Review: Architecture 21039 Shanghai

lluisgib - Posted on 11 February 2018

By Sven Franic

Theme: Architecture

Price: $59.99 / €59.99

Pieces: 597

Release date: Dec 17, 2017


21039 Shanghai is part of the third wave of the Skyline subtheme of Architecture.  The subtheme started in 2016 as a new way of depicting well known cities around the world featuring iconic landmarks lined up on a single base which makes them convenient to display on a shelf or desk.

Shanghai should be joined by two other Skyline sets this year if we go by the pattern of three sets per year in the subtheme. One of the upcoming sets should portray Las Vegas, USA.

Packaging and manual

The Architecture sets still maintain the experience of luxury boxes and manuals which give the sets a more serious feel. A smart marketing approach for many who are a bit uncomfortable buying toys for themselves considering the target audience are presumably adults. A glossy manual book provides information about the architecture and history of the buildings featured in the set making it a potential conversation piece and an educational experience rather than just a construction toy.


The inside of the box features a quote describing the city’s overwhelming reputation. The manual gives short and concise information about the city itself and about each structure featured in the set.

Information in the Shanghai manual is provided in both English and Chinese, but other languages are available for download online.

New elements and recolours

Surely one of the most exciting things about the set for MOC builders is the introduction of a very useful new piece. The part was first noticed in upcoming Superhero sets, and while raising a fair bit of curiosity, seeing the piece in hand finally confirms this element’s huge potential. The rounded corners and hollow studs provide so many possibilities, it might be a small revolution in the LEGO system.  The set only comes with four pieces, so I am looking forward to seeing it in a lot more sets in the future.

The set comes with a couple of newly re-coloured elements, including the exciting new “double jumper plate” in Light Bluish Grey and Medium Blue. Only four grey ones are provided in the set, but you get 32 blue ones. The Bionicle Claw or Tooth piece was surprisingly never made in Dark Bluish Grey before, a piece that made its way into many system sets.

Building Process

Since Shanghai is both a historical heritage city as well as a big record breaker in contemorary architecture, portraying the city in one recognisable silhouette is a challenge due to the enormous difference in scale.  Having a structure such as the Longhua pagoda and the Shanghai World Financial Center in the same skyline meant that the smaller structures had to compromise some detail in order to achieve a feasible scale ratio and still fit in the box.

While the smaller end of buildings might look a bit overly simple in design, they are convenient for the purpose of accentuating the incredible height of some of the largest buildings in the world. They are also key in portraying the city’s unique character with new and old architecture coexisting in symbiosis.

The unusual base of the set immediately hints at the complexity of the build providing clip and bar joints as support for two of the largest and heaviest structures.  Studs on top likely wouldn’t be able to hold on to the tall skyscrapers for very long.

An interesting observation while building the HSBC Building is that an older technique was used to connect the grill tiles sideways even though a newer 5-plate high snot piece was recently introduced in the Tan colour in the Creator Expert Downtown Diner set.

By the time you reach The Pearl Tower stage, the building process starts getting more interesting. Round 2x2 tiles with a hole in the centre are put to good use for reversing stud orientation along the tower.  Stud reversal is used several times in the sub-assembly, also using simple bars through hollow studs.

The impressive Shanghai World Financial Centre is built next using massive amounts of Medium Blue jumper plates.

The real star of the show, The Shanghai Tower is the cleverest design in both the architectural sense and in LEGO construction technique. This design is something that instantly caught the eyes of AFOLS when the first images of the set were revealed.  It took a bit of eye squinting to understand which elements were used to make the spiral tower. Even after realising that it was just a clever use of Technic liftarms, the exact technique used to achieve the uniform torsion of elements was left with guesses.

A technic axle through the middle provides support for key locking points at 90° and 180° torsion angles while two flexible axles hold the elements in consistent angle intervals.

The first locking point is in the middle of the tower and a simple Technic Connector is used to lock the pieces from unwinding. The second point is at the top of the tower.

The final construction is surprisingly sturdy. You can pick-up the whole set and carry it around with reasonable confidence.


Personally, I find the Skyline sub-theme the most desirable out of the box collectible item from LEGO®. Even if collecting isn’t your thing, certain cities can hold sentimental value to you. Unfortunately, I hold no such connection with Shanghai, China (yet), but the clever techniques used throughout the build and the overall premium feel of the product makes for a very pleasant experience regardless.  

It is sometimes hard to think from an inexperienced builder’s point of view, so I can’t say for sure if parts of the building process might be a bit too advanced for beginners, but you may find that a bit of a challenge only adds to the final sense of accomplishment.

Architecture sets have come a long way since their introduction, partly thanks to LEGO constantly developing new elements. These elements usually find a secondary function when they are translated to microscale building and Shanghai is a testament to the incredible ways you can use simple pieces, initially intended for something entirely different.