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.
Painters, sculptors and musicians have long since found inspiration in the complex movement of thirty-two pieces across a chessboard. But writers too have found inspiration in the 64 square battlefield. Perhaps none moreso than Charles Lutwidge Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll aka the writer of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Whereas in the first story, Alice encountered a kingdom of playing cards after falling down the rabbit hole, in the sequel, she stepped through a mirror to find an entirely new wonderland populated by anthropomorphic red and white chessmen.
It makes sense that the two dominant symbols of the story are the mirror and the chess board—after all, the pieces on a board at the start of play are a reflection of one another. But chess wasn’t just a recurring motif or symbol in Carroll’s story, it was, in fact, the basis for the novel’s structure. The story was designed around a game of chess. This is made explicit from the very beginning of the book, when the reader is confronted with a chess problem and the following note: “White Pawn (Alice) to play, and win in eleven moves.”
This opening salvo perplexed readers more than the frumious language of “Jabberwocky.” Although the problem is a sort of funhouse mirror distortion of the novel (or vice versa), with eleven moves roughly corresponding to the book’s twelve chapters, Carroll’s notation displays a flagrant disregard for the basic rules of chess. At best, it was viewed as a careless game, even with the explanatory Dramatis Personae included with early versions of the text that equated every character with a corresponding piece. In response to concerns and criticisms, Carroll included a preface to the 1896 edition of Through the Looking Glass, addressing the opening chess problem:
As the chess-problem…has puzzled some of my readers, it may be well to explain that it is correctly worked out, so far as the moves are concerned. The alternation of Red and White is perhaps not so strictly observed as it might be, and the “castling” of the three Queens is merely a way of saying that they entered the palace; but the “check” of the White King at move 6, the capture of the Red Knight at move 7, and the final “checkmate” of the Red King, will be found, by anyone who will take the trouble to set the pieces and play the moves as directed, to be strictly in accordance to the laws of the game.
So while Carroll admits taking some liberties with the game, the logic is, in his view at least, sound. Furthermore, although many of the moves listed in the introductory problem make no sense if taken on their own, when they are considered in the context of the story, a strange logic emerges, a logic based not on the rules of chess, but on Carroll’s narrative. For example, as Martin Gardner points out in an analysis of Carroll’s game in The Annotated Alice, “At two points the White Queen passes up a chance to checkmate and on another occasion she flees from the Red Knight when she could shave captured him. Both oversights, however, are in keeping with her absent-mindedness.” By Gardner’s theory then, the mistakes are designed into the story. The White Queen, who famously believed in “six impossible things before breakfast,” also experiences time in reverse, which, from the perspective of a game piece, would surely result in unpredictable movement and a curious perception of the board.
Another example of narrative’s influence on the opening problem can be seen when the Red Queen puts the White King in check at move 8, but the condition is neither included in the game’s notation nor addressed in the story. However, this too can be explained by considering the rules of both. According to the rules of chess, when a player is put in check, it must be announced. Otherwise, the check can be ignored. Gardner cites an article byartist Ivor Davies, who rationalizes the antagonistic Red Queen’s behavior with evidence from the story itself, noting that the silence was “entirely logical because, at the moment of her arrival at King one, she said to Alice. ‘Speak when you’re spoken to!’ Since no one had spoken to her she would have been breaking her own rule had she said ‘check.'”
There are myriad other connections between Carroll’s story and his introductory chess problem, and perhaps even more interpretations and analyses of said chess problem. But in all the scholarship surrounding Throughthe Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, it’s clear that the story cannot be isolated as a either chess treatise or a children’s story. It’s both. The novel’s structure is determined according to a prescribed series of chess moves; the actions and behaviors of its characters are largely dictated by the limitations and characteristics of their corresponding pieces. But this interdependence means that the pieces are themselves influenced by character traits established in the story. The narrative abides by the logic of the game and the game abides by the logic of the narrative. Lewis Carrroll’s story is quite literally a game-changer.
Prior to 1849, there was no such thing as a “normal chess set.” At least not like we think of it today. Over the centuries that chess had been played, innumerable varieties of sets of pieces were created, with regional differences in designation and appearance. As the game proliferated throughout southern Europe in the early 11th century, the rules began to evolve, the movement of the pieces were formalized, and the pieces themselves were drastically transformed from their origins in 6th century India. Originally conceived of as a field of battle, the symbolic meaning of the game changed as it gained popularity in Europe, and the pieces became stand-ins for a royal court instead of an army. Thus, the original chessmen, known as counselor, infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots, became the queen, pawn, knight, bishop, and rook, respectively. By the 19th century, chess clubs and competitions began to appear all around the world, it became necessary to use a standardized set that would enable players from different cultures to compete without getting confused.
In 1849, that challenge would be met by the “Staunton” Chess Set.
The Staunton chess pieces are the ones we know and love today, the ones we simply think of as chess pieces. Prior to their debut in 1849, there were a wide variety of popular styles in England, such as The St. George, The English Barleycorn, and the Northern Upright. To say nothing of the regional and cultural variations. But the Staunton quickly would surpass them all. Howard Staunton was a chess authority who organized many tournaments and clubs in London, and was widely considered to be one of the best players in the world. Despite its name, the iconic set was not designed by Howard Staunton.
According to the most widely told origin story, the Staunton set was designed by architect Nathan Cook, who looked at a variety of popular chess sets and distilled their common traits while also, more importantly, looking at the city around him. Victorian London’s Neoclassical architecture had been influenced by a renewed interest in the ruins of ancient Greece and Rome, which captured the popular imagination after the rediscovery of Pompeii in the 18th century. The work of architects like Christopher Wren, William Chambers, John Soane, and many others inspired the column-like, tripartite division of king, queen, and bishop. A row of Staunton pawns evokes Italianate balustrades enclosing of stairways and balconies.
And the knight, the most intricate and distinct piece of any chess set, is unique in that it’s the only piece that is not an abstracted representation of a designation; it’s a realistically carved horse head. The Staunton Knight was likely inspired by a sculpture on the east pediment of the Parthenon depicting horses drawing the chariot of Selene, the Moon Goddess. Selene’s horse is part of a collection of sculptures controversially removed from the Parthenon by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, during his tenure as ambassador to the Ottoman court. Known as the “Elgin Marbles,” these sculptures were donated to the British Museum in 1816 and were enormously popular with a British public that was growing increasingly interested in classical antiquities. According to the British Museum, Selene’s horse “is perhaps the most famous and best loved of all the sculptures of the Parthenon. It captures the very essence of the stress felt by a beast that has spent the night drawing the chariot of the Moon across the sky….the horse pins back its ears, the jaw gapes, the nostrils flare, the eyes bulge, veins stand out and the flesh seems spare and taut over the flat plate of the cheek bone.” Now you know why the knights in your chess sets always look like they’re screaming in agony.
Recently, the Staunton set got a makeover. The new piece designs are part of an earlier project by noted design conultancy Pentagram, the rebranding of World Chess, an organization that aims to bring chess back to a level of popularity it enjoyed during the heyday of Bobby Fischer. Other than coming up with a new brand and identity for chess, Pentagram also designed a new tv-friendly competitive playing environment and an interactive website that lets fans follow games live online via “chesscasting”.
Daniel Weil, partner of Pentagram, reinterpreted the classic Staunton set for the 2013 World Chess Candidates Tournament in London. Weil says that to begin the project he had to “unravel the rationale behind the original set.” This meant looking back to the pieces’ origins in Neoclassical architecture. Following the lead of Cook, Weil also looked to the Parthenon (see top image). As part of his subtle redesign, Weil resized the set so that when the eight primary pieces are lined up at the beginning of play, their angle reflects the pitch of the Pantheon’s pediment. Weil also streamlined the pieces somewhat, returning a precision and thoughtfulness to the Staunton set that, in his view, had been lost in many of the Staunton variations created over the last 160 years. The design also reflects the relative value of each piece according to tournament rules; the more a piece is worth, the wider the base. The new Staunton pieces were also designed to accommodate different styles of play, such as the grips that Weil ostentatiously refers to as the “north hold” and the more theatrical “south hold”. The high-quality set debuted in tournament play this year and is now also available to the public. Weill told Design Week, “When chess started to become popular in the 19th century it became a social showcase, so everyone had a set on show. I wanted to make an object of quality so that people could also show it off.”
Inspired by the Neoclassical architecture of Victorian London and a very modern need for standardization and mass production, the Staunton chessmen helped popularize the game and quickly became the world standard. The new Staunton pieces by Daniel Weil reinforces this architectural history of the original pieces while respecting their timeless design.
“Look! Up in the Sky!” “It’s a bird!” “It’s a plane!” “It’s a giant metal globe hurtling toward us that will surely result in our demise! Oh, nevermind…Superman took care of it.”
Whenever disaster strikes Superman’s Metropolis, it seems that the first building damaged in the comic book city is the Daily Planet – home to mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, his best buddy Jimmy Olsen, and his gal pal and sometimes rival Lois Lane. The enormous globe atop the Daily Planet building is unmistakable on the Metropolis skyline and might as well be a bulls-eye for super villains bent on destroying the city. But pedestrians know that when it falls –and inevitably, it falls– Superman will swoop in at the last minute and save them all (The globe, however, isn’t always so lucky. The sculpture budget for that building must be absolutely astronomical).
Though well known today, the Daily Planet building wasn’t always so critical to the Superman mythos. In fact, when the Man of Steel made his 1938 debut in the page of Action Comics #1, it didn’t exist at all. Back then, Clark Kent worked for the TheDaily Star, in a building of no particular architectural significance because, well, there was no significant architecture in those early comics. The buildings were all drawn as basic, generic backdrops with little distinguishing features that did little more than indicate some abstract idea of “city”.
As noted by Brian Cronin, author of Was Superman a Spy? and the blog Comic Book Legends Revealed, Kent’s byline didn’t officially appear under the masthead of a paper called The Daily Planet until the 1940 Superman radio show, which, due to the nature of the medium, obviously couldn’t go into great detail about the building. That same year, The Daily Star became The Daily Planet.
But the lack of any identifiable architecture in these early representations of the Planet hasn’t stopped readers from speculating on the architectural origin of the most famous fictitious edifices in funnybooks. Unsurprisingly, Cleveland lays claim to the original Daily Planet. But so too does Toronto. And a strong case can be made for New York. So what was the true inspiration behind the iconic Daily Planet building?
The second McDonald’s every built and the oldest still standing, in Downey, CA. (image: Alan Hess via Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians)
When the ancient Romans marched through arches, it was a celebration of victory, an end to long-fought battles and distant travels. Today, when we march through arches, it is a celebration of globalization, efficiency and Shamrock Shakes. Long before McDonald’s golden arches stood for the triumph of globalization, they stood for the triumph of a hamburger stand and the impact of the automobile on American culture and architecture. In a 1986 article for the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, architect Alan Hess explains the origins of McDonald’s famous arches.
Hess writes that in the early 1950s brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald hired architect Stanley Clark Meston to design a drive-in hamburger stand that carried on the traditions of roadside architecture established in the 1920s and 1930s. The brothers McDonald had some experience with previous restaurants and a very clear idea of how they wanted their new venture to work – at least on the inside. Meston described the design as “logically dictated by clear program and commercial necessities” and compared it to designing a factory. Though he didn’t necessarily consider himself a modernist, Meston’s pragmatic, functionalist approach reveals, at the very least, a sympathy with some of the tenets of Modernism. Function before form. But not, it would appear, at the expense of form.
And anyway, the exterior had its own function to fulfill. In an age before ubiquitous mass media advertisements, the building was the advertisement. To ensure the restaurant stood out from the crowd, Meston decided to make the entire building a sign specifically designed to attract customers from the road. Now, many architects have speculated that McDonald’s iconic Golden arches have their origin in Eero Saarinen’s 1948 design for the St. Louis Gateway Arch or Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s unbuilt 1931 design for the Palace of the Soviets. But they tend to read little too much into things. The answer is much simpler.