Style: I want to play with the skyscraper: An exhibition of architectural toys in London is stimulating nostalgia and raising establishment eyebrows, says Amanda Baillieu

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The Royal Institute of British Architects, which owns one of the world's finest collections of architectural drawings, recently spent pounds 19.25 on a set of children's rubber building bricks.

Known as Minibrix, the set has pride of place in the office of the RIBA's curator, Gill Lever. Still pristine in their box, the bricks nestle between busts of Inigo Jones on one side and Palladio on the other. Above this unlikely tableau is a plastic model of a skyscraper from the Fifties.

The skyscraper, donated by another curator, Neil Bingham, was the beginning of the RIBA's growing collection of architectural toys, which ranges from the Minibrix to early 19th-century children's basic building blocks and, from last week, includes the Early Learning Centre's Little Architect, a wooden building set costing pounds 17.95.

Mr Bingham became interested in architectural toys after stumbling across an exhibition catalogue of teaching toys from the collection of the Norfolk Museums Service: 'When I read the catalogue something clicked . . . Next time I went home to Canada I brought back the skyscraper model which I'd inherited from my sister . . . I really believe that for many architects toys were the starting point, so it made sense to have examples in the RIBA's collection.'

Since it became known that the RIBA was putting on an exhibition of architectural toys, items have been flooding in. Friends have lent miniature replicas of famous 20th- century buildings purchased from American museums; Oggetti in Fulham Road, west London, which sells 'design classics', has lent a set of Frank Lloyd Wright building blocks.

Other donations include a set of Eames cards (cardboard picture cards that slot together) designed by Charles Eames who, with Ray Kaiser, his wife, was responsible for many of the influential chair designs of the Forties and Fifties. There is a set of Lotts stone bricks from the Twenties and a folding cardboard house designed and donated by the publisher of the architectural magazine, Blueprint.

The exhibition has caused a few raised eyebows in architectural circles. The Arts Council, which has a budget for supporting exhibitions to 'bring a greater understanding of architecture to the public', turned it down for a grant. Stuart Durant, the exhibition's curator, feels some of the antipathy is because he has chosen not to present a polemical exhibition: 'It may be raising more questions than it answers. We have tried to present the toys in a very open-ended way,' he says.

Although it was Ms Lever who tracked down the Minibrix in an architectural trade paper, she is undecided if the RIBA, which has a tiny budget for purchases and limited space, should pursue architectural toys with the same enthusiasm it reserves for drawings: 'A lot of the interest is nostalgia. There can't be many people who haven't played with Bayko, Lego or Meccano.'

She, like Mr Durant, is also wary of trying to draw parallels between the blocks the architects played with as a child and their buildings. The American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who liked to claim the Froebel educational blocks that he played with as a child had an enduring influence on his work, has prompted a guessing game as to the toys other well-known architects played with.

Frank Duffy, RIBA's president, said that although Lego was around when he was a child, his decision to become an architect came at the age of nine after he read a book about an architect building a house: 'The book was tremendous but, if I was asked what I think it's important for children, it's not building blocks but pencil and paper.'

Will Alsop, who designed the Swiss-roll-shaped Cardiff Bay Visitor's Centre, and is the architect for one of the new Underground stations on London's Jubilee Line extension, said: 'As a child I made a lot of buildings out of Bayko.' But it is hard to see a link between his architecture as an adult, and the rather ugly Thirties suburban houses that were likely to emerge from Bayko, which consisted of Bakelite moulded pads threaded between vertical metal rods.

Sir Richard Rogers, whose office said 'his unconventional upbringing' made him the wrong person to ask about childhood toys, recently used Meccano to help develop a scheme for a showroom in Tokyo. This, and a Lego model of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, are displayed in his offices in Hammersmith, west London.

The RIBA is not the only institution scouring car boot sales and the classified columns. The Victoria and Albert Museum has included a Bayko building set, Chad Valley building blocks and Kiddicraft blocks in its 20th- century gallery. The Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood in east London, with the country's best collection of constructional toys, would like to hear from anyone with a collection of Paul and Marjorie Abbatt toys.

Mr Bingham knows some of the enthusiasm for constructional toys is nostalgia, but believes the RIBA should continue its collection: 'There is a childlike quality in everyone but particularly architects . . . they love to see the drawings we have, but give them a model or, better still, building blocks and they're off.'

'Architecture and Childhood', the RIBA's Heinz Gallery, 21 Portman Square, London W1, 11 Nov-18 Dec, Mon-Fri 11am-5pm, Sat 10am- 1pm (071-580 5533).

(Photograph omitted)

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