To see how thinking about LEGO can help us with such matters, consider three scenarios, the first two about real-world architecture:
• First, you tell a friend that you visited the Eiffel Tower and you realize that, oddly, she has never seen it and has no idea what it looks like. You describe the soaring steel structure and sketch it
LEGO® and Philosophy: Constructing Reality Brick By Brick, First Edition. Edited by Roy T. Cook and Sondra Bacharach.
© 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2017 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
out on a napkin. It’s such an iconic design, you note, that folks think “Eiffel Tower”—and even “France”—no matter where they see anything like that shape or form. That would be true even of a shoddy replica built in your local park.
- • Second, your friend now tells you about a special house by Frank Lloyd Wright where the building responds aesthetically to, and is integrated in, its surrounding environment. That sounds like Fallingwater, you say, where Wright designed the structure to look of a piece with the nature around it, suspended over a waterfall. The structure and environment seem so mutually responsive in their aesthetic natures, you and your friend agree, that it’s hard to think of that building placed anywhere else.
- • Third, you and your friend build a group of houses using only “original LEGO world” elements.1 You look at your collaborative architectural creations and pronounce them as great models for houses that could be built anywhere. Your friend, however, claims to have imagined them specifically as built on the Greek island of Mykonos. You shake your head and protest that they would work equally well as houses in Milwaukee. Indeed, you continue, what era we built them in doesn’t matter, nor the ways imagined people—or, in contemporary LEGO worlds, minifigs—might use the houses. What gives these houses their unique aesthetic identity is their design and the forms of the LEGO elements we used.
These scenarios illustrate two very different ways of thinking about architecture. On the one hand, we might think architectural objects (more commonly, “works of architecture”), like buildings, bridges, and aqueducts, have forms that stand on their own, and which thereby don’t depend on historical, environmental, or any other contexts. We don’t need to understand their contexts, in short, to create, visualize, or judge the architectural objects or their features. That seems like it might be true in the Eiffel Tower case. On the other hand, we might think that architectural objects are best understood (maybe only understood) if we have one or more kinds of contextual information, as in the Fallingwater case. The former view is sometimes spurned in architectural circles, on the grounds that we pay great practical penalties by ignoring contextual information—such as environmental fit—when we put up buildings for real people to use in different environments. That said, a long line of architects from the twentieth century on deploy similar designs in many different contexts.
This is where the third case—houses built with original LEGO world elements—is of interest. Your friend is convinced that those houses are inspired by, or best suit, a specific Greek island setting, and it would be pointless to question her reported inspiration or imaginative conception. Yet your thought—that the location or other contextual factors do not matter to the aesthetic identity of the homes—if true, seems to undermine your friend’s claim. For if we could imagine those LEGO structures as built anywhere, then the fact that your friend imagines them in Mykonos is a colorful, charming vision but not one that fixes the nature or identity of those houses. Two questions arise, then: whether it is true that structures we design with original LEGO world elements sustain the same aesthetic identities though we imagine them as located in varied contexts, and what that might entail for architecture in LEGO worlds or the real world.