I watched children (and also adults) busily absorbed in designing their own Lego creation - choosing from 200,000 Lego bricks placed within the exhibit as a hands-on activity for visitors. Some kids were likely inspired by the impressive Lego models of famous skyscrapers and other buildings displayed there. Many kids immediately dove into the “bottomless pit” of Lego bricks, jazzed by the opportunity to build something wonderful from their own imaginations.
And children DO love to build things--whether they create imaginary worlds or smaller versions of the real one. Construction toys are quite literally and figuratively “the building blocks of childhood.” Playing with them builds physical and intellectual skills--and encourages creativity. Toy bricks, logs and girders are the stuff of playtime joy!
Over the last 150 years, entrepreneurs have introduced innovative construction toys that have delighted generations of children. Which is your favorite?
District School Building Block Set, 1876-1886. THF300131. (Gift of Mrs. Clemens August Haass)
After the Civil War, the Charles M. Crandall Company’s building blocks were all the rage. Like Lego bricks, they could be easily and securely linked together in a “thousand and one” ways. By 1879, Crandall offered 28 sets of interlocking blocks and jointed figures.
This “District School” set was a miniature version of a common childhood experience of the era: the one-room rural school. Crandall advertised that children would “laugh over this group of teachers and scholars” as they built the school and arranged the figures. The “District School” had playful appeal, combining entertainment with education--children could learn their alphabet while having fun.
Tombstone cutter Charles Pajeau noticed how much fun his children had sticking pencils into empty thread spools and assembling them into imaginative forms. So, he designed a shorter wooden spool with one hole drilled in the center and a series of holes along the edge. Kids could now build at angles and connect multiple dowels at once. Tinkertoys were born! In 1914, Pajeau started a company to produce and market the toy.
As toy marketer A.C. Gilbert rode the train from New Haven to New York on business, he watched as workers erected an electrical system along the railroad line using steel girders that had been riveted together. This inspired Gilbert to design a construction set for older boys with metal girders, panels, wheels, gears, and pulleys. His marketing spoke directly to boys, encouraging them to build.
Boys used their Erector sets to build small versions of steam engines, Ferris wheels, zeppelins, bridges, elevators, trucks, cranes, and other devices. The toy not only delighted boys--it also appealed to their parents, who appreciated the way Erector sets could introduce their kids to careers in engineering. The company even offered “degrees” from its “Engineering Institute.”
Lincoln Logs, about 1960. THF6627 (Gift of Steven K. Hamp)
John Lloyd Wright, son of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, invented Lincoln Logs. Introduced in 1916, these sturdy, miniature logs had interlocking notches. Lincoln Logs were named after Abraham Lincoln, who was born in a log cabin.
After World War II, Lincoln Logs got another boost as they became an iconic Baby Boomer toy. In the 1950s, nostalgia for the American West and the frontier had kids crafting log buildings with their Lincoln Log sets. With their nostalgic connection to America’s past, Lincoln Logs were marketed as “America’s national toy.”
Legos, developed in Denmark during the 1950s, first appeared in the United States in 1962. With their small interlocking studs and tubes, Lego plastic bricks held together well - yet could easily be pulled apart. Lego bricks offered “no limits on what you can build.” Two Lego blocks could be joined in 24 different ways. Six blocks--over 100 million ways.
Lego bricks can be assembled and connected to create buildings, vehicles, and even human figures. Though the design and purposes of individual pieces have evolved over the years, each Lego brick--whether made in the 1950s or the present--remains compatible in some way with existing pieces.
Duplo bricks - larger sized versions made for preschoolers - debuted in 1969. They were easier for tiny hands to maneuver.
Over the years, Lego has created Lego sets with a variety of themes, including space, pirates, castles, robots, and the Wild West. They have licensed themes from popular cartoons, films, and video games--like Batman, Harry Potter, and Star Wars.
With their endless creative possibilities, Lego bricks have staying power--and fans worldwide. In 2000, Legos were named “Toy of the Century” by Fortune magazine and the British Association of Toy Retailers.
As a kid, I loved to design and build houses. Growing up, my siblings and I had Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, and an Erector set. I rather envied my friend--she had Block City, pre-Lego plastic bricks with architectural details like doors and windows (which Lincoln Logs lacked). My grandmother (who sewed a lot) kept a box full of empty spools and some wood scraps for us to build with--we created imaginary “towns” all over her living room floor. She never seemed to mind.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
I’ve already shared some thoughts on the 2017 North American International Auto Show, but one important new car wasn’t yet revealed during my visit last week. Of course, I’m talking about the LEGO Batmobile from Chevy.
My tastes in bat-transportation run more traditional, but Chevy has something going for it here. The LEGO Batmobile’s 20,000-horsepower rating makes it eight times as powerful as the Goldenrod land speed racer. Likewise, the V-100 engine’s 60.2-litre displacement is more than eight and a half times what it took for the Mark IV to win at Le Mans fifty years ago. The LEGO Batmobile’s styling achieves that rare combination of aerodynamic and exquisite, certain to turn heads on every street corner. Be sure to order the optional bat hood ornament – superior to anything by Lalique. (Besides, everybody knows that bats eat dragonflies.)
(This story ran in the fall edition of Living History magazine)
At first, you can’t quite believe your eyes — towering models of architectural icons, some of them 18 feet tall. The Empire State Building. St. Louis' Gateway Arch. Frank Lloyd Wright's masterful Fallingwater. Shanghai’s Jin Mao Tower. They’re breathtaking.
What’s most remarkable, though, is that these models are constructed completely of LEGO® bricks. Not specially engineered bricks. No, these eye-popping models are made of nothing more than standard, out-of-the-box LEGO® pieces.
The models are all part of LEGO®Architecture: Towering Ambition, which runs until Feb. 24 in Henry Ford Museum.
Even though this is definitely a grown-up approach to LEGO® bricks, it’s hardly a somber one. As you make your way through this city of monumental plastic behemoths, the “wow” factor is in full force. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever see anything like this again. (Don’t worry — we haven’t forgotten the kids. There’s a LEGO® pit, where they can test their chops in LEGO® construction.)
But what exactly are these monster-sized creations? LEGO’s latest marketing gimmick? The work of a madman or an off-kilter visionary? The obsessive project of a guy with way too much time on his hands?
“I wouldn’t call myself obsessed,” laughs Adam Reed Tucker, the 40-year-old Chicago architect who created these behemoths. “I consider myself an innovator, so maybe a better word is ...” He pauses, looking for precisely the right word to describe what it is that drives him.
It’s a revealing moment. This isn’t just a guy searching for a word. This is a glimpse at Tucker, the perfectionist — exacting, precise, focused and determined to find the absolute best way to accomplish a task, even if it’s just searching for a better word. You hear it when he talks about his work. And you most definitely see it in these immense models.
A few minutes after he resumes talking, he interrupts himself.
“Maybe ‘driven’ is a better word,” Tucker says. But right away, you sense that he’s not satisfied with it.
This show, organized by the National Building Museum in Washington D.C., has proven to be one of the most popular in the 27-year-old museum’s history. That’s hardly surprising, given the prodigious combination of skill and imagination that Tucker’s lofty creations demonstrate.
It’s this combination that led LEGO® to award him the status of LEGO® Certified Professional. But Tucker, who created these works before he had any official standing with LEGO®, downplays the title.
“Really, all you have to have is an existing brick-based business,” says Tucker. But then, almost as an afterthought, he mentions another prerequisite. “You have to use the LEGO® brick in a way that is unique and innovative.”
Apparently, that last requirement is not particularly easy to satisfy, as Tucker is just one of 11 people in the world to receive the certification.
“I’m consumed with exploring and pushing the envelope of where the LEGO® brick can go,” says Tucker, speaking by telephone from his home in suburban Chicago. “I’m enamored by all of the usefulness that LEGO® harnesses within itself — education, philosophy, team-building, therapy, art, science.”
Notice that he never mentions the word “toy.”
“Here’s the thing,” says Tucker, finally getting to the idea he’s been champing at the bit to share. “LEGO® is my artistic medium. These bricks are, to me, what paint is to a painter, what metal is to a blacksmith. My medium of choice is plastic bricks that happen to be called LEGO®.”
Marc Greuther, The Henry Ford’s chief curator, understands precisely what Tucker is talking about.
“Even as a child, I understood that there was something rational and linear about LEGO® bricks,” says Greuther. “But I also understood that they were not literal. They were not something that existed in the real, grown-up world. You could use them to build things that were fanciful. But what you built was a reflection of your imagination and not of an architect’s drawing.”
It’s no coincidence that Tucker refers to himself as an “architectural artist.” You won’t find him doggedly following blueprints or schematics as he makes his structures. He’s trying to capture the essence of these buildings, not mimic every tiny architectural element. Compare a detailed photo of the original structure with one of Tucker’s creations, and you will immediately see that, while they are very similar to one another, they are not the same.
“I would be completely delusional to think that I could replicate anything in this world using square LEGO® bricks,” says Tucker. “I prefer to think of what I do as abstract interpretations. I let your imagination fill in the details. I’m more interested in a given structure’s pure sculptural form.
“Trust me, if you try to make something that a brick doesn’t want to be, it will not work. Even children eventually understand that.”
With one glance, it’s clear this isn’t your kids’ LEGO exhibit. It’s not that they won’t enjoy it, because they most certainly will. My 11-year-old son and his friend will attest to that. Their jaws were dropped in awe walking through the exhibit space. They were officially blown away. So were the adults.
I found the exhibit much more of an art exhibit than a toy display. We took the kids to the LEGO Castle Adventure exhibit in the same space just a few years ago, and although I wasn’t expecting a repeat theme, I certainly wasn’t imagining dramatic structures of this detail, beauty and scale.
LEGO artist Adam Reed Tucker takes the familiar building brick out of the box and uses it in some not-so-familiar ways to create remarkable replicas of some of the world’s architectural icons. Some buildings included in the exhibit are the Empire State Building, St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, the Sky Needle, Transamerica Pyramid, Shanghai’s Jin Mao Tower and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
Also part of the exhibit is Detroit’s Ford Field. The completed structure will be moved for unveiling and display at the field on Thanksgiving then returned to Henry Ford Museum the next day.
Tucker was on hand the opening weekend of the exhibit. He continued work on the Ford Field replica, took time to answer questions, sign autographs and even gave an impromptu tour.
An architect by trade and in practice, the tough economy put Tucker in a position of reconsidering his life’s work. After years of working with computer renderings in the business side of architecture, he had a desire to create with his own hands and inspire others to do the same. That’s where building with LEGO came in.
Tucker came up with a plan to use LEGO to recreate some famous buildings and sell them. In an effort to get reacquainted with the building bricks - he hadn’t built with them since before high school – he said he went to Toys R Us and filled 13 baskets with LEGO kits. (There was an audible gasp from the children present.)
Adam Reed Tucker demonstrates creative repurposing of a standard LEGO piece.
Tucker said the reason he chose LEGO was simple: to inspire others. “I wanted to teach people about architecture and encourage them to build models with just LEGO pieces. Using LEGO doesn’t require glue, putty or any special skills or tools.” He said the only difference in skill is in how you use LEGO. For many of the buildings in the exhibit, he creatively repurposed parts by at times using them in ways not originally intended.
Tucker came up with the concept of “artitecture” and his work eventually led him to an association with LEGO as a creator of LEGO Architecture sets.
Playing with LEGO as a child fed Tucker’s interest in architecture, and now in some ways he has come full circle. I asked him if he ever in his wildest dreams thought he’d be doing this, he laughed and said, “No, I didn’t.” But he also said he plans to continue doing it for the rest of his life.
I can honestly say, I will never look at a LEGO quite the same. I’m not sure if that means I won’t howl quite as much when I step on a wayward piece, but I will recognize the piece for the possibility, potential and inspiration it can bring to the minds of the young and old.
The exhibit includes a very large LEGO play area for visitors of all ages to put some of their newly found inspiration into practice. My son and his friend spent nearly two hours creating some architectural gems that they eagerly added to the growing LEGO city display table.
It seems like LEGO has been a part of my life since as far back as I can remember. What started as a few simple sets, like this basic building set from the collections of The Henry Ford, from friends and family has turned into hundreds of boxes sprawled over a customized workshop in my own house.
I was always good at entertaining myself as a child and took to LEGO early. The collection was initially stored in a small tub, but eventually graduated to a chest of drawers. I removed my clothes and found a less suitable storage solution for them. LEGO was far more important and this allowed me to hover over the drawers and build my creations on top of my dresser.
My parents somehow put up with this and continued to feed the obsession. Before I out grew my bunk beds, they were an ideal surface to create towns, space campus or medieval battlefields. I have a pretty strong imagination and LEGO helped grow and develop it.
To this day, when asked what I would like for Christmas, I always respond, "LEGO."
LEGO bricks are such a fascinating medium because you can visualize 3-D objects simply and effectively. It works best for creations that are angular with straight edges. It's also a great medium for prototyping simple machines and casting moulds.
So just how important are my LEGO sets? I designed and built a LEGO workshop in the basement of my house. Having a space like this has helped me tackle new projects, like picture mosaics and 3-D logos.
Were you at Maker Faire Detroit? If you were, than you might have seen me as Nick Brickly, host of my Brick Challenge game show. It's a LEGO-based game show similar to Double Dare. We ask questions and challenge contestants to mini-games. Join the fun on stage Saturdays in January 2013 at Henry Ford Museum.
I can't wait to see LEGO Architecture: Towering Ambition when it opens its doors tomorrow. Just like Brick Challenge, the LEGO Architecture series and the work of Adam Reed Tucker are great examples of how LEGO is more than a toy - it's a medium for creation and communication.
Nick Britsky is Royal Oak-based LEGO lover and maker. A participant of Maker Faire Detroit since 2010, you can catch him on stage at Anderson Theater this winter as part of LEGO Architecture: Towering Ambition's Saturday programming.