Lego: can this most analogue of toys really be a present day urban preparing instrument?

One September day in 2005, the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson set up a handful of tables in a bustling downtown square in Tirana and unloaded 3 tonnes of Lego bricks. The Copenhagen-born, Berlin-based artist, acknowledged for his massive, immersive installations – he once installed a gigantic, glowing sun at Tate Modern day – included easy instructions: residents of the crumbling Albanian capital, which was recovering from the end of communist rule in 1990, had been to construct their visions for the city’s long term out of Lego. “Building a steady society,” Eliasson explained, “is only achievable with the involvement and co-operation of every personal.” As the days passed, absolutely everyone from youngsters to grownups, passers-by to committed customers, progressively turned the plastic rubble into a glistening white Lego metropolis.

Part artwork installation, component crowdsourced sculpture, part urban intervention, the accomplishment of the Collectivity Venture was a indicator, maybe, of our desire to become a lot more involved in imagining the choices for our cities, even if our bricks-and-plastic creations will eventually be taken apart and packed up in a box. But it also signals the Lego Group’s wish for its items to be believed of as much more than a child’s developing blocks. In small far more than a decade, the Danish organization has gone from a $ 300m loss to overtake Mattel, the makers of Barbie, as the world’s largest toy-maker. It has attained this by way of a canny mixture of movie franchising (The Hobbit, Star Wars, Harry Potter and, of course, The Lego Film), an ever-expanding universe of video video games (like Lego City for Nintendo) and even a forthcoming CBeebies Television present in 2016 primarily based on its long-operating Lego City line – featuring sets this kind of as Lego City Museum Break-In and Lego City Prisoner Transport.

MIT CityScope: Beta Testers use CityScope to explore the feasibility of placing new buildings in Kendall Square (Cambridge, MA).
MIT CityScope: Beta testers use CityScope to explore the feasibility of putting new buildings in Kendall Square (Cambridge, Massachusetts). Photograph: MIT Media Lab

But Lego has also produced an effort for the bricks to travel from the playroom to the boardroom, with the company attractive to artists, architects and other creative specialists to use their product as the constructing blocks for innovation. The Lego City video game may possibly be just that, a game but the company also donated 1m bricks to Dutch architect Winy Maas, who produced 676 scale-model skyscrapers for the 2012 Venice Biennale. (They also gave Eliasson those 3 tonnes of bricks.) This October, the Lego Group held a workshop in Copenhagen, ahead of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Adjust, that tasked shut to 700 kids with building ideas for a sustainable long term out of their items. Then there’s the recently released Lego Architecture Studio, a £149 instruction-free kit of white blocks that lets AFOLs (grownup followers of Lego) play Frank Gehry and produce their personal architectural masterpieces. Lego even sponsors an urban organizing task at MIT in the hopes that city planners, like architects just before them, may well use the bricks as equipment to remedy issues such as transportation and walkability.

It is at this point that one particular could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow. Urban areas are greater, denser, far more complex and much more reliant on technological innovation than ever prior to. Can this most analogue of toys – dreamed up by an entrepreneurial carpenter in Billund in 1932 – actually teach us how to construct better cities? Or is this just a sensible extension of the Lego brand, to persuade effectively-heeled mothers and fathers that an expensive Lego City Monster Truck is a severe educational toy? Surely urban planners themselves, laden with degrees and sophisticated insights into the ebb and flow of urban daily life, are not actually plotting our cities using Lego City Train Station?

The solution may well be identified in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where MIT’s CityScope has produced what managing director Ryan Chin calls an “urban observatory”. It is a 30x60in Lego model of the city’s Kendall Square, on to which investigation scientists venture digital data. For example, geolocated Twitter feeds from men and women working and learning in the genuine Kendall Square are mapped on to buildings traffic details is projected on the brick roads. The concept, explains Chin, is to get a sense of how people reside and operate in the city. “We can seem at flows of targeted traffic, goods and people, and flows of power,” he says. “What are the passive solar gains on a building? What are the shadows cast from a creating on to a roadway?” Details about family sizes, population numbers and walkability can be programmed to give, as he puts it, “a finely grained geospatial see of where factors are occurring in cities”.

In truth, computer software like this currently exists: Autodesk or Esri CityEngine enable planners to map all kinds of data on to virtual 3D models of buildings and cities. Urban regions are intricate, shapeshifting ecosystems that presumably can not be clicked with each other in an afternoon. Frequent sense suggests that a plastic city is as well pixellated and limited to support planners style resilient cities that can adapt to climate alter or discover remedies to demographic modifications and land use.

Chin argues, nonetheless, that it is exactly a lack of refinement that makes Lego valuable as a style instrument. He’s a fan of the malleability, interactivity and three-dimensional properties of the Lego model at CityScope. A former architect who has worked in car design and style, Chin sees flaws in traditional photorealistic renderings, which are usually “Photoshopped to death”, he says. “You can retain the services of the best photographer to make a residence look gorgeous, and you can retain the services of the greatest 3D-renderers to make a model search gorgeous.”

MIT Media Lab’s CityScope merges tangible models with digital information.
MIT Media Lab’s CityScope merges tangible designs with digital info

Lego, on the other hand, he describes as “pre-architecture”. The featureless bricks represent a city in progress, rather than a finished metropolis. By relocating a Lego office tower a few streets more than or, say, widening a Lego street, they can instantaneously check the consequences of preparing ideas. The addition of a sports activities stadium may have an effect on the location of a bus cease or subway station moving building X in front of building Y may disrupt traffic. Virtual reality technology this kind of as Google Glass gives visualisations but not the identical group interactivity, he says. And even though 3D printing, touted as the future of layout, could sooner or later provide the two the interactivity and rewards of rapid prototyping, it is nevertheless out of attain: a resin maquette of San Francisco made earlier this yr took two months to construct, cost $ twenty,000 and you cannot move the Golden Gate Bridge.

But outside the lab, are any urban planners really sitting about their offices with piles of blocks? Just as it is hard to think about Zaha Hadid whipping out a Lego set when dreaming up her Dongdaemun Design and style Plaza for Seoul, it is tough to image planners in London or Paris or Tokyo sitting crosslegged on the floor, mapping out a new enterprise district from plastic plates, tiles and minifigs. This is exactly where you suspect it could all be a clever move on the part of Lego: an extension of the brand that fits perfectly with how a company devoted to the notion of constructivist perform wants itself to be witnessed.

“One of Lego’s strengths is its impermanence,” says Paul Bailey of the London brand consultancy 1977 Design and style. “It’s becoming used in items like urban organizing since, at its core, Lego is about creating and innovation. It was never about generating toys that looked precisely like a spaceship.” A partnership with a group like MIT strengthens that image of innovation and creativity, and reconnects the firm to its original identity, back in the days prior to the film franchising and the brand partnerships. “I feel what Lego is possibly performing right here is reiterate, ‘We are a inventive platform.’”

It is that accessibility that offers Lego a bit of credibility in urban planning. Chin at MIT admits the blocks are most beneficial to use in participatory design and style, rather than for their technical specs. The CityScope group was just employed to generate an interactive Lego model for a new transit system in Boston, created to display residents and other stakeholders how the new transit will impact their local community, this kind of as its influence on commuting time and land value.


The completed city created in Olafur Eliasson’s The Collectivity Venture in 2005 in Tirana, Albania. Photograph: Olafur Eliasson

Other planners have also used Lego to bring typical folks into the arranging approach. Earlier this year, a workshop in London utilized the Lego Architecture Studio kits to get participants aged four to 84 to develop a city from scratch. “It was a fascinating workout,” says Finn Williams, who led the occasion. “Over 6 hrs you could almost see the classic stages of the evolution of a city.” Williams, an instructor at the Royal School of Art’s School of Architecture and a self-confessed “Lego fundamentalist” – he jokes that he took the Lego consultant gig because they paid him in bricks – began his job doing work for architects such as Rem Koolhaas, but switched to arranging simply because he noticed an possibility to influence not only buildings but neighbourhoods. “I felt like there was something going incorrect in the method ahead of architects picked up a commission,” he says. “The incorrect concerns have been becoming asked in briefs.” Element of the solution to bad arranging choices, he explains, is to involve the men and women who will be impacted. Lego is just one particular piece of the puzzle – or brick in the wall – but he believes it makes it possible for regional residents to see very first-hand the implications of design and style decisions. “Not numerous mediums allow folks to engage on level platforms in such an engaging and satisfying way.” He is a fan of Eliasson’s Connectivity Venture for that really purpose: “Where Lego is most profitable in urbanism is when is commences a conversation about the larger issues of arranging.”

In this sense, it does not matter that Lego can’t accurately model cities. The specialist “Lego builder” Warren Elsmore, who organised the Brick 2014 Lego conference in London last month and has created every thing from St Pancras Station to Amsterdam canal homes, advised me the realism of his designs relies on the identical kinds of tromp l’oeil effects you see in the castles at Disneyland.

Indeed, there is some thing uncanny about the way Lego can mirror our genuine cities. At his workshop in London, Williams gave the participants a couple of principles, a level playing area and then set them loose to generate their cities from scratch. However a pattern rapidly emerged. “There have been large, flat Lego baseplates that immediately took up all the space in the city and left no public realm,” Williams says. “We swiftly had to eliminate all these huge plates so men and women would be forced to think about their constructing in relation to the other people’s, instead of developing as significantly as they probably could.” Eventually, the participants began to demolish structures that didn’t fit the emerging cityscape. They had faced the very same perils, choices and issues in their Lego city as they may if doing work on a true a single.

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