure. So far, there have been no "rockfalls" or catastrophic sérac collapses. 'I have not had any unpleasant surprises when moving the "baseplate" around in my flat,' Sébastien says. 'It remains to be seen whether it will withstand car transport if I ever put it on display!'
The glaciers won't melt, either, unless Sébastien chooses to gradually deconstruct them. The snout of the vanishing Mer de Glace - which is melting at the rate of around 40 metres per year and has lost 80 metres in depth over the last 20 years - is represented by single white 1x1 tiles surrounded by a striking area of grey moraine. People have asked Sébastien if he will adjust the glaciers over the years. 'It all depends on how long this creation will last before it is finally dismantled,' he says. 'The glaciers are based on the map I used from altituderando.com. I don't know which year the photos were taken in.'
To the picky onlooker, the lack of a hollowed-out Tunnel du Mont Blanc could raise questions. 'At this scale (a 1x1 flat Lego tile represents a square of 125m x 125m), it is not possible to see this detail,' Sébastien explains. 'I wasn't looking to accurately represent buildings or roads, I was really thinking of texture. You don't necessarily see all the details in the photos, but if you look hard enough, you will find the golf course in Chamonix or some mountain lakes.'
One of the biggest challenges was knowing when to stop and declare it finished. 'Once the whole thing was built, I did some retouching based on photos,' Sébastien says. 'There are always corrections to be made!' The attention to detail is evident on some of the massif's most iconic peaks; the angled tooth of the Dent du Géant, or the Aiguille du Midi's needle and summit antenna piercing the skyline.
Upon sharing photos of the model online, the influx of likes, comments, shares and messages took Sébastien by surprise. 'When I decided to share this project, I thought that it could appeal to mountain lovers,' he says. 'I am amazed by the reaction of people on Facebook, with nearly 3000 notifications and 400 shares accumulated on several groups dedicated to the mountains. I have never had so much feedback on any of my LEGO creations. It's beyond what I had imagined!'
Sébastien doesn't plan to send photos to LEGO HQ, but he has shared his construction on the Brickpirate (France) and Eurobricks (international) forums to gather the opinions of his fellow Lego fans. This wasn't the first mountain-themed MOC designed by Sébastien, though. Several years ago, he built a replica of Switzerland's Piz Nair cable car arrival station.
As for his next big LEGO project, Sébastien has nothing planned as yet. Perhaps he's had his fill of LEGO for a while. 'I'm going to devote myself to my other hobbies like electric guitar,' he says. 'Of course I have some ideas in mind for future projects...one day.'
Although Sébastien has never exhibited his models before, he is considering showcasing his Mont-Blanc massif. 'Why not at the Fana'briques exhibition - the biggest LEGO exhibition in France - or perhaps at the Musée des Guides in Courmayeur?' he suggests.
Overall, though, he's content with having had the opportunity to explore Europe's highest mountains and their fragile glaciers, albeit from a distance and on a smaller scale.
'This project has greatly improved my knowledge of the massif,' he says. 'In my own way, I travelled for several months across this magnificent place.'
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