Living in Lego City

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Police checkpoints. The Burj Khalifa. Bears. What kind of urbanism is Lego creating?

“LEGO City is busy. The police are looking for thieves, the fire brigade is on the move, the ambulance is off on rescue, the cargo train is fully loaded, and in the Airport the passenger plane is ready to take off.” —

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.

Safety is a watchword in Lego City. The Mobile Police Unit is ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice, should the Police Helicopter spot any illegal activities. It is hard to believe that any thieves could cross into Lego City, knowing the Forest Police Station is fully operational. And if the police, with their own helicopter and Jeep and a built-in holding cell, don’t catch the criminals, the bear (included) will.

But where do Lego City’s residents sleep? Eat? Shop? The green blocks are strangely empty. On the edge of town, kids are carving up the hills with their dirt bikes, thanks to the Dirt Bike Transporter, but what happens if they get thirsty? The only houses nearby (available as part of the Architecture series) are for the 1 percent: the Farnsworth House (that blue square looks awfully close) and Fallingwater.

Downtown, on the gray squares, the skyscrapers crowd closely together: the Burj Khalifa, the Empire State Building, the Willis Tower (renamed, even here). There should be a place to sit and watch the crowds at Rockefeller Center, but the scale is too small for benches or the skating rink. Down at the Marina, at least, you can relax at the Paradise Café and admire the brand-new Sydney Opera House. Now that Lego City has an opera house and a museum (the Solomon R. Guggenheim), it qualifies as a world-class city—right?

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!”

You have to go down an age group and up a scale, to the choking-hazard-free Duplo sets, to find the elements of a city with less gender specificity and more reality (that is, if you ignore Cinderella’s Castle and Creative Cakes). Two- and three-year-olds can build a house and a car. My First Supermarket. A Pet Shop. A Market Place. Duplo City starts to seem like a much more pleasant place. There’s still a Fire Truck, but also a Doctor’s Clinic.

Much has been written about the terrible gender stereotypes for girls embodied by the Lego Friends line, introduced late last year, but in surveying the entire Lego product line I found that if Friends hadn’t been created, Lego City would have had to invent it. Without Duplo and the Friends, there’s little to keep the city from becoming a soulless police state, with no public space, no domestic sphere—only competitive sports and lots of practice at saving the citizens from criminals and dinosaurs. Where’s the bank they are robbing, anyway? In Friends’ Heartlake City, there is suburban, middle-class Olivia’s House, with a garden (Dad grills, Mom mows the lawn). Here is the City Park Café and the Butterfly Beauty Shop. Except for all the hearts and butterflies (who decided, and when, that girls heart butterflies?), Heartlake City is much closer to my own urban experience. There’s even Olivia’s Inventors Workshop and Emma’s Design School—but are these suggested activities for adults or for kids? These seem like careers rather than interests, and more like the careers that result from creative play than a starting point. In Lego City, the boys grow up to surf and turf, carry guns, and pilot helicopters, while the Heartlake adults sell cupcakes and de-worm dogs.

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.

In their modular world, Lego Minifigures don’t have enough opportunities to interact, to try on different characteristics, to play. And if the company continues to let Disney and Pixar,
video games, and Barbie dominate its advertising and its product line, pretty soon real kids will have to look elsewhere for a toy that gives them the upper hand in building the city, the printing press, or the computer of the future. ▪

Alexandra Lange is an architecture and design critic whose work has appeared in Design Observer, Dwell, New York, and The New York Times. In March, Princeton Architectural Press published her second book, Writing about Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities.

Photo illustrations by Ben King.