Lego: Can this kid’s toy help us build better cities?

Lego wants to be taken seriously by architects, urban planners, even MIT. Can these pricey kids’ toys teach us how to build better cities, or is it all just brand hype?

Olafur Eliasson Lego by Christian Johannesen

Olafur Eliasson’s Lego project in Copenhagen. Photograph: Christian Johannesen

One September day in 2005, the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson set up a few tables in a bustling downtown square in Tirana and unloaded three tonnes of Lego bricks. The Copenhagen-born, Berlin-based artist, known for his enormous, immersive installations – he once installed a gigantic, glowing sun at Tate Modern– included simple instructions: residents of the crumbling Albanian capital, which was recovering from the end of communist rule in 1990, were to construct their visions for the city’s future out of Lego. “Building a stable society,” Eliasson said, “is only possible with the involvement and co-operation of each individual.” As the days passed, everyone from kids to adults, passers-by to committed users, gradually turned the plastic rubble into a glistening white Lego metropolis.

In little more than a decade, the Danish company has gone from a $300m loss to overtake Mattel, the makers of Barbie, as the world’s largest toy-maker.

Part art installation, part crowdsourced sculpture, part urban intervention, the success of the Collectivity Project was a sign, perhaps, of our desire to become more involved in imagining the possibilities for our cities, even if our bricks-and-plastic creations will eventually be taken apart and packed up in a box. But it also signals the Lego Group’s desire for its products to be thought of as more than a child’s building blocks. In little more than a decade, the Danish company has gone from a $300m loss to overtake Mattel, the makers of Barbie, as the world’s largest toy-maker. It has achieved this through a canny mixture of movie franchising (The Hobbit, Star Wars, Harry Potter and, of course, The Lego Movie), an ever-expanding universe of video games (including Lego City for Nintendo) and even a forthcoming CBeebies TV show in 2016 based on its long-running Lego City line – featuring sets such as Lego City Museum Break-In and Lego City Prisoner Transport.

Guardian Lego Front Image

But Lego has also made an effort for the bricks to travel from the playroom to the boardroom, with the company appealing to artists, architects and other creative professionals to use their product as the building blocks for innovation. The Lego City video game may be just that, a game; but the company also donated 1m bricks to Dutch architect Winy Maas, who created 676 scale-model skyscrapers for the 2012 Venice Biennale. (They also gave Eliasson those three tonnes of bricks.) This October, the Lego Group held a workshop in Copenhagen, ahead of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that tasked close to 700 children with building ideas for a sustainable future out of their products. Then there’s the recently released Lego Architecture Studio, a £149 instruction-free kit of white blocks that lets AFOLs (adult fans of Lego) play Frank Gehry and create their own architectural masterpieces. Lego even sponsors an urban planning project at MIT in the hopes that city planners, like architects before them, might use the bricks as tools to solve issues such as transportation and walkability.

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