Ryan McNaught is a certified LEGO professional. Yes that is a thing, and there are only 14 in the entire world, including McNaught. That’s it. McNaught was working as the chief information officer for a media company when the first iPad was released. Once he got his hands on one, he hacked into LEGO’s software and updated his childhood memories by toying with robotic functions for the LEGO pieces he had at hand.
McNaught, who’s Australian, loved LEGOs as a kid but, as many of us do, lost interest as he progressed into his teenage years. It wasn’t until he had kids in his early 30s that he even touched a LEGO again. Shortly after he began his iPad LEGO tinkering, the corporation sent him a cease-and-desist letter, then quickly realized the functionality of his program, eventually offering him a job with the company. Since then, he’s taken his passion for building to the next level, even earning the nickname “The Brickman.”
Towers of Tomorrow, McNaught’s LEGO exhibit that opened at Discovery Place on June 1 and will run through September, is centered around the architectural types and engineering of some of the world’s most interesting and creative buildings and skyscrapers, from New York’s Empire State Building to China’s Shanghai Tower.
About six years ago, while McNaught was working on the exhibit, his collection of architecture books went from one or two to taking up nearly half of his collection. He lived in that architecture world for 12 months, researching and talking to architects for the accuracy that he needed to complete the exhibit, which took him 2,400 hours and more than 577,000 bricks. The models on display are all exactly 1:200 scale of the original buildings.
Surprisingly, it is not for a love of architecture for McNaught, but “awesomeness,” he said. This is just one of five McNaught exhibitions currently traveling the world. His favorite one in terms of size would be Wonders of the World, but in terms of the awesomeness factor it is an exhibit simply titled That’s Awesome, made up of rocket ships, life-sized cars and others things that make McNaught say, “That’s awesome!”
McNaught said focus and motivation are key when taking on a project that’s more than 100 hours in the making. McNaught leads a team of seven, so how do they agree on the playlist during all those hours of work?
“We have a radio roster so every day we get to choose what we listen to as we go,” he said, “so music varies from death metal some days to classical to ’80s music — because I’m an ’80s refugee.”
But don’t get it Twisted Sister, he credits the ability to stay on task and remain creative to the diversity of his team and all their different styles. He likes to keep the “cool” stuff for last — the golden bees on the bottom of the Eureka Tower in Melbourne, for example.
McNaught hopes that his exhibitions will enlighten children to get creative with their LEGO bricks at home and instead of making “Star Wars or whatever,” to start engaging with architectural themes and other ideas for the future.
“’Hey dad, let’s build a house that we’re gonna have in 25 years time and it’s gonna have, you know, trees living in it and stuff like that,'” McNaught imagined one inspired child saying. “So hopefully that’s the other sort of side that gets them thinking a little bit about LEGO in a different way. If they can come to something and not know they’re learning, and I can get a bit of education myself, that’s a big bonus.”
One of the most intriguing displays in Towers of Tomorrow is the Marina Bay Sands Resort building from Singapore. McNaught said he and his wife saved up for a couple of years to spend New Year’s Eve at the resort, but has since learned it’s a rookie mistake to stay inside the hotel itself.
“All the fireworks and all the party happens on the thing and you get a better view not being on it,” McNaught recalled. “You get a better view being around it, staying at the other hotels, and of course we were on it and the fireworks were going off and the lasers were going off all around us but you don’t see any of it ‘cause you’re on the thing.”
He’s got a pretty good view of it now, though.
Towers of Tomorrow will be on display from June through September 2. Follow @discoveryplace on Instagram for weekly clues to find lost LEGO bricks that will be hidden around Charlotte every Friday. Ticket prices: Adults $22, Children $18, Seniors $20, Members $3, Welcome $4. Learn more at discoveryplace.org.