What is LEGO Culture?

Something happened to the adult LEGO community fifteen years ago that transformed it from a niche hobby into a cultural movement.   We now live in a world where it is no longer essential to be a fan to see LEGO models pop up in our social media feeds, where large corporations commission LEGO models to increase their brand awareness and news stations cover the latest epic LEGO creation unveiled in our local towns and cities.  The question is what is it about the unassuming LEGO brick that has enabled it to rise so quickly into our shared social consciousness, to become what might be coined ‘bricks culture’?

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Netto Dog by Bright Bricks

Without a doubt the growth of social media, with its ability to share photographs of LEGO models has played a significant part in this story, but this change is perhaps more the catalyst than the primary reason for the transformation.  There is something at the root of the process of building with LEGO bricks that founds our vibrant and self-stimulating community.  It often feels as if just seeing a LEGO model is enough to make us want to build – to participate. Nathan Sawaya[i], who is arguably the most visible LEGO artist working today confirmed this sentiment to me in a recent interview: “Visitors to my exhibitions can connect to the works because of the familiarity with the brick, and I hope that […] leads to inspiration[ii].  Whilst I agree with Sawaya, there is more than familiarity at work here: there is something else about the brick that inspires us all.

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Various woks by Nathan Sawaya 

Perhaps this familiar anecdote can help illustrate the link between a LEGO model’s power to inspire and the formation of bricks culture.  If like me you have ever had the opportunity to display your creations at a LEGO convention then you have probably come across this scenario.  As a small child, normally around the age of seven or eight, marvels at the model you have made, their parent notes: “It’s sad, they only ever make models according to the instructions; don’t you agree that they are missing out on what building with LEGO bricks is all about?”

This story reflects a truism, and a socially accepted belief, that LEGO building is at its best when it is fired by an individual’s imagination.  However, as is the case with most truisms, they often exaggerate one half of an argument at the expense of the facts.  The parent who watches happily as their child marvels at an often incomprehensibly complex LEGO model, asks their child if they could make something similar when they get home, all the while forgetting that one of the LEGO company’s designer’s amazing models had previously inspired their child to pick up a set of instructions and build in the first place.

The parent’s argument misses the vital moment of inspiration inherent in any encounter with a LEGO model, whether the instructions are present or not.  Transferring the value judgement as to what good and bad building is onto the terms ‘similar’ (good) and ‘identical’ (bad).  In both cases the child has seen a creation they love and as a result wants to build – is the value judgment even necessary?

Seeing a LEGO model inherently suggests that the model can be remade; because it is comprised of individual elements, each of which fit together according to established conventions.  Technically looking at a LEGO model allows you to make that model – as long as you have the required mastery of the building system.  It is for this reason that the visual encounter with the LEGO model for the child may produce wonder, and with it an addition to the spectacle, a little voice that whispers in their ear “you could make that.”

The LEGO Company has long understood the power of their product to entice children and adults alike, sparking a desire to not only own, but also build their models.  There is a tried and tested path between viewing a LEGO set and the need to build it.  The children photographed for the company’s advertising material were regularly shot pushing parts together or surrounded by the detritus of the building process – there was no doubt, here was where the fun lay.    The hours many of us spent viewing the LEGO catalogues as a child were more than speculative shopping trips, they were initial attempts to understand how the models were made.  Precisely because the sets wore their mode of construction on their sleeves, they captivated our imagination.  This was perhaps the first induction most of us had into bricks culture.

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In the adult fan community, which for a large part is comprised of collectors, this addition of the building experience to that of owning a set can be seen more explicitly.  Take for example a range of products like the Star Wars Ultimate Collector Series.  These sets aim themselves squarely at the over sixteen market, providing expensive, detailed and challenging models to build, of the most iconic vehicles and characters from the Star Wars franchise.  Their scale and complexity differentiate them from their more play-focused siblings in the main LEGO Star Wars range.  Understandably, given the on-going popularity of the franchise, these sets have proved a huge hit, but why?  There are competitor models as intricate and as impressive as the LEGO sets, yet these have neither captured the popular imagination, nor earned the re-seller price tags of some of the Ultimate Collector series sets.  The answer is simple, that the LEGO sets offer the premise of building the models.

Rewind nearly 40 years to the opening shot of A New Hope[iii] with its iconic sweep of Darth Vader’s Imperial Star Destroyer cruising over our heads.  What made this image so memorable was not just its aesthetic framing and photographic awe, but its impossibility.  A spaceship like this doesn’t exist; this is both a model and a wonderful magic trick.  This unconscious reasoning underpins a large part of society’s continuing fascination with Star Wars, and also gives us that clue as to why LEGO models of these amazing props from the workshops of Industrial Light and Magic[iv] prove so popular.  The LEGO Star wars fan sees the LEGO model with all its tiny elements, and embraces an understanding of these vehicles as a model maker, in short as the creative minds behind Star Wars did.  Buying and building Star Wars models allows them to jump the gap between observer and maker of a world, to being part of a community that wants to understand and build a universe as well as celebrate it.

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Star Destroyer by Hobbyinside

With the move from seeing to building proving so important to the LEGO experience, it was of course always only a matter of time before replication of a model turned into the development of ever more extreme creations.  In the case of the Ultimate Collector Series of models the word ‘ultimate’ might actually be taken as a taunt.  “Is this really the ‘ultimate model’, or could you make something better?”  It is the return of that same voice that whispered in the child’s ear “you could make that.” Builders take up this challenge; designers like Kim ByeongSoek from Hobbyinside,[v] the Korean LEGO sculpture and diorama specialists, whose recent Star Destroyer model lifts detailing and scale up a notch or two.  With his model complete and receiving due praise from the community, the door is open to read the new set of instructions laid out in this model, interpret it, and move forward in the quest to represent the Star Wars universe in the form of ever more sophisticated creations.

Where the LEGO UCS Star wars set lead, in terms of drawing the line from inspiration to a community of innovation, other sections of the LEGO population follow similar paths.  Take for example another of the adult focused ranges, the Modular Creator series, which comprises of sets such as the Grand Emporium and Corner Café, which itself carries an re-seller price tag comparable to the UCS sets.  These models carry in them the code for a city as broad as the builder’s imagination.  Making one block of your city will always demand more, and whilst additions can be added from the official sets, there comes a time when the need arises to improvise.

In these cases rather than trying to build better than the sets that exist, the aim is to do things differently, to add to the world.  In this aspect of bricks culture, a community forms around the exploration of the possibility of the form.  What can be made that fits the city block grid and could sit next to any of the other models that permeate the scene.  A builder like Ryan Taggart[vi] whose Modular construction site makes exciting changes to the standard formula of a modular building looks ready to become a LEGO set having reached the 10,000 supporter mark on LEGO Ideas[vii].  It arguably completes the loop from community building, via a modification of an established form, back to official product.

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Modular Construction Site by Ryan Taggart

Whether we perceive a child’s inspiration from a LEGO catalogue or adult fans interaction with the LEGO Company’s current ranges, a simple fact can be deduced.  The more we look at LEGO creations the more they motivate us to build, and according to the rules and conventions of a given type of model, a culture of interest and innovation develops accordingly.

Bricks culture is in actual fact an ability to speak and read the visual language of LEGO.  It is an easy dialect to learn, disclosing its structure and grammar in every build.  A language that is supremely flexible and adaptive to a group’s shared values.  It also transcends traditional socio-cultural and linguistic barriers, with groups congregating around the ability to understand each other’s love of say mosaic building whether they live in Tokyo or Rome.  Belonging to bricks culture is in short both the process of reading an endlessly growing and universally understandable library of visual images whilst simultaneously being inspired by it.

With this initial conclusion arrived at, that bricks culture is actually a unique and intrinsically inspiring visual language, that illusive shift some 15 years ago that saw the beginning of our current explosion in the enthusiasm for LEGO creations can be identified.  Something happened at this point in time that changed the language of building in such a way to increase its power to inspire and congregate individuals as groups.

There had been throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s a move by the LEGO Group to simplify building, and increase play options through the use of large pre-formed pieces.  As is well documented[viii] the company’s financial standing took a considerable knock at this time, with sales dropping and the toy falling out of favour with the current generation of children.  The genius response, and a move that arguably saved the company, was to embrace the joy of building; this is what is unique to the product and what millions of children had previously enjoyed.  New sets launched with a stronger building focus and sales followed.

A result of this change saw the types of pieces that were produced in these new sets focus more on core building and connective functions.  Play elements remained but were joined by new linking elements, hinges and brackets.  With many of the designers now working for the company previously having been part of a relatively small hobbyist community, a drive occurred for the elements they had wanted to push the experiments they had conducted with the standard bricks further.  Building sideways or at an angle would be less the preserve of the specialist builder becoming now a part of the general language of LEGO building.

The fan community embraced these new LEGO bricks with verve, and original-building techniques proliferated.  Central to the movement was the rise of the so-called SNOT (studs not on top) building technique, where bricks were built sideways or at an angle to standard bricks.  The immediate aesthetic gain was an ability to alter the quality of a LEGO model; a creation could be smooth and studless, or use combinations of angles to create a multitude of other effects and textures. This was quickly followed by the development of a whole host of unexpected new forms and angles opened up by these modes of construction.  Where before the LEGO builder’s mantra was that anything could be built in LEGO bricks, it now appeared that you could build with LEGO bricks in anyway you wanted to.

Before this shift in building techniques a LEGO creation could be recognised by the simple language of its construction, with most models displaying the same features of one element placed on top of another, ending with a top layer of studded bricks that completed the design.  This replicated style might be considered a simple or formal language, to which all LEGO models conformed; but with the introduction of these new building techniques everything changed: formalism was replaced by a host of experiments.  LEGO building could now make visual puns by using pieces in ways previously not possible and decide on appropriate forms rather than those that standard bricks suggested. This new way of building introduced a more pronounced poetic aspect to the practice of LEGO building.  The result was a maturation of the visual language of it used and by proxy it accelerated society’s interest in LEGO creativity.

As I documented in my first article for Bricks Culture back in 2015[ix] my return to LEGO building began through the photographs of LEGO models.  I started out scanning the various websites and sharing fora that sprung up in the 2000’s.  Here I was surprised by the changes that had occurred.  I thought I understood the visual language of LEGO building, but here were models that defied those conventions that demanded to be read in new ways.  Although resolutely still made of LEGO bricks and as immediately understandable as the models of my childhood, they appeared very different.  The way the builders worked now seemed nuanced; there were styles and sub-styles of buildings; active and decisive decisions to use one technique over another; a whole culture lit up in the plethora of fascinating work.   This was a complex culture of varying dialects, expressions and forms; a place that would entice all the corners of society from the engineers to the illustrators to congregate together around a common language that all could speak.

The case was brought home to me in the way the space builders had developed their craft (in both senses) since I had stopped playing with LEGO bricks as a child.  Back then I imagined that the designers of the classic space sets had raised the bar as high as it could go in term of design.  Of course there were always new designs to be added to the genre, but the idea that this aesthetic could be enhanced or developed further within the formal language of the bricks available at the time seemed impossible.  Yet, with the advent of new techniques the ethos and aesthetic of those original space sets were taken to new places, becoming a facet of bricks culture itself.  You can witness this in the work of a builder like Stephan Niehoff who has reimagined some of the classic themes and vehicles of yesteryear according to these new techniques.  The shapes and forms of the original designers could be exaggerated, perfected and pushed, and for me this was a wonderful realisation: LEGO building was now occupying a true creative cultural space.

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Starlet Voyager (reimagined ) by Stephan Niehoff

Bricks Culture is the advent of a visual language, which is readable not only in the sense of pictorial coherence but as that, which is also immediately understandable as a technique that can be replicated.  A language that translates beyond the simple acts of building into a wide range of other cultural practices: photography, animation, street art and even commercial enterprise.  It permeates the current social milieu because it allows it readers to immediately grasp the creative process in each of its creations.  A unifying and utopian aesthetic form, which brings people together through its power to inspire creative expression.  Bricks culture holds our attention, and asks us to belong, because it inspires us; we witness others’ imaginations in action, and are handed as a result the possibility of realising our own.

Endnotes

[i] See Nathan Sawaya’s website: http://www.brickartist.com

[ii] Smith, David Alexander ‘Interview With Nathan Sawaya’, Bricks Culture, Issue 7, October 2016

[iii] Lucas, George, Star Wars: Episode IV a New Hope, 1977, 20th Century Fox

[iv] See the homepage of Industrial Light and Music: http://www.ilm.com/

[v] See the Hobbyinside website: http://www.hobbyinside.com

[vi] See Ryan Taggart’s Fklickr stream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/139079438@N02

[vii] See Ryan Taggart’s projrct on LEGO Ideas: https://ideas.lego.com/projects/129250

[viii] See for example: Knowledge@Wharton ‘Innovation Almost Bankrupted Lego – Until it Rebuilt with a Better Blueprint’ in Time, July 23, 2012

[ix] See Stephan Niehoff’s Flickr stream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stephann001/

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One thought on “What is LEGO Culture?

  1. Simply beautiful, David. You have brilliantly expressed everything I have felt and known forever about not just what the brick is capable of but also what those wielding it are. Articles like this are wonderfully vindicating and inspiring in itself as much as the medium and culture we embrace. Thank you!

    Like

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