Other LEGO Worlds and the Real World

Admittedly, I dwell in the world of original LEGO world elements when few others do. The LEGO universe has certainly moved on. Thus, nostalgia aside, we may ask why we should care. We might think the formalism of the original LEGO world is limited to just this one antiquated design world, and worry that it has little broader relevance for architecture overall. I suggest this formalism has significantly broader relevance.

First, the original LEGO world is the base case for all LEGO worlds, at least those that contain a subset of LEGO System i Leg elements. Subsequent worlds enhance our overall capacity for representation (more complex forms, moving beyond basic bricks) and for recreating specific real-world structures (model kits), and they enrich narrative possibilities (minifigs). If, however, we remove all these enhancements and create structures in those domains with the limited universe of forms that remains we see a basic LEGO design character common to all such creations. This suggests that the core aesthetic properties and judgments we identify in a wide variety of, or perhaps all, such LEGO worlds are best characterized by some version of formalism—even if only a moderate version.

Second, formalism is not limited to original LEGO world architecture but has a counterpart in real-world architectural models. This is unsurprising, as real-world architectural models have a good deal in common with architectural structures in the original LEGO world, regardless of whether those LEGO structures represent real- world architectural objects. Like architectural models, original LEGO world architectural structures often preserve scale (in a given vignette); draw on fixed sets of material elements to create physical instances of designs; highlight, simplify, or abstract elements of designs by physically instancing them; and give us pictures of (“model”) a system (here, a built environment system) that afford descriptions or depictions of behaviors of and in the system. Most importantly, and strongly suggestive of formalism, architectural models are like original LEGO world architectural structures in that we can appreciate them outside of context or history—they bear none of the actual architectural functions of the built objects they model.

As for real-world architecture generally, whether this LEGO formalism or anything like it applies depends in part on whether we think of architecture as consisting primarily of built structures, or as consisting primarily of the ideas for such built structures. In the latter view, architectural design concepts and their representations (modeled, drawn, or digitally rendered) look importantly similar to original LEGO world architectural structures. In particular, architectural design concepts may be shaped by context, yet subject to routine and trivial transformations. Nor are such concepts unalterably linked to specific functions. These features suggest that, as in the original LEGO world, real-world architecture is marked by at least a moderate formalism. For the proponent of concrete, built structures as the true and unique architectural domain, however, the parallel with structures in original LEGO architecture may be less compelling—and so, too, the case for formalism.

A further possibility is that architectural objects include built objects, corresponding underlying design ideas, and (in between) models or representations of those ideas, which may include LEGO architectural structures. Then we could imagine a formalist continuum: forms of real-world architectural objects might play a diminished (but non-negligible) role relative to aesthetic properties or judgments thereof, and forms in the original LEGO world a more prominent such role. In this moderate formalist scenario, too, original LEGO world architectural objects exhibit a feature central to—though not uniformly robust in—architecture broadly considered. If so, my LEGO tells us something important about your LEGO, and about architecture overall.

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