LEGO and Formalism

To answer the first question, it’s helpful to consider what we might mean by the aesthetic nature or identity of an architectural structure (LEGO or otherwise). A simple answer is that we mean whatever makes the structure distinctive or unique, relative to typical aesthetic properties like being beautiful, sublime, compelling, vibrant, and so on. These are the sorts of properties we associate with evaluation of architectural objects, their elements, or our experiences of them— much as with artworks more broadly, or as with anything we appreciate aesthetically.

So, your friend’s context-bound view of aesthetic identity says that something about their context—perhaps their location—shapes the aesthetic nature or identity of our LEGO houses, as with Fallingwa- ter. You take an opposing tack, suggesting that it’s rather a set of internal, non-contextual properties—generally fundamental, standard, and quantifiable—of those LEGO houses or the Eiffel Tower that yields their aesthetic properties, and so determines those objects’ aesthetic identities.

You are espousing, broadly, a version of formalism, a view that says aesthetic properties of an object arise from its formal properties. For example, color, shape, or organization, yield unity, symmetry, or balance. Formalism typically suggests that our experience and assessment of those properties justifies the aesthetic judgments we make about architecture. While formalism comes in many varieties,

I’ll suggest a general version, pertaining to the original LEGO world of basic bricks and other architectural, non-figurative elements (pre-1976 designs), which accounts for how we identify and evaluate aesthetically its architectural creations (as opposed to, for example, its sculptural creations).

First, though, let’s get a better idea as to why anyone might be a formalist in speaking of architecture of any kind, whether real world or LEGO world. So far, we have suggested that we might not need to take into account contextual information to understand architectural objects. As motivation goes, this would only provide us with a negative spur to formalism. For positive motivation, proponents of formalism take note of what makes architectural objects distinctive. Unlike objects of other artforms such as drawing or sculpture, architectural objects are not representative; they do not usually represent other things in the world. (One sort of exception are objects like The Big Duck of Flanders.2) Accordingly, we cannot judge them aesthetically in terms of how they relate to external reality, yet we can appreciate them aesthetically in terms of internal features. In addition, formalists highlight the key role of operations on forms, and relations among forms, in architecture. The architectural design enterprise revolves prominently around the manipulation, aggregation, arrangement, and association of constituent forms, in order to constitute greater forms. Formalists take this to indicate that what we primarily think about aesthetically when we think about architecture is its forms, their relations, and their properties.

These last motivations for formalism in architecture should have particular resonance with those who dwell, at least in spirit, in the “original LEGO world.” That world, like other (more diverse, complex) LEGO worlds, constitutes a modular system for construction, and comprises forms with basic formal properties that lend themselves to creating larger forms with appreciable aesthetic qualities. Original LEGO elements are standardized, interlocking plastic bricks and other parts that fit together with the bricks. Further, such LEGO elements offer an exemplary uniformity in building forms. Designing or building architectural objects in the original LEGO world, consequently, is an exploration of how those forms are best combined to fashion larger forms constituting whole, independent structures.

Further hallmark features of original (and other) LEGO elements build on their uniformity of forms and facilitate—in a special, characteristic way—exploration of combinations into larger forms. One hallmark feature is versatility—their capacity for (a) joining with other components and (b) yielding extensive design and deployment possibilities. A second feature is backwards compatibility with existing components. A third feature is ease of disassembly for reuse—which also guarantees persistence of uniformity among the basic forms. Together, these features contribute to a design experience and universe of built structures where formal operations and relations play a core role in architecture in many LEGO worlds. Such operations and relations include brick stacking, serial concatenation (lining them up), shape composition, boundary definition, and much else. Each such operation or relation is central to designing LEGO architectural structures—whether at the macro-level of designing entire structures, or the creation of component parts of those structures. In this way, pursuit of architectural design for the original LEGO world assumes the hallmark features in each brick to be deployed.

We might well not expect to find beauty in any single brick or other formal element: that need not be a hallmark feature at the elemental level. (If we did, we should likely take every brick to be beautiful albeit not in its own special way.) But if, in virtue of hallmark features we have identified—and the constraints and direction they impose on LEGO design—we find beauty in architecture in the original LEGO world, then it might seem that we arrive at a classic formalism. In short: the nature of beauty in original LEGO world architecture, and our appreciation of it, is greatly or even solely shaped by the basic forms, their hallmark features, and their operations and relations. And the same should hold for other aesthetic properties—for example, balance, or gracefulness—in the original LEGO world.

The case for formalism is not, however, yet made. In the story so far, assembling basic parts of objects with the right sorts of features (e.g., LEGO bricks) results in whole objects (LEGO houses) that have aesthetic properties like beauty. So we may find tempting the idea that those basic forms and their attendant features, conditions, and principles are primary factors determining the nature or appreciation of aesthetic properties in the whole objects. But that story doesn’t guarantee formalism because it doesn’t identify those forms and their features as the only things that determine such aesthetic properties.

Looking in another direction, we might be formalists about LEGO architecture in the original LEGO world because of the partial similarity between original LEGO world elements as nonrepresentative and the generally non-representative nature of architectural designs. Perhaps original LEGO world architecture tends to be non-representational because of, or as abetted by, the solidly non-representational nature of original LEGO elements. But that line of thought is a dead end. As the sculptures of Nathan Sawaya and others suggest, the standard, uniform forms of original LEGO elements make them useful for representative, as well as nonrepresentative, possibilities.3 This much parallels the range of design possibilities for real-world bricks for real-world buildings (which tend to be non-representational). Original LEGO world architecture, in this regard, is no more governed by formalism than is real-world architecture.

From a different angle, some might see formalism as a better fit with original LEGO world design than with real-world architectural design. LEGO elements have a generally fixed or non-malleable nature: they can’t be bent, curved, or otherwise reshaped without a certain kind of engineering—such as heating to warp—that transgresses the spirit of the original LEGO world (however permissible such methods are in use or practice associated with some LEGO worlds). We are wedded to the edges that the basic elements define.4 As a consequence, architectural design in the original LEGO world, insofar as it models the real world, is an art of approximation. And to the extent that the promise of fidelity is needed for optimal representation, original LEGO architecture can’t aspire to optimal representation but is perfectly suitable as a non-representative medium. At this point, the formalist may insist on a small victory: if architectural objects have representational deficiencies, our appreciation of them best plays to their internal, formal features. Formalism in original LEGO world architecture, on this view, is a byproduct of LEGO architectural objects doing a poor job of representation because of the nature of their constituent elements.

There are, however, at least two problems. First, just because pure, uniform, or standard forms are fundamental to the nature of original LEGO world elements, we cannot land on formalism as the only or best account of aesthetic properties of original LEGO world architectural objects. That requires dismissing competing accounts of how such properties may be constituted. Second, we have not yet made a case for formalist evaluation. We might grant that aesthetic properties of original LEGO world architectural objects arise from formal features and yet hold that our aesthetic judgments are not inescapably formal in character or origin. For example, we might judge a LEGO built structure—say, a bridge—as bold or brash because it defies our expectations as to how we generally imagine bridges to look or how we generally imagine them to be designed with LEGO. Those prior expectations could be informed by our best understanding of LEGO forms and formal properties but they could also be informed by, say, our general familiarity with bridge structures.5

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