What the Lego Company Can Learn From Its Own Lego House Museum

Museum architect Bjarke Ingels is building better ideas with Legos than the company that designed them.

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Lego Group

Yesterday, Danish architect Bjarke Ingels laid the first brick for the Lego House, a museum devoted to every kid's favorite building block, in the Lego company's historic home of Bilund, Denmark. Naturally, the first brick was made to look like an old-school Lego brick. In fact, the whole museum looks like a stack of Lego bricks.

The Lego Architecture version of the Lego House is available as a set of Lego bricks that form a tiny building that looks like a large building that looks like a pile of Lego bricks. It's the architecture version of that Maine resident who stood for a mugshot wearing a t-shirt with his mugshot on it. Turtles all the way down! 

Unfortunately, the Lego House museum doesn't much resemble the toys that the Lego company produces these days. Licensing deals with Marvel, DC ComicsThe Lord of the Rings, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and other franchises have transformed the crisp Danish vision for gender-neutral building blocks into a Hollywood merchandising machine geared almost exclusively to boys.

Girls, fed up with boys and Lego, revolted. Lego responded in 2012 with the Lego Friends line, a fuchsia ghetto that only further gendered the division. Back in January, an exasperated 7-year-old penned a letter to the company to express her frustration with the limited roles assigned to the pink side of the Lego aisle. A vintage 1981 Lego ad that made the rounds on Tumblr turned up the contrast: While Lego bricks were once made for children, now Legos belonged to boys—with an asterisk for Olivia's Beach Buggy or the Heartlake Juice Bar.

(Lego Group)

The company is doing somewhat better on the gender-balance front, having just released earlier this month the Lego Research Institute set, a suite of un-pink, all-female scientist figurines (designed by IRL scientist Ellen Kooijman). But Lego is still sagging on another front: in its depiction of cities. Lego's emphasis on Batman toys is a problem, but so is the way it might think today about Gotham City.

As design critic Alexandra Lange reasoned back in 2012, the Lego City line is all masculine sameness: "an urbs founded on the stereotype of boy busyness, a place that makes 3-D the transportation, safety, and sports obsessions writ large on the T-shirts in the boys' sections of major retailers." Lego City was built on a militaristic foundation, with law-enforcement sets making up about a third of the entire product suite, from a K-9 unit to an aerial surveillance squad.

That's what's so heartening about the Bjarke Ingels Group design for the Lego House: It takes imagination and possibility, qualities that were once practically synonymous with Lego, and injects them into a real-world structure. There are fake plastic trees and a maze (something of a signature for BIG) in the Lego House design. I'm nearly 30 years too late for this zany ziggurat, and still I demand to be taken there immediately.

(Lego Group)

Of course it's going to be fun, you might say: It's a museum for Lego! But whimsy is never a given in contracts and construction, and it's even less so a feature of Lego building blocks today. (Lego's STEM concession to women may be progress, but it's not exactly a sign of boundless imagination.) If Lego cities aren't the province of bottomless pits, impossible gardens, Escher geometry, and pyramid futurism—features that Bjarke Ingels seems to trade in—what's the point of even building them?

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously a senior editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post.