Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Collection of children's construction sets is both trip down memory lane and surprising history lesson

  • Print

I don't know how much the toys we play with as kids actually shape the interests we pursue as adults, but it makes sense that they might offer some early clues. With hindsight, the things we enjoy as children can often seem to predict what will eventually become lifelong passions -- and occasionally even viable careers.

Visual artists cut their teeth on finger paint and Play-Doh. Somewhere right now a parent is watching their future heavy metal drummer wail away on her Fisher-Price xylophone (and having an uncomfortable vision of the future). For kids who grow up to become architects, engineers, and city planners, it might be Lego kits and wooden blocks that provide the first formative experiences of building structures and organizing space.

Building Toys, a co-presentation of Raw Gallery and the Winnipeg Architecture foundation, collects 17 construction sets from various points in recent history. The earliest, a set of simple, German-made wooden blocks, has been in production since the 1830s. The newest was made this year, but most date from the 1950s-'70s. Nearly all come from the personal collection of architect James Wagner.

A host of different contributors, ranging from students and interns to prominent architects, have been brought in to construct models using each of the sets. There are delightfully rickety, freeform constructions, plausible-looking skyscrapers and ranch houses, a faithful recreation of the Sears Tower in Lego, and a scale model (also in Lego) of an actual proposed office building by local firm 5468796. Still, the bricks and blocks themselves are the real attraction. Audience members have the chance to try their own hands at amateur architecture at a child-height building station.

Nostalgia is clearly a factor behind Wagner's collecting and an important aspect of the exhibition, but it's far from the only draw. The toys, which are shown alongside their original packaging, illustrate a number of compelling histories.

Many of the postwar kits, especially those produced in the United States ("American Plastic Bricks," "American Skyline," etc.), appear to conflate national identity and pride with building, infrastructure and urban development. Having grown up after the Cold War myself, the optimistic patriotism wrapped up in the models for sleek, modernist skyscrapers and suburban tract housing seems as anachronistic as the folksy pastoralism of Lincoln Logs. (Speaking of which, the show also includes a set of the domestic knockoffs, "Canadian Logs." I mean, "John A. Macdonald Logs" might not have the best ring to it, but we can do better.)

Along with a handful of vintage advertisements reproduced for the show, the toys also illustrate shifting ideas about gender. Lego, whose products are ostensibly gender-neutral but, like construction sets generally, have been seen as a "boy's toy," ran up against criticism recently when they rolled out their first kits marketed explicitly to girls, with pink bricks and princess themes. The show includes a similar set, Fairyland, from Germany.

Toys don't get much more basic than building blocks, and to divide them into two classes, "for girls" and "normal," does send damaging messages, and the princess thing is more than a bit out of hand. But the tendency to dismiss anything explicitly "feminine" isn't great either. If toys like Fairyland or "My First Lego Princess" help young girls see places for themselves in still male-dominated fields like architecture and engineering, that's great.

And that's the point of building toys (and of architecture, for that matter): seeing the potential for something and making it real, even on a modest scale. Building Toys runs through the end of the month.

 

Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 14, 2013 C14

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Chief justices breakdown cameras in courtroom project

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Marc Gallant/Winnipeg Free Press. Local- Peregrine Falcon Recovery Project. Baby peregrine falcons. 21 days old. Three baby falcons. Born on ledge on roof of Radisson hotel on Portage Avenue. Project Coordinator Tracy Maconachie said that these are third generation falcons to call the hotel home. Maconachie banded the legs of the birds for future identification as seen on this adult bird swooping just metres above. June 16, 2004.
  • Marc Gallant / Winnipeg Free Press.  Local/Standup- Morning Fog. Horse prances in field by McPhillips Road, north of Winnipeg. 060605.

View More Gallery Photos

About Steven Leyden Cochrane

Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer, and educator from Tampa, Fla.

Poll

Do you think Manitoba needs stronger regulations for temporary workers?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google