Skip to main content

Shrine to plastic arts

Sean Coughlan takes the yellow brick road to Legoland, the stuff of children's dreams. A bottle of home-made rhubarb wine was the prize for inventing the name of one of the most famous toy companies in the world. In 1934, Danish toymaker Ole Kirk Christiansen handed over the bottle to a member of staff and set about promoting a new brand name, "Lego", taken from the Danish "leg godt", meaning to play well.

Sixty years and 110 billion plastic bricks later, Lego is still playing well, established as one of the definitive toys of the post-war era. The bright bricks, as we know them today, were marketed from 1947, being promoted as a toy which could teach as well as entertain.

What Lego had hit upon was a toy that "grew up" with children, so that as young minds developed, so the bricks could be used in an increasingly sophisticated way. In sales terms, this was a toy with a high degree of collectability, with each box of Lego whetting the appetite for the next. Whenever any new models were launched, they could be stuck fairly and squarely into the studs of old bricks, so that over the decades Lego models acquired wheels, windows and then motors and computers, each development blending into the existing kit and at the same time encouraging the hunger for more.

Standing as a multi-coloured monument to the triumph of these little bricks is Legoland, a theme park and model village built next to the site of the company's factory and headquarters in Billund, a small, windswept town in Jutland, Denmark. This Lego shrine is the stuff of children's dreams and marketing men's fantasies, as almost everything that you see here is made from the bricks on sale in the Legoland shop (only a short walk from the Legoland Hotel).

The park was opened in 1968 as a way of entertaining the thousands of Lego pilgrims who came to see the factory, but soon it became the main purpose of visits, with 22.5 million people having subsequently checked into its polished plastic acres.

The earliest part of Legoland is an absorbing series of model villages, from Tyrolean chalets to views of the Rhine, from an English village to a massive reconstruction of the port of Copenhagen, made with 3.5 million bricks. It's easy to forget, as you watch the lock gates opening and bridges rising and falling, that all of this is made from Lego.

The detail is all the more impressive when you consider the rectangular raw material, with subjects as varied as baroque architecture and modern railway stations being mimicked in the familiar blocks of colour.

There is a grandiose model of the residence of the Danish royal family, the Amalienborg Palace, and lodged in the Lego hillside is the fairy-tale castle of mad King Ludwig at Neuschwanstein. And in the first simple models, such as the traditional Danish townscape, the plastic houses have acquired their own period feel, with the bleached bricks being matched by the models of Sixties cars driving down the Lego streets.

As the Lego range expanded, it developed specialist brands, such as Technic, launched in 1977 for teaching design and technology. In the park, a Lego Technic laboratory is open to young inventors. Here visitors can collect Technic kits and try to design working models, using benches provided with power points, the advice of advisers and a track for roadtesting designs.

This is a reminder that along with the deftly-packaged entertainment, Lego also has a Scandinavian sense of worthiness, with educational requirements being built into the design. The company still tests its products against criteria set in 1954, such as its kits being of equal value to boys and girls, that they encourage "stimulating and motivated play" and that they should prompt child development. Lego also uses the measure of "play value", considering how long a toy can hold a child's interest, how many times in a week it will be played with and for how many years it will be of value.

For pre-school visitors, there is Duploland, a series of rides and shows based on the toys and models made with the Duplo range, chunky, easily manipulated Lego first launched in 1967. It isn't often you get the chance to ride in a Duplo buggy, as they're usually only a couple of inches high, but in Duploland the models are bigger rather than smaller than real life.

A more formal link between Duplo and education is one of Lego's next projects. In partnership with Reed Children's Publishing, a series of interactive books is to be published in May 1995, in which a book can be "played" as well as read. Packaged with the book will be Lego figures, representing characters in the story, which can be slotted onto the book's cardboard, fold-out pages.

One of Lego's more recent ranges has been its model pirates, who sail the Spanish Main on a fearsome-looking Lego ship. In one of the park's more Disney-ish aspects, Pirateland takes visitors on a boat ride through the darkened caves of these cutlass-carrying bad guys. Again, you have to remind yourself that the animatronic pirates and the circling crocodiles are all made from the humble plastic brick.

As the park has grown, so too has the scale of the models. From the intricacy of miniature cities, the new Lego sculptures are massive, with Legoland's wild west section boasting some of the biggest.

What seems to be most exciting to children going around Legoland is the idea that the almost life-size elephant before them, or the statue of Hans Christian Andersen, is made from the same bricks that they have at home. These huge Duplo rabbits grazing in the park are familiar figures to them, part of their own life being brought to life. If only they had a few more thousand bricks, they could make their own flamingo or chimpanzee, or fill the garden with a Lego railway. There's a Legoland waiting inside every child, if only they could get hold of those special roof tiles, or those bricks with wheels, and that bit that looks like a tree. Maybe next year.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you