Lego Lilliput or the Politics of Scale

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El Barto’s Mt Olympus (2014)

Looking down on a world in miniature, the Lego builder has a unique perspective on their creations.  Able to take in all that they have made in a single sweeping glance.  In the case of the 2014 VLUG collaboration[i], a mini-figure scale diorama that retells Homer’s Odyssey, they are quite literally Olympian.

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VLUG collaboration The Odyssey (2014)

For anyone who has had the fortune to attend one of the major Lego conventions, although they will have had the opportunity to view many different building types, considerably outnumbering nearly all other genres are the displays of the world builders.  Multiple base-plate wide sprawls, revealing tiny universes of every variety.  And parents, children, enthusiasts and fans gather round, pointing out favourite details to each other, sharing in that strange vantage that the scale provides.

Why have so many AFOLs (adult fans of Lego) gravitated towards this type of building?  Initially you’d be forgiven for thinking this is obvious, the scale of Lego’s mini-figures dictate this creative direction. As soon as you start to cater for these little people, a certain scale is set. But are the world builders simply supporting these tiny plastic denizens?

Evidence would suggest that mini-figures don’t hold the a priori position in relation to the worlds created for them. Lego had been producing sets long before the invention of the mini-figure, and these already established a scale that sees the world in miniature. Many of the sets from the 1960s, rather than relying on figures for scale took die-cast cars as their starting point. And there is the case of Miniland scale; the scale used at the Legoland parks to recreate the famous cities and landmarks of the world. Although all three of these scales, mini-figure, die cast vehicles and Miniland differ from one another, they retain the same vantage for their builders and audience, able to scan and see a world from a bird’s eye view.

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Lego in the 1960s sold with die cast cars

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Miniland London

There is something about Lego I would argue that brings out the creative desire to make worlds. Mini-figures were created by Lego to supplement this urge, and have become a core part of the company’s identity as a result. So in fact the chicken and the egg need to be reversed. World building created the need for mini-figures.

This initiates a shift in question, one from a need to build in a certain scale, to one that asks what is it about Lego that makes it such a compelling medium for the creation of worlds. Perhaps there is a root in the way Lego operates as a toy. As the image above from the 1960s shows, and is typical of how Lego has consistently depicted children interacting with its products, play often begins from the ability for a small hand to hold a complex model. To manipulate and control a world from a vantage not often afforded.

Of course this type of play is not unique to Lego, toy soldiers, dolls’ houses and model railways all call for a similar relationship. What however is unique about Lego is that these are not just little worlds that the child can manipulate, but little worlds they have built themselves. Where the doll’s houses asked the child to play lord of the manor, or the toy soldiers presented a chance to act as a general, the Lego world asked for an additional role, they asked the child to be a designer, creator and benefactor to their worlds.

The Lego community often talks about ratios and scales, that three plates equal the same height as one brick, but the most important ratio is that between a brick and a human hand. That what we make can fit in the palm of our hands. And this scale propagates the generation of a world at a scale smaller than our own, one we experience first and foremost as its creator and not as a participant or character immersed within it.

Lego world building creates distance, a way of understanding a world, even caring for and about it, but importantly not being a part of it. It is this care without immersion that makes Lego’s creative potential unique. Compare this to the most commonly found world building experiences popular culture offers us, those found in video games.

Cases studies could be taken from any of the first-batch of world building games, such as, Populous[ii] the archetypal god game, Sim City[iii] the city building simulator or Civilization [iv] the game of generals and kings. All of which invest the player in the worlds they make; you struggle to overpower other forces, whether these be other player generals, other gods, or even nature and economics in the case of Sim City. Your world is not a safe one, and your intentional actions as a palyer are needed for it to survive and thrive. The Lego world builders are not playing these games.

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Populous

Sim-City

Sim City

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Civilization

Perhaps the best way of revealing this distinction is to compare the Lego world builders to the phenomenon that is Minecraft[v]. Erroneously Minecraft is often described as Lego realised as a video game. However, we can’t ignore the elephant in the room, which is the fact that Minecraft is a game. You begin as a character in a world who has to build a shelter there and survive their first night. From the outset the world-view is from the inside, of belonging to the world that you are making.

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Minecraft

When people asks why do we need a Lego Minecraft, the cynical voice might say, because there is a market. But the real question is why would the market, those people who play Minecraft, want to carry out this digitally immersive building experience in Lego? Perhaps an answer could be found in the scale it affords the builder, one that provides a distance, and an encounter with the tropes of the Minecraft universe without the investment of personal immersion?

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Lego Minecraft

These arguments are leading to an important question about the value of distance from a world, about a way of seeing that starts from the premise of seeing from a distance.

Take museums, which often provide dioramas of buildings or areas of archeological discovery, with the aim to show a world that no longer exists. The Museum of London[vi] for example offers a variety of experiences to its visitors. You have the immersion of a complete recreation of a Victorian street, replete with shop windows and a pub. But it also has exhibits such as a scaled diorama of aspects (the Basilica and Forum) of London as a Roman town. This recreation does not so much ask the visitor to feel what the ancient town was like, but understand it in a socio-political sense, in terms of architecture and the interaction this creates between its inhabitants. By seeing the town from above, you understand its political set-up, where the rich and poor lived, the importance of the barracks, the position of the trades people, and so forth. This is an understanding that can only be seen from a position as an over-viewer; and dioramas at this scale act as catalysts for this way of thinking.

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Basilica and Forum display at the Museum of London

Unsurprisingly, given the similarity between the projects of the Lego world builders and the museums’ diorama builders, Lego models are becoming ever more frequently found as displays. Ryan McNaught’s astounding Lego Pompeii[vii] being one of the most recent cases. McNaught has worked with the Nicholson Museum in Sydney since 2012, recreating the ancient world in brick form, Lego Pompeii being the most recent in this successful run of creations.

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Ryan McNaught’s Lego Pompeii

Craig Barker in his article on McNaught’s work, comments that the place of Lego in Museums is part of the tradion of recreative diagrams and exhibits. He notes: ‘Lego Pompeii and other models of this ilk are a fun and engaging tool for reaching audiences in an exciting new way.’[viii]

Whilst I agree with Barker’s proclamation on the validity of Lego in the museum, it opens up more questions than answers. Why does Lego, rather than any other model making form attract new audiences? And if it is attracting new audiences, is this because it is providing new experiences in the museum context?

Again, playing cynic, you might say Lego brings in a new audience of children and parents, fans of Lego, who traditionally wouldn’t consider the museum a fun destination. This I would agree is true, but can only really be made sense of if we understand further what makes Lego worlds connect so well with their viewers; that power that the museum is harnessing, normally only found in the Lego convention hall.

Perhaps an answer can be found in another tradition, where scale is used to critique, satirise and question our world rather than illustrate it.  I titled this investigation, Lego Lilliput, in reference the writer Jonathan Swift’s literary creation. In the tale Gulliver’s Travels[ix], Lilliput is the world the eponymous hero is shipwrecked on. A land inhabited by tiny people, who make Gulliver a giant in comparison.  He goes on to view their lives and ways of living, often with comic and satirical observations, from on high.

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Illustration from Gulliver’s Travels

To what extent are we stepping in Swift’s shoes when we build our Lego worlds? How many Gullivers trapse through the Lego convention halls?

Swift’s use of scale, as a device in Gulliver’s Travels, to open debates about the political and ethical concerns of his times, as well as the limits of human understanding, is well documented.   Gulliver appears as the mighty giant, but is ensnared by the little people, and his power harnessed by them to defeat their enemies. The idividual, the general or the leader, rendered the tool of the small folk. And the people themselves, the Lilliputians, are presented to Gulliver, as the most proposterously smug and self-satisfied race, whilst being the most puny and helpless. This parodic world embraces the bluster and hubris of humanity, small in the universe but determined to put themselves centre stage despite their failings and limitations.

Through the transmogrifying lens of scale, Swift satirises his own world, revealing how limited and small we all our in our abilities. By making a world small, it simultaneously makes it ridiculous but also reveals connections and socio-political relationships less easily seen from the point of view of someone immersed in day-to-day life.

But the Lego Lilliput’s of the Lego world builders seem driven by another aim than Swift’s satirical spirit. Whilst they appear to do more than illustrate a world like a museum exhibit does, they do not seem to ask us to reflect critically on our own world either. So what does building Lego worlds at this scale achieve? What political vantage, or new way of understanding do they offer?

The Lego Movie[x], offered what on the surface might seem a parody of our world. Where the city realised in bricks, exaggerated the rule of hegomony, and our unblinking capacity to follow the rules and consume without question. But unlike Swift’s Gulliver, Will Ferrell remains outside the tiny world, perceiving himself as a god, a crerator of a perfect utopian world. The utopian vision fails, because he does not allow it its created status.   Glue effectively denying Lego bricks their unique creative potential. The Lego world is asked in the film to be allowed to be Lego  This is the crisis it faces, a crisis in the little world, and not in the real world in which we and Ferrell live.

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The Lego Movie

And from this example comes an answer to the question what political perspective does the Lego world provide.  As previously noted, a child does not simply play in the world they create, they act as its architect and benign (or sometimes not) creator. Where Swift created a world we understood by mirroring it against our own, the Lego world is understood by virtue of its mode of creation, in itself, as something that matters as a creation.

Returning once more to my central thesis, as I explored it in my article, ‘Building a Case for Lego Art’[xi], Lego creations always simultaneously reveal their unbuilt, or aggregate state in their composed forms. And when we view them, we understand them according to the process of their being created, by continuously seeing and understanding their composition from parts. By proxy we all become creators of these worlds we view, because to view them demands an understanding and activation of our own imagination. This brings with it a condition of care, to feel for that which one has made.

A world from the past, a Roman fort, a Saxon Castle, or a world of future possibilities, of moonbases and utopian cities, are understood politically as possibilities, as things that can be and as such places that one can care for, without belonging to them. We are drawn to them, their occupants and little details, facinated as Olypian gods might be with what can exist. On these terms the Lego model in the Museum, not only tells us about the past, illustrating what it was like, but relates us to a minature world we care for.  It literally makes history matter for us; to care for a time and place we are not from.

In summary, the distance these Lego Lilliputs create, is not one of cold observation or satire, but one that puts you in league with the process of creation. It is a distance that allows the political position of caring as a creator does for their world.  An experience all too often absent in our lives of individual immersed self-interest.

[i] More images of the VLUG collaborative build can be found on El Barto’s photostream here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/52907196@N07/14569438525/

[ii] Populous, Bullfrog, 1989

[iii] Sim City, Electronic Arts, 1989

[iv] Civilization, Microprose, 1991

[v] Minecraft, Mojang, 2009

[vi] See the Museum of London website: http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/london-wall/

[vii] See Ryan McNaught’s website for more details: http://www.thebrickman.com

[viii] Craig Barker, ‘Museum recreates ancient Roman city of Pompeii — using 190,000 Lego blocks’ reposted on Rawstory, 2015. http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2015/01/photos-museum-recreates-ancient-roman-city-of-pompeii-using-190000-lego-blocks/ (site accessed 6 February 2015)

[ix] Jonathan Swift, Gullivers Travels, 1726

[x] The LEGO Movie, dir Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, (Fox Studios 2014)

[xi] David Alexander Smith, ‘Building a case for Lego art’, Building Debates (3 January 2015) https://buildingdebates.wordpress.com/20150103building-a-case-for-lego-art/ (accessed 25 January 2015)

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14 thoughts on “Lego Lilliput or the Politics of Scale

  1. I think that my favourite quote from this article is, “The Lego community often talks about ratios and scales… …but the most important ratio is that between a brick and a human hand.”. We often rate vehicles and spaceships in terms of their “swooshability”. Interestingly, when creations get beyond a certain size (such as the models in SHIPtember) they can lose some of their fun and life and become just static display pieces. I wonder if there is some critical mass or scale factor (a Lego Reynolds number?) that applies? Certain sizes of model work for certain sizes of hand and that dictates the size and shape of things in that particular hand’s Lego world.

    I liked your analysis of the difference between being inside a world, such as Minecraft and being outside it in the case of Lego scenes.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks David, I was pretty happy with the ratio phrase. It had the feel of a great soundbite. I was wondering if it might get quoted, and here it is in the first reply.

      In terms of scale, there is a secondary factor regarding play. Of course when a spaceship gets that big, it in reality it turns into a dolls’ house for spacemen. You can normally judge such things when the shower unit and toilet get installed. But yes beyond this, as scale increases, so does the shift from interaction to reflection and speculation. I guess there is another article on scale just waiting to be written.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I know what you mean about dynamic, moving spaceships becoming space dolls’ houses and yes plumbing is often the key indicator of this. However, here’s an exception that proves the rule: https://flic.kr/p/qPVZMH

        I’d be fascinated to read your thoughts on the size of Lego models and how this effects the ways in which we perceive, understand and play (I was going to say interact but let’s be honest!) with them. Is Lego different when it’s part of a giant, pink Lego shoe in a London shopping centre, compared with a small Febrovery creation that a child can roll across a kitchen table? I think that you started to address this in your first article.

        More please!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I saw Tyler’s rule breaking rover earlier. It certainly confounds my theory!

        I think there is an article about size and how it impacts on building in me. I’m also interested in Lego angles. Mix in a bit of Claes Oldenburg and Kantian sublime and I think you’d have an argument to make.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I think an article about scale could also include something about how we make choices about what to leave out when we go smaller and smaller and there’s less space for details (it’s a bit like compressing information in digital photos). What do those choice say about us as builders and people? There are also the builds where there are worlds within worlds (my Classic Space RC Club could be any example). I’ve been fascinated by this sort of thing since I discovered fractals, through the maths I had to do at university and software such as Fractint. Detail within detail, worlds within worlds; all depending on where you stand to see it. The tools we use (a computer display, a printing press, Lego bricks) dictate what we can show at what scale.

      I think that this is my favourite article of your blog so far, because it has set me thinking…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent article once again David ! An original choice of subject and a deep writing. Also, I was so happy with this pic of “Populous”, one of the most fascinating videogame ever made – used to spend hours playing it on my Amiga 500…

    Liked by 2 people

    • I do have a little passion for video games as well as Lego. Another topic often brushed under the carpet. Populous was a great game, I personally spent a lot of time with Sim City on my dad’s PC. Glad to share some retro gaming moments.

      Like

  3. Nailed it. We are gods. If nothing else, practical gods seeing that we have the ability to install a toilet. It is a shame that the pictures of our VLUG display really don’t do justice to the scale, one of those “you had to be there” moments. There most assuredly was a defining Gulliver feel to it or, in our particular case, Olympian. This leads to an aspect of play that is not an exclusive one to Lego. That is story. BUILDING the Odyssey added an element that I am certain that Homer never intended; that is the complete overview and manipulation of action and space. Building architecture also lends to this in the manner of insight to style and volume. Other toys can emulate these attributes but what gives Lego the upper hand is the adaptability to genre shift. A doll’s house is that and only that; Barbie and Ken go on dates and sunbathe out by the pool next to the Vette. With Lego, I can build a Medieval castle in the morning, a city construction zone in the afternoon, and a space exploration ship in the evening. As a god in this universe, I can mold the world to my heart’s desire, and then quickly destroy it in a Godzillian way. (Is that a word? It is now. You’re welcome.) I think the fact that Lego is primarily recognized as a child’s toy is what keeps us (well, most of us) humble and benevolent prime movers.

    Outstanding article yet again. Thank you and I must ape David in saying, “More Please.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think it isn’t just that you can build a castle in the morning and a house in the afternoon, it’s that you can build a word where both exist together. I watch my children play together in a strange mash-up Lego Friends, Star Wars, Knights and Swamp Police combination. Watching the sets and worlds meld together is the magic in Lego. A pizza removed from an oven attached to a Lego friends chair becomes R2 D2’s love interest – I’m always blown away by the power of children’s imagination.

      With regard to narrative, I really want to write something on the power of spatial as opposed to sequential time. Perhaps the Odyssey could be a case study for this?

      I’m actually writing something completely different on representations of time in painting and temporal paintings (two different things). The Lego article could perhaps be a sister piece.

      One final note – Lego builders are more likely to build an epic diorama of Godzilla, with a plastic representation of destruction, rather than actually destroy like Godzilla.

      Like

  4. Interesting and well constructed essay, David! A+ ; ) Covers all sorts of topics that could be fleshed out into their own articles, for sure. I’d add to Matt’s comment that someone could spend ALL day building a Medieval Castle City Construction Spaceship. (Not a bad idea for a project) Thanks for choosing the VLUG display for your main pic, too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • A+ hooray I’m doing something right. It had to be the VLUG build as it was this that started me thinking about this idea last year. All those stop animation films like Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts came to mind, with their cast of scaled actors playing Olympian Gods. That was the seed of the article. I still think your Mt Olympus on its own merits was one of the best builds I saw last year. Can’t wait to see the VLUG reveal this year.

      Like

      • Thank you for the kind words! Well, scale was an issue for us this year, as it often is when debating what our next collaboration will be. Should be an interesting mix, I think, of various scales and perspectives. I enjoy mixing scales, as you know, in some of my BSG scenes. Saves a ton of brick!

        Liked by 1 person

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