In­side Lego’s Big­gest Play House

Lego House is a mas­ter­piece of fun and learn­ing for all ages

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Front Page - BY LISA FITTERMAN

With strong, cal­loused and sure fin­gers, two teenagers sort through Lego con­struc­tions, us­ing lit­tle spoons and plas­tic wedges to sep­a­rate the pieces. There are thou­sands of them, some round, some rec­tan­gu­lar, some tiny, some not, red, black, white, blue and green, stuck to­gether in the forms of cars, trucks, build­ings and flora and fauna – a myr­iad of shapes that have sprung from the imag­i­na­tion of chil­dren.

This is the girls’ week­end job: to dis­man­tle the dreams that kids built over the pre­vi­ous week so those very same bricks can be trans­formed yet again in the days to come.

We are in a back room at Lego House, a sprawl­ing new com­plex in the small Dan­ish town of Bil­lund where the in­ter­lock­ing toy blocks that have kept chil­dren fas­ci­nated for 60 years were born. But to keep the thou­sands of daily vis­i­tors to Lego House happy and en­gaged, some­one has to take apart the cre­ations so the pieces – about 25 mil­lion of them – can go back into cir­cu­la­tion. This is where Ce­cilie Lau An­der­sen and Frida Zeng Wei Mortensen, both 16 years old, come in as part of a 20-mem­ber teenage team.

“Do it like this,” Ce­cilie says to me, lightly hold­ing a Lego frog in her left hand and flick­ing her right wrist as she juts out her thumb. “That’s it. Hey, you’re not bad!”

The two girls show me how to check for scratches and fin­ger­prints – signs that a piece is ready to be taken out of cir­cu­la­tion. “We never know what will be wait­ing for us when we come in,” Ce­cilie says.

“Some­times, we have to sep­a­rate up to 1000 Lego pieces in one day.”

“It’s a nec­es­sary part of the magic,” adds Frida.

I FIRST SEE LEGO HOUSE f rom the air. From this van­tage point it looks like a four storey, avant-garde hous­ing com­plex with lots of glass. Twent y- one Lego- l i ke blocks mounted on each other in asym­met­ri­cal fash­ion, all but one with roofs in shades of blue, green, red and yel­low. It is so big, it makes the unas­sum­ing com­mer­cial build­ings and low-rise homes that sur­round it look like a toy vil­lage. All of a sud­den, it hits me: I am look­ing at a real house built of Lego-like blocks in con­crete and ce­ramic, with a white ‘brick’ perched on the top that has eight round, raised sky­lights.

The word Lego comes from the Dan­ish words, ‘ leg godt’ or play well – and that’s what Lego House is all about. Open to the pub­lic since Septem­ber

2017, it spreads out over 12,000 square me­tres. Bil­lund mar­kets it­self as the ‘Cap­i­tal of Chil­dren’, and has Lego ev­ery­where you turn. Lo­cated about 265 kilo­me­tres west of Copen­hagen, the Lego Group’s head­quar­ters are here, as is the com­pany’s first-ever brick mould­ing fac­tory and a topse­cret fa­cil­ity with win­dows shut­tered in metal to keep out pry­ing eyes as new cre­ations are de­signed.

The Le­goland theme park has been here for half a cen­tury, at­tract­ing up to two mil­lion vis­i­tors a year. But Lego House, which is on tar­get to sur­pass its first-year goal of 250,000 vis­i­tors, is some­thing else al­to­gether – a stream­lined in­ter­ac­tive mas­ter­piece, longheld dream of Kjeld Kirk Kris­tiansen, grand­son of the toy’s in­ven­tor.

A wooden plaque, carved by the older man read­ing ‘ Det bed­ste er ikke for godt’ (Only the best is good enough), hung for years on the wall of his car­pen­try shop.

Build­ing on that legacy, the grand­son wanted a place kids could both learn the com­pany’s story and have a hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence, no mat­ter their ages. A place that would high­light the in­tri­cate works of an in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity 500,000 strong known as ‘Adult Fans of Lego’ or AFOLs. It would fea­ture the ver­sa­til­ity of Lego bricks; af­ter all, a com­puter pro­gram de­vel­oped by a Dan­ish math­e­mat­ics pro­fes­sor has shown that with only six two-by-four bricks, you can make no less than 915,103,765 dif­fer­ent things.

To re­alise his dream, Kjeld hired Copen­hagen-based ar­chi­tect Bjarke In­gels’ Group (BIG) to build it. Con­struc­tion be­gan in 2013 and lasted four years. Although the pri­vately held Lego Group won’t re­veal any hard dol­lar fig­ures, cost was no

ob­ject, with high-end ma­te­ri­als such as ce­ramic tiles from Ger­many and lots of steel hid­den in the walls to re­in­force the struc­ture.

The re­sult is a place that looks like a gi­ant plas­tic toy house, with white ce­ramic tiled walls re­flect­ing the dull af­ter­noon light. Although BIG didn’t use toy bricks in the ac­tual build­ing, all the mea­sure­ments are to (a greatly mag­ni­fied) Lego scale, so that it’s pos­si­ble to recre­ate in minia­ture. With the sense that I am step­ping into an­other world, I go in­side.

I EN­TER AN AIRY FOYER that serves as the new town square, where peo­ple can meet for a cup of cof­fee or a meal with­out hav­ing to pay the en­try fee. There are hard oak floors, lots of benches, Lego sculp­tures and, in hon­our of spring, Lego daf­fodils peep­ing out of planters. To my left, there is a restau­rant where two whirring, eye-rolling ro­bots are busy pick­ing up meals in Lego-like boxes from a con­veyor belt for cus­tomers wait­ing at the counter. On the far right, a bright red ma­chine – a smaller ver­sion of the ones in real-life Lego fac­to­ries – sounds like a train whis­tle as it turns wa­ter into steam and pushes plas­tic gran­ules into a brick-mak­ing mould.

Straight ahead, a crowd of chil­dren and adults sur­round a tree. There are gasps and ad­mir­ing cries. “Awe­some’, I hear. And ‘fan­tas­tic’. I fol­low their gaze, up, up, up nearly 16 me­tres as I re­alise the tree is not real but made of Lego bricks – 6,316,611, to be pre­cise, all mounted and glued to­gether around a metal frame so they don’t fall off, with 13 lush, ‘leafy’ branches reach­ing out to brush the stair­case that winds up around it.

“It is pretty amaz­ing, isn’t it?” says Stu­art Har­ris, 54, Lego House’s af­fa­ble Bri­tish chief de­signer, who has been play­ing with Lego ever since he was a ‘wee lad’. Har­ris moved here in Oc­to­ber 2013, among the first six peo­ple to be hired, even be­fore con­struc­tion be­gan. Now, he stands next to me at the tree’s moss-coloured Lego base, arms crossed and smil­ing, like a proud par­ent.

Of­fi­cially called the ‘Tree of Cre­ativ­ity’, it is at once a nod to the ori­gins of the com­pany in 1932 as a pro­ducer of toy wooden ducks – with a duck ‘carved’ into the tree trunk – and to the fu­ture, with a yel­low Lego crane

sit­ting at the very top. Just this one project took Stu­art and three teams of de­sign­ers in Den­mark and the Czech Repub­lic more than 24,000 hours to plan and build, about 12 years worth of work for one per­son. The ac­tual in­stal­la­tion, from its grass-like green plas­tic base up­wards, took three, eight-hour shifts for nine months. Weigh­ing a whop­ping 20 tonnes – the equiv­a­lent of three African ele­phants or five white rhinoceroses – it seems to be hold­ing up the house it­self.

As we mount the stairs to­wards the top of the tree, I see clas­sic Lego dio­ra­mas nes­tled in the up­per branches, from a me­dieval yel­low cas­tle to the fu­tur­is­tic 928 Galaxy Ex­plorer. As I look more closely there are Lego mon­keys dressed as knights and as­tro­nauts, and a mi­nus­cule sign that reads, ‘We come in pieces’ – a cheeky homage to alien movies.

From there, we mount an­other set of stairs into a white-tiled space called the ‘Mas­ter­piece Gallery’. This, I re­alise, is the in­te­rior of the ‘Lego’ brick with the eight sky­lights that I saw from the air when I flew over. The rec­tan­gu­lar room is lined with glass cases that con­tain Lego sculp­tures by AFOLs – ev­ery­thing from a ro­tary dial tele­phone to a ro­tund mon­ster with ten­ta­cles. But the pièce de re­sis­tance – or pieces – are the three open-mouthed, sharp-toothed Tyran­nosaurus rexes. Iden­ti­cal in form and shape, each stands more than three me­tres tall atop a round three-me­tre podium and has one clawed foot poised on an over­sized brick, next to a Lego di­nosaur egg, which is crack­ing.

“This is our leg­end of how the di­nosaur got its roar,” says Stu­art. “They stepped on a brick and they tripped, roar­ing all the way to the ground.”

But here’s the twist: each di­nosaur is built from one of the three Lego bricks on the mar­ket: the orig­i­nal Sys­tem; Du­plo, where bricks twice the size of the orig­i­nal ver­sion are safe for tod­dlers to play with; and Tech­nic, which in­cludes rods and other parts. FROM THE GALLERY, we move into

Lego House as seen from the air: The white brick on the top fea­tures eight raised, round sky­lights

A child’s imag­i­na­tion is the only re­stric­tion to what they can build

This Lego tree is 16 me­tres high and made from 6,316 ,611 bricks

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