It is unfair that I have not grown up to be a leading architect, for it is not as if I did not put in a long apprenticeship. As a child, I was not one for dolls; I always preferred to build. First, there were Stickle Bricks, those bristly chunks of plastic that look and feel like offcuts from a hairbrush factory. Then there was Lego, so frustratingly curveless and yet so infinitely satisfying. Finally, there was Fischertechnik, a German construction toy designed to teach children how machines work.
In our house, the Fischertechnik belonged to my brother, but I would sometimes try it out. Its ugliness horrified me; all cogs and winches, it was mostly black, gray and red. However, it left a lasting impression. I find now that I prefer buildings to be honest. Better “ugly” concrete than ersatz Georgian; better gleaming glass and metal than Quinlan Terry’s tepid, flavorless classicism.
Dame Ann Dowling, who later this year is to be appointed the first female president of the British Royal Academy of Engineering, believes that if girls were encouraged to play with toys such as Lego, more of them might go on to pursue careers like hers.
I agree with her. It is not only a person’s future taste that is influenced by construction toys. Nor is it one’s basic understanding of how a bridge might need to be supported or a tower underpinned, things you learn from Lego without even realizing it.
It is one’s sense of possibility. Sitting on the floor surrounded by bricks, a child is an absolute ruler, a miniature city mayor who may make decisions about high rise versus low rise, traffic flow or the number of trees in a certain park, on a whim. She enforces order, here a street and there a house, and is then able to destroy the whole plan and start again. Given the God-like way many architects carry on, it is probably helpful to get a sense of this feeling as early as possible.
However, back to taste. Last year, while I was researching the life of the architect Alison Smithson, I stumbled on the strangest and most beguiling book.
It is called Architecture on the Carpet. Written by Brenda and Robert Vale, who are professors of architecture at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and lifelong collectors of construction toys, it tells the curious story of the connections between children’s building sets and architecture.
What I learned from reading it was this: Not only did some early construction toys mirror the built environment (Lott’s Bricks, which first appeared in 1917, embrace the ethos of the arts and crafts movement, while Tudor Minibrix, a rubber Lego-like toy that was first manufactured in 1935, enabled their owners to build perfect little half-timbered houses). Some modern buildings reflect aspects of the style of the toys their designers played with as children.
The authors say, for instance, that Will Alsop, the architect of Peckham library in south London, played with Bayko as a boy, and that you perhaps see this in the slender columns that support the building (Bayko, patented in Liverpool in 1933, is a toy that involves rods).
Richard Rogers has explicitly connected his design for the Lloyds building in London’s financial district to the look of Meccano. As a child, Rogers’s former partner, Norman Foster, spent his pocket money both on Meccano and on Trix (similar to Meccano, but with more holes).