Still from an animation illustrating the concept behind BIG’s design for Lego House (image: BIG)
Some architects played with Legos as a child. And some never stopped playing with them. Take, for instance, the Copenhagen and New York-based architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) –the architects currently developing a master plan for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C– who have designed two major projects involving the snap together bricks, including a new Lego Museum in the toymaker’s hometown.
Now, bricks are good for two things: building a wall and throwing through a window. Lego bricks aren’t any different, as illustrated by BIG. Though they may not have literally thrown them through any windows (that I’m aware of), the cool playfulness that pervades BIG’s work is a metaphorical brick thrown through the windows of modernism’s glass skyscrapers. BIG’s high-wire high-rise designs, which have more in common with mountain ranges than Manhattan, shatter architectural preconceptions and the aloof, over-serious sensibility that pervades the profession. In less than 10 years, the firm, founded in 2005 by Bjarke Ingels, have blossomed from a scrappy Rem Koolhaas-inspired startup with great PR to a widely recognized, innovative global design practice with major commissions in major cities the world over.
Lego bricks have been inspiring generations of future architects since they first hit toy store shelves in 1949. For any kid (anyone really) with even the slightest predisposition toward building, Legos represented an incredible opportunity to create anything. I’ve probably wasted days of my life sitting on the floor amidst piles of tiny plastic bricks, scouring through the thick piles of our carpeting to find the one small piece that would make my design perfect, which inevitably would elude me until one of my parents had the ill fortune to step on it. The possible permutations of the snap-together blocks were limited only by my imagination and the number of blocks on my carpet. Decades later, my architectural career may be in remission, but I still love Legos. In 2008, the Danish toymaker decided to capitalize on such life-long goodwill with the Lego Architecture Series, which gives the brick-obsessed the chance to build their own small-scale replicas of iconic works of architecture from around the world – from the Empire State Building to the Imperial Hotel.
“The biggest challenges of the LEGO model construction – which took more than 15 versions to reach its final state and included the help of most experienced designers from the LEGO team – were they pillars and the complex roof design. At first I constructed the pillars from 1×1 round bricks, but they always seemed oversized. In the final version…I used blades from LEGO lightsabers….” – Lego artist Michael Hepp, statement from the Villa Savoye instruction manual (images: LEGO, Wikipedia)
The Architecture Series is most successful at capturing modernist designs, such as Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye (1929, above image) and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1951, below image). Along with the assembly instructions, the extensive books that accompany each set provide a little background on the miniature masterpieces, elucidating their historic importance and notable features. Recently, Lego took their interest in architectural modernism even further with the debut of The Lego Architecture Studio, a new set for a more mature demographic that gives users the tools to make their own unique contribution to toy architecture canon.
The new Lego architecture studio includes 1210 Lego bricks and an inspirational guidebook filled with 272 pages of tips, techniques, features, and exercises endorsed by leading design houses. (image: Lego)
Before they went into full production, the monochromatic Architecture Studio was tested and endorsed by noted architecture firms from around the world: REX architecture, Sou Fujimoto Architects, SOM, MAD Architects, Tham & Videgård Arkitekter, and Safdie Architects. The set consists of 1,210 pieces and accompanying user guide – an architectural crash course with contributions from the participating firms — designed to help the Sunday morning modernist learn more about concepts like space, section, scale, mass, symmetry, modules and repetition. Color, history and ornament are basic architectural principles as well, but like the Modernists who inspired the series, the Architecture Studio abandons those ideas in favor of studies in pure form and planning principles.
“Architects very often start designing ‘in negative’: it is about designing space where people live or work. You can design spaces and how they relate to one another by perceiving the Lego bricks as empty space.” – Excerpt on “Space and Section” from the Architecture Studio Guidebook (image: Lego)
While the fundamentals are there, a lot of the fun seems to be missing. The affordable, egalitarian multicolored blocks beloved by kids and adults have been replaced with expensive, refined model-making kits that are targeted more toward collectors and that, when built, likely won’t be destroyed and reused as part of some other far-out creation, but will sit on a book shelf and collect dust (and I write that as someone with a Villa Savoye on his book shelf collecting dust). It seems more text book than toy box.
The above image of bricks and lego bricks comes from Junk Jet no.2 with no explanation other than an author and title. Dispatchwork by Jan Vormann is architectural grafitti. Like Polish artist Truth’s interventions, it introduces a plastic, modern material into an surface patinated by time. Dispatchwork is like a playful skin graft, rejuvenating a surface that might be taking itself a bit seriously. A new scale of “brick” has been introduced into the surfaces, defamiliarizing and then reintroducing the walls to passers-by. While the introduction of the Lego architectural graffiti is somewhat subversive, it also arguably creates a more perfect surface. A flawlessly smooth wall; an exactly 90 degree corner. And hell, it just looks cool.
If you haven’t got your copy of Junk Jet yet, act fast! Not many were printed and it covers everything from the Infrastructural implications of the Popemobile as put forth by Sam Jacob to the mythic “cybridised architecture” of Neil Spiller, and much, much more (including free architecture tattoos!). Junk Jet will also be included in the exhibition A Few Zines, opening this week.