old home week–lego style

I’ve hit the point in my academic career where there’s a “circle of life” moment every so often–a former student who suddenly shows up as a colleague, for instance.  This week was a pretty glorious example.

Dan Winger graduated from our B.Arch. program in 2003, after surviving one of my first studio teaching experiences (our inaugural Comprehensive Design studio, in fact).  Dan was a brilliant drafstman–his sketches were consistently amazing but it was clear that his interests lay well beyond architecture.  We kept in touch a bit after he graduated, and after a couple of years of–by his own account–waiting tables he was accepted to the Art Center College of Pasadena in their industrial design program.  Where, obviously, he did well.

Winger has been with LEGO almost ever since, and he’s now a Senior Concept Designer for the LEGO Future Lab, an R&D branch that produces things that, as he admits, he can’t really talk about.  But he did talk about some of the projects he’s worked on that are on the market now, including some of the company’s digital innovations.  LEGO Worlds, for example, which is basically an infinite digital LEGO kit.

Scratch almost any architect and you’ll find a one-time LEGO maniac under the surface.  Like me, Dan grew up with a tub of random parts (but I’ll bet he doesn’t remember when they started including wheels in sets…me and LEGO go back pretty far).  I think that a lot of the appeal has always been the low-context nature of the bricks.  Nothing you can build in your playroom has the verisimilitude that, say, a ready-made plastic toy has.  Your mind always had to fill in the blanks, and I think that sort of engagement made the bricks that much more interesting…to some of us.

LEGO today, of course, has taken the 2×4 brick and turned it into an empire…robotics, digital and board games, etc.  LEGO Worlds turns that around–even though the company got beaten to the punch by Minecraft (and, arguably, by SimCity), the idea of a never-ending supply of bricks online finally satisfies that part of my brain that was always–always–looking for one more red 1×2.

Dan spent the afternoon in our studios, interested in the digital tools we use today and talking about the links between industrial design and architecture.  Architectural education often seems like a good liberal design education that can be translated into any number of fields, and our graduates have gone on to careers in law, medicine, urban planning, development, software design, and–yep–product design after their time with us.  Seeing the LEGO-architecture inspiration go full circle was particularly rewarding.

And, just to show that the apple doesn’t fall that far away, my 15-year old son joined me in the audience for the lecture.  Afterwards I suggested that we download LEGO Worlds and mess around with it.  Turned out he’d been playing with the beta version for months already…

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