Rearranging Our Pieces, Playing With Our Future

When I was a kid, Legos were quite possibly my number one toy. Sure, I spent untold hours in front of our 13 channel Sony Trinitron with a gray plastic controller in my hand exploring pixelated worlds on my Nintendo Entertainment System, but it was the Legos that best stirred my imagination. It was the Legos that were everywhere.

That's just what Jonathan Glancey of The Guardian captured in an article last week in which he wrote about the resilience of the toys, of their persistence, the way Lego

“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."

Last weekend, in between an afternoon in Santa Barbara with former colleagues of mine from the Pacific Coast Business Times and an evening with a freelancer who wrote for me when I edited the Ventura County Reporter, I passed a night at my childhood home. I arrived at my mom's in the early evening. She was out watching a close friend perform in a play. A houseguest staying over while completing a residency at one of the city's hospitals was also out. I had the house to myself.

Much as i might have done returning home from school, I dropped a bag off in my bedroom — now painted a rather cheerier color than it ever was during my childhood — and walked straight to our family room. That room really hadn't changed much in the 11 years since I graduated high school and wandered out into my life.

Sprawled across the coarse carpet of mottled dark and light greens were winding feet upon feet of wooden train tracks assembled by my three-year-old niece more than a month earlier.  I smiled, both at the reminder of how the frenetic pace of my family's life sometimes keeps such clutter unchecked, and  at the memory of spending a lazy holiday weekend playing with my niece.

She enlisted me in building an elaborate network of railroad tracks and bridges and boat docks. Nearby, the surprisingly elaborate complex of building blocks she had constructed still stood. Wrought by her own imagination and design it looked like a modern civic center any city would be proud of. I smiled at how she had determinedly created her own world that weekend (my only role was to take instruction from my young forewoman and occasionally solve vexing engineering struggles such as the proper support for a railway bridge).

Instantly I remembered my own years in that room, a room I probably spent far more time in than my own bedroom, perhaps even counting the time I spent asleep. I remembered building similar train networks, sometimes spanning multiple rooms. Along the back wall of the room were stacked crates of Legos and I wondered how many adventures and landscapes and universes I had conjured up with them, and how many more would still be conjured up with the very same pieces by my niece and her sister at some future point, not to mention any other children that might join our family.

I'll interrupt myself here to note the lingering privilege I have to share this description. Scandinavian building toys, whether colorful Lego sets or simple Brio trains, are not the most affordable toys, nor are video games. To have had the opportunity to choose between the three is a liberty not all children have (or, perhaps, need). But I can't deny or lament a truth like that. I can only acknowledge it and move on.

As I think one can extrapolate from the following excerpt from Glancey's article, though, some form of this imaginative play is important to most kids' lives, wherever they're from, whatever background they have.

“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,” Glancey writes. “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.”

Glancey is on to something, particularly because the core message of his piece is really less about Lego specifically and more about the rise in do it yourself culture in many forms, of the “value for lasting things” that we so desperately need to learn.

I think about this often these days. As we seek a path out of our economic malaise, too often I hear that positive signs will come in the form of new housing starts or increased consumer spending. How can that possibly be the answer? How can creating yet more seas of unimaginative little boxes filled with yet smaller boxes ever satisfy us?

One might say “But we need these boxes to put people back to work. How will the construction crews and architects and engineers and road builders survive?”

I wonder, is our imagination so limited that we think anyone will survive by doing the exact same thing we've done for half a century? Why can't we take the same simple wonder of an afternoon of play and build a new world with the pieces we already have? Why can we not take our bricks and track and blocks and rearrange them, as we did countless times as children, into new buildings, new cities and new transportation networks? Why can't we put our architects to work redesigning the decrepit spaces that already pepper our world? Why can't we put builders to work reconstructing our destroyed communities? Why must we mine new materials and continue the urbanization of our wild lands when so much unused housing stock and other structures sit vacant?

Why can't we rearrange the pieces we already have? If we could do it endlessly as kids, we really can do it now.

Meanwhile: is this comment from the Guardian page with the article not one of the funniest things you've read or what?

Thanks to the always amazing for tipping me and other readers off to the Guardian story.