After eight months' work—often interrupted by other projects, like the ABS Builder Challenge and some commission builds—I'm extremely proud to finally present my biggest creation to date: this replica of the Château de Chenonceau, a famous castle in the Loire Valley of France.
I visited Chenonceau in September of 2017, and as soon as I saw it, I knew that I had to build it in LEGO! The château's elegant sixteenth-century architecture, the way the structure spans the Cher River, and its storied past (Chenonceau is also known as the "Château des Dames," having been inhabited by notable noblewomen across its life, including Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de' Medici) captured my imagination. Almost as soon as I got back from France, I began work on what I originally expected to be a much smaller build... In the end, my Château de Chenonceau measures more than 12" (31cm) tall, 17" (44cm) deep, and 40" (102cm) wide!
Read on to learn more about the build process, design, and photography of this immense build!
Step one of manifesting Chenonceau in bricks was gathering reference materials. I plastered my build space walls with images of the château taken from as many angles as I could find. I even set my desktop image to be a useful picture of the castle!
I originally set out to make my replica of Chenonceau maybe about 2 feet (60cm) long, all told. I also originally planned to include the large conically-roofed tower on the bank closest to the main entrance in my model. However, as I began my build (and as the scale kept getting progressively larger), and I realized how many parts I'd need to order to complete even just the main part of the château, the tower got nixed pretty early.
The factor that eventually dictated this model's size more than anything was, actually, a "nice parts usage." While designing the round corner towers on the château, I realized that their corbelled bases could be perfectly achieved by using a certain Technic wheel. This, combined with how many other circular/arc bricks LEGO has released for a 4x4 circle, meant that those towers had to be 4x4 for maximum ease of design and aesthetic benefit. The rest of the build wound up taking its size cues from those signature towers.
I began design with the bridge. I came up with the idea to design the "bridge" (the long bit with those arches) and the "château" (the rectangular section with pronged front and four towers) as modular halves almost at once. This made design far easier to accomplish, although I had to routinely check that the two halves would still snap together as I made adjustments to them here and there. Based on the size of the château, I had to reconfigure and enlarge the bridge probably a half-dozen times until it was perfect.
My replica of Chenonceau was designed by hand, but in small chunks. Having a limited store of parts, I could not physically build the whole castle at once until I had ordered new bricks... and I couldn't order the right new bricks until I had designed the whole castle. I got around this catch-22 using Bricklink's digital design program, Stud.io. In Stud.io, I would input whichever chunk I had just hand-designed (for example, "entryway bastion," "bridge attachment point," or "prong foundation") into its own digital file, and then combined these digitally.
I designed the whole "stone-built" part of the castle this way, chunk by chunk, and then amassed and ordered all the bricks I would need to complete everything but the castle's roof. I left the roof digitally undesigned because of the myriad complex angles I knew I'd have to figure out, which would have been far more difficult for me to design without physical brick in my hands. Once I had ordered bricks and assembled the pre-designed portions of Chenonceau, the roof took about another two weeks' building to get perfect.
Design & Techniques
I already talked about the corbelled tower-bottoms, a part usage I'm particularly proud of (other favorites: minifigure syringes for ornamentation over the roof windows, windsurfing masts as tower spires, and life preservers as round windows), but I made several other design and technique choices on this model which I can discuss a little below. Even though much of this model is built with standard bricks and plates, some sections were devilishly tricky to figure out.
White was a clear choice for most of the stonework; however, as the foundations of the castle are more weathered and, in the case of the château portion, older, I opted for light grey in those areas. The line of dark tan at the waterline reflects the effect of changing tides on the castle; I chose this color to ground and age the castle (light grey and white alone felt a little too sterile).
I used rainbow colors for structural bricks which aren't visible from the outside of the model, or through any of the well-lit windows. This saved me a lot of money when it came time to order tons of white bricks.
I achieved the geometrical shaping of the roof using inverted plates. I couldn't use brick-built slopes, because they didn't cover the angles I needed; a studs-up, tiled-over construction would have looked smooth in places, but would have become awkward in the various crevices and vertices. I liked the texture, uniformity, and flatness of the bottoms of the plates the most, and I think from a distance it really helps the roof feel like a different material than the rest of the château.
Those white-latticed windows use a pretty special technique: two 1x2 panels held together at their skinny sides by 2-wide, inverted studded surfaces allow for the creation of a perfect cross shape when combined with a standing tile beneath them. I discovered that panels without rounded corners have much better grip when using this unorthodox technique, so I had to be very specific about which variants I ordered.
My best solution for incorporating slitted windows into the round towers was using two 1x1 round bricks instead of one "macaroni" brick. This motif, while not one of my favorite aspects of the build, contributes a suggestion of a window. I also used brown headlight bricks with their lateral anti-studs out as "windows," and even just brown tiles and black bricks on other occasions!
Photographing my replica of Chenonceau was a pleasure and a challenge. Due to the scale of the build, I knew I couldn't use my normal set-up with a photo tent. Instead, I built a temporary, specialized studio in my apartment kitchen. I found the extra-large sheet of glass I ended up using as the "water" here on the street, and took it home. I laid this sheet down against a wall, and masked that wall with pieces of blue poster board. These two physical props—glass and backdrop—got me much of what I wanted from my finished photos even before post-production. I highly recommend trying to replicate your final desired environment as closely as possible just using physical techniques, first. Factors like the influence of a blue sky on a light-colored building are hard to create from scratch.
I lit the château using two large mirrored lamps with diffusers over them, and splashed the backdrop a bit using two clip lights with daylight bulbs. I wanted to be sure the model would stand out from its backdrop, both for aesthetic and eventual editing reasons; adding a subtle back light helped with this.
After uploading the pictures, I cropped them, smeared out the seams between the poster boards as well the seams' reflections, and did some color correction to bring down the saturation of the blue backdrop, edging it closer to a credible sky-blue. Then the real fun began. First, I isolated the castle and the sky to their own layer, with a duplicate of the full image underneath to manipulate as the "water." I generated some clouds up in the sky and, where these would be visible, mirrored them onto the water. Once the water layer was composited, I motion-blurred it and covered it with a barely opaque greenish film. Finally, using a displacement map I had already prepared, I merged the water layer onto the map to manifest the broken, rippled reflection you see in the finished pictures.
In the top-view images, I decided that the original horizon line looked phoney, so I removed it, replacing all that "sky" with water and using a displacement map with different perspective. These were the most labor-intensive images to complete.
Thanks for reading! If you have any other questions about the model, feel free to leave them in the comments below.