Cityscape, photographed by Louisa Parry, made of PlayPlax and Muji’s City in a Bag
Cityscape, photographed by Louisa Parry, made of PlayPlax and Muji’s City in a Bag

“Early in life,” wrote Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), “I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose the former and have seen no reason to change.” Frequently described as America’s greatest architect, Wright was, of course, a genius and honest arrogance suited him well. But, if he was not a man given to crediting anyone or anything for inspiration, he never failed to acknowledge the architectural influence of the building blocks developed by Friedrich Fröbel, the German inventor of the kindergarten, that he remembered playing with as a child. “The smooth shapely maple blocks with which to build, the sense of which never afterward leaves the fingers: so form became feeling.”

So there is symmetry in the way that in 1916, four decades or so later, his son John Lloyd Wright himself became a figure of influence in the world of construction toys. John had worked with Frank on the rebuilding of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, where both men had been struck by the Japanese method of building foundations on a series of notched logs which allowed some tolerance in case of earthquakes. John returned to the US to patent the principle for Lincoln Logs, a construction toy based on a series of miniature logs which locked together to create little buildings, inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1999 and still on sale today.

In that one toy was embodied an entire image of a nation; the pioneering spirit of the frontier settlers; the self-reliance of Thoreau; the Wild West of cowboy novels and films; and the image of freedom – of Lincoln himself, born in a log cabin on Sinking Spring Farm in Hodgenville, Kentucky.

The toys we buy our children allow them to build worlds of their own, limited only by the often strange visual vocabulary of their construction sets – but do they influence the worlds we build ourselves in later life? How are architecture, engineering and design influenced by the toys we played with as children? And is the increasing ubiquity of digital (as opposed to physical) play going radically to alter the way we conceive and build in the future?

The questions are raised in a recent book, Architecture on the Carpet: The Curious Tale of Construction Toys and the Genesis of Modern Buildings (Thames & Hudson, to be published in the US next month) by Robert and Brenda Vale. Their thesis is that construction toys provide a mirror for the real world of architecture, reflecting subtle shifts in thinking and building. But more than that, they suggest that particular types of toys may have influenced the way individual architects build.

The most obvious example here is the high-tech movement of the 1970s and 1980s. This was a mostly British affair, characterised by the kind of exoskeletal architecture in which structure and services are exposed so that the building appears almost like a machine, an approach which also allows the interior to be flexible and freed from clutter. The best-known examples might be the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Lloyd’s building in London and the HSBC building in Hong Kong. The designers behind these buildings, the British architectural aristocracy of Lords Foster and Rogers and Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, happily admit to playing with Meccano as children – and it shows. Indeed, the Hammersmith lobby of Rogers’ practice, Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners, contains a bright yellow and blue Meccano model of one of the firm’s uncompleted projects, replete with working pulleys and cranes, as well as a massive Lego model of the Centre Pompidou.

Lord Foster was in a hotel room in Cupertino (he is designing Apple’s new headquarters) when we spoke. “Like most children at that period my life was touched by Meccano and Trix [a toy railway and construction set], by model aeroplanes and motors, and I was grateful for exposure to them. I think they have been a powerful influence. I still sometimes buy things that I play with; and the box usually contains a note to say, ‘This is not a toy,’ which actually means it is a very expensive and rather fragile toy.

“I occasionally do talks for schools and I start with images of children putting one block on top of another, it’s a very primal thing, embedded in the human psyche.”

1949 blocksetting crane by Meccano
1949 blocksetting crane by Meccano

I grew up with Meccano, too, and became an architect. The reason I now write rather than build might be that my Meccano set never contained enough parts for me to construct the designs that appeared on the fronts of the boxes. It seems, however, that I was not alone. “It was very rare to get in the box what was illustrated on the front,” Robert Vale tells me. “Even if you bought the huge set with the blocksetting crane on the cover you wouldn’t have been able to build it.”

One illustration for that model shows a boy in shorts with the monstrous crane emerging from between his legs, a hilariously – though presumably unintentionally – phallic image betraying the intended masculinity of these toys (Meccano was marketed as “engineering for boys”).

“We know girls who loved playing with construction toys,” says Vale, “but they tended to belong to their brothers.” The book is full of pictures of boys, in ties and shorts, building as their sisters look admiringly on.

The French cultural critic Roland Barthes was stingingly critical of all contemporary playthings in a 1957 essay in which he rails against toys that teach children to consume rather than to imagine: “faced with this world of faithful and complicated objects, the child can only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator, he does not invent the world, he uses it …He is turned into a little stay-at-home householder.” Barthes then goes on to criticise the impermanence, smooth anonymity and “chemical coldness” of metal as opposed to the tactile qualities of wood which bears traces of use – just as Wright recalled the feel of those blocks in his hand.

Not all toys, of course, were as prescriptive as those Barthes criticises or as fiercely masculine as Meccano. There were the colourful Sticklebricks (invented in 1969 and an indestructible success at my primary school) and PlayPlax (designed in 1966), transparent coloured acrylic squares with slotted sides which can be linked together in compelling 3D formations. Elegantly sculptural, they closely resembled in concept the cards designed in 1952 by Charles and Ray Eames to be stacked and formed into the eponymous House of Cards.

Ray Eames is just one of a number of women who have designed construction toys, from Margaretha Reichardt’s strikingly abstract stick puppets designed at the Bauhaus in the 1920s to Anne Tyng (a close collaborator of architect Louis Kahn, with whom she had a child), who designed a brilliantly simple series of plywood forms with cut-outs which enabled them to be slotted into myriad shapes, to the US engineer Debbie Sterling who last year launched GoldieBlox, a construction set aimed at girls. You can tell it’s aimed at girls because it is drenched in pastel colours and inhabited by cloyingly cutesy animals, doing even more to reinforce gender stereotypes.

All these toys reflect the concerns of their time. Whether through the pioneering ruralism of Lincoln Logs, the art deco skyscrapers which could be built with Chicago-based Bilt-E-Z or the modernist prefabrication of Chad Valley’s Girder and Panel Building Set, attitudes to the city in particular are revealed, with perhaps the most notable 20th-century phenomenon measured by models being suburbanisation. In the Anglo-Saxon countries, at least, by far the biggest proportion of the population now lives in suburbs, and model railways are at the heart of representations of this new landscape.

Suburbs are orderly and comprehensible as opposed to the chaos of the city. A child (or parent) can build a suburb (or at least a suburban-looking village) with its station, shops and neat houses. Construction models mirrored this expansion, with a mix of modern and archaic patterns, a market hall and a multi-storey garage (with working corkscrew lift), gothic church and neo-gothic Victorian station. This was heterogenous suburbia.

Sam Hecht, whose company Industrial Facility worked with the Japanese retailer Muji, realised that, as an archetypally urban company, Muji’s ideal toy should revel in its citiness. Together with his wife, Kim Colin, he designed the City in a Bag. “It became Muji’s biggest revenue maker,” Hecht tells me. “We tried to make a city from simple wooden blocks, funnelling in a series of landmarks, modern and historical. We did world cities and then we broke out and did suburbia, a countryside (with pylons) and outer space. It was a slightly wry look at cities,” he says. “But it was mostly adults buying them. We’d see them in people’s houses and the kids were never playing with them.”

Construction toys have always been about what adults would like to play with themselves. Or what they feel their children should be playing with. They are worthy. But somehow Lego has managed the difficult feat of appearing playful, of being versatile and not being overly didactic. If English construction toys reflect a residual, Pooterish suburbanism, Lego, whose first plastic bricks appeared in 1947, is liberated Danish pop art modernism, of the same world as Verner Panton’s fiercely colourful plastic chairs and Claes Oldenburg’s confusion of scales. It is the most urban of the toys, encouraging the building of whole cities.

The company recently brought out a series of kits to make modernist icons by Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and, of course, Frank Lloyd Wright. They are clearly aimed at adults, the kind of gift which confers on the giver culture and playfulness. In their specificity (designed for only one possible outcome), they are exactly what Fröbel and Rudolf Steiner were set against, the latter, one of the most influential of play theorists, being convinced that only the vaguest sense of reality should be designed into a toy so that as much room is left for the imagination as possible. These are toys emulating an already built reality.

But do the kinds of constructions we build as children really influence what we design later? When I ask Robert Vale this he says, “I played with Minibrix and our buildings do have that kind of look.”

Brenda Vale shouts out in the background, “Boring.” “Yes, boring,” admits her husband with a foregrounded English self-deprecation.

I ask Lord Foster the same question. Would his architecture look the same if it weren’t for Meccano? “I don’t think the correlation is so literal,” he replies. “It’s more an attitude.” In that case, I wonder, how might the shift from physical construction toys to the pixelated screen affect the architecture of future generations?

“We’ve found,” says Foster, “that parallel to the rapid rise of computing power is an exponential growth in model-making. Even here in Silicon Valley, the home of the digital, our presentations are analogue. The people we deal with out here, mostly in their twenties, the most computer numerate in the world, still often only understand the building as a model. The change is not as dramatic as you’d think.”

As Foster suggests, the need to create models to explain imagined worlds is a residual survival of the childhood model-making urge. Computer games from SimCity to Medieval Mayor allow you to build entire cities in seconds, to destroy them and build again with no physical effort; they remove the sense of labour from the process. On screen, you become a kind of god, an omnipotent being in control of the worlds you construct. It encourages a distance which I think is a dangerous thing for designers.

With construction toys, you are grounded on the floor, mired in the shortage of pieces, the necessity to improvise, up against the frustrations of gravity, imperfect joints and commercial compromise. The perfect start for an architect.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture correspondent

The Lego Pompidou and Meccano models are on display at ‘Richard Rogers: Inside Out’ at the Royal Academy, London, to October 13

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