Flying into Lego City on a Passenger Plane, you can see the city laid out below you in a grid: squares of green, wide roads of gray, and a tidy coastline of blue squares. It’s early, but already the Tipper Truck is out fixing the potholes and the Garbage Truck is collecting trash and recycling. At the Harbor, the crane is unloading goods onto a truck on the dock, while next door at the Marina the lifeguard is ready to go on duty. A high-speed Passenger Train is just pulling into the Train Station. And over at the Space Center, John Glenn will be happy to see that there’s a Space Shuttle awaiting its next trip to the International Space Station.
I think not. The city you get when you build all the sets in Lego City is an urbs founded on the stereotype of boy busyness, a place that makes 3-D the transportation, safety, and sports obsessions writ large on the T-shirts in the boys’ sections of major retailers. Normal animals are not enough: There’s no zoo but, instead, the Jurassic Park–inspired Dino Defense HQ, where, the promotional copy thrills, “the heroes are preparing to battle the mighty dinos. Equipped with a communications centre, laboratory and tranquillizer refilling station, it’s a hive of activity. That is, until the mighty dinos attack!”
The city Lego makes reflects just as badly on the company’s vision of boys. Don’t boys like to bake, design, and invent too? But in their gray-and-blue part of the city, it is all action, no thinking, while the girls are stuck in a demi-urban paradise of fashion and animals. You have to dive deep into the website to find the sets that really foster creativity: a big bin, mostly air, of miscellaneous pieces of all shapes, sizes, and colors. There are never enough wheels or windows, never mind the add-on pink and purple pieces.
In many minds, Lego stands for creative, spatial, mainstream play. That’s why the company’s move away from gender- and outcome-neutral sets matters. And that’s why its version of the world we live in is ultimately so disturbing. For the sets to really work as building blocks for experimentation, you have to have a mountain of colored pieces, as you’ll find at the National Building Museum’s Lego Play Area. The accompanying exhibit shows polished structures made by a certified profes-
sional, but in the play zone there’s been enough structural innovation for a Field Fellow to make a study of the results. Back in 2010, the graphic designers of Physical Fiction built a very grown-up letterpress out of Lego bricks, producing posters that looked like cross-stitch. LittleBits, a new toy that was the subject of a recent TED talk, incorporates circuits into tiny building blocks, giving users the ability to control with light and sound as well as shape. Lego is a creative toy when there’s room to roam, to go off-book. The more Lego emphasizes sets with specific ends, and without any extra pieces for freestyling, the less it fulfills its historical role as a starter kit for architects.