Inside Lego’s Biggest Play House
Lego House is a masterpiece of fun and learning for all ages
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