Our Throw-Away Culture Could Learn Much From Lego
I remember seeing St Catherine's College, Oxford, for the first time and a companion announcing that the buildings were made of Lego. This was meant to be disparaging. On the fringe of all those dreaming, honey-coloured medieval towers and spires lay this blunt range of low-lying, seemingly characterless, biscuit-coloured modern building blocks.
In hindsight, my teenage companion's throwaway critical reaction was reasonable, if not exactly spot-on, for the Danish architect Arne Jacobsen's 1960s college is very much the kind of building you can have a go recreating on a bedroom floor with the most basic box of Lego. And, how appropriate this is, for Lego (from the Danish phrase leg godt, or play well) was invented by a Danish carpenter, Ole Kirk Christiansen, and the familiar interlocking plastic bricks his workshop play led to have been around now for over 50 years, a happy symbol of Danish modernism: simple, clear, well-made, likable and, above all, enduring.
Popular with generations of children who went on to become architects and designers, Lego has never been just for Christmas. Like Jacobsen's buildings and furniture, it has been designed to last. And, while not as demanding or as instantly thrilling as rival games – did you have, as I did, hand-me-down Meccano, Bayko or Architex? – it's the box of assorted Lego that comes out, along with sweets and biscuits, on rainy days. And, it seems, in recessions.
Lego is not just enduring, it seems, but thriving. As the all-too-real construction industry struggles, the Lego Group has announced a two-thirds rise in pre-tax profits to £99.5m, with a sizable amount of that sum earned from a 20% increase in sales in Britain over the past year.
From the parents' perspective, this makes sense, as Lego is one of those toys that rarely gets thrown away. Conversely, it seems to breed in boxes tucked under beds or in the recesses of spidery cupboards. It's a game that generations add to. And one that children and grandparents can enjoy. From the child's viewpoint, Lego is simply there, like St Paul's Cathedral (a bit tricky to model in right-angled plastic bricks), the Empire State Building or St Catherine's College.
In a world in which our children are encouraged to demand any amount of luridly coloured (usually pink) bleeping, winking, throwaway electronic plastic tat made by less lucky children in far-away countries of which we choose to know little, Lego is a source of comfort as well as play. When children have become bored with the bleeping, winking stuff – usually in about the same time as these things take to break – many will turn to tried-and-tested indoor games when the summer sun refuses to shine. Games like drawing houses or making buildings.
One of the first things we draw as children is our home, which, in many cultures, is an elemental four-square house, of the kind you might make with Lego, although I'm not sure if Lego makes pitched roofs. And, from wooden bricks to sophisticated plastic toys, children will go on, quite naturally, to build. There is a homemaker, brickie and even an architect in most of us.
And, as for those parents worried about the amount of time their children spend in front of computer screens, Lego is a happy alternative. As, of course, is Plasticine, paper and anything else you can buy or lay your hands on that can be used to build a world in miniature. Not only do most children like making things and building, but there is something cosseting in the very idea that such building ventures are innocent of the big, bad world of recession out there beyond the front door. While grown-ups – architects sporting important glasses, men in safety jackets, hob-nailed boots and hard-hats, developers in tight-fitting, shiny suits – twiddle their thumbs, children continue to build.
Along with rising sales of Lego, we also learn this summer of a surge of interest in knitting, gardening, allotments and all kinds of DIY. This, surely, can only be good both in the immediate and long term. Our economy has been over-reliant on us borrowing too much money to buy 500,000 tonne shiploads of throwaway junk (I've watched ships of this prodigious size easing their way into Lowestoft from China) and, now, perhaps, is the time for us all to learn to play well once more, to learn the value of lasting things and, above all, of making things, so that in the future we can make and mend for ourselves rather than expect poor people in poor countries to churn out lazy, bleeping, winking plastic rubbish for us. Stuff that we can barely be bothered to play with for very long, and certainly not well.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2009