LONDON – It is unfair that I have not grown up to be a leading architect, for it’s not as if I didn’t 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.
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, grey and red. But 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 tepid, flavorless classicism. Dame Ann Dowling, who later this year will be appointed the first female president of the 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 (less than 8 percent of professional engineers in Britain are women and only 20 percent of registered architects).
I agree with her. It isn’t 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, children become absolute rulers, miniature city mayors who may make decisions about high rise versus low rise, traffic flow or the number of trees in a certain park, on a whim. They enforce order, here a street and there a house, and then “wham!,” they can destroy the whole plan and start again. Given the God-like way many architects carry on, it’s probably helpful to get a sense of this feeling as early as possible.
But back to taste. Last year, while I was researching the life of the British architect Alison Smithson, I stumbled on the strangest and most beguiling book: “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 kids to build perfect little half-timbered houses), but some modern buildings reflect aspects of the style of the toys their designers played with as children. The authors point out, 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 Lloyd’s building in London’s financial district to the look of Meccano. As a child, Rogers’ former partner, Norman Foster, spent his pocket money both on Meccano and on Trix (similar to Meccano, but with more holes).
I offer all this up not only because it’s fascinating, but because it reinforces Dowling’s call to arms. The Vales draw an unexpectedly clear line from construction toys at a time when such things were almost exclusively marketed to and bought by little boys to aspects of our towns and cities 50 or so years later. However, there is a problem. Those in the market for buying such toys for their daughters must now do battle both with the dumbing down of the toy industry and with its reflexive sexism. Fewer such toys exist now and those that do are far less complex to build. Meanwhile, even my beloved Lego has gone pink, selling kits aimed specifically at girls. The last time I went to buy my eldest niece a box — I long for her to be a master builder — I picked up and then swiftly put down Mia’s Lemonade Stand, a lilac and chartreuse green affair that is part of its ghastly Friends range. I simply could not do it.
Instead, I vowed to myself that as soon as she is old enough, I will give her the Lego Architecture kit for Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, a supremely fascinating construction that was at least commissioned by a woman (Edith Farnsworth, in 1945), if not actually built by one.