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LESSONS FROM LEGOLAND

There is something arresting about the image of the world’s most iconic footballer trying to cure his anxiety-prone nature by making, unmaking and remaking a toy replica of the world’s most iconic building. David Beckham is specially attached to his Taj Mahal Lego set. The company website lists it now as a “retired product”. But he had once bought it online, making the price shoot up overnight. The Taj Mahal is not the only item in Mr Beckham’s Lego regime. He also works with the Tower Bridge set, and may have tried his hand (and nerves) at the Eiffel Tower or Simpsons House. All these structures can be assembled and disassembled in Legoland — that empire of diminutive constructivism, in which the Child is father of the Man.

Human beings playing with scaled-down models of monumental architecture, if filmed or photographed cleverly, produce startlingly disorienting effects. Not being able to tell who’s big and who’s small can be terribly unsettling. Notions of scale, and therefore of power, start getting topsy-turvy. Think of Gulliver in Lilliput, King Kong in New York, or, for that matter, God looking down on planet Earth. The idea of play — and of modelling, in particular — becomes, in these fantasy scenarios, part of a larger and more menacing mythical order. It embraces the entire range, from human to monstrous to divine, where each is capable of morphing into the other simply by changing size — as Alice discovers in Wonderland. Yet, at the heart of this nightmare vision out of Goya or Blake is the ultimate picture of harmlessness: a child playing with its toys.

It comes as no surprise that Legoland started being made in 1949 — amidst the ruins of war in post- Occupation Denmark, a country that went on to become, together with its Scandinavian neighbours, a Mecca for modern architects and designers. It was also inevitable that those colourful little interlocking bricks of plastic, designed to fit into one another anywhere in the world at any time, would be used not only to build functional or utopian machines, robots and structures, but also to replicate the wonders of architectural ingenuity and beauty. And the Taj has always been good at remaining unique and transcendent, while lending itself to continual replication in the marketplaces of the world.

There is a peculiarly modern irony in sublime architecture being scaled down and mass-produced to be taken apart and put together in a children’s game. In The Lego Movie, the real evil, wielded by an adult called Lord Business, is the deadly stickiness of Krazy Glue. It threatens to fix forever the very structures that are meant to be built, unbuilt and rebuilt continually by the unstoppable creativity of a child at play. To ‘do, undo and redo’ thus — the words form the title of a great work of art — is a prerogative as much of the artist, architect and designer as of the child, all of whom ask to be protected from the fixing Medusa-gaze of Lord Business.