Inside BIG's Lego House

BILLUND, DENMARK – A secret to Lego’s success is the accuracy of production, that’s what gives the bricks their so-called ‘clutch’ power via the hollow tubes inside, where they can be clicked together to form gravity-defying steps and structures rather than merely stacking one by one on top. The architecture of each piece is simple, relates to a designed system of proportions, and from box to box the colours match and the craftsmanship and quality are amazingly consistent. Architect Bjarke Ingles of BIG aimed to translate these qualities to full scale building: the logic and language of the 2x4 Lego brick are key to the design of the new Lego House headquarters in the toy’s birthplace of Billund, Denmark. Details, proportion, quality and scale always matter in any architectural design project, but in this case, given the iconic status of the brand in Denmark and internationally there was additional scrutiny. Each visitor to the Lego House finds out that there are 915,103,765 unique arrangements of six of the same colour of 2x4 Lego bricks, and so in this project visitors find out: which combination did Ingles choose?

The architect explains using the language and logic of the toy: ‘It might seem effortless, like a pile of interlocking bricks, but it is systematic. There are eight bricks on the ground that frame the central square and these have open corners for entries, then eight bricks above organized 3 x 3 with a central one missing, then four more with a single one in the middle.’ On my visit to the building I already know, because I got the Lego House kit from the Lego Architecture series (in special edition, all white) and have built it myself.

 ‘The genius of Lego is that it isn’t a toy – it’s more like a tool’

Throughout the project, Ingles was careful to keep the Lego brick proportions. ‘Just like in nature, the Fibonacci sequence or golden ratio, in the built environment the 2x4 proportion of Lego is golden. We used this everywhere, we scaled up the height to about 18 cm then the length becomes 60 cm long and it is a good useful proportion for cabinetry and building materials. In the entire façade – inside and outside – we never cut a façade module, it is either 30 or 60 cm. We never broke the rules,’ Ingles explains. ‘That’s how you get into masonry heaven.’

Entering the building, the lobby is a large indoor public plaza with restaurants, cafes, the gift shop and elevators to the roof. The colours are subdued as with the exterior: lots of natural materials, wood floor, white walls and ceiling. On the day of my visit there are many curious locals, some pushing strollers and looking for the elevator to the rooftop playgrounds, and some standing around chatting. Past the entrance gates but visible from the main space, an oversized spiral stair is easy to spot in the space. It wraps around the ‘Tree of Creativity’, an impressive and colourful installation built from 3.5 million Lego pieces that took 4 months to build. Designers at Lego have a computer program that translates designs into Lego components. As with all digital designs, the challenge was in the assembly. Employees had to hang in harnesses carefully dipping the pieces in glue and attaching the pieces together.

The ceiling height here varies from 4 to 7 m, and when asked about the possibility of columns here Ingles turns serious: ‘No, there was never talk of columns in this space.’ That would seriously wreck the fantasy. There are no columns in Lego. ‘We had been working for more than a year to design the big plaza space to be open without any walls or columns. Maybe this was taken too lightly by the engineers at first, but they found out that it was necessary to design the space with absolutely no columns.’ About 1,900 tonnes of steel were required to make it happen and the 21 rooms or volumes above are essentially hung from a steel ‘bridge’.

Taking the staircase up into the colour-coded ‘experience zones’ visitors can try a range of interactive experiences like create a Lego fish to be photographed, scanned and animated in a digital aquarium, build and test race cars, or create a stop motion Lego film. There are also some exhibition areas. Ingles calls the bright, top floor space the keystone gallery. ‘It is like the last piece you put in that makes bricks form an arch.’ The room is dedicated to the work of AFOL (adult fans of Lego) and currently three enormous dinosaurs dominate the room which is lit by eight round skylights like the studs on top of a Lego piece. This is one of the only spaces with nothing to play with. The room showcases finished, highly detailed installations, like an exhibition hall, in contrast to the experience zones which are more informal, for in progress experimentation.

To be successful Lego House must be more than just a 1:1 Lego structure, it also needs to be an inspiring work of architecture and a contextual urban project. The simple white form and all white façades are surprisingly subdued – it is (thankfully for adult visitors) nothing like the Legoland theme park a few minutes away. ‘We thought it would not be nice to drop a colour bomb on the town,’ says Ingles. ‘We were thinking of Mediterranean mountain towns, not white chalk, but here white ceramic, the light changes the colours, reflects on the white surfaces.’ Colour is used carefully so as not to annoy or trivialize the power of Lego in the town. ‘People are used to having colourful floors, so in the experience spaces we used the palette of Lego colours like base plates to build on.’ Otherwise there is a lot of white. Colour is used as wayfinding but spatially ‘there is a feeling of overlapping, continuous open fluid spaces like Boolean operations’. It is a different story for people flying to Billund airport who get the brightly coloured aerial view of the building, which looks like actual Lego.

Since it has just opened, it is a bit early to tell, but so far the connection to the 6000-person town seems to be successful, with a generous public square, trees, and two oversized corner stairs in bright blue and vibrant yellow rise up from the town square. It is hard to overstate the importance of Lego in the town, the birthplace of Lego, or in Denmark generally. The building replaces the town hall, which is being moved to a nearby site. Ingles explains: ‘Billund wants to be the capital for children and this building is a centerpiece and needs to be a public building in every sense.’

It was no secret that BIG wanted the commission. The project had been a long-standing dream of Ingles and in his firm’s monograph he wrote: ‘We felt that if BIG had been created with the single purpose of building only one building, it would be to design the house for Lego.’ For him Lego is a mindset, not a toy. ‘The genius of Lego is that it isn’t a toy – it’s more like a tool. It gives you the ability to create your own world,’ says Ingles. ‘The sense of empowerment people get with Lego, it’s not a bad lesson for us all that you can create or have a sense of control over your own environment.’

Location Ole Kirks Vej 1, Billund, Denmark

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