Lego is launching a new £149.99 set of bricks for building architectural models but its vision of architecture’s potential seems unusually blinkered
Lego is in the throes of a brand reboot. The release of the Lego Movie earlier this year, collaborations with Google and waves of Lego computer games suggest the toymaker is eager to connect with a digital generation. However, it’s also trying to retain the interest of a more mature group of model makers, a generation of adults whose career trajectories were influenced by playing with the tiny coloured bricks as children. The start of August will see the release of the Lego Architecture Studio set, a package of over 1200 white and transparent bricks designed to help realise - in miniature - your frustrated architectural visions. Yet while this new line may well tug nostalgically at your heartstrings (and at £149.99, your purse-strings), its purported link with the canon of architectural innovation seems much more open to question.
The set claims to appeal to ‘anyone interested in visual design and the important and profound role it plays in our communities’, but bizarrely limits itself to referencing a narrow segment of twentieth-century Modernism. Far from offering opportunities for the free exploration of form, the set of stark white rectangular blocks seems in rigid thrall to the International Style. You can certainly forget building a model of Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp (too curvy) or Morris and Webb’s Red House (too red). Instead it seems you’ll be doomed to endlessly recreate sections of the Weissenhofsiedlung like a Miesian robot. Not even the villa designs of Gerrit Rietveld - the De Stijl king of rectilinear geometry - get a look in, given his penchant for vivid colour.
Am I being too critical? Modern architectural history is, after all, a panoply of aesthetic and intellectual theory that Lego could never hope to capture in a single box of bricks, however imaginative, but I’m surprised it has settled for such a limited collection. At least when it produced a Star Wars X-Wing spaceship model, it had the good sense to manufacture some customised parts. Even without special parts, by making use of the full range of bricks, Romanian artist Mihai Marius Mihu built all nine Circles of Hell from Dante’s Inferno out of Lego, creating mini tableaux that fused morality, storytelling, horror and architecture to great effect. Yet in this new set, Lego’s designers seem to have become unwitting disciples of the Modernist doctrine of limited standardisation.
While Corbusier and others championed the moral superiority of white, their buildings reveal rich and diverse uses of colour, from La Tourette’s technicolour light cannons to the onyx wall in Mies’ Tugendhat House, which would glow deep red when illuminated by direct light. Perhaps Lego’s designers have fallen for historiographical exaggeration, beguiled by black and white images of colourful buildings.
All this is made more puzzling by the fact that the set was apparently developed in collaboration with, and is endorsed by, ‘leading architects’ such as Safdie Architects and MAD. While you might manage a decent model of the former’s Habitat 67 complex, I challenge anyone to do justice to the latter’s fluid parametricism. Your best bet when it comes to reproducing the work of contemporary practices might be a conservative selection from Richard Meier’s canon.
At the root of all this is the stuffiness that continues to prevent architecture’s diffusion into the familiar everyday. Lego did much better, for example, with its recent Build with Chrome collaboration — a project that allows you to design original structures to populate the virtual 3D space of Google Maps. Operating somewhere between Minecraft and a junior CAD system, it has more block options than the Architecture Studio set. Lego would do well to think less about the white minimalist preoccupations of architecture’s elder statesmen, and more about consolidating its following in a future of resurgent eclecticism and increasing digitalisation.