Building blocks of life are Legos

NEW YORK — NEW YORK - There are dreams. And there are dreams. Nathan Sawaya has had both, some attainable, others seemingly impossible.

Sawaya has dreamed of building wonderfully intricate structures out of Lego blocks, and then he has done so. A life-size Han Solo, frozen in carbonite. The Major League Baseball logo. The pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.


All materialized in Sawaya's mind at one time or another, and now all exist as Lego realities, thanks to an imaginative 30-year-old Manhattanite with a child's heart.

Yet Sawaya also dreamed, knowing that the ultimate, ultimate, ultimate dream - the one that would take his life to a level of euphoria - was unattainable. That dream involves leaving corporate law behind, escaping the madness of his existence for a life of, simply put, bliss.


Like Juan Ponce de Leon's 490 years earlier, Sawaya's secret fantasy focused on a paradise in a land far away.

Ponce de Leon desired the Fountain of Youth.

Sawaya desired Legoland.

The theme park is real, on a 128-acre plot 30 miles north of San Diego. (There are three others, in Europe, but dreams go only so far.) There, Lego diehards roam a world of intricate statues and colorful figurines, all made from the tiny plastic blocks.

"It's a mecca," says Sawaya, who visited a couple of years ago. "The greatest thing I've ever seen."

His fantasy was to spend his mornings, noons and nights behind the magic wall in a corner of Legoland where six men and women, known in the park as "master builders," are paid to build and build and build and build. That's their job description: Build - with Legos.

"Forever, that's all I've wanted," says Sawaya. He is in his midtown apartment. It is a Monday night, and for the previous 10 hours, he sat behind a desk at Winston & Strawn LLP, a law firm that focuses on mergers and acquisitions. It has been his place of employment for more than five years; a nice office to work in with nice pay and nice perks in a nice life.

But it is not Nathan Sawaya. Not his soul.


In one of his apartment's two bedrooms, Sawaya keeps enough Legos to fill the innards of a whale. In one corner, 18 bins hold thousands upon thousands of bricks, sorted by color. In another, there's a bookshelf lined with tiny Lego men and women. Perhaps the room's most striking feature (besides the imposing 3-by-6-foot Han Solo statue) is a startling self-portrait, entirely of black-and-white bricks and complete with scars, dimples and shadows.

Three months ago, while scanning, a site for Lego hobbyists, Sawaya came across something that made him gasp: Legoland was holding a national contest to find the country's best adult Lego builder. The prize was a job at the theme park as the seventh master builder.

"I immediately called my girlfriend and said, 'Here's my dream, and it can really come true!'" he says. "I felt like crying, because it was so absolutely unbelievable."

Ever since his boyhood in Veneta, Ore. (population 2,755), Sawaya has been hooked on Legos. It started on Christmas 1978, when 5-year-old Nathan was given his first set of bricks. Before long, he turned the family's living room into what became known as "Lego City," an ever-changing town of miniature firehouses, restaurants, mansions, skyscrapers, train stations and lakes.

As a corporate lawyer, Sawaya takes home a six-figure salary. Should he become a master builder, he will start at $13 an hour. Such details didn't really enter his mind on Nov. 14, when he showed up at the Toys 'R' Us in Times Square to take part in the first regional round of the competition. With 45 minutes on the clock, contestants were given a random theme - SPACE! - asked to sort through 200 pieces and build.

Sawaya constructed a rabbit in an astronaut's suit, which was praised by the judges for its originality. He advanced to the second round, recorded live on NBC's Today show Nov. 21.


This time the theme was Thanksgiving, and there were only two contestants. Sawaya made a lifelike turkey, with a brown body, yellow beak and red tail. Jessica Frantz of Hellertown, Pa., whose turkey looked more like a rainbow-colored cow, was thumped.

For Sawaya, fantasy has become reality. He will fly to San Diego on Jan. 23 to compete with 29 other finalists from around the country.

"If I were offered the Lego gig," he says, "I'd be making five times less than my current salary. I'd be leaving a city I love, and my girlfriend and I haven't even worked out the logistics. It'd be a whole new world to me, and it'd be scary."

Sawaya pauses. "In other words," he says, "absolutely. In a millisecond."

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