Block by Block

How Lego pieced together modernism

A cover of an old issue of The Walrus
Photograph by Raina Kirn and Wilson Barry

Lego is directly or indirectly responsible for everything from postmodern architecture (a crime) to middle class anal behaviors over the perfect lawn.”—Douglas Coupland, Microserfs

The Lego Group is the world’s second-largest toy manufacturer, after Mattel. Since 1958, the privately held company has churned out 565 billion interlocking plastic bricks, along with 4.4 billion “minifigures” to populate its sundry creations. Every hour, a global network of factories adds another 2.2 million pieces—easily making up for those lost to vacuum cleaners, sofa cushions, and accidental swallowing. With each brick (more than eighty for every person on earth), Lego translates high design into the vernacular.

Lego began in 1916, in the modest carpentry shop of Ole Kirk Christiansen, who built ladders, stools, and ironing boards for the farming community of Billund, Denmark. He turned to more affordable wooden toys during the Depression, selling his abacuses, pull-along ducks, and building blocks door to door. Kids, he noted, kept clamouring for construction toys that would enable them to build taller, more complex structures. Frank Hornby’s Meccano in England and A. C. Gilbert’s Erector in the United States offered such systems as far back as 1901, but they required screwdrivers and wrenches for assembly and disassembly, and their standardized metal pieces wore out over time. John Lloyd Wright’s Lincoln Logs—inspired by the interlocking, earthquake-resistant foundation that his father, Frank, engineered for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo—were highly reusable and needed no tools, but the notched timbers did not lend themselves to intricate or movable creations.

Convinced that he could do better, Christiansen turned to the plastic injection technologies that revolutionized industrial design after World War II, as consumers demanded inexpensive, durable, mass-produced goods. In 1946, he became the first toymaker in Denmark to buy an injection moulding machine, and began experimenting with cellulose acetate construction blocks. (Around the same time, California furniture designers Charles and Ray Eames were creating their moulded plastic and plywood chairs as low-cost alternatives to traditional wooden furniture.) Christiansen’s son Godtfred Kirk simplified his father’s brick design, perfecting its signature clutch power and switching plastics to the even more durable acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. For his colour palette, he looked to Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian’s Composition series: bright yellow, red, blue, and white. He patented the brick on January 28, 1958.

In Lego, the Christiansens conceived of a “system of play” that required no glue, knives, or specialized tools, and that would never wear out. The bricks’ forward and backward compatibility ensured that every piece worked with every other one. Equipped with imagination alone, the would-be builders were empowered to create, recreate, and dismantle anything—a powerfully modern idea.

When the poet Ezra Pound famously exhorted a generation to “make it new,” he did not mean only once. Rather, modernists set out to shape ever-new artistic forms and styles, pursuing the avant-garde as a way of asserting their autonomy over the established order. Likewise, making it new (over and over and over again) is an inextricable part of Lego’s DNA: just six two-by-four-studded pieces can be configured in 915 million ways. The Christiansens did not just revolutionize the toy world; they invented a physical lingua franca for modernism.

Artists, urban planners, and especially architects have spoken Lego for as long as kids have played with it. In 1963, the Hobby and Model Box (no. 750) introduced the thin plate, one-third the height of a standard brick, which allowed builders to better replicate—and develop—contemporary aesthetics. In The City after the Automobile, for example, Moshe Safdie describes how “constructing large models out of Lego, stacking plastic blocks representing houses one on top of the other,” led to his master’s thesis in architecture: Habitat ’67 in Montreal.

Forty years later, Adam Reed Tucker, an architect from Chicago, aimed to capture the sculptural essence of his favourite buildings in Lego, a medium that lent itself “as naturally to my applications as paint to a painter or metal to a blacksmith.” In 2010, he exhibited fifteen awe-inspiring structures in Architecture: Towering Ambition, at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC. The show, which has since travelled to other museums, proved popular with kids and adults alike, and inspired Douglas Coupland to host Cocktails and Lego soirées at the Vancouver Art Gallery last fall, where he crowdsourced towers for his own upcoming survey exhibition.

Tucker, forty-two, now plays with Lego full time, spending hundreds of hours on large-scale models, such as a 450,300-piece Burj Khalifa that stands more than five metres tall. One of a dozen recognized Lego Certified Professionals (independent enthusiasts whom the Lego Group considers “trusted business partners”), he began collaborating with the company in 2007, after it narrowly avoided bankruptcy. His smaller, architecture-themed creations are sold in museum shops around the world, for home assembly and display, targeting design-conscious adults (and their wallets) with New York’s Empire State Building, Chicago’s John Hancock Center, Seattle’s Space Needle, and Seoul’s Sungnyemun gate.

Of the twenty-six Architecture sets released so far, Farnsworth House seems to epitomize Lego’s relationship with high design, and modernism in particular. Built between 1945 and 1951, in Plano, Illinois, Mies van der Rohe’s one-room, 1,500-square-foot weekend home for a prominent Chicago nephrologist remains the acme of the spare International Style. The Lego version (no. 21009) comes in a sturdy black box, with the familiar faint smell of ABS plastic and a sixty-two-page booklet that describes the home as the “ultimate refinement” of Mies’s minimalist philosophy. In 546 monochromatic pieces, it mirrors the getaway, complete with elegant floating stairs and built-ins, expansive glass walls, Barcelona couch, and Tugendhat chairs. Yet this celebration of modernism stifles the very essence it seeks to recreate.

Lego designs, even those as exquisite as Tucker’s, should be fleeting—lasting just long enough to show to Mom and Dad, or to inspire another idea. Farnsworth House, however, leaves little room for improvisation. Like the theme’s other sets (the masterpieces of Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill), the $69.99 “building toy” comes with a sans serif nameplate, assembled in the final steps of Lego’s easy-to-follow instructions—the ones IKEA tried to copy. Upon completion, it becomes a static model, silently entreating, “Please, do not tear me apart,” and obfuscating the modern impulse. The set fosters the rote replication and veneration of an existing structure, rather than the ongoing dismantlement of the status quo.

Released last summer, the Architecture Studio (no. 21050) seems to temper that anti-modernist undertone, with 1,210 basic white elements and no prescriptive instructions. Instead, it contains a 272-page glossary of design fundamentals, tips, and tricks that inspire builders “to create your own architecture.” Safdie Architects, Tham and Videgård Arkitekter, and MAD Architects (which won praise for the so-called Marilyn Monroe Towers in Mississauga) have all endorsed the box’s creative potential; even DIY know-it-all Martha Stewart told The New York Times Style Magazine, “This will give me the opportunity to design the house that I’ve been dreaming about.”

Like the bestselling 1977 Universal Building Set (no. 400), or any $35 bucket of Lego sold at Walmart, the Architecture Studio foregrounds the inherent potential of standard bricks, most of which are available for ten or twenty cents apiece from the Lego Store’s Pick a Brick wall and its online equivalent. Nonetheless, the $150 set was packaged and promoted as a rarefied object, and built up by architecture magazines and design blogs. It sold out in a flash and now resells for upwards of $850 on eBay. Rather than democratize Lego and high design, the Architecture Studio reinforces the perceptions of Lego as an expensive toy, and modernism as an elitist artistic expression.

Of course, Lego is more than a lingua franca; it is also a business intent on survival. The patent for its cornerstone product expired in 1988, which means it must compete with such pretenders as Montreal’s Mega Bloks for the shrinking attention spans of a digital age, and the limited budgets of children and adult collectors alike. Hollywood tie-ins, which began in 1999 with Star Wars sets, have introduced another lucrative income stream, and in February the Lego Group partnered with Warner Bros. to release its first full-length motion picture.

Farnsworth House, Fallingwater, and Villa Savoye are about as far away as you can get from the suburban movie theatre where, on a recent Saturday morning in February, several hundred children and parents gathered as invited guests of the nearby Legoland Discovery Centre Toronto for a sneak preview of The Lego Movie. The kids were not even born when the same studio released The Matrix in 1999, and most overlooked the plot line similarities. Fewer still picked up on the subversive critiques of government surveillance programs and the ticky-tacky suburbia they had just come from. None realized that they were watching a 3-D primer on modernism.

The animated feature film draws on fifty-five years of Lego themes in telling the story of an average minifigure turned prophet, and it plays out like a giant Rubbermaid tub of bricks dumped onto the basement floor: pieces from the most popular theme, City, mix with those from the short-lived Western line. A maladroit astronaut from Classic Space collaborates with Batman.

The movie pits the powerful, uptight Lord Business against the unassuming construction worker Emmet Brickowoski, and in so doing personifies traditional modes of social organization and the droll avant-garde. Voiced by Will Ferrell, Lord Business exalts prepackaged Lego sets and hates how bricks alone encourage individual expression. With his secret weapon, a bottle of superglue known as Kragle, he plans to crush disorder and innovation, and render permanent the built environment. To save the minifigure version of humanity, Emmet, voiced by Chris Pratt, must embrace his inner design stream of consciousness and find the bravery to constantly recreate even the most absurd of ideas. He must take advantage of everything: the simple one-by-one round elements and rocket steps, oversized tires, and turkey drumsticks. He must mash Lego sets together and blur the lines between genre and age, time and space. He must make it new.

The Lego Movie celebrates modernism’s deliberate break with traditional forms, and legitimizes left-field aesthetics and constant reinvention in a way that the Architecture theme fails to do. What could easily have been a shameless marketing ploy affirms the Lego brick as an infinitely expressive medium. From skyscrapers to fine art, from the detailed to the abstract, it can build anything.

After they finished their popcorn and soaked up 100 minutes of all things Lego, the kids inevitably went home to recreate and reimagine what they had seen. Without specialized tools, they built. Without instructions or training, or the unlimited brick supply of a Lego Certified Professional, they realized the modernist spirit that a Danish* toymaker tapped in to six decades ago. The next generation of designers was at work—and hopefully destroying a Farnsworth House or two in the process.

* The printed version of this story called Ole Kirk Christiansen a Dutch toymaker. The Walrus regrets the error.

This appeared in the April 2014 issue.

Kyle Carsten Wyatt
Kyle Carsten Wyatt is a former managing editor of The Walrus.