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Et in Arcadia Lego: The case for back to basics Lego

Self-confessed Legomaniac, Finn Williams argues the proliferation of custom pieces inhibits the creative potential of Lego’s classic bricks

Lego have gone back to basics with the new Architecture Studio set; 1,210 elemental monochrome bricks that come with no instructions, just an open-ended invitation to build, and rebuild. Writing recently for the AR, James Haldane criticised the set for being ‘in rigid thrall to the International Style’. Too white. Too rectangular. Too limited a toolbox for architecture’s ‘resurgent eclecticism’. As an unreconstructed Lego fundamentalist, I argue the only limitation of the basic brick is your creativity.

I’m part of a generation that was indoctrinated in architecture by rummaging through a primary palette of plastic bricks, and then prising them apart with our teeth. It’s easy to be nostalgic about the purism of these basic building blocks. For Douglas Coupland as a child ‘Lego was the future. White. Clean. Plastic.’ We’ve seen the sets evolve from unscripted construction kits to pre-packaged narratives licensed from film franchises like Star Wars. As a result Lego bricks became increasingly specialised - Hogwarts Castle comes complete with precast plastic spires. By 2004, 90 per cent of new elements were developed and used just once. This realisation prompted Lego to slash the number of elements in half, not only for efficiency savings but also to encourage creativity. As anyone who has tried to repurpose the customised laser cannons from a Star Wars X-Wing model knows, the more specific an element the less you can do with it.


Lego’s new Architecture Studio set includes 1,210 monochrome pieces

The same goes for the colour of the Architecture Studio set. James sees white and all he can imagine is a ‘conservative selection from Richard Meier’s canon’. For me the lack of colour doesn’t impose Modernist orthodoxy, it works like Rudolf Steiner’s Waldorf dolls which are deliberately simple to strengthen children’s imagination. Just look at three of the most spectacularly creative uses of Lego: Douglas Coupland’s Super City show at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, The Collectivity Project by Olafur Eliasson where 3 tonnes of Lego were tipped into a square in Albania’s capital city Tirana, and Build Up Japan involving 5,000 children and 1.8 million bricks.

All three projects chose all white bricks. All three resulted in fantastic and unprecedented forms, from glitch-Gothic towers to coral-columned megastructures, and hardly a flat roof in sight. These children weren’t converted into Miesian robots by the narrow palette. In fact, they embarrassed contemporary architects with their originality. For further proof that a limited kit of parts can counterintuitively inspire creativity, play Minecraft.


Build Up Japan


Olafur Eliasson, The Collectivity Project

So if form follows building blocks in Lego, are architects’ buildings also the products of the kit of parts available to them? The Elements of Architecture exhibition at this year’s Venice Biennale catalogues how the fundamentals of our buildings - floors, walls, windows, doors - are evolving into increasingly technologically specialised, even mediatised, products that are wresting control away from architects. These are the architectural equivalent of Lego’s customised laser cannon, resulting in buildings that strictly follow the instruction manual. No alternative interpretations. No extensions. LegoArchitecture Studio is based on simpler elements which empower the designer, pointing us back towards the fundamentals of architecture. And what could be more fundamental than the brick?

Douglas Coupland has a theory that the building blocks we play with as children feed back into the real world through what we produce as adults, ‘like alien baby eggs, these kits and their implicit programmes remain inside us where they grow and bind with our inner cores, so that when we’re adults they explode from us in new and unexpected ways’. I hope it is open-ended systems like Architecture Studio and Minecraft that mould what future generations create; cities we all feel we can take part in building, and rebuilding.

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