It was in 1934, exactly three quarters of a century ago, that a Danish carpenter called Ole Kirk Christiansen pioneered the making of wooden toys in his workshop. Two years later he started a company called Lego. Now, Lego, the maker of bright, brash, interlocking plastic structures for delighted children at Christmas and birthdays, which range from pick-up trucks to dinosaurs, has teamed up with a company called BrickStructures to fabricate a range of micro-scale models of some of the most eye-catching buildings in the world: the Sears Tower, the Empire State Building, the Seattle Space Needle, the Burj Dubai Tower, and the Guggenheim Museum.
The first structure off the drawing board was relatively simple. It was Le Corbusier's square-edged concrete home, the Villa Savoye, which dates from 1929. Being modular in construction, the structure readily lent itself to being re-created in simple building blocks. Then, as ambitions soared, things got taller and taller, and more and more complicated. The rigidly squared off made way for curves and then, with the Guggenheim, complicated, ever upwardly mobile spiralling. Fortunately for the Lego maker of today, each kit comes with an instruction booklet, and, for the slightly older enthusiast, factual notes about the building and its architectural significance.
So the product spans the ages, and this very fact helps to remind us that all architects were once model builders, and most probably enthusiastic Lego builders too – well, the more recent ones anyway. In fact, what Lego is doing looks and feels like the continuation of any architectural practice anywhere. From Palladio to Zaha Hadid, every architect who has ever practised has worked with architectural models – and anyone who has recently visited the Andrea Palladio show at the Royal Academy will remember how the galleries are absolutely stuffed with small-scale models of villas, temples and churches, some realised, many unrealized and even unrealizable. The fact is that as Palladio knew, then and every architect knows now, no building could be made unless it were first tested and re-tested and refined in the model-maker's crucible – checking the sightlines, the height and dimensions of windows relative to the floor and so on. There are so many different considerations to be weighed in the balance. What's more, the architect's life consists of round after round of punishing and costly public competitions, and each one depends for its success or failure upon the making of detailed models, many of which will most likely be discarded along the way – or left to embellish the shelves of the architect's office. Shelved dreams, you might call them.
And what is so interesting about the Lego/BrickStructures is that these are a handful of the extravagant dreams that actually made it off the modelling bench and into the real world. And now every kidult in this same world can re-fashion each one of these dreams, block by block. What is more, the very fact that real structures have been dissected in this way, in spite of the fact that they are necessarily much simpler versions of their final selves, will undoubtedly encourage the model maker to take an interest in the fact that to make a model at home in this way is an important step along the road to becoming a maker of real looming and often awe-inspiring structures.
Yes, the nifty-fingered, table-top-conquering, Lego architects of today may well develop, in the fullness of time, into some of our prize-winning architects of, say, the day after tomorrow.