Unimagining the Brick

Frank Lloyd Wright and his Froebel® blocks are the main reason we associate building blocks with the nurturing of architectural creativity. The great man himself told us it was so. The blocks may well have been responsible for Wright’s early mastery of horizontal and vertical massing but they might also explain his persistent aversion to diagonals and his creepy, late-in-life fascinations with circles.

Building blocks such as LEGO® [hereinafter, LEGO] have also been part of the lives of many children who did not all become architects. They could be used in many ways and to make many things. The were important for developing spatial ability in children and parents could also enjoy them in their own way. Parents must also have appreciated them being many toys in one and that requests for more pieces were easily and inexpensively satisfied – a state of affairs beneficial to everyone except the manufacturers. What the Lego company decided it needed was a product that discouraged disassembly and subsequent re-use and instead encouraged repeat purchases of one-off kits.

By 2014 the business turnaround of the Lego company was legendary. [1] The 1977 movie Star Wars had been the first movie to aggressively pursue tie-ins with all manner of products and companies.

The Lego company joined the party in 1999 in time for Star Wars Episode 1The first sets were released under the LEGO System brand and consisted of eight sets from Episode I and five sets from the original trilogy films, including the first LEGO Star Wars X-wing and Snowspeeder. [2]

Being expected to cheer at the Lego company’s business turnaround is yet another manifestation of the neoliberal pandemic that blinds us to seeing anything in terms other than dollar value. We don’t even think it odd anymore to talk about the worth of a movie in terms of its opening weekend gross, a footballer in terms of their transfer fee, or an architectural practice in terms of turnover or how many fee-generating architects it employs. 

Lego’s business problems were solved but it was distressing to watch for anyone raised on the old LEGO that had generic pieces and came without instructions. All the new LEGO required was the ability to follow instructions and diagrams and arrive at somebody else’s result. This used to be called construction – and we still need people who are good at that. What we don’t need is for creativity to be redefined as obedience. Or do we? Children who’ve known nothing else but new LEGO are about to graduate architecture school and we’ll soon see how well they adapt to today’s workforce.

Designing every piece as a special piece discouraged disassembly and the making of anything else but there would always be a steady stream of new kits to buy/make. The potential to creatively combine pieces was still represented by residual studs on larger pieces but the things most likely to be creatively added were minifigure characters that redefined creative play as the re-enactment of scenes from movies.

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The CREATOR and Architecture series [3] came along to show the link between LEGO and architectural creativity remained, even if as one-off kits that could only make one thing. Initial sets such as the 2009 Fallingwater and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the 2011 Farnsworth House and the 2012 Sydney Opera House were spectacularly unlike what they purported to represent, further cementing the belief that shape was the only thing in architecture that mattered.

These representations of architectural creativity made them ideal gifts for architects. The 2013 Sydney Opera House was an improvement in terms of realism but the series name CREATOR was a misnomer.

These next three buildings embody a certain notion of architectural creativity but their shapes simply don’t do what LEGO does best. I don’t think we’ll be seeing them as LEGO kits anytime soon but, after seeing Marina Bay Sands above, who knows? 

LEGO’s limitations may become apparent when representing certain architectural ideas about shape, but it has even greater limitations when representing any architectural idea that isn’t about shape. We won’t be seeing these next buildings immortalized in LEGO anytime soon.

Gary Garvin already did Dessau. [4]

Occasionally, we hear of rogue artists using LEGO in the disobedient ways of art, such as Nathan Sawayas [5] and his deconstructed figures, Jan Vorman’s [5] repairing of war-ravaged walls, and Wei Wei’s use of donated (i.e. unapproved = “non-LEGO”) bricks for an exhibition of portraits of dissidents and political prisoners after the Lego company refused him a bulk purchase [6].

And then there was the LEGO house. Back in 2009 when I didn’t know who James May was, I thought this was an amusing but experimental use of LEGO as a building product until I learned it was built with the expectation of becoming a permanent exhibit at UK’s LEGOLAND®. This means that rather than being conceived of as a good idea, it was conceived as an exhibit and thus no different from any of the buildings at the VITRA zoo. It was stupid of me to imagine it could ever have been anything else. A mass-producible, durable and generic construction material anyone could assemble into buildings of infinite variation was simply too good to be true.

All avenues of escape are being cut off one by one. Even before the circle was finally closed there had been the LEGO meme in architecture [c.f. Architecture Myths #16: Memes]. Buildings were mimicking LEGO before LEGO came to mimic architecture.

It’s as if the world of architecture still wanted us to believe LEGO had a link with creativity long after the Lego company had abandoned its principles for the noisy representation of them. God this postmodern world sucks.

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This refusal of the world of architecture to believe what others already accepted created the market for LEGO Architecture Studio. “Anyone with an interest in architecture can now create their own Lego original designs, as well as building mini architectural masterpieces such as the Eiffel Tower and the Trevi Fountain,” gushed a Lego press release quoted on dezeen, as these things are.

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This architectural LEGO can be used to represent architectural ideas as long as they don’t involve properties other than shape. I wasn’t the only kid who valued colour as a property of the bricks.

Aspiring adults can now express their creativity through monochromatic models using a curated selection of architectural tropes and memes. It’s all too real for comfort. The architect kit comes with a 250-page guidebook [8] for those who still don’t get it. It’s an important document future scholars will study in order to understand precisely how the world turned to shit.

Then there’s the LEGO Master Builder Academy Designer Handbook [pdf] that teaches you how to be a designer of LEGO models …

I’m probably guilty of finding something more interesting than it actually is, but I chuckled anyway at Amy Frearson’s question to Bjarke Ingels, “Was it something of a given that you would use the LEGO brick as the basis of the design?”  

And so we approach the endgame with architecture going one step further than the LEGO meme by aspiring to be real LEGO architecture – or is that “real” LEGO architecture? It’s tricky. I propose we use doubled quotation marks to indicate those situations when reality and representations of it fold in and over each other like pizza dough, e.g. “”LEGO Architecture.””

There’s only one way this can end. We’re slowly but surely working our way towards a modular construction element that can be combined in infinitely many ways to build anything quickly, cheaply and easily. However, before that can become a product of enormous benefit to the world, there’s still some problems such as security, structural integrity, fire safety, thermal properties and moisture proofing that need to be sorted. In the meantime, we can just pretend they don’t exist so, in that sense, LEGO and architecture are already indistinguishable. 

• • •

  1. One of many articles describing the Lego company’s turnaround as one of the greatest business success stories of all time.
  2. A post on starwars.com telling of fifteen years of LEGO® and STAR WARS™ tie-ins
  3. brickset.com is the eBay of architectural LEGO
  4. There’s a book, The LEGO Architect.
  5. More on LEGO artists Nathan Sawaya and Jan Vorman
  6. The Lego company’s refusal to allow Chinese artist Wei Wei to bulk purchase LEGO has been their only major PR misjudgment we know about.
  7. The 250-page guidebook [pdf (be patient)] accompanying the LEGO Architecture Studio Set has an introductory essay by extrusion-hater Winy Maas, followed by essays and exercises to which invited architects have input. There is REX on Scale, Sō Fujimoto on Space and Section, SOM on Modules and Repetition, MAD Architecture Workshop on Surface, Tham & Videgård Arkitekter Workshop on Mass and Density,  Safdie architects on Symmetry, and KRADS architects who are credited as consulting concept editors [!?] One thing I did learn was that Moshe Safdie used many white LEGO blocks in cluster studies for the apartment modules, gardens and streets of Habitat 67. This makes sense because LEGO was a way of understanding an idea well suited to being understood using LEGO. Elsewhere*, Safdie has said the 2:1 bricks offered the perfect scale.1200px-Habitat_panorama
  8. I was thinking a reverse-engineered Habitat 67 LEGO tribute kit at that scale and with only 1:1 and 2:1 bricks would be a piece of history and a useful tool for everybody to learn about scale, space, section, modules, repetition and symmetry in the same way they informed Safdie’s design. Instead, what happened was the limited-edition sale of a partial model pre-created by Nathalie Boucher. Ingenious as it is, it conveys nothing of how the old LEGO was used creatively to produce the wondrous thing “”LEGO Architecture”” merely depicts. Habitat 67 is a genuine example of old LEGO being used as a creative tool in architecture. It’s no surprise then, that the freestyle creativity LEGO once enabled so generously and silently had to be strategically and noisily supplanted with the dutiful construction of a representation of Habitat 67 as a representation of that creativity.

    One redefinition and two degrees of abstraction now insulate the new creativity from the old. The postmodern world sucked but this neoliberal mutation doublesucks.

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3 thoughts on “Unimagining the Brick

  1. ng

    hi,

    22 year old yoof on a break here. Lovely article but you are missing trick:

    Minecraft. 100 million units in sales and an enormous online presence filled with mainly children and teenagers-so it isn’t like this is an obscure game.

    The limitation is that it is on a 2D screen (soon to be fixed with VR and whatever other hologram nonsense microsoft can come up with) and the physics of minecraft is not in the slightest bit reflective of the real world-floating blocks and water that will always flow on a flat surface 8 blocks long (one block= 1x1x1 meter) before magically disappearing-which can be an advantage depending on how you look at it.

    The upside is that it provides children with so many “bricks” that they can never physically fill a game’s map in one life time and all for £20. The game can even teach a rudimentary form of electronics. Provided that minecraft continues to put out block-y updates (which it probably will do for the foreseeable future) kids and adults alike spend ages making whatever they want.

    Players have the option of going into creative mode instead of survival mode (which involves spending an inordinate sum of time carving out an existence without dying to enemies, still; given the extra extra challenges involved, all manner of very creative solutions have been found) which proves to be as equally popular because they can build whatever they wish with the game’s assets. Below are some of things that people have been up to:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2-o7WVUxlQ

    That isn’t to say that they will build things like a floating city in the sky with their friends over night, or that they will try to mimic building things that their favourite youtubers give tutorials to online but I see the spirit of the old lego sets still there, and the formula vastly improved upon.

    Concern your other observation of modular, i suppose you could call it reactive building. Things can go down as quickly as they come up in this age of fads and trendy addresses. That is something that I have been thinking about for a while now after looking at Aravena’s half built house concepts-of course I’ll get a battering from any of the profs should I mention the thought to them!

    Reply
    1. ng

      oh yes, one more thing; I am one of those fabled analogue students. right now I am sitting next to a drawing board! I often do not think I am suited to working towards architecture and am better off carving out an existence as a freelance furniture designer, another passion I have had whilst I still have my twenties. Much less stressful and I get the excuse to build a 1:1 prototype in a workshop.

      To me CAD is an ending not a beginning. I do see it as just a medium like any other just as people would see digital photography and photoshop as another medium. I do think that we haven’t really explored the potential due to poor understanding of engineering and mathematical ability. Photographers have always struck as more technical people over the classic oil painter, more options to play with. Output may be faster, and content may be greater but I do think that there is also a value lost in bombing your way through things.

      Trouble with having lots of options every step of the way is that I think there is such thing as having too much, that can sometimes make life a bit of a misery. Yes, we might have rules and boundaries on the site when we are faced with it, but our ideology that comes before that?

      Reply
    2. Graham McKay Post author

      Hi Ng,

      I agree. Minecraft is infinitely better and I don’t see it being 2D as a limitation. Even in that example you linked to, I could see some things being built by trial and error but, generally, the person had to think about what they wanted to make before making a virtual representation of it. And for £20 it’s better value than LEGO and still fosters a 3D awareness. The survival mode looks fun and, coupled with the online mode, is something LEGO can’t compete with. (Of course you could always go across the room and smash your little brother’s model to pieces, but I don’t think Minecraft players are that previous about their designs – a useful skill!) In my local store I found this however.

      These kits are probably about as much about Minecraft as the other ones are about architecture.

      Furniture design and manufacture must be a welcome antidote to all the other stuff around. You’re right in that the desire to absorb the next new thing means we never get to master anything properly. Being curious about the world is a good thing but, just as buying a book and reading it doesn’t necessary mean any knowledge has been implanted or otherwise gleaned, learning some in-vogue piece of software doesn’t necessarily mean that person will ever use it to create something the world actually needs. I don’t think something simply being new is sufficient anymore unless it’s also better. I feel that way about parametric design – at least the stuff that’s design for design’s sake. I appreciate it’s usefulness in adapting quickly to design changes but standard BIM is pretty good at that for the later-stage design changes. A million iterations in the early design stages suggests someone doesn’t really know what they are doing. Our brains probably sift through a considerable number of design iterations without us even being aware of it. I’d like to see more recognition of how efficient analogue brainwork really is. As a person who draws, I’m sure you think about those lines before you draw them.

      It’s funny you mention half houses as my next post is probably going to be titled The Naked House, prompted by this article.

      Reply

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