A LEGO art work by Nathan Sawaya
LEGO Architecture is destroying our creativity.
LEGO is among the most influential toys of the 20th century, leading thousands of kids—and adults—to understand the joys of building and making. As a kid playing with LEGOs, your individual aspirations were limited only by your attention span, as the multi-colored blocks freed your imagination. The toy exerts a pull on adults as well, whether this manifests itself in built works or mere nostalgia. Furthermore, almost all agree that LEGOs are an important tool in developing intelligence and creativity, both in children and grownups.
LEGO is only too happy to promote this point of view; in fact, it might even have originated the idea. Visitors to the LEGO website can make their way to The Learning Institute, a portal seemingly tailored to reveal LEGO as an answer to every parent’s desire for educational and enjoyable toys. The Learning Institute even provides its own terminology to describe the role of LEGOs in intellectual development, deploying “systematic creativity” as symptomatic of its provided education services.
LEGO's rendition of Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye
The entire argument hinges on the idea that there are multiple types of creativity—combinational, exploratory, and transformational—and that these can be directed toward developing either artistic or scientific skills. LEGO, argues the Learning Institute, develops all of these types of creativity while simultaneously supporting both skill sets. This is where the weak form of systematic creativity comes in: Providing a simple set of limitations to possible activities focuses decision-making on meaningful issues. That is to say, one spends energy deciding on color and form, rather than having to worry about how the blocks join to each other.
This analysis of LEGO's developmental impact certainly bears out—both in anecdotal evidence and, most likely, in any study LEGO has commissioned. However, it seems as if the sort of learning discovered through play and exploration can only take place in an environment with many options and lots of flexibility. And without the large degree of interchangeability offered by LEGO’s sandbox-style sets, the "systematic" overwhelms the "creativity."
Sadly, this latter scenario seems to be the case with the LEGO Architecture series, which now includes 18 sets either released or announced. The series models famous buildings like Fallingwater and Burj Khalifa in LEGO miniature. While LEGO Architecture seems intended for a more adult audience, and is likely positioned as a set of collectibles, it still falls short in terms of creativity, for several reasons.
First, the sets are often extremely small and offer limited choices for customization. Second, they are intended to be specific representations of real-world buildings, presenting a psychological barrier to alteration. And finally, the models lack a fine degree of detail and thus are not re-imaginable as other built forms. In short, LEGO Architecture encourages the imitation of design masters rather than the exploration of the very issues inherent in design: decision-making, space-making, and formal experimentation.
Granted, the sets are beautiful. And it's thrilling to re-construct buildings like Villa Savoye or the Guggenheim Museum, even in miniature. But once these models are complete, that's it: They sit on a shelf to be admired, but we might not interact or play with them again.
A piddly Sydney Opera House in front of Jorn Utzon's masterpiece.
LEGO Architecture is not the only culprit, however. The toy company has been rolling out other increasingly specialized sets for a while now, often related to pop-culture events like movie or video game releases, such as The Hobbit, Super Heroes, and SpongeBob SquarePants series. Rather than the themed sets from the mid-90s, which featured a large number of fairly standard and re-purposeable blocks (the Egyptian sets particularly come to mind), these new versions contain fewer variables and consist of mostly specialized pieces that only make sense to use in the context of that single set. They also read more as action figures than as participatory constructions, as if the focus were on playing with the finished item rather than on building it.
All this prompts us to question how strongly the company is adhering to the vision of its founder, who “believed that children should not be offered ready-made solutions.” This is where the strong form of "systemic creativity" comes in: the need to closely follow instructions introduces more constraints into the process of building. LEGO would say that this further guides decision-making, enhancing creativity by removing from consideration variables that should be incidental to the intended method of play. These sets, such as the Lord of the Rings series, set a similar tone to that of LEGO Architecure: that storylines, like building designs, should be imitated or taken as given.
The LEGO Line by MEGX
The effects of LEGO on the architecture of the past 20 years and into the present is largely subtle—it's simply one of many factors that push individuals into the design field. Sometimes, however, its influence is more pronounced. Just look at the ever-growing crop of real-life structures that imitate LEGO aesthetics—the pixelated or blocky contours seen in this footbridge by Michael Jantzen, for example, or the orthogonal-or-bust forms of BIG's LEGO Museum (below). Some of these even go so far as to copy the delicate details of LEGO blocks, such as the circular joints on their undersides. These buildings preserve the image of LEGO as a flexible system, an image that is increasingly in jeopardy of being overwhelmed by specialization.
Rendering of the LEGO Museum by BIG
Though LEGO keeps many sandbox sets available online and in LEGO Stores, it would be better if the company marketed these as aggressively as its newer, more expensive specialized sets. The risk is that an entire generation might grow up without the joy and discovery of the original LEGO experience, though the company can be sure that another industry player will eventually step in to fill the void left behind. So far, indications point to Minecraft as the most likely LEGO usurper, but since gravity remains an ever-important limitation on architectural enterprise, LEGO, and toy systems like it, still have a large role to play.
LEGOs have been, and will continue to be, a vital part of the childhood toy repertoire. The question is whether it will maintain that same ability to foster independent and creative thought in youngsters. Constructing free-form LEGO objects is one of the main ways a child becomes confident in his or her ability to build and create, a confidence that surely does not come from meticulously following instructions. So when it comes time to buying LEGOs, save the architecture sets for yourself and invest in a bucket of classic blocks for your kids.
Minecraft the usurper?