ake a brick. Look at it. Is it plastic? Does it have eight knobs on top and three tubular holes underneath? Is it, would you say, molded to a tolerance of five-thousandths of a millimetre? If so, you are probably holding a piece of Lego. If you're still not sure, gather five more bricks of the same design and start clicking them together. Take your time. If you discover that there are 102,981,500 ways in which those six pieces of plastic can possibly be combined, then Lego it is.
During the past forty years, some three hundred million children have played with Lego, and it is estimated that in the course of a single year these children spend five billion hours amid the bricks. At last count, Lego had filled the world with a hundred and eighty-nine billion molded elements. Most of them, given the unbreakable longevity of the product, must still be in circulation. Half, as far as I can make out, are in my attic.
The rule that governs any self-respecting box of old Lego is that it should contain not just single bricks but the exciting debris of half-made projects: a three-wheeled chassis, a robot's lonely torso, a plastic Piranesi ruin. I find it heartbreaking to comb through the bricks of my childhoodnot because the click of stud into hole promises a Proustian retrieval of lost bliss but simply because I am touched to discover that even when I was six my engineering concepts were crap. Lego posed a formidable challenge: being essentially curveless, it seldom bothered with anything as fancy as aerodynamics. That was how we liked it, of course. Roundness was for slackers.
These days, I gaze in disbelief at what Lego has become. There are currently 433 different Lego sets available, 207 of which came out this year. I recently spent a day cruising the Lego department of F.A.O. Schwarz, on Fifth Avenue, discovering such delights as the Riptide Racer, the Speed Splasher, and the Fright Knights. I could choose between Lego Primo, for infants; Duplo, for children one and a half and older; Technic, for those aged seven and up; and something called FreeStyle, which seemed mean a load of Lego bits thrown into a bucket, like chicken. Even the basic backbone of the product line, Lego System, comprised a number of subsets, such as Aquazone, U.F.O., ResQ, Castle, Extreme Team and the daringly antiquated Town and Boats.
All at sea, I enlisted the aid of Jason Bligen, F.A.O. Schwarz's eagerly clued-in Lego manager. I was tempted by the Dark Forest Fortress, but Bligen demurred. "Oh, that's really old stuff," he said.
"Year, year and a half."
Hotter by far was the new range of Adventurers, which was released in January. For forty dollars, I could have had the high-tech Mummy's Tomb, but it was clear that its designers were cashing in on Stargate, and I wasn't in the market for merchandising. After deep deliberation, I plumped for the Cyber Saucer113 pieces, and mine for only $21.99.
Back in the safety of my bedroom, I made my Saucer. It took eighteen minutes. I encountered no major construction problems; Lego instructions, wordlessly international, are known to be among the clearest in the world. (The Swedish furniture manufacturer Ikea approached Lego for advice on this point.) And yet I can't say that I had any fun. The path from components to finished product was so smooth, and so hostile to improvisation, that I felt less like a child at play than like the last man on the assembly line.
This is the nub of the chargehalf lament, half complaintthat older Lego lovers level at the company of today. It is voiced most ardently by Bug, a computer jock in Douglas Coupland's novel Microserfs:
You know what really depresses the hell out of me? The way that kids nowadays don't have to use their imagination when they play with Lego. Say they buy a Lego car kitin the old days you'd open the box and out tumbled sixty pieces you had to assemble to make the car. Nowadays, you open the box and a whole car, pre-fucking-built, pops outthe car itself is all one piece. Big woo.
I went back to my Saucer, took it apart, and stared at the pieces. An hour later, I had turned it, or tamed it, into a cat and a mouse. The pivoting antennae from the spaceship were now the cat's whiskers. My rodent had black radio-dish ears, like Mickey's, and a revolving abdomen. I had applied my imagination to New Age Lego, but I was still stranded with four large sloping panels of plastic. Plugged together, they had formed the body of the shin; unplugged they were totally useless. Big woo.
One hardly needs to point out the steely commercial wisdom that underpins Lego's new marketing and design practices: ten or twenty years ago, a mother who gave her son or daughter a midsized, brick-based Lego kit could watch it go through countless transmutations without the need for further investment, whereas a mother who shelled out for a pair of green and purple Lego Technic Jaw-Tong Slammers last Christmas will have to reach Buddhist levels of quietude by August if she is not to cave in to raucous demands for the new Insectoids Arachno Base and Beetle Pod.
"The new stuff is a slap in the face for old Lego," I was told by an advertising executive who works on the Lego account. "What matters now," he said, "is not Lego the product but Lego the namehow to spread the brand."
Last year, for the first time, the Lego Group published "selected key figures." Its turnover in 1996 was 7,534 million Danish kroner ($1,267 million), which left a profit after tax of 470 million kroner ($79 million), or 6.2 percent of earnings, down 0.1 percent from the previous year. According to a company report, this just isn't good enough: although Lego is now sold in 138 countries, "earnings are not satisfactory in the light of our long-term objective to self-finance the operations and investments that we believe to be right and necessary." Lego is bigger and brighter than ever, but nobody can be sure that it's getting better; meanwhile, rivals such as the Pennsylvania-produced K'Nex are squaring up and watching their profits rise. In the moving words of the Lego catalogue: "Build the two opposing slammers and then prepare to compete."
Lego began life in 1932, in the workshop of a poor, God-fearing Danish carpenter. If that sounds like something out of Hans Christian Andersen, it may be because the woodworker in question, Ole Kirk Christiansen, lived in Billund, which is only a couple of hours' drive from Andersen's birthplace, on the island of Funen. Fly to Copenhagen and en route you will see a soft landscape dotted with neat villages that look oddly familiar; as I peered down at the red roofs of the notoriously pretty Æroskobing, my ideas about Lego turned gently upside down. I had always presumed that a brick is a brick is a brick. Lego seemed so anonymous and ubiquitous that it could have come from anywhere. But, in fact, it was, in its formative years, a distillation of Denmark: every time you got your bricks out, you were founding a miniature Northern European welfare statebright of hue, placid of demeanor, basically solid but given to occasional disturbing creaks. To the rest of us, Lego looks like toytown. To the Danes, it must sometimes feel like home.
Ole Kirk Christiansen made wooden toys for a living. (He also made stepladders and ironing boards.) The Lego company started using plastic in 1947, and dealt in it exclusively after 1960, when its wooden-goods warehouse burned down. Part of Christiansen's genius was to make the new material feel almost as comforting, as domestically reliable, as wood itself. There was nothing very natural about cellulose acetateor, later, about the more stable acrylonitrile butadiene styrene that replaced itbut until recently a certain folksiness still clung to the image of Lego.
Christiansen's other masterstroke came in 1934, when he held a competition among his employees to choose a company name, and won it himself. "Lego" is a contraction of the Danish "leg godt," or "play well" and it's one of those blessed names, like Coke or Kodak, that get their hooks in the auditory imagination and never let go. Rivals have failed to devise anything that can boast a fraction of this universal snappiness: Lego headquarters, in Billund, sports a fabulous display of Lego ripoffs, including Bildo, Blocko, Loko, Moto, Klip, Polly Plus, Hobby Land, Playgo, LocBlocs, OK, NA, and the tragically unambitious Toy. There is even one product called Ego, which is presumably all stud and no hole.
The Christiansen dynasty still runs Lego. Ole Kirk died in 1958, the year that saw the patenting of the brick we know and love, and Godtfred, one of his four sons, took over; it is Godtfred's son Kjeld who runs Lego Group today. In the same spirit, Billund remains the hub of the Lego universe. Since 1968, millions of people have come to this placesometimes more than twenty-five thousand in a single dayfor Billund is among other things, home to Legoland, the original, hundred-thousand square-metre theme park. Its main attraction is Miniland, where selected highlights of the known world are reproduced in Lego. When I toured park on a forlorn and gusty day, Washington was in turmoil. Someone had lifted the lid off the Capitol. Same old story.
The Lego experiencethree parts charming and inventive to one part creepystarts the moment you touch down at Billund Airport. I collected my bag, walked over to the information bureau, and asked the woman in charge where I could catch the shuttle bus into Legoland. "The bus waiting outside," she said. She paused, then added, "There will be small people on the bus." I gazed long and hard into her eyes for the tiniest sign of mockery, but they shone with clear, unsmiling innocence. I thanked her and went to meet my fate among the small people.
Ah! Cruel destiny! There were small people on the bus, but they were not, as I had fondly hoped, arrayed inside with fixed plastic smiles their asses clipped to the seats. Instead, they were simply painted on the outside, and I travelled alone with my disappointment to Hotel Legoland. Nothing in Billund is more than a short haul from anything else; to get the church to the supermarket to the civic center (endowed with Lego money) you drive at a sensible speed along ludicrously quiet streets, halting courteously at little roundabouts to allow other friendly drivers to pass by. At the side of the road, you keep seeing giant Lego bricksperfect eight-studs, magnified a hundred times and piled up like Claes Oldenburgs. By the time you reach Hotel Legoland, the visual jokes have become addictive. But the most vertiginous moment of illusion, which would have reduced E.H. Gombrich himself to whimpers of satisfaction, came as I strolled into the bar and ordered a cocktail. In a pitiful attempt at Roger Moore-style sophistication, I turned to raise my glass to the man who was noodling away on a grand piano, then realized that he was made of Lego. Even the "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door of my room showed a grinning little Lego man lying wide awake in a single bed with two plastic hands peeking over the edge of the blanketa tomb-like position that I dutifully assumed, and maintained, for an entire night.
Over at the modelling department the next morning, I stopped at the workbench of Malene Helbak. She was dressed in black, with an earring clipped to the upper rim of one ear. Music flowed from a boom box by her side, and she was being paid to play with Lego all day. I gazed at her and thought, You have the best job in the world.
Helbak was making a tall, plump bird. "Penguin?" I asked.
"No, fanfare pigeon," she said. I asked what a fanfare pigeon was.
"A pigeon playing a fanfare," she replied, reducing me to Lego Primo with a single look.
Almost none of Helbak's work was done on a computer, she simply looked at the image of a pigeon, drew it by hand on Lego graph paper, and started building. Some Lego designers had been artists in a previous life; some had been architects; and one, Søren Lethin, had been a journalist. There is a God after all.
Lethin was a Lego nut as a kid, and nothing has changed. He is now a product consultant for Lego's Shows and Events section, where one-off company display models are invented. We inspected some of his achievements, including a grungy four-foot rock star complete with shades, goatee, and guitar. "Gibson Les Paul," said Lethin proudly. Press a knob and the rocker starts to play; for all I know, you could program him to throw televisions and to pee on your children's heads. The dexterity of such modelling is beyond belief. During the course of my trip I saw a dachshund, a lunar module, the Doges' Palace, the Holy Family at rest, and the rather Clinton-like spectacle of a happy yellow monster whose nose turns into a saxophone. Lethin told me that he had once worked on a Lego Michael Jackson. "It's fabulous what you can do with plastic," he said with a smile. What is required is a kind of modular alchemy. When would-be master builders audition for Lego, they are given a pile of bricks and asked to make a perfect sphere. Then they have to turn it into a head. One guy produced a flawless Teddy Roosevelt and was told to take it away dismantle it, and come back with Carmen Miranda.
If this all sounds too much for mortals, consider the Lego World Cup, at which selected children are invited to Billund and allotted two hours and a stash of bricks to conjure a creation of their choice. One Italian girl produced a game of Lego Ping-Pong, and was asked how she had thought of it. "Well, I was planning to make a gondola," she confessed, "but there were no black bricks."
One reason that children have long treasured the order and flexibility of Lego is, perhaps, that the realm of play is one of the few areas of life where control has not become a dirty word. Among his or her bricks, the child is an absolute deity, forging coherence out of chaos and then reversing the process. If that omnipotence were to lurk and linger into adulthood, however, we would all be in trouble. Hence the nasty black comedy that hangs around the work of the Polish artist Zbigniew Libera.
In 1996, Libera was given a consignment of bricks by Lego distributors in Poland, which he used to construct a Lego concentration camp. The model was photographed, and its image was pasted onto a fake Lego box, with a fake Lego serial number, to give the impression that concentration camps were now part of the official Lego product line. When the boxes were exhibited in a Copenhagen art gallery, the Lego company understandably cried foul, but had the good sense not to sue. Libera's conceit is a respectable one, and, insofar as there is any sting to the work's satire, it comes from the sober (if unexceptional) fear that nothingnot even the Holocaustis immune to our demand for entertainment.
In the end, Libera's Lego art seems too obvious to be shocking, and the company can count itself unlucky to have been singled out as a moral mercenary. Why mock the potential of Lego and leave the Power Rangers unscathed? In comparison with many other toy companies, Lego feels benevolent toward the aspirations of the creative, and tolerates what it calls "foreseeable misuse." Denmark, after all, favors freedom of expression as rampantly as the other countries in Northern Europeperhaps on the understanding that only a minority of its citizens would even dream of abusing that liberty.
Legomakers everywhere have availed themselves of this opportunity. If you had to name one American, for instance, who clubbed together with a couple of friends in 1965 and spent more than three weeks building a futuristic seven-foot vertical city out of Lego, you might not immediately think of Norman Mailer. Thirty-three years later, however, the city still stands in Mailer's living room in Brooklyn Heights, and its creator remains enthusiastic about his project. "It was very much opposed to LeCorbusier I kept thinking of Mont-Saint-Michel," he explains. "Each Lego brick represents an apartment. There'd be something like twelve thousand apartments. The philosophers would live at the top. The call girls would live in the white bricks, and the corporate executives would live in the black." The cloud-level towers, apparently, would be linked by looping wires. "Once it was cabled up, those who were adventurous could slide down. It would be great fun to start the day off. Put Starbucks out of business."
Just as I was about to suggest that Mailer fly to Billund and be elected honorary Master Builderwho better to relish the Ibsenite power of such a post?he admitted that he didn't even like the stuff. "Lego's not perfect for it, because you have all those little, what can you call them, nipples, on top of each block, and they tend to spoil the line. I never enjoyed working with the plastic as such."
Mailer's metropolis, whether he likes it or not, would make a magnificent launchpad for Exploration Mars, one of three sets that supplement the new Lego Mindstorms Robotics Invention System, which will arrive on the market this fall. The heart of this system is a special Lego brick containing a microcomputer that you program from your PC and then incorporate into your Lego creation. I recently had a brief encounter with a Mindstorms car that came toward me, touched my finger with its front bumper, freaked out, turned around, and scooted off at ninety degrees. This struck me as authentic behavior.
Mindstorms is all part of the grand plan, as it was expounded in a 1997 Lego mission statement. Amid the usual nonsense about synergy and mind-sets, you hit this: "We want the LEGO brand to be the most powerful brand in the world among families with children. Our aim is to attain this objective no later than the year 2005." Bricks are clearly only a part of the deal. The new Lego kid will wear a Lego backpack to school, and shelter from the rain with a Lego umbrella and a pair of Lego rubber boots called Mudhoppers. When he gets home, he will lock himself in his room with the interactive building guide for his Lego Technic CyberMaster to make Stinger and Crusher. His only prayer will be that Mom and Dad won't try to come and help.
If there is a new dash of impatience, even of panic, in the soul of Lego, that is not the company's fault. The days when we could crouch down to play with Lego in the company of our kidsthat wonderful sensation of joint solitude, both builders furrowing their brows over separate problemswere bound to be numbered. Childhood itself is reaching a pitch of knowledge and appetite that would flummox and exhaust your average Danish carpenter of 1932, and the temptation to move into Stingers and Crushers must be hard to resist.
The future belongs to such projects as Legoland California, which will open in spring, 1999, in Carlsbad, near San Diego. The ideal to which it will aspire is not Billund but the British Legoland at Windsor, less than in hour west of London. I went there on March 14th, the opening day of the season, and spent five delirious hours shooting waterjets at the open mouths of Lego crocodiles and spinning around in Lego helicopters. Any place where an eight-year-old can earn his Lego driver's license by driving a Lego car around a road system is an intrinsically good thing, as is any lunch that consists of elephant-shaped chicken nuggets, an apple, a Coke, and a free Lego racing car. This last detail, I thought, could easily be incorporated into more fashionable dining contexts: "Yes, I'll have the squash risotto, the guinea fowl with grilled endive, half a bottle of Calon-Ségur, and Big Chief Rattle Snake's Camp."
There was a line to get into the Legoland Mindstorms Center, so I sneaked next door and found myself standing beside a rubberized track that was four yards long with a gentle slope. At the top was a starting grid, with room for five vehicles. At the bottom was a mass of Lego bits. This was my chance. I scooped up an armful of bricks and retired to a corner. Five minutes later, I was back, sizing up the competition. The kid on my left had come up with a hybrid of dragster and dragonfly. The kid on my right, newly versed in the law that momentum equals mass times velocity, was cradling what appeared to be a wheel-based version of the Chrysler Building. As for the quiet, self-possessed girl at the far end, I didn't trust her an inch. I had met her type before. And what about the red-haired kid with a car the size of a vole? We jostled for position, placed our speed machines, and waited for the ramp to drop. It was over in seconds. The girl romped home. The vole failed to start. The Chrysler Building fell over. I came in third. Lego is the greatest toy in the world.
April 27, 1998