Many kids who grow up to be architects get their start with Lego, but how do architects play with Lego when they're not kids any more? To find out, the Lego Store in New York's Flatiron District, in collaboration with Architizer, recently held an event. There, they teamed architects from BIG, SHoP, HWKN, and Bernheimer Architects with students from Manhattan's Urban Assembly School of Design and Construction to create a new New York out of monochrome Lego blocks, unbounded by pesky budgets and zoning laws.
The scale of the projects that came out of the event ranged from "mere" skyscrapers to entire cityscapes. With the help of Lego designer Lars Hyldig, Alex Stewart from Bernheimer Architects constructed a thin tower that cantilevered and fold into itself, creating multiple levels of elevated public spaces, terraces, and gardens. But HWKN founder Mark Kushner wasn't satisfied with a single building, and instead, directed his students to build an entire cityscape, with each remarkably shaped building connected through a complex web of sky rails.
Kushner says this cityscape was, in part, inspired by a great Lego tragedy of his youth. "When I was 13, I built a very intricate Lego city that suffered a huge tragedy when it was accidentally hit with a vacuum cleaner," he tells me. "As I rebuilt the buildings I created memorials with plaques that I printed out on my dot matrix printer commemorating The Great Vacuum Incident of 1988. Legos didn't make me love architecture, but they gave my love of architecture a place to develop."
Stewart also says that playing with Lego as a child was a huge influence on his eventual career path. "Growing up, my two brothers and I had a massive collection of Lego blocks that we used to construct—and dismantle—whole imaginary worlds," he says. "I think the creativity that took, and the craft that made it happen, directly contributed to my career as a designer."
But is playing with Lego really all that similar to being a pro architect? Stewart says it's not as different as you might think, paralleling real-world design and construction quite closely. "For both, you're dealing with factors like structural integrity, material sourcing, and unit aggregation, as we're limited to blocks, planks, tiles, and so on," he says. There's even an analog to financing. "The same way we consider clients and their budgets as professional designers, I considered the contents of my piggy bank when choosing which Lego set to purchase and build. In both cases, compromise is a valuable lesson."
Still, there were some at the event who felt, if anything, that becoming professional architects had somehow made them worse at Lego. "If anything, being an adult and knowing realistic limits on what can and cannot be realized can actually limit your creativity," Kushner says. So consider the trade-off: If you want to become an architect, it might come at the expense of your Lego skills.
Photos: Dan Keinan