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« Videogames and Learning | Main | Art Forms vs. Genre Forms »

May 30, 2003

Building Blocks


I didn’t eat breakfast today; I was too busy with the building blocks. The blocks in question belong, of course, to my son, who assumes (at the age of 2) that the only purpose of other people’s block structures is to provide him with an opportunity to play Godzilla. However, he slept in this morning (ha! you snooze, you lose) prompting his father to furiously assemble a miniature Greek temple structure.

This, of course, raises two questions (entirely ignoring issues of my sanity or maturity): (1) why is playing with blocks fun? and (2) what accounts for the enduring appeal of the classical architectural style? I would offer that these two questions are very closely related. The appeal of playing with blocks is that they form a modular design system, a flexible yet predictable vocabulary of thought. The same, I would suggest, is true of the elements of classical architecture. Both building blocks and classical architecture are essentially visual languages, and have the central appeal of languages—to wit: they allow us to compose private thoughts in a code that enables these thoughts to be read by strangers.

F. Geary, Guggenheim Museum, Balboa

And this strongly suggests the difficulties of using architectural styles that are based on a design logic that does not derive from an underlying set of commonly understood formal modules (i.e., building blocks.) Something interesting can come out of such designs, but they will lack the obvious intent to speak comprehensibly to strangers that is implicit in classical architecture. Such designs reject open discourse in favor of private poetry, a stance which may be provocative or may be hostile, but in either case is somewhat antisocial.

Or so it strikes me as I rush to put my block structure in place. Incidently, I left half the roof off because (1) it shows my deeply considered three dimensional design, and (2) because my son has hidden the blocks necessary to finish the roof.

Dang. I guess I’ll have to buy him another set (heh, heh.)



posted by Friedrich at May 30, 2003


Couldn't agree more, though I envy you your enlightenment-through-play methods. I had to do a lot of reading to come to the same conclusions. If I can ever gather my notes and books together, I'll do a posting recommending books that make this kind of argument.

One basic idea is that the actual elements of classical architecture -- not just the geometry, but the actual little thinees we all have such a hard time remembering the names of (dentils, architraves, urns, etc) -- are the equivalent of words. They're the vocabulary of classical architecture. And the rules of proportion, assembly, hierarchy and building typology (a house should look like a house; a town hall should look like a town hall) are the grammar. And, as with verbal language, you can put these elements to work to express and "say" whatever you want. The greater your vocubulary and grammatical mastery, the more is available to you to say. And the "vernacular" -- everyday, informal buildings -- are related but different, much like everyday speech vs. public speech.

I find it handy to think of what the modernists did as the equivalent to trying to make everyone speak esperanto instead of their native languages -- a made-up, universal, with-its-roots-in-nothing, one-size-fits-all, abstraction, instead of a real language. Esperanto may have been an interesting experiment, but it died; I'd love to see the modernist tradition go the same way.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 30, 2003 4:02 PM

So much of what you say makes visceral sense to me---and I like your building way better than the MIT dorm.

Posted by: annette on May 30, 2003 5:54 PM

Now you need some playdough Elgin marbles to adorn it. ;o)

I have a good recipe that you can bake in the oven to harden....

Posted by: Deb on May 30, 2003 8:04 PM

PS--I love the little weebils or whatever the little people are in the picture. Were they put in for scale---coz that's one huge building, then. But they do not seem dressed in traditional Greek garb.

Posted by: annette on May 30, 2003 9:20 PM

Seems like everybody else is airing their clean linen in public, what with all the drawings and so I've been moved to post my own efforts in the block-building line. You can see it at

Posted by: Will Duquette on May 31, 2003 1:06 PM

Whoops, let's make that a
nice link.

Posted by: Will Duquette on May 31, 2003 1:07 PM

Snazzy building.

Posted by: annette on May 31, 2003 8:22 PM

I'm very impressed with Will's block building technique. But I will warn you: we may well be treading on the first steps of block building madness. I sense further posts on weird structures built in Lincoln Logs (a lifetime favorite building toy) and the aesthetic issues raised by such structures.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 31, 2003 11:32 PM

I was wondering recently if there were more architecturally detailed building block sets, for older children (and us adults), and came across this neat site.

Posted by: Paul Mansour on June 1, 2003 2:45 PM

Wow, ultracool. Let's buy 'em all up and ship 'em to all the architecture schools. No, wait, let's just enjoy them ourselves instead.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 1, 2003 6:14 PM

Let's begin a HOT discussion :))))

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