Lego: A Machine for Living

Just imagine having two million Legos!

The one fascinating thing about the Legoland theme park in Southern California is Miniland. The two-million Lego bricks compose a mini-world composed from five different cities in the United States. There are two other Legoland theme parks, one in Billund, Denmark, home of the Lego Group, and in Windsor, England. The small and simultaneously giant Lego structures immediately bring me back to my childhood, when I dreamed of building giant structures with an endless supply of Lego bricks. Compared to an actual building, the models in Legoland are quite small, built at 1:20 scale. However, by the imagination’s standard of measurement, they are enormous-the completed fantasies of a small boy.

These modular bricks can become almost anything: the Statue of Liberty, the Chrysler Tower, among a few. But how can square bricks become the Statue of Liberty? It’s all just a matter of scale, just zoom in on a photograph on a computer and its all square blocks. The Lego brick transcends itself and becomes part of a greater whole. So as not to offend the Postmodernists, let’s just say that the simple block design is more than meets the eye. In fact, you can combine six eight-stud bricks of the same color together in 102,981,500 ways. This is the genius of the Lego system. It is what kept my friends and me busy for so many hours. Unfortunately, the original Lego patent was too brilliant from a sales point of view. As soon as you have a small number of bricks there are almost endless combinations of ways to put them together, who needs to buy more?

And if you have saturated the market with 203,000,000,000 Lego bricks since 1949, what do you do? You create demand. How do you create demand? Boredom! You can’t have fascinated, busy, inspired children. They need to be bored and at the same time be filled with the idea that fulfillment is just around the corner with the next Lego adventure.

I was recently in Toys-R-Us looking for a Lego set for my soon-to-be niece and could not find the standard sets that I played with as a kid. Now, all the sets are small and highly specific. Everything is themed from Star Wars sets to arctic adventures. Directions are included to show you the correct way to assemble the pieces. You follow the directions and get something like the picture on the box. After that it’s on to the next set. It seems that Lego is pulling the old bait and switch at the Legoland site. You are shown the promise of unlimited possibilities in Miniland, but sold the limitations of the specialized set.

Is it possible that the modular Lego brick or the modular unit in general could somehow be more freeing or expansive than free expression? In an ideal world, this is not possible, but in the real world with limited resources (capital, time, labor) it just might work. Basically, the question is: Can a modular system give you more freedom than something that is totally custom (considering limited resources)? I’ll tell you what I think but I would like to hear what you think (see email address below). I have an interesting example of a building that seems like an expression of total freedom but actually looks like it is based on a modular system. I was modeling Fallingwater in my computer out of digital Lego bricks for a project that is entirely another discussion. But, to make the story short, the Lego model almost perfectly matched the drawings of the actual Kaufman House in Bear Run, Pennsylvania, give or take a few inches. Was Frank Lloyd Wright secretly playing with Legos?

It seems like the Lego system or a similar modular system would be perfect for creating housing solutions. The current archaic methods of designing and building housing are wasteful, expensive and inefficient. Can you imagine buying a car from a custom car designer? After they custom design the car for you, possibly even design a new prototype engine, build study models and then hire everyone to manufacture the design, your new car costs 10 million dollars. Does anyone feel that a Mercedes is less of a car because it is mass-produced and only costs 40 thousand dollars? As Le Corbusier wrote in Towards a New Architecture, "the problem of the house has not yet been stated." And it appears to be as true today, 80 years later. The car has dramatically improved since the ’20s, but has the house? No.

The reason is almost too simple: the problem of the car has been well-stated while the house has not. After the problem is stated, rules and standards are established and competition comes violently into play. Can a modular system like Legos be free enough to allow for individual expression but have enough rules and standards to truly allow for experimentation, study, theory, competition, efficiency and ultimately the advancement of the practice or profession of architecture?

Unfortunately, architects have always seen themselves as individual creators, long after modernism has passed. Architects still behave as individuals. Although, they no longer name practices after themselves, instead going with more vague titles (Cor-Tex, OMA, COA) to show the world that they have renounced modernism. Even large firms should be looked at as individual entities-0no meaningful exchange or cooperation between architects exists, no thought of being part of a group or profession. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) is an expensive farce. At some point architecture left the ranks of the "profession" and became a hobby.

The dictionary lists architecture as a profession right next to medicine. But let’s take medicine as an example. Medicine advances mainly because of the scientific method, a system in which a problem is stated, rules are established and the idea is tested. After the medical community has extensively tested the idea and it cannot be disproved it is accepted as a theory. None of this happens in architecture, architects work as insolated individuals. There seems to be no interest in creating a collective, concrete and testable knowledge. If you look at the AIA website, the perfect place to begin a discussion about the state of architecture, the site filled with sketches by the group’s members on their last Paris trip. This certainly looks more like a hobby than a profession.

No one is willing to take the risk of stating "the problem of the house." Of course this makes sense because why would the architect-the great thinker and shaper of civilization-reduce the vast and complex issues of dwelling to such a simple and specific level. And secondarily in the academic community there is fear that the cultural elite will cast out anyone who suggests ideas that don’t have a currently in vogue intellectual defense. Ironically, we need to reduce the ideas of architecture to the level of product design in order for it to rise again to a level of social importance.

I would like to start a discussion on "the problem of the house." While I am talking about modular solutions, you must understand that these ideas can also exist in parallel to many other conflicting ideas. It’s just one more product in the market. Track housing (the closest thing to manufactured housing) already exists next to avant-architecture. I also realize that there are many flaws in my arguments, but that is the precisely the reason to begin a wider discussion of this subject. My ideas fail to look at issues of the street, the town and other urban issues, but my point is to play the ideas through, test them and see if their solutions confront the relevant issues.

Every idea is based on certain assumptions and for the purpose of argument these are mine.

  1. People have an aversion to manufactured housing.
  2. People have the need to be perceived as a unique person.
  3. People value design but do not want to pay very much for it.
  4. There has been a recent public interest in design.
  5. People have become visually sophisticated because of the influences of TV, advertising, magazines, fashion and products.

The idea is to use a lock-together block system that is essentially the same as Legos, but with a scale change. The roof/floor system would carry all the electrical, HVAC, gas and water systems. By setting an exact reproducible standard, it will allow competition to enter the market and increase quality by using current manufacturing methods. There are already standards for building, but because of their inexact nature costs can only be reduced so far and the quality of construction is unreliable. Currently, buildings are overbuilt because of the inability to reproduce test results. Through quality, precision, design and cost as well as the marketing and advertising efforts of companies, I believe the first problem-people’s aversion to manufactured housing-would be alleviated. Companies like Sony, Nike, Gap, Mercedes, or any company that believes lifestyle is important in the sale of their products and image would quickly turn the public opinion.

Individualism: it seems to be the mantra of our time all Americans own manufactured cars, clothing, electronics, watches, furniture and somehow still maintain their individuality. Just like the Lego bricks, all these products can be combined in almost unlimited ways to maintain peoples sense of individuality. By creating standards in the housing industry different companies can produce their own unique version of the structure and more likely the interior. Competing companies would make kitchens, bathrooms, entertainment systems, the working components of the house. Sony may only be interested in creating entertainment modules, Mercedes may want to do entire houses, with different options for different price points, just like there auto line. 300,400,500,600 series houses. This modular attitude also allows for upgrades. Get in with the base model and upgrade without moving. By spreading the design costs of one design over the entire production run, builders can provide customers with great design at affordable prices. The third, fourth, and fifth assumptions easily follow from this approach. Everything I think and say is affected by the influences of television, advertising, magazines and fashion. By taking an approach like this modular design idea, a new aesthetic is also created which plays into the current aesthetics of our lives, what we see and hear everyday. Current housing solutions seem to be more out of place than these ideas. What do you think?