Toys that bind


From New Republic (June 6, 1994)

by Douglas Coupland

Legoland is a real place--the Orlando of Europe--located in the center of Denmark's Jutland peninsula in a region that was once an atopian potato and dairy farm nowhere but is now a powerful utopian tourist somewhere. Lego, the modular plastic toy that has become a playtime cultural staple in the West, was first manufactured in 1947 in the nearby town of Billund--hence Legoland's somewhat random-seeming location. When families in Antwerp, Nancy, Linz or Bern discuss holiday locales, Legoland is the focus of untold Eurobrat tantrums.

Legoland, which opened in 1968, is a big attraction. Last year it took in 1,284,831 visitors (touche EuroDisney). Legoland consists of 42 million bricks configured into thousands of waist-high exhibits covering 120,000m2. There is a Lego Neuschwanstein (236,000 bricks) and a Lego Bergen, Norway, with a teeny funicular railway. There is a Lego Amsterdam (sans Lego squatters) and there is a "Legoredo" American Wild West theme park, which has little if anything to do with Euroculture, but seems wildly popular nevertheless (See Mount Rushmore!, 1,500, 000 bricks). Other attractions include: a Lego Taj Mahal, a Lego Statue of Liberty and even a Lego U.S. Capitol Building. A new Legoland is currently planned for Carlsbad, California, just north of San Diego.

I came to Legoland from Silicon Valley, where I had been spending time with scores of highly gifted, successful computer hardware and software engineers. In meeting these people, it quickly became apparent that every one of them had spent his or her youth heavily steeped in Lego and its highly focused, solitude-promoting culture. While a few made youthful excursions into alternate construction systems such as Meccano, Lego was their common denominator toy. As computer engineering culture is dense with any number of complex assembly languages, some sort of linguistic connection sprang to mind.

Now, I think it is safe to say that Lego is a potent three-dimensional modeling tool and a language in itself. And prolonged exposure to any language, either visual or verbal, doubtless alters the way a child perceives his or her universe. So let us examine the toy briefly.

First, Lego is ontologically not unlike computers. This is to say that a computer by itself is, well, nothing. Computers only become something when given a specific application. Ditto Lego. To use a Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet or to build a racing car--this is why we have computers and Lego. A p.c. or a Lego brick by itself is inert and pointless: a doorstop; litter. Made of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, Lego's discrete modular bricks are indestructible and fully intended to be nothing except themselves.

Second, Lego is "binary"--a yes/no structure; that is to say, the little nubblies atop any given Lego block are either connected to another unit of Lego, or they are not. Analog relationships do not exist.

Third, Lego anticipates a future of pixilated ideas. The forms it builds are digital. The charm and fun of Legoland stems from seeing what was once organic reduced to the modular: a life-size zebra seemingly built of little cubes; cathedrals as seen through the "Hard Copy" T.V. lens that converts the victim's face into small squares of color; a statue of Hans Christian Andersen as constructed by Chuck Close.

The Lego-built universe thwarts entropy, and that can be both frightening and cute. This is unexpected. For North Americans, Legoland seems cloyingly European and tame. At times it makes Disneyland seem almost noir. A North American is left pining for a burning Lego Los Angeles; a Lego dc-10 crashed in an Iowa cornfield; a Lego earthquake- collapsed 880 Nimitz freeway--modernism facing and dealing with crisis rather than mummifying in eternal stasis. In the same manner that one searches for irregularities among Andy Warhol's multiples, one also searches for Lego bricks that are bleached and cracked by exposure to Scandinavian winters--errors in the system; decay; disorder. Legoland highlights this century's continual battle between linearity and chaos: witness Sarajevo's bombed-out Philip Johnson-like office towers, which still seem strangely intact.

Also, amid Legoland's crenellated minibuildings and railways are thousands of hand-high, Lego-built citizens, most of whom emulate shoppers, pedestrians, restaurant-goers and other Eurocitizens indulging in harmless enough middle-class pursuits. Yet there are a few small figures who, either through strong wind or simple misplacement, seem to have had their narratives stripped from their lives or had darker narratives imposed on them. For example, there are six gray bodies crawling across a lawn outside the Amsterdam-plex, past a field of digital-looking black and white cows, looking, for all the world, as though they had survived the fires of Waco. In Bergen, a character holding a bike outside the window of a house looks like a Peeping Tom. The brain willfully rejects the niceties presented by Lego's scamless psychic ecology.

Before any idea occurs, there must first be a dream. The Apollo rocket designers and the nasa engineers of Houston and Sunnyvale grew up in the 1930s and 1940s dreaming of Buck Rogers. And so when this aerospace generation grew old enough, they chose to make those dreams real. The children of Lego grew up dreaming of another world--a seamless world of hal 9000, of "I Robot," modularity, indestructibility, sound bites, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. And now this generation, working in high-tech "campuses" that resemble suburban rumpus rooms, is silently choosing to build cd-rom drives and code technologies that will help bring the world closer to a vision of Legoland. The darker narratives will always take care of themselves.