Architecture: Building up the future is child's play
Where can you see London's new Ferris Wheel, Heathrow's Terminal Five and Wembley's twin towers all in the same building? At Legoland in Windsor, of course, where a new scheme is encouraging children to think about the built environment.
Monday 01 November 1999
These multicoloured, mini renditions of modern architecture will be part of Architecture Week for Schools, to run from 8 November nationwide. Architecture Week is designed to take architects off their pedestals and popularise them.
The programme at Legoland includes a workshop for five- to nine-year- olds to build a tall tower for the future with an architect, Graham Haworth, and engineer, Matthew Wells, and competitions to design buildings in Lego. The St Charles Borromeo Roman Catholic Primary School made a great impression with their eight- and nine-year-olds' wibbly- wobbly jelly-mould towers, kaleidoscopic towers and triumphal arches. A Heath Robinson Upside Down Earthquake House by an eight-year-old, signing himself in precocious designer style "Tom D", described a house designed to defeat earthquake tremors by bouncing back on a helium balloon inside an air lock.
A quiz encourages children to think green about the built environment, with sleuth work to find and draw a modern windmill, and to encourage a sense of civic pride with questions like "Does decoration have anything to do with the job of a Town Hall?" (Answer: not if Norman Foster has anything to do with it.)
By filling in the answers, children learn more about the regions and cities in Europe. What they will discover if they are observant is that London is not faring as well as the rest of the other European capitals represented in Miniland, Legoland's architectural village. All its familiar landmark buildings, frozen in time, are choked with traffic. Black taxis, red buses, cars, motor bikes, coaches and lorries - all made of Lego - congest Trafalgar Square. Jack hammers and traffic snarl from sound systems hidden in buildings. Even with your eyes closed, one thing's certain: London is grinding to a standstill, even in Legoland.
Just a short baby-buggy ride from London in Miniland is Copenhagen, where the only sound among fairytale Hans Christian Andersen houses is lapping water - and the occasional foghorn. Holland, too, with its tall narrow gable-fronted houses along flat dikes and canals, is a haven of peace and quiet punctuated by bird-song. If ever Norman Foster needed a convincing scenario for his plan to pedestrianise London, this is it.
Legoland's chief model-maker, Roy Fowler, who shrunk our architectural heritage before animating the buildings and statues with sound and light, insists that this vision of the capital is realistic. Before any city or town is built, researchers armed with recorders and Polaroids do detective work in the towns and cities. Back in the Legoland HQ at Windsor, town planners define the zeitgeist from these surveys and create mood boards from which the model-makers work.
"If ever there was a justification for leaving cars behind when visiting London it was my three-hour traffic jam trying to get to photograph the Festival Hall," Roy Fowler says.
Fowler has to move fast to keep up with new projects, as lottery money and millennium fever power London's architects to new heights of creativity. He used to be an architectural model-maker, which is why he knows how to scale-down real-life buildings. For the dome of St Paul's, he cut the circumference by removing pairs of panels in sections, and reduced the height.
Brighton Pier, by comparison, with endless repeats, was easy to make. "Heavily engineered buildings that work as machines for living shape up well in Lego," Fowler says. So do the ornate structures of Post Modernism, and buildings from the Middle Ages. Minimalism does not. The Millennium Bridge, which its designer Norman Foster likens to a "blade of light across the Thames", defeats model makers.
The most popular ride with children at Legoland is not the hot air balloon, or even getting a driving test and a licence to operate the battery-driven Lego cars in the Driving School. It is the Earthquake machine in the Tall Tower workshop where spinning turntables test the structural abilities of tall buildings. All day long you will find small children spinning themselves giddy with bits and pieces of their failed ambitions deconstructing around them.
Every child knows that Rome wasn't built in a day, but a cool new ecological tower that rotates in the wind made out of Lego during Architecture Week will be. Graham Haworth from Haworth Tompkins with Matthew Well designed this six-foot tower to show children how ecological buildings must work in future.
"So often nothing much goes on inside a Lego building. We wanted to show the function as well as the form," says Graham Haworth. Sky lobbies like conservatory gardens open out half way up the building to cool it. Transparent pipes circulate water from the earth's skin - or in the case of the work shop, a water tank in which it is built. A rail track section follows prevailing winds to rotate the top floors and ventilate the whole building. Waste disposal runs down other pipes. Solar shades shelter the tower while storing sunlight, and crawler cranes which run up the outrigger tower make modifications to the tower's uses very easy. Children can also add a storey.
An Airfix model maker in his spare time and architect of the new Royal court Theatres and social housing at the OXO tower, Howarth thinks this modular method of construction will be used for tower blocks of the future, in which pre-fab components off site will slot simply into a frame. This is a real building in microcosm, questioning the way we live and use resources "with all the seriousness of a child at play", as Borges explained his approach to architecture. Even the most enthusiastic children won't be able to shake apart this tower on the earthquake machine as the rods that slot into the units are designed to withstand major tremors. These cubes, cones, spheres, cylinders and pyramids, the important primary forms, are beautiful, as le Corbusier observed: "Everyone agrees on that point, the child, the savage and the metaphysician. It's the very condition of the plastic arts." You could say the same about Lego.
Legoland Windsor website www.legoland.co.uk Architecture Week for Schools 8-12 November. Tel Group Sales 01753 626100. Architecture Week Website www. archweek.co.uk
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