Architect Moshe Safdie Likes Legos (Breaking Bad Fans Do, Too)

Here’s my attempt to build Habitat ’67 out of Legos like Moshe Safdie once did. My preschooler wanted her Duplo® back… and I longed for stronger spatial skills.

Here’s my attempt to build Habitat ’67 out of Legos like Moshe Safdie once did. My preschooler wanted her Duplo® back… and I longed for stronger spatial skills.

If you’re a parent of a young child, like I am, you likely have LEGO® in your house. With some relief—since Legos are a fairly wholesome, harmless distraction—and maybe even pride, you’ve watched your kid stack and lock those distinctive bricks of plastic for hours on end. You’ve probably gotten down on the floor to join the fun. [Less fun: stepping on a Lego.]

Lately it feels like I encounter Legos in more places than my living room. In early summer, I kept hearing about an exhibition, The Art of the Brick®, on view at a surprising venue: Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. At its hilltop museum, my family and I eyed thirty awe-inspiring sculptures by “brick artist” Nathan Sawaya, who used thousands of Legos to handcraft each work. A few weeks later, two separate groups of friends reported that the new hotel at LEGOLAND was actually pretty cool. In mid-July, I stumbled upon a story on NPR.org probing why the Danish toy company had launched a product line specifically for girls. The reporter concluded with the right question: “Would it be so hard to develop—even market—toys for girls and boys to enjoy together?” On his “Thinking Brickly” blog, David Pickett studies the Lego gender gap more closely.

As summer waned, Legos continued to pop up in my life. Lost in a Breaking Bad internet vortex as the series finale drew near, I learned that a Lego imitator, Citizen Brick, quickly sold out of its controversial “Superlab Playset,” featuring “minifigs” of Walt (in yellow lab suit), Gus (in Los Pollos Hermanos button-down), and Mike (sporting grey stubble but looking far less hard-boiled as on TV).

Walter White and Jesse Pinkman’s underground “office” = totally disturbing plaything

Walter White and Jesse Pinkman’s underground “office” = totally disturbing plaything

Eventually Legos became a topic of conversation at work, as we geared up for our fall exhibition, Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie, opening October 22. As it turns out, the renowned architect, who has designed and built our Skirball campus in four phases over thirty years, used to toy around with Legos early in his career. In his book The City After the Automobile: An Architect’s Vision (Westview, 1998), Safdie describes how he began to develop a new concept for urban housing:

I began constructing large models out of Lego, stacking plastic blocks representing houses one on top of the other, each one forming a roof garden for the unit above…. This would lead two years later to Habitat, a project I designed and constructed as part of the 1967 world’s fair in Montreal.

Each of the units kinda does look like a Lego, huh? Habitat’67. Construction view. Image courtesy of Safdie Architects.

Each of the units kinda looks like a Lego, huh? Habitat ’67. Construction view. Image courtesy of Safdie Architects.

You can spot the rooftop gardens in this photo. I wish my condo came with a little greenspace to call my own! Habitat '67. View from courtyard. Image by Timothy Hursley.

You can spot the rooftop gardens in this photo. I wish my condo came with a little greenspace to call my own! Habitat ’67. View from courtyard. Image by Timothy Hursley.

For Safdie, the design challenge was this: “to invent a building type that provided the lifestyle of a house with a garden, but that was compact enough to be constructed in the central city.” Sounds good to me. Habitat ’67 went on to become a memorably modular housing complex—and, by the way, Adam Gopnik grew up there—much admired for its embrace of prefab construction. Now an architectural landmark, Habitat ‘67 was recently voted the next model in the LEGO Architecture Series (and just last week Safdie’s ten-million-square-foot Marina Bay Sands in Singapore was also picked for the series).

Meanwhile, it looks like Moshe Safdie remains a fan of the popular building blocks: he contributed an essay to the guidebook packaged with the LEGO Architecture Studio. Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Hawthorne gave the set a try… and seemed to like it.

The 1200 monochromatic pieces make for sleek design. I wonder if my three-year-old daughter, obsessed with pink and purple despite my best efforts to redefine what girls like, could get into it.

The 1200 monochromatic pieces make for sleek design. I wonder if my three-year-old daughter, obsessed with pink and purple despite my best efforts to redefine what girls like, could get into it.

With the opening of Global Citizen just two weeks away, our design team is hard at work installing hundreds of objects, including scale models of some thirty projects by Safdie Architects. Habitat ‘67—along with a few un-built Habitat projects—is presented in its own gallery. I’m looking forward to discovering the genius—and the Lego-ness—of it all.

The love affair between architecture and Legos runs pretty deep. At Never Built: Los Angeles at the A+D Museum, I marveled at a 67,000-piece model, designed by Tommy Musco, of Lloyd Wright’s never built Metropolitan Catholic Cathedral. The exhibition, which I recommend, closes this weekend.

The love affair between architecture and Legos runs pretty deep. At Never Built: Los Angeles at the A+D Museum, I marveled at a 67,000-piece model, designed by Tommy Musca, of Lloyd Wright’s never built Metropolitan Catholic Cathedral. The exhibition, which I recommend, closes this weekend.

Want to go nuts building Legos? Bring the whole family to the Skirball’s Lego Day: A Celebration of Building and Architecture this Sunday. Fan builder Tim Johnson will be on hand to lend some inspiration and expertise.

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Posted in Behind the Scenes, Exhibitions, Recommendations and tagged , , .

About Mia Cariño

Mia Cariño is Vice President, Communications and Marketing, at the Skirball, which generally means she thinks about words, pictures, the stories they convey, the people to whom to tell them, and what it takes to tell them well. Her daughter, Astrid, is named after Astrid Kirchherr, Astrid Lindgren, and Astrud Gilberto: not a bad trio of women. Mia has lived in Manila, New York, Toronto, Manila, Bryn Mawr, and Philadelphia, and has now lived in Los Angeles longer than she's ever lived anywhere. It's home.

One comment on “Architect Moshe Safdie Likes Legos (Breaking Bad Fans Do, Too)

  1. This is why I love this brand. They can make anything. This brand is also perfect for study.

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