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.