Brick Fanatics reports on a very special event at Facebook’s headquarters in California, celebrating 60 years of the LEGO brick in style
Working on LEGO projects, such as Brick Fanatics, is good fun and rarely entails a dull week. There might be busy moments when lots of news comes through, but some building will be involved at some point too. Other weeks, there is lots – and lots, and lots – of building to do, with an interview thrown in for good measure.
One particular week though, an interesting e-mail came in from the team at Facebook. To celebrate 60 years of the LEGO brick and the communities that evolve around it, the social media giant wanted to bring some of the most dedicated fans from around the world together for two days of building and networking. After a few discussions with the social media giant, it was clear that this was an event that Brick Fanatics would love to be a part of.
So, please allow Editor Graham Hancock to talk through the few days he and fellow brick fanatic Rob Paton experienced out in San Francisco.
Saturday, April 14 2018
I meet up with Rob at Heathrow for our transatlantic flight and am relieved to find that we are not sitting together for the 10-and-a-half-hour trip, as he does not realise that Pirates is the best LEGO theme, so explaining that to him for the duration may have become slightly tedious.
After a peaceful journey, we touch down at San Francisco International Airport and find our luggage without incident – both Rob and I have had the sense to bring an additional, light – some might almost say empty – large suitcase. You never know when you might need to bring a large quantity of LEGO home. Well, actually, you do – it’s at the end of every trip.
A 30-minute Uber ride then takes us to the recently opened hotel we are staying at, located near the Facebook campus at Menlo Park. On the highway to the hotel are buildings emblazoned with the biggest names in tech – Google, Amazon, Rakuten – a clear sign that we are in the heart of one of the world’s fastest growing industries.
After a quick freshen up, we do what so many Brits do as soon as they land in the USA. With a rare opportunity in an American state that stands as one of the cultural centres of the world, we go to a bunch of shops toy hunting. In typical tourist fashion we marvel at grape soda and are bamboozled by the similar but definitely different self-checkouts.
Toys R Us is the most interesting stop on our journey, as we see first-hand how the US liquidation is going. In the UK at the point we left, very little stock was left in Toys R Us stores, and indeed whilst we are away some of the stores close down. Here in the States, though, the process is just beginning, with a mere 5% or 10% off recommended retail prices . Unlike the British public, who were filling shopping trolleys on the basis of 10% off, we overhear US shoppers commenting that the discount is not tempting enough.
With two more days until the LEGO Jurassic World launch, it is unsurprising to find the sets on shelves in Target and Walmart – fellow fans in the USA often share pictures of early releases that they have found here. Our reviews of the sets would be going live on the Monday, and, having built almost the entire range in the days preceding this trip, seeing the sets so soon again had poor Rob suffering flashbacks.
The Solo: A Star Wars Story toy launch is also happening on this day, but, is it really? Because no store we visit seems to be making much noise about it. It might be the most lacklustre Star Wars toy launch since the 2012 release of The Phantom Menace 3D.
Sunday, April 15 2018
Once the obligatory American breakfast has been enjoyed, we blast through some work as quickly as possible. The Facebook event begins on Monday, so today is our opportunity to explore the local area, and we head to San Jose for a wander around the town centre. San Jose is home to uniquely colourful tigers and a useful mural that proclaims ‘Welcome to San Jose’. Welcome indeed. We find the locals we meet, who may or may not be known as San Josians, to be very hospitable.
After a genuine bit of what could be deemed exploring, our pop culture and consumerism needs take us to Westfield Valley Fair mall. The LEGO Store was not the only reason to visit, but it certainly helped the shopping centre stand out on the map. We check out the new Solo: A Star Wars Story sets properly for the first time, and on the recommendation of Daniel Konstanski’s review, Rob takes advantage of the current promotion – and the favourable exchange rate – to pick up 75211 Imperial TIE Fighter.
Evening finds us back at our hotel, where a mixer has been arranged by our hosts at Facebook. The organised team of Stuart and Peter greet us, make sure a drink is in hand and go about introducing us to the 18 other LEGO fans we will be spending the next two days with.
Magnus Hindsberger and Steven Bean have travelled the furthest, having flown from Australia to be here. The pair are part of the Brisbane LUG, BrisBricks. Jonathan Jehander and Rikard Platus are app developers, having dreamt up Brixtar, so it makes perfect sense that they would find themselves in such a tech savvy location. Meanwhile, Andrew Becraft and Dave Schefcik, of the LEGO fan blog Brothers Brick, are also here mingling with fellow AFOLs.
Claus Vagnsø Elgaard Andersen from the Facebook group Legorummet has arrived – some of the groups are quite mysterious to us, as they are closed to the public, but the next two days will give us the opportunity to find out more. Steven Smyth and Steve Peterson from the LEGO Star Wars Fans Facebook group are here, hopefully having brought the Force with them.
Two LEGO fans from Brikkelauget, a Facebook page and forum, have also made the trip – Are Heiseldal and Merete Nilssen, as have René Hoffman and Esben Kolind from the online community Byggepladen. LEGO Byttekort is represented by Jan Jensen, whilst Chris Oliver Veibel Sorensen is here with Sandra West from LEGOBYGGERNE. Appropriately, this all makes Denmark the best represented nation, with the Dutch LEGO Addiction Facebook group rounding out the party having dispatched Erwin Govaerts and Michael Pattirhu to the golden state.
Over a never ending meal and a few local beverages is an evening of discussion often focused on LEGO Star Wars, a subject that conveniently we can talk about forever. But perhaps even more interesting is understanding how Steve and Steve grow their online community. Coming from the background of a website, it is fascinating to hear about their different experience with the brick and the community that it connects.
Monday, April 16 2018
If you are not a morning person, it is rare that you are up early enough to go for a swim. As soon as I grab my towel, the bright Monday morning sunshine outside the window is replaced with rain, and the plan is thwarted. Whilst enjoying breakfast with Rob and Brikkelauget’s Are, we receive word that the weather has also affected Facebook’s intentions, as the planned outdoor activity is being transferred indoors, delaying our start time by an hour.
So, come 10.30am and a shuttle bus arrives to transfer us from our hotel to Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters. Once inside the poster adorned reception on campus, we each check in as per the security process. Thankfully, as soon as a lanyard and badge is in hand, it is time to check out some LEGO bricks.
Led to the room that has been prepared for the activity, we are introduced to LEGO Master Model Maker Chris Steininger, who briefs everyone on the event before handing each participant a LEGO Mixel. Explaining that half a million bricks have arrived from the LEGO Group’s US headquarters in Enfield, Chris reveals the plan for each of us 20 attendees to use these elements to build something to represent our respective communities.
As the shutter raises on the room, a true mountain of LEGO sets is revealed. It is the kind of pile that causes the jaws of excitable children – or even, excitable adults – to drop. While each build table is supplied with baseplates and buckets of basic bricks, these sets are on offer to provide a better selection of elements and allow us to get hold of specific pieces. Once composed, the first order of business is for Rob and I to select some sets from the pile – 70626 Dawn of Iron Doom and 10257 Carousel both end up at the Brick Fanatics build station.
The two LEGO Star Wars Steves are once again impeded by the distracting presence of Brick Fanatics, as we set about on our shared build station ripping open LEGO sets with reckless abandon and tipping out bags of bricks all over the table. As we knock pieces on to the floor [Rob: this was all Graham], we discuss the notion of actually doing some building. Rob begins looking for strange parts that might inspire him, while I obsess over colour co-ordination. The level of banter was high, with the classic ‘can you pass a LEGO brick’ only getting funnier through repetition [Rob: it wasn’t funny the first time].
Across the room, the team of international AFOLs quickly fall silent as they efficiently sort parts. The only sound to be heard is the rustling of bricks, as Facebook’s support staff on hand probably begin to wonder what to do for the next few hours. With their favoured creative medium in front of them, the dedicated fans have switched into build mode, deeply immersed in the task at hand. Many miles from home, they are undertaking the activity that they would be doing were they there – but with access to many, many more pieces.
To break the near silence, Master Model Maker Chris calls us all over to give a presentation on what his job entails and how he and his team create the large scale builds that many of us will recognise. Based at the LEGO Group’s US headquarters, Chris does not design sets but instead works on big build projects for promotional purposes, runs build activities for families at events and acts as an ambassador for the LEGO brand. Following a presentation on his laptop, he runs through some of the projects that he has worked on and reveals a little about how massive brick statues come together.
One thing that could interrupt building was the concept of lunch. This is worth talking about. Our hosts give us a choice of Mexican, Italian or burger-based food and split us into three groups before leading us led us to the main thoroughfare at Menlo Park. Designed in collaboration with two imagineers who worked on the Disney theme parks is a boulevard that runs through the centre of the campus and really illustrates just how big the location is. Themed restaurants are available to employees with no charge for meals, and the same courtesy is extended to the assembled LEGO aficionados. Brick Fanatics has been pulled in by the promise of Teddy’s Nacho Royale – while we were in the US it seemed only right to indulge in some tex-mex, so burritos it is. We walk in, take our place in the queue, before customising our wraps with all sorts of fillings and sauces. It is somewhat bemusing to then be handed these great creations without any need to pay. Marvellous too.
Thankfully there is not too much post-lunch fatigue, as back in the build room the builders’ creations are really coming together. People are even reaching the point where they need to check for pieces on the other tables, curious as to whether another build station offers the elusive element they are looking for. Intricate, detailed models are nearing completion, with Rob’s monster fully realised and unleashed [Rob: and Graham’s secret box-shaped box, with boxy features, remaining under wraps].
As the rustling of bricks continues into mid-afternoon, the film crew on hand for the duration of the event begins the process of interviewing the AFOLs, and I am first up, fielding a few questions about Brick Fanatics, LEGO fans in general and specifically our community goals. It is nice at events like this to be asked about such things, as it provides an opportunity to reflect on what we are doing – it always gives me a nice jolt of pride when I think about what our talented team has been achieving recently.
One item on the schedule that piques our curiosity is a visit to the ice cream shop. This proves as literal as could be expected, as our group is directed to an on-campus ice cream parlour, decked out in the appropriate old timey style. Inside, there is the option of enjoying a treat from the bakery or indulging in an ice cream, or for those who were not still full from lunch, both. Caramel Truffle Swirls proves to be the magic flavour, and it is only enhanced when smothered in hot fudge sauce. With such temptation available every day, Facebook employees must need some real willpower to stay healthy.
Towards the end of the afternoon, Chris calls the building to a halt. The completed or in-progress builds are put to one side, as there is a challenge in mind. In teams of four, the LEGO fans are given a handful of minutes to build the tallest possible brick tower, using only traditional bricks. It is great fun frantically putting bricks together and then attempting to combine the sections, although sadly our effort was not in contention when it came time to deciding a winner.
It wasn’t just about height, though – there is an extra wrinkle to the challenge, as the towers have to be moved from the table they were built on to a judging table, and each team member has to pass them along to the next. Proving their stability, René, Magnus, Andrew and Dave are the winners this time, and each member of the team is able to select a LEGO set from the mountain as a prize.
Before the day at Facebook wraps up, everyone picks up their build and carries it outside to be placed in Hacker Square, giving their creation pride of place in the centre of campus. A roped off area has been dedicated to all of the builds to come together over the two days.
Laura, another of our Facebook hosts, then ensures that we are getting the right shuttle bus back to the hotel – to save employees having to drive in, these shuttle buses are an alternative way to get to work and home again each day.
A quick shirt-switch later and it is time for our next social. Our destination is a Mexican restaurant named Reposado, which is certainly recommended if you are ever in the Palo Alto area. Every AFOL at the event attended, with a nice long table to accommodate our group. Over nachos and endless starters, the LEGO conversation continues. Plenty of local beers and cocktails are ordered, as the night rolls on, with some excellent mains helping to stimulate the conversation.
Once the meal is over it is time for an Uber ride back to the hotel, where a spot of work needs to be done over a drink in the bar. The life of a brick fanatic never slows down…
Tuesday, April 17 2018
Another day, another American breakfast. It is a little slower coming today thanks to pretty much everyone arriving for breakfast at the same time. But the spicy sausages certainly go down well when they do arrive.
While the weather on the previous day was not adverse by British standards, it was enough to force the activity indoors. Thankfully, Tuesday has the sun shining over California as the Ramones promised, meaning that we are able to build outdoors as originally intended. Despite some preferring building indoors due to the affect that a breeze might have on their models, when we arrive by shuttle bus at Menlo Park campus we are led to the central square for some open air building. Well, almost – gazebos have been erected so that we don’t all burn up.
To kick the day off with some high energy, our LEGO expert leader Chris has a speed build in store. In teams of five, we are tasked with building a selected set as quickly as possible, with two teams building NINJAGO 70626 Dawn of Iron Doom and two teams building 60046 Helicopter Surveillance. The winning team for each set were then to go head to head and build The LEGO Batman Movie 70916 The Batwing. The heats saw Chris, Steve, Magnus, Are and I; and Steve, Sandra, Jan, Esben and Dave successful, leading to us getting our hands on the black and very dark grey bricks in the final. Thanks to some quality teamwork, with each person building sections and then supporting those still building before bringing it all together, our team was victorious in that contest.
With the competitive element over, things return to a more relaxed style of building. Chris emphasises that in order to create an impressive display, builders should look to construct in as large a scale as possible rather than focussing on intricacy. The bricks from yesterday reappear, and the recognisable sound of rustling bricks is also back.
In-between dipping into building, Rob and I switch into journalism mode, conducting interviews and ensuring we have all of the photographs we need. During our adventures around the campus we make a point of studying the snack zone, where employees – and guests – are welcome to help themselves to food and drinks. More temptation. Checking out the treats that are not available in the UK is fun, and Cherry Dr Pepper certainly helps to fill me with energy.
Some of the building has become more collaborative in this stretch, with builders taking usually elusive white baseplates and all contributing to the same model. Chris himself has gotten stuck in, adding bricks at a quick pace to construct impressive – if sometimes slightly fragile – towers.
In the next phase of our mission to sample all of the delights that Facebook has to offer, we visit the burger bar for lunch. Filling out the little docket and then slipping it into the basket gets your order in, before waiting for a fresh burger and fries. A generous toppings bar is just irresistible, and it is only for the sake of this travelogue style feature that I insist on tasting as many as possible. While the food was good, it was the thick chocolate milkshake that is the standout. If you are ever very specifically in the Menlo Park area, on Facebook’s campus, you must sample it.
The great thing about LEGO building is that it appeals to everyone, as fans well know. Put a few bricks on a table or desk and even a non-LEGO fan will struggle to not fiddle with them. Have half a million bricks lying around, and the appeal is even greater. As our group continue to build, we are joined by Facebook employees who are taking some downtime, enticed by the temptation to put some bricks together. It is great to see the joy that people have upon getting hold of all of these elements.
A highlight during the afternoon is a campus tour, led by a designated guide. Our group is given a walk around the campus, with the various nods to Facebook’s roots highlighted as we follow our expert around Menlo Park. The copious food options are highlighted, with our guide informing us that new employees put on the ‘Facebook 15’, a variation on the ‘Freshman 15’.
Other services highlighted included the employee store, a book exchange and an arcade. The arcade had been decked out in a funky retro style, with classic machines filling the space. It is entirely maintained by employees, who own the games that are housed within it. With other companies such as Google also offering complementary food and other perks, Facebook has a keen focus on keeping employees happy.
The tour concludes with an excellent photo opportunity alongside the main Facebook sign that is visible from the highway, so our entire group pose for a few snaps. While we almost manage to lose our tour at this point [Rob: some shots just need that extra bit of care], we are able to relocate them and sadly without anything happening that would serve as an amusing anecdote.
An opportunity is provided to visit the staff shop and pick up a souvenir, with a variety of t-shirts, hoodies and stationery emblazoned with the Facebook logo to choose from. Following that, it is time for some more scoops of ice cream that are then buried beneath copious toppings.
To cap off the two days of building, Chris holds one more build challenge – this time asking teams to construct bridges that could go from one table to another, holding their own weight. VIP guests from the LEGO Group and Facebook have arrived to see the day close, as the construction of the bridges is completed. Different methods are employed, to varying degrees of success, and with everyone willing one another to succeed, the competitive element seems lost – no-one minds who won, as everyone is having a fantastic time.
As our build time draws to a close, the builders carry over their models to the roped off area in Hacker Square. Peter from Facebook, and Chris from the LEGO Group, offer a few words of thanks to draw the event to a close. Some celebratory final photographs are taken of the entire group, who have now spent two days building and socialising in this unique location.
With the social media leader in the midst of the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica story leading to a broader public debate about the protection of data, it would have been easy, even understandable, for Facebook to cancel such an event. Brick Fanatics is very grateful to the Facebook team – in particular Peter, Stuart and Laura as well as Michela – who have made sure that our visit went smoothly and was immensely enjoyable. To spend this time in the company of other LEGO fans, acknowledging 60 years of the classic brick, has been a treat indeed and certainly one for the memory book.
Despite the quantity of food that we have eaten during the day, Rob and I are worryingly in tune with the one thing on our minds. Tacos…
Wednesday, April 18 2018
With an early afternoon flight back, we have the opportunity to do a little adventuring on the final day of our trip. After a prolonged breakfast that eventually involved food, we check out of the hotel and hop in an Uber.
Our destination is San Francisco, almost an hour’s drive north from Menlo Park. When we arrive in the famous city, our tourist radar takes us straight to the Golden Gate Bridge. After a few snaps, a stroll around and a stop in the gift shop, we head to the well-known Pier 39. There we check out a few gift shops, the Open Heart sculpture and visit the famous sea lions, which are sea lions, no matter how many times Rob misidentifies them as seals [Rob: I’ve changed that on my Facebook album now. No-one noticed].
Seeking a suitable final US lunch, we visit Appleby’s where we indulge in some truly messy and therefore truly tasty ribs, while reminiscing about our whirlwind getaway. With a seat by the window we can enjoy some nice views of San Francisco bay. On our way to the airport, we pick up some Ghiradelli’s chocolate to butter up envious family back home.
On that note, all that remained was an 11-hour flight away from this LEGO bubble in which we had been existing back to the UK and the real world.
Brick Fanatics would like to thank Facebook for hosting this event, the LEGO Group for collaborating on this event and our fellow participants who were a delight to spend time in the company of. Oh, and all of the Uber drivers who had to listen to us talk geek in the back of their cars.