Somewhere in Billund–a tiny town with a gigantic international airport in the middle of Denmark–there’s a magical place that you can’t visit. A fantastic chamber hidden from the public, buried under a house burned down and rebuilt twice by a man with a crazy idea. That man’s name was Ole Kirk Christiansen. And that crazy idea was one of history’s best–an invention that affected the lives of billions of kids around the world for decades to come.
I stumbled upon this secret room in 2008 while visiting the old Lego House. A quiet, elfish woman with a big smile walked me down a flight of black stairs to a locked vault and said: “This is where your childhood dreams rest.” And it was true. She let me in, and I touched those dreams with my own hands. Blue spaceships, yellow castles, white monorails; all sleeping for decades, spooning each other. Inside this room sat all the Lego sets that had made me happy for years.
Today, my childhood dreams rest elsewhere. It’s not as secret, or as magical, but the new Lego House, which has finally opened its doors in Billund, is a fan wonderland on its own right.
Designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, the 129,200-square-foot center sits right in the heart of the city, replacing the old town hall. A gross case of corporate invasion of a public space? Perhaps. But when I was in Billund, it seemed like the entire town was already completely built around Lego. Even the street signage had Lego iconography on it. Billund saw Lego evolve, from its humble origins as a wooden toy shop in 1932 to its shift to interlocking plastic pieces in the ’60s to its current multinational corporation status. In a way, replacing the outdated bureaucratic building with the embodiment of the Lego company in architectural form is a metaphor of the town’s history, which saw itself grow from little village to international commerce hub thanks to the toy company.
The building is composed of 21 interlocking blocks, with stairs that allow people to climb to blocks’ roofs. It looks like a Lego Architecture set, right up to the circular skylights on the highest brick. In fact, the company is releasing a Lego Architecture set of the new building. (If you build it inside the real Lego House, it opens an inter-dimensional wormhole filled with demons–the same demons that visit parents’ homes at night to drop Lego bricks to be stepped on.)
According to Lego, its new visitor center contains lots of “experiences” for kids and adults. At its core, bathed in light, there is a fantastic stair built around a tree entirely made of Lego bricks. 6,316,611 to be exact. They call it the Tree of Creativity. I call it the Tree of If-I-ever-have-the-money-I’m-building-myself-a-Lego-house-on-a-tree-like-this:
There are other areas full of cool Lego displays. One looks like a paleontology museum with giant dinosaurs made of bricks. Another has a huge city model in which you can spend hours exploring different vignettes of life, all brightly illuminated.
My favorite part, however, is a dark room nested in the heart of the complex like a sanctum sanctorum. There, under moody, almost ritual lighting, sit five hundred of the most iconic Lego sets ever produced–complete with their original boxes. Circular touch screens allow you to explore the entire company catalog, going back to the ’60s, so you can find the sets from your memories. It’s called the Vault.
It’s as if the company finally realized what I discovered on that 2008 trip to Billund. Lego had it all wrong in the old Lego House. It didn’t understand that it was hiding the most powerful experience in the building. Inside that old restricted vault, the curator showed me the box of the Lego Space Galaxy Explorer–the set that shaped my childhood in ways I couldn’t have imagined. This is what I wrote back when I saw that unmistakable yellow box once again:
“A wave of emotions took control, hitting my head like a Lego Airbus 380. Dozens of images started to appear in my head, Polaroids of Christmas and birthdays that I thought were faded, completely fresh, color-corrected, and restored for a Blu-ray re-release […] There was my mother and father–who built a huge Lego ferris wheel and the Blue Train for us when we were too young to build it, then never stopped giving us new sets every year–and then my two brothers and my sister, playing on the rug, building all kinds of new and wonderful constructions populated by the strangest creatures. And that smell. The perfect smell of Lego bricks.”
Because, in the end, these shiny bricks aren’t just tools to build giant trees or cities or dinosaurs in a Lego museum. For millions of young (and old) people, these bricks are the material from which our childhood memories are built.
It’s only right that, to design the new Lego House, the company took that into account. It dug out the boxed treasure from the old vault and made it the heart of the new Lego House, a temple to the most powerful drug in the world: Nostalgia.