LEGO Representations of Nature

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Rose by Sean Kenney in situ

Suppose we had secretly played a trick on a lover of the beautiful, sticking in the ground artificial flowers (…) and suppose they then discovered this deceit.  The direct interest they previously took in these things would promptly vanish… [i]

Immanuel Kant wrote this in 1790 in the Critique of Judgment, arguably the book that began the modern intellectual engagement with art.  One of Kant’s philosophical aims was to differentiate between what is beautiful in nature and what makes a work of art beautiful.  He stated that art should never literally recreate nature.  Instead the flower that the artist crafts always announces that it is a representation of nature; the art being in how close the representation is, how near it seems to nature, without deceiving us in any way.

Sean Kenney’s[ii] LEGO sculpture Rose (2012)[iii], illustrates Kant’s point beautifully.  A LEGO flower planted in a landscape garden, which at first glance appears completely at home in its surrounding.  The bricks expertly arranged to capture the organic flourishes of leaves and petals.  Yet there is something uncanny about this picture; this rose is two meters tall.

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Rose by Sean Kenney

Kenney’s use of scale recalls the playful juxtapositions found in Claes Oldenburg’s sculptures, between over-sized everyday objects and the natural environment.[iv]   But where Oldenburg’s work makes us look again at mass-produced objects by removing them from the human scale of ready-to-hand use, Kenney’s work reflects on a different aspect of modern life, the humble LEGO brick.

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Vitra Balancing Tool by Oldenburg & Coosje

The choice of scale for Kenney is dictated by both artistic vision and the practical limitations of the bricks. To achieve the arabesques and fluid shapes of nature with basic recta-linear pieces, Kenney has to build at a ratio where the individual steps between parts are less pronounced when realised as part of a larger curve.

As a result the minutia, the dainty flower, the butterfly or the elegance of a tiny humming bird, if modelled in LEGO, to achieve an adequate approximation of its natural form has to be rendered at a giant scale.  This highlights for the LEGO artist the particular dilemma of trying to exactly replicate the natural form in bricks.  The LEGO artist becomes trapped between two forms of failure: to render at a 1:1 scale is to see nature as LEGO, blocky and determined by the shape and form of bricks; to try to break the conventions of the recta-linear form, the 1:1 scale must be exceeded.  But perhaps this isn’t a problem at all?

To represent nature in LEGO is always to begin from a position where exact replication is denied.  Accepting Kant’s thesis the LEGO artist does not try to deceive their audience by making dissimulations of nature.  LEGO creations explicitly show us that they are made from individual elements.

Kenney’s Rose works as an artwork to a large extent because its scale is compensated by the context in which it is shown.  By allowing the viewer the space to stand back and grasp it as a singular image it succeeds in representing nature.  But as with all such images it attracts its viewers to look closer.  As the viewer approaches the sculpture, the success of the representation is replaced by a demonstration of the artist’s LEGO building skill.  Standing in front of the LEGO flower they are confronted by a close-up view of thousands of connected pieces.  The wonder we feel here comes from correlating this detailed view of discrete pieces that no longer hold together as an image of a flower, with the previous unified perception.  The irony being that to show its true LEGO form, the artwork that represents nature has to give up its power to represent and instead declare itself made of bricks.

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Rose (close up) by Sean Kenney

The audience that attends Kenney’s exhibition applaud his talent when they realise that the representation fails to be a flower, only then can they declare “I can’t believe it is made of LEGO.”  And unlike Kant’s lover of the beautiful who no longer found interest in the artificial flower when its ruse was rumbled, the LEGO flower by openly declaring its constructed origin retains our interest.

This idea can be further analysed in the 2014 exhibition of prehistoric animals shown at Milestones Museum[v].  Created by Bright Bricks[vi] the UK based professional team of LEGO builders headed by Duncan Titmarsh and Ed Diment, these life-sized creations of dinosaurs and mammoths offer another encounter with the LEGO representation of nature.

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Mammoth by Bright Bricks

The huge prehistoric creatures of the Bright Bricks exhibition retain an expected relation to their viewer.  Unlike the flower, the scale of a real mammoth or dinosaur unsurprisingly dictates that we stand back from them so as to accommodate their whole form in our field of vision.  It is this hugeness that in part fosters our fascination with these archaic beasts.   Their rendering in bricks providing a way of aesthetically increasing our awareness of their size, in a manner that a traditional museum model might not.

As with Kenney’s work these prehistoric recreations also ask us to move closer and inspect them at a face-to-brick proximity.  As with the flower, as we approach the dinosaurs and mammoths, they give up their rendered coherence.  Standing shoulder to shoulder with the leg of a mammoth made of LEGO one is left confronting a wall of brown bricks.  Yet, this is not a negative experience.  By understanding the link between the mass of bricks and the previous image of the mammoth, we feel something about the complexity of pre-historic nature.

LEGO bricks when used to represent living things are perfectly placed to explore the concept of nature as a complex system, which immediate human sensory perception is ill equipped to understand.  Over the last two hundred years we have become increasingly more sophisticated in our scientific understanding of nature, as a way of overcoming these sensory limitations.  Stepping back from the unintelligible immediate encounter, and instead relying ever more on rational codes and scientific systems to explain what our senses have difficulty comprehending.  LEGO offers an important alternative to this conceptual knowledge, an aesthetic idea of the complexity of nature.  By showing us the disconnect between the discrete elements of a LEGO sculpture and the image the sculpture forms, it allows us to feel something about the building blocks of nature without deferring to a scientific system that stands in place of the contingent and real thing.

In the case of the long-dead creatures of the Bright Bricks exhibition, the feeling we obtain about the scale and complexity of these once majestic animals, allows us to feel something about a time we can no longer access.  Where a more traditional model of a dinosaur might try to convince us that it is as close a representation of a real dinosaur as science currently offers us, the LEGO model of a dinosaur activates a wonder and awe for their scale and majesty.   By remaining resolutely a LEGO creation and failing to fully realise the dinosaur, it lets us feel speculatively how much greater than our attempts to recreate it, the dinosaur must have been.

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Roaring Megalosaurus Head by Bright Bricks

To be a LEGO artist that chooses nature as a subject is to take on the challenge of nature’s complexity, knowing that they will fail to replicate it. It is for this reason, as Mike Doyle eloquently put it in an article published in the magazine Bricks Culture[vii], that we value the technical skill of the LEGO artist.  An appeal to virtuosity has special significance for the LEGO builder, as a large part of the encounter we have with a LEGO artwork revolves around the fact that it is seen simultaneously as a singular form and as something constructed from elements.  The artist’s technique is always exposed if it is recognised as LEGO, and consequently those skilfully articulated LEGO elements become a crucial structural component of the work.

This differs from more traditional art forms where on most occasions the virtuosity of the artist is put secondary to the unified vision they create.  It is only really the art historian who stands close enough to the Rembrandt self-portrait to delineate the impasto brush stroke of white paint that perfects the depth and form of the face.  With the LEGO sculpture, every viewer aims to get close enough to recognise that the form is made of bricks.  This dual state of comprehension, between image and individual elements becomes the foundation of appreciating LEGO art.

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Rembrandt Self Portrait 1660

Extending Doyle’s claim, technique is integral to the LEGO experience: but, building skill in itself does not define the LEGO artwork.  Although we marvel at the skill of a builder like Sean Kenney, it is not simply his skill we want to experience when we approach his LEGO rose.  Virtuosity is a handmaiden for a deeper experience.  To represent something as complex as a natural form in LEGO bricks requires skill.  Without the application of technical skill there would be no correspondence with nature.  However, for the work to succeed, the skill used to create it needs to fail and its original LEGO construction be exposed.   This is what makes the LEGO brick such an enticing creative tool, its utility and almost endless reusable ways of being connected to other elements also signifies why it can never be mastered if instated as part of a representational art form.  The LEGO brick understood as a part of a building system stands in opposition to an idea of an organic thing that cannot be separated into constitutive parts.

The importance of proximity between viewer and work is now more readily understood.  A LEGO sculpture of nature appears to succeed when the viewer remains at a distance, where individual bricks cannot easily be distinguished form one another.  However, once the spell is broken, and the discrete bricks are revealed to the viewer so too is another important issue pertaining to scale. LEGO bricks are made at a human scale; best understood by the relationship they have to a human hand.

When we are presented with a LEGO creation, and recognise that it is made from a collection of connected elements, this other understanding complements it: that the pieces of LEGO have been manipulated and connected by a person.  The complexity of the creation is relative to an act that can be manually carried out by us.  In this revelation our own powers of creation are compared to those of the natural world. It shows us the limits of scale available to the human hand, and by proxy how the real world exceeds our physical abilities.

Yet despite these limitations, there is for the LEGO artist a desire to make something natural from a host of manufactured bricks, a drive that sees a square brick and wants to build a circle.  A builder’s tenacious skill momentarily seems to make the square peg fit the round hole.  This human attempt is essential in the LEGO representation of nature. For an audience to continue to feel something from this encounter with the LEGO sculpture the point of failure needs to be approached again and again.  And the more skilful and complex the approach, the more it engages us and opens the possibility of the aesthetic experience of its failure.  To paraphrase the writer Samuel Beckett, the aim is to build better so as to ‘fail better’.[viii]

If this somewhat technical account of how we understand a LEGO representation of nature works seems a little abstract, it can further be seen played out, sometimes unconsciously, in the value judgments made by the LEGO enthusiast.  Take for example the debates that have perpetuated in both the adult fan community and the media more generally, relating to The LEGO Group’s development of specialised pieces.  There seems to be little conflict when a specialised piece is developed with the aim of replicating a form within the fields of industrial or architectural design.   I am yet to encounter the rejection of the development of wheel or window parts.  Equally when such parts are used according to their specified use, even when articulated by the most masterful of builders, a LEGO creation rarely receives negative feedback.  A wheel, is a wheel, is a wheel.[ix]  Whereas the use of specifically created rock or tree pieces is seen as lazy, lacking in skill and fundamentally falling below the bar of creativity expected of the LEGO artist.

As a result the big ugly rock pieces, as they are colloquially referred to in the LEGO communities, have become a focus for what is deemed undesirable in the building fraternity.  In its place sub-genres of landscape building have sprung-up, and the ability to form detailed rock formations or foliage has become a badge of success.

Whether it is a space base, built into a lunar landscape or a castle nestling in an idyll,[x] the comments that accompany the creations focus as much, sometimes even more, on the terrain the creation sits in, over the architectural forms.

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Peace Sells by Luke Watkins

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M:Tron Magnet Factory by Blake Foster

The LEGO builders who stick to building recreations of human designs, the car, vehicle and architectural builders, use LEGO bricks in a way reminiscent of Oldenburg’s project.  Instead of scaling-up, they minaturise the places we live and work in, and the machines we drive and use, so as to allow a fresh aesthetic perspective.  The bricks, cogs and axels they use still reflecting the original forms they draw inspiration from.  The builder of landscapes has other aims.

Thinking speculatively about the boundaries LEGO art might be crossing, the aspirations of landscape builders define one important expanding horizon.  It comes as no surprise that the third instalment of Mike Doyle’s curatorial project Beautiful LEGO[xi] takes inspiration form nature.  However, it is perhaps one of Doyle’s own creations that most successfully show us what building LEGO nature might achieve.

Speaking in 2014 on the LEGO podcast Beyond the Brick,[xii] Doyle explained that his LEGO creations always begin from a political basis.  And that he believed that they should not simply be a building experiment or declaration of skill, but initiate a discussion around an important issue.  The work he was completing at the time engaged with the ecological debate around mountaintop removal.

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Mountain Top Removal by Mike Doyle

Mountaintop removal is the process commonly employed in the United States, where mining operations asset strip natural resources by literally removing the summit or summit ridge of a mountain.  Controversy has followed this process, which suggests that after the removal of natural resources such as coal, nature reclaims the mined and damaged land.  Critics suggest that this does not occur in the ideal manner that the mining corporations suggest and that biodiversity is irrecoverably damaged as a result.[xiii]

Doyle by choosing this subject matter for a LEGO creation is able to use the medium to directly represent nature undergoing this assault, and by proxy also makes us feel something more about the ecological issue at stake.  Where scientists have been able to provide the rational arguments that show how the technique harms nature, the LEGO artists opens the door on a fallacy that sees nature as nothing more than a resource.  Building blocks ready to be used.

If as was argued, that the representation of nature in LEGO creates a perception where a viewer realises the extent to which nature exceeds his or her own creative powers, in Doyle’s work it also reveals the accepted truth about how we as a society think of nature.  It is common shorthand in a scientifically industrialised capitalist society to think of nature in terms of base elements, fuel and resources that can be utilised.  A way of thinking that the German philosopher Martin Heidegger presciently termed ‘standing reserve’.[xiv]   This concept sees existent things as materials with utility: the river that is dammed ceases to be understood as a river, and rather becomes a calculable hydro-electrical power source.

Of course the irony is that the LEGO brick reduces all representations of nature to reusable elements.  But in doing so, it not only allows us to feel something about the way nature exceeds our technical comprehension, it also exposes the limits of human understanding that seeks mastery through the application of productivity-validated systems over living things.

There is no doubt that science and technical understanding have done much good.  Our medical mastery of ourselves, and our material mastery of our environment, has made life safer, easier and longer.  But what a creation such as Doyle’s mountaintop removal does is make us feel something about how these skills might and ought to be used.  Understanding and mastery of nature is one thing, but how to deploy these skills ethically another.  How surprising then that such an opportunity to grapple with these questions should become possible through perhaps the most obviously manufactured and industrialised of creative mediums, basic LEGO bricks.

Thinking about how and why LEGO artists continue to seek to build and represent nature, the answer is perhaps a simple one?  The medium is so ill suited to capturing the sophistication of nature that it cannot help but present the impossible challenge of such a task in every built attempt.  LEGO representations of nature reveal a necessary human deference towards our world, through the willingness to fail, to make our representations of nature, just that, representations and not explanations of living things. They have the potential to temper the modern proclivity for the technical reduction of things to resource, and as such stand to remind us what might be lost in every failed representational attempt.

 

Endnotes

[i] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, translated by Pluhar, Werner S., Hackett, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1987, p.166.

[ii] See Sean Kenney’s website Art With Bricks http://www.seankenney.com/

[iii] Sean Kenney’s Rose, installed at Reiman Gardens in Iowa April 2012, as part of the touring exhibition Nature Connects.

[iv] As evidenced in an artwork like ‘Vitra Balancing Tools Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen’. Photograph by smow blog (flic.kr/p/6t3gY4), used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), cropped from original.

[v] LEGO – The Lost World Zoo, Bright Bricks exhibition, Milestones Museum, February 2014.

[vi] See the Bright Bricks webpage http://bright-bricks.com/

[vii] Mike Doyle, ‘Plastic Fantastic’ in Bricks Culture Issue 2, 2015.

[viii] “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho, Grove Press, London, 1983.

[ix] Or as Gertrude Stein famously stated: “A rose is a rose is a rose” in the poem Sacred Emily (1922).

[x] See Blake Foster’s M-Tron Magnet Factory (2014) https://www.flickr.com/photos/blake-foster/14623286658 and Luke Watkins Hutchinsons Peace Sells (2010) https://www.flickr.com/photos/45244184@N04/5062189530/in/dateposted/.

[xi] Beautiful Lego is a series of coffee table art books curated by Mike Doyle with the aim of showcasing the best artistic LEGO creations being made today.  The first volume was published in 2013 by No Starch Press.

[xii] Beyond the Brick, Episode 139 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcpNchpBu28.

[xiii] See, Howard, Jason, We All Live Downstream: Writings about Mountaintop Removal. Louisville, KY: Motes Books, 2009

[xiv] Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Writings, London, Harper Perennial 1977.

 

This article was first published in Bricks Culture No.3 October 2015

Space Dinosaurs

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Space Brachi0saurus

When I posted my first Space LEGO dinosaur on Flickr back in August 2015 I never expected the response it received. There was something about a stegosaurus built in the style of LEGO’s Classic Space sets that chimed with the community. Even before the popular LEGO websites picked up on the model, comments and likes were multiplying faster than I could keep track of. People I’d never spoken to before were asking if I could put the build on LEGO Ideas; they wanted to vote for it to become an official set! I was flattered, and a little confused; out of the many creations I’d posted online what made this one so special?

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Space0saurus

It wasn’t until I took three of the dinosaurs to Brick, the huge LEGO show in London, that I started to better understand things.   I’d like to say that it was the sophisticated building techniques I used that made it popular, but that would be a lie. Although competently made there were hundreds of better built LEGO marvels at the exhibition. Even the aesthetic design, whilst polished, borrowed heavily from familiar tropes and other recognisable franchises. What made them a hit was the simple fact that dinosaurs are pretty cool. Mix this with space age robotics and a splash of nostalgia and the wining formula was complete.

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Space0saurus (modular function)

A gaggle of children, normally under the age of ten would stop point, coo and exclaim: “awwwesome… look, space dinosaurs.” Standing behind them a dad who looked suspiciously like me nodded in agreement, and would sagely add: “look at those pieces, that’s the sort of LEGO set I remember.” Some would also throw in words like Zoids, Dinobots or Robotix, and we’d exchange further knowing looks.

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Space Brachi0saurus (rocket launcher)

Reflecting on the events of the show I dug a little deeper into what I build and why? There are definitely two sides to what I do as a LEGO builder. One is linked to the part of me who went to Art College and now works for a university, teaching art theory from time to time. His creations reference Ancient Greek art and folk traditions such as needlecraft and paper cuts. The other has unfinished business with the important task of a ten year-old who is still trying to build the most amazing spaceship possible!

As a young builder, Space was without a shadow of a doubt my LEGO theme. Each year the new catalogue was released and my brother and I would quickly turn to the Space page. We would point out the models we wanted, earmarking birthday presents and Christmas gifts in January.

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Space0dactyl

Our free building activities followed in the same vein. Spaceships, rovers, robots and lunar bases were our staples. Where I favoured the idiosyncratic look of science fiction models, which had scant regard for practicality as long as they looked beautiful, my brother focused on engineering challenges and functions. Between the two of us we made good progress in emulating our heroes, the designers of the official LEGO sets. It is with great pride that I remember mastering the tricky art of detailing a Space model with lights, panels and antennae, a task I considered integral to the official sets. I was rewarded when my friends from school volunteered the highest praise: “That could be a real set.”

In many ways when I returned to LEGO building in my late thirties, I picked up where I left off. My aim was to build in the style of the designers of my childhood sets, but now with the skill and artistic vision of an adult. Where before the ultimate goal was to build as well as the designers, now I had the expertise to match their work, but also the freedom to work outside the conventions of toy design. Even the most cursory of scans of my builds reveals an obsessional pursuit of this. How many three-wheeled space rovers can I make, what would a pyramid spaceship look like and how do you build a space elephant?

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Classic Space Caterpillar Rover

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Triangle Shuttle

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Cosmic Pachyderm

What I find fascinating about the Classic Space LEGO theme is how open it is as a design brief. It is more than the use of certain colours in particular combinations, which it is often reduced to. When I see a blue and grey science fiction creation presented online as a Classic Space model, most of the time I’m simply looking at a blue and grey spaceship. Conversely I’ve had to laugh at the pedantry of the community that has informed me I’ve made my models incorrectly based on arbitrary rules divined from a handful of sets. I’ll never forgot the horror some people experienced when I inverted the yellow and black stripes commonly found on early Classic Space sets on my Space Wedge Model. Black and yellow stripes in the right order do not make a Classic Space set.

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Space Wedge

The LEGO designers of the early Space sets certainly didn’t fix hard and fast rules for themselves. New colour combinations were constantly being introduced. In many ways the range portrayed a mismatched oddball collective of scientific space exploration vehicles. Yet, there is a tangible quality shared by them all. I think of it as a post-Star Wars re-imagining of the NASA programme. Taking the clunky technology of the 70s and 80s and mixing it with aspirations of an established lived-in future world as portrayed in the Star Wars films. The result is often quirky in its aesthetic rendering of pragmatic function. Space sets looked as if they had a purpose without being explicit what that function was. A great Space design for me is a model with lots of apparent scientific equipment on display without enforcing what any of it does.

This way of working leaves builders with several different ways of taking the theme forward. Peter Reid and Tim Goddard in their magnificent book LEGO Space took one route. Channeling the sleek spaceship designs of the first wave of Space sets and remodeling them with all the skill of modern building techniques. Importantly they spliced this with the direction science fiction design has moved in the era of digital design. The result is a wonderful alternative world of space exploration. On discovering their work it felt like finding a couple of kids in the next town who had come up with a different, yet equally brilliant space universe to mine.

My own take on Classic Space starts from very different sets though. The twin digger/grabber rover 6880 Surface Explorer, the crazy tower/robot/base 6951 Robot Command Centre and the AT AT imitating walking dinosaur 6940 Alien Moon Stalker sum up my LEGO DNA. It is a world where functional design is pushed beyond use into impracticality for the sake of whimsical design. It’s a way of working I feel great affinity for. When I start to build I tend to come up with an interesting exaggeration, a canopy design that pushes the parts further than they are supposed to go, or something as simple as placing radar dishes at certain points to insinuate a face.   For me these twists make a Space model infinitely cooler than any deadly armed star fighter will ever be.

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Ginger-Bread-Bot

I’m not alone in this approach. My kindred spirits are builders like Crismso Geiger, who makes sequences of creations by reusing small selections of Classic Space pieces, and my sometimes Space competition collaborator David Roberts, who mixes, space, whimsy and engineering functions. Together we seem at odds with the science fiction designs of today remaining resolutely attuned to an eccentric nostalgia for a future that never was.

All of this analysis still hasn’t fully answered my question though, what made space dinosaurs more popular than all my other quirky, inventive and unique Space creations? The missing ingredient is a simple child’s perspective. Where perhaps my other Space creations are over-designed, suffering from a complicating adult perspective that understands composition and design, the dinosaurs were my son’s idea.   Over the summer holiday we spent an afternoon building, and in a throw away statement he said: “Daddy, can you build me a space dinosaur?’ What a fantastic idea I thought! Why didn’t I come up with that?

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Space0saurus (Spine Cells)

Once the idea was set, I had a fresh focus for pushing pieces into new design purposes. Where before I was looking for innovative canopy designs, I was now looking for vintage Space pieces that could stand in for parts of a dinosaur. I looked first of all for the archetypal elements of a dinosaur, what signified each of the classic beasts. For a stegosaurus it had to be the dorsal plates. A flash of inspiration and I realised I could deploy classic angled yellow canopies to achieve this. As I continued to build, I remembered that other toy companies, specifically Zoids, had approached this idea and that it would be good to acknowledge this. As a reference to these great toys I borrowed elements such as the tail pilots. The finished creation took me no more than three hours to make, but despite its immediacy it had that intangible quality, a certain something that just worked.

I repeated the process with my other dinosaurs, looking again for archetypal elements that I could hang the design process on. The cones that were often used as rocket heads in Classic Space would make great triceratops horns. In a similar way, the old Technic gear rails would work as tyrannosaurus rex teeth. These new creations each became favourites on the forums alongside the stegosaurus.

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Tri-Space0tops

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Space0saurus-Rex

With the classic dinosaurs of my childhood exhausted I thought my next build would take an iconic monster from the recently discovered dinosaur fossils. A spinosaurus! Again, I looked for the defining characteristic, in this case the use of transparent yellow bricks to suggest the stretched skin between the spines of the creature.

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Spine0saurus

Now that I’ve found this new way of working, which uses anthropomorphic references to the animal kingdom in space sets, the future is full of new and original opportunities. I’m looking to move away from dinosaurs into new waters, and this time I’m taking inspiration from my daughter. As I continued to build more dinosaurs she interjected: “Daddy, why do you always build dinosaurs? Couldn’t you build a space penguin?” What a great idea! An Ice Planet emperor penguin anyone?

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Ice Planet Penguin (laying Egg-bot)

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Ice Planet Penguin (swim mode)

To see more of my space creations see my Flickr page.