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Toy Futures





[July 6, 2007] For Building Asia Brick by Brick, Asian architects get huge Lego sets to create visions of the future, prompting me to come out of the closet with the sins of my distant Lego past.

 -by Lynn Becker



Are Lego's mightier than the bulldozer? ArtAsiaPacific magazine and the People's Architecture Foundation apparently think so. They handed each of a selected group of Asia's leading architects a white-bricks-only Lego set (who selected the pieces - Richard Meier?) with which to create models intended to be "exhibited and auctioned to raise awareness about architectural preservation in Asia . . . The project engages concepts of creativity through play and issues of urbanism, new design and heritage awareness that affect architects in a region undergoing dramatic change and development."

Guangzhou workshop. Photo: People's Architecture Foundation. Copyright: ArtAsiaPacific and People's Architecture Foundation

The project, Building Asia Brick by Brick, includes models from nine architects, and an exhibition of those models is working its way through China's shopping mall circuit, where it includes a series of children's workshops using a "Teach Through Play" approach where architects and urban planners work with the kids "to explore and develop their creative skills, both individually and in group settings. Participating architects will be on site to explain the concepts behind their models and work with children on creating their own architectural designs. Children will be exposed to a new way of thinking about design, building and teamwork. "

Grandview Mall. Photo: Get It Louder
Copyright: ArtAsiaPacific and People's Architecture Foundation
Grandview Mall, Guangzhou

Architecture exhibitions at the shopping mall? What's next: motorcycles at the Guggenheim? Actually, these aren't just any shopping centers. China is the new Texas, where the Brobdingnagian has become the vernacular. The BABbB show is just finishing up its run at the Grandview Mall (aka Zhengjia Plaza) in Guangzhou (on Tianhe street, just across from the iHop and kitty-corner to the Stuckey's), the 7th largest mall in the world, its 3 million square feet of leased space putting America's Mall of America (2.5 million sf) to shame. 400,000 people stop by on an average weekend day, and an incredible even million flood the place on an average day during "golden holiday" week. (The current champ, South China Mall in Dongguan, is, at 7 million square feet, over twice as big.)

The exhibition closes on Sunday, moving on to the Daning Life Hub in Shanghai in July, Beijing's Soho Shangdu in August, and the Bailian Tianfu Shopping Mall in Chengdu in September. An undisclosed New York City location (the Rupert Shopping Towne at South Street Seaport, perhaps?) in 2008, where the models will be auctioned off as a fund-raiser. How those funds will actually "raise awareness of architectural preservation in Asia" remains unclear, especially for China, a land where traditional architecture is being wiped out by a building boom unprecedented in world history.

Bernard Khoury/DW5 for Building Asia Brick by Brick. Photo: Roger Mourkarzel. Copyright: ArtAsiaPacific and People's Architecture Foundation
Bernard Khoury, Lego tower, Building Asia Brick by Brick

Mostly, the models in BABbB seem tightly focused on the future. The fourteen participating architects come not only from China, but also India, Australia, Thailand, Singapore, Japan, and - Lebanon. Bernard Khoury describes his Lego tower - which looks a bit like that the lost hotel Rem Koolhaas designed for Ian Shrager - in a way any Lego veteran running out of bricks can relate to:

"Built from exactly 7500 pieces, the surface consists of solids and voids allowing for the [as Jane Faulkner might say] "pixilated" emission of light through its skin. At first, only the base perimeter was set. Final height and composition developed during construction as the result of the haphazard attachment and buildup of bricks. The object's morphology gradually changes as it rises: the pixels grow larger and corners disintegrate as the number of pieces diminishes, reflecting our premonition of the object's growth reaching an end."

Translation: when we realized we were running out bricks, we made the windows bigger.

The other entries range from traditional, as in this entry from Bangkok's Architects 49:

ARCHITECTS 49 for Building Asia Brick by Brick. Photo: Ohm Phanphiroj Copyright: ArtAsiaPacific and People's Architecture Foundation

to the highly conceptual, as in this entry from MADA s.p.a.m. and Qingyun Ma, currently dean of the School of Architecture, University of Southern California. It kinds looks like a giant stapler. The description on the web site could only come from an academic:

MADA s.p.a.m. for Building Asia Brick by Brick. Photo: MADA s.p.a.m. Copyright: ArtAsiaPacific and People's Architecture Foundation
MADA s.p.a.m., Building Asia Brick by Brick

"While LEGO approaches the world from a fundamental perspective, the world itself is fragmented into many pieces. At what point do these two processes of creating an absolute understanding and a multiperspectival understanding of the world intersect or overlap? Where the first process provides a low resolution of operation based on mental associations of reality, the latter hybrid approach provides opportunities for hyper-reality. MADA's position between these two trends is "totality of modularity." Totality is unknown but always assumed. Totality is not reality, it is only assumed to approximate reality. Here, the assumed totality, ideality, is deducted by LEGO modules and proceeds to a final configuration."

Urbanus Architecture and Design for Building Asia Brick by Brick. Photo: Urbanus Architecture and Design Copyright: ArtAsiaPacific and People's Architecture Foundation
Urbanus Architecture and Design, Building Asia Brick by Brick

If you actually understand what is being expressed here, please drop me an email and explain it to me. For me, the most impressive part of MADA's entry is how it overcomes Lego's intrinsic resistance to anything that's not a right angle, which is accomplished even more completely in the model from Urbanus Architecture and Design, which draws above the "Tulou", or dirt building, "a traditional prototype for collective dwelling located throughout Fujian and Guangdong province in southeast China. Usually taking the pure square or circular form, "Tulou" suggests a well defined, hierarchical living microcosm."

The entry from Map Office's "Plan-it-Yourself !" concept uses Lego's in a way that leads me to imagine how much fun planner Ludwig Hilberseimer might have had if he had had Lego's to play with:

Map Office for Building Asia Brick by Brick. Photo:Map Office. Copyright: ArtAsiaPacific and People's Architecture Foundation

Sean Godsell Architects' model uses a single Lego module to create an entire "cellular outer skin" that seems to channel Edward Durrell Stone:

SEAN GODSELL ARCHITECTS For Building Asia Brick by Brick. Photo: Sean Godsell Copyright: ArtAsiaPacific and People's Architecture Foundation
Sean Godsell Architects, Building Asia Brick by Brick

It's too bad the show isn't coming to Chicago. It would have been fun to see what Gang, Garofalo, Ronan, UrbanLab, Krueck, Jahn, Smith and the rest of Chicago's army of often insanely creative architects would have done if Stanley Tigerman had handed each one a humongous box of Lego's. (My bet is that there would have been a quick rebellion against the "white's-only" restriction of the sets given the BABbB architects.)

Still the BABbB models, and the thought behind them, are definitely worth checking out for both Lego addicts and civilians, alike. You can see them all here.

And while we're at it, what better excuse to disinter my own Lego juvenilia,Lego tower with giant panda, Lynn Becker created at a time in my callow youth when I thought Mies was the devil (opinion revised), and John Wellborn Root the real thing (no revision necessary). Check it all out, and leave your derisive comments, here.

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© Copyright 2007 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

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