Assembling Globes from Plastic Bricks: the Medium is the Message

If the medium is the message, what happens when the medium is the assembly of interlocking pieces of Lego?

The expressive value of all maps reflect their material media, from printed single-line engravings to digital images.  But plastic Lego pieces are rarely considered to have the definition or subtlety of line used in terrestrial map making.  The below image seems a poorly pixellated jpeg, but the globe assembled from blocks of tan and blue bits that sits in Legoland, California is in fact a virtuosic assemblage of colored plastic pieces sure to catch your eye. While the globe is yet another display of the artifice of LEGO, there is a sense in which it stands as a p translation of an imperative to map, from how the disposition of continents situated on the globe foreground the exact assembly of LEGO and color choices it offers, it the material presence of the globe it offers in an age when we map the terraqueous surface in grids, and increasingly by layers, nodes, and rasters across national bounds.

Legloand Globe

For the assembly of LEGO tiles is a material translation of the mechanics of assembling less a picture of the world, than synthesizing datapoints in a new image which acknowledges its own mediations and assembly:  the Lego figurines below look at the surface of a paper map somewhat studiously, as if ready to translate it into their own domain.  Th citation to map new regions to allow assistance to reach them is a call, after all, to map  places in more comprehensive map tiles, and make the “missing maps” that don’t yet exist for so many sectors that may face high needs.


Why assemble a map from Lego that is five feet in diameter?  Perhaps the assembly of Lego globes and maps tells us something about our own relationships to mapped space, an area increasingly dependent on design?

The map is not the territory, but the ultimate simulacrum.  The interest in fashioning Lego globes is also an indication of how mapping has provided a visual form to challenge new media, and several folks had been tempted to rise to the challenge of create terrestrial from Lego, even before they saw or visited Legoland.   Lego aficionado Eric Harshbarger‘s 48 stud “model of the earth from plastic bricks” is based on rings around a north-south axis, which occupied its builder for some twelve hours, who copied an inflated globe made in China; beneath it, Darren Izzard’s more faithful replica of the Legoland structure seems to be kept in his back yard, as a treasured example of his virtuosity and skillfulness in assembling and planning the spherical design of pieces of rectangular form.  The globe seems a bit of a jokey masterpiece of translating the three-dimensions of the terrestrial sphere to a two-dimensional surface and back again to a chunky three:

Eric Harshbarger's Globe


And self-styled “brick artist” Nathan Sawaya took clear pride at his alternative Lego globe, which expanded the two-color globalization e to a broader acknowledgment of topographic variety, extending to maps his demonstrated productivity in his chosen medium of brick art:


But something about the mapped terrestrial sphere makes it a natural subject of Lego as a medium, beyond just a challenge of snapping pieces of the right color together in a spherical body.  W. W. Wally almost gushed when he credited Neil Armstrong for the inspiration for his 2012 prototype of three colors, which he based on the method of assembling a Lego sphere that he credited to Bruce Lowell.  Is there some convergence between the idea and techniques of globe-making from plastic colored bricks, which Wally boasted he was able to expand to a version using 1500 pieces of plastic by a method he considered copyrighting?


In some sense, the assembly of Lego globes marks a recent resurgence of the DIY craft of globe-making, but also of the ornamentalization or trivialization of the globe as a legible map.  Wally made his by employing a Google Earth overlay to design the globe’s surface in multiple colors, sort of projecting the image of the terrestrial sphere in a David Hockney-like technique or an early Chuck Close method, although Wally willingly accepted the constraints that the Lego palette of colors imposed on the completed version—which indeed seems to assemble tiles as so many Lego blocks:

Wally Google Earth

There is something of the trivialization of the pattern of mapped space in all this, or a trivialization of maps as patterns.   But there is also an echo of resistance to the dematerialization of maps in the globalized world, where we are more apt to speak of “nodes,” “tiles,” and “polygons” than regard the map as a piece of paper, and in which “maps” less increasingly embody a territorial unit or sense of sovereignty.  In a world where the boundaries between nations mean less, and maps are more usefully constructed about wiring or online communities than by geographical proximity, the resurgence of the Lego globe is something like the last site of the map’s retreat or the last stand of the authority of the map as symbol, as well as the demand for new map designs, demonstrated in the huge and almost innate popularity for the use of more artisanal-feeling base-maps, as the palette used Stamen design’s rightly-praised Watercolor style.

For Watercolor restores the role of design to mapping to make it far less datacentrically designed, restoring an absent sense of materiality for which one increasingly longs to the surface of a map; even if its palette betray one stylistic color-changes not reflect the extent of paved land in San Francisco or capriciously introduce phantom green space in San Francisco Bay, it conceals the seams of map tiles in a way that restores the pictorial quality of a web map—

SF Greenspace Stamen

—in ways that reminds us of the romance of materiality of map design we have often lost.   In other words, it restores pleasure to map-reading, by reminding our eyes of the materiality of the image of mapped space.   It offers a relief to viewers’ eyes that is akin to the entertaining nature of the assembly of LEGO maps, which even if they are not used as guides of way-finding or spatial orientation, affirm a sense of human mastery over space of n the manner of an ancient map.

LEGO of course also offers its own distinct pleasures of mapping space.   And it is little coincidence that Legoland, California contains its own map-like Miniland, a set of plastic reconstructions of familiar urban neighborhoods beside monuments as the Taj Mahal and Mt. Rushmore:  if one point of an amusement park is to disorient, moving around the artificial lake in this area, either by foot or boat, we can travel from New York’s skyline or the Central Park carousel, to Georgetown, Maryland, to the Washington Mall and Capitol, and to a Jazz Funeral in New Orleans’ French Quarter.

The result is dizzying, a bit like a fin de siècle indulgence in a pleasure park. The largest and most costly feature added to the park ever attempted occurred in 2007, when Legoland employed 15 engineers and designers in Carlsbad and Denmark for $1 million to design and build a scale-model of Las Vegas’ Sunset strip.  The result is so stunning that visitors pose for photographs before replicas of iconic sites, peer at the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, New York, the Eiffel Tower in the Paris, the Sphynx at the Egyptian, or Rialto Bridge at the Venetian, awed by the scope of a complex  including the iconic familiar tacky highway sign announcing where you are: indeed in Las Vegas, a place that defines itself as a destination and exists outside of a normal sense of space, as one discovers immediately upon deplaning in the capital of gambling, and sees glittering slot machines crowding the terminals and airport gates of the McCarran International airport, forcing you to run the gauntlet of beckoning sites for small-stakes gambling even before you pick up your luggage, as if in a preliminary to your hotel, the sense of being welcomed to a site existing outside and apart from a regular economy seems particularly apt to remap as an assembly of multi-colored LEGO blocks, as if acknowledging its exceptionalism.

After all, the unending insistence of that Las Vegas is a destination where you have arrived is difficult to process on the Strip.  There’s the sense it is not a single but an expansive variety  of destinations ready to be discovered and inscribed with meaning—or that still awaits discovery, each of which is able to provide immediate gratification with little effort, so carefully have they been cutated and arranged for viewing on the Strip as a seemingly personalized fantasy.

The long-noted increasingly insistent “devotion to immediate gratification” that Joan Didion cited is a large part of the allure of the designers of The Strip—a mini-world apart from downtown, constructed as an alternative dream-like destination whose level of irreality or hyper-reality seems to accelerate experience, bend space, and sell itself as existing outside normalcy, whatever that is, as outside of space and time.   The assembly of block-like buildings on the strip, each of which announces itself as a destination in and of itself, may disguise the garishness of their own monumental size in the Arizona desert by evoking other monuments to disguise the brazen nature of their venality—Caesar’s Palace, rich with faux Roman statuary and a version of the eighteenth-century Trevi Fountain, as well as opulent Roman statuary, and a version of the Forum;  The Venetian, with the distinctive bell tower or Campanile of San Marco crowded beside the Rialto Bridge or Bridge of Sighs, gondolas and costumed gondoliers punting beneath  and beside an astrological clock; the Paris, with a version of the Eiffel Tower in miniature; New York with the Chrysler Building—all commanding attention as magical destinations, making accessible fantasies or fantasy experiences for those visiting the gambling Mecca, which solicits betting at every opportunity, or rather seems to frame the gambling floor experience as another sort of irreality.

The assembly of such an array of sites in one pseudo-place is itself almost a world made by the artifice of Playmobil that will replace any sense of an external world.  The effect is so memorable for its disorientation an opulence to pose considerable challenges to recreate in multi-colored plastic blocks that echo the block-like construction of the Strip.   Perhaps half the fun is to recreate the somewhat disposable culture erected in the desert with newfound permanence in Lego pieces:



In The Strip, simulacrum are the primary currency of trade if not the local economy–and the art of Lego is celebrated for its versatility at the same time as visitors are included to purchase Lego models and blocks to assemble their dreams–Lego seems to be rehabilitated not only as an art form but a tool by which to understand and represent world cultures.   The huge success of using LEGO artifice to attract attention to the permanence and indeed construction of ancient  monuments from The Acropolis to the excavated city of Pompeii at the Nicholson Museum suggest plastic remakes of a new version of their monumental structures to translate their wonder at the immense effort of assembling and designing no the originals in stone.  The Lego constructions become effective attractions in their own right—witnessed in versions of The Acropolis or Colosseum in Rome that actually re relate, brick by brick, their original models, in an act of loving historical recreation.  (Such models strike one for the contemporary medium of construction that gauge the rapidity of change:  technological changes between the time of the actual The Acropolis or Roman Forum and when carpenter Ole Kirk Christensen’s invented Lego as a tool of play in 1932—self-locking bricks sold in plastic only after World War II, and only recently from vegetable plastics—may match the enormity of changes since 1932.)

The reconstruction of the Roman Colosseum seems indeed a feat of archeological reconstruction in reverse from plastic  blocks that reassembles the remains of a past monument in a miniature form:


But the attractiveness of contemplating such an attractive recreation of the past seems often more of interest— perhaps because it is more contemporary—than the original or the mediated images of past monuments, as the antipodean Nicholson Museum in Sydney has found.  The LEGOified image seems more real than the video stream of the actual location, and a stir of  real  touristic and archeological interest in itself.



The assembly of entire lost ancient cities has become a sort of Antipodean mission at the museum, transforming ancient fragments by coordination of an array of bins of plastic bricks of a range of hues, by a special team of experts who promise to “restore” a physical proximity to a “lost” past.


To return to the assembly of a heterogeneous array of faux monuments in the Las Vegas Strip, the medium serves to transpose iconic places in spectacular carnivalesque accumulation in the fashion of an amusement park.   The proliferation of simulacra of simulacra captures Las Vegas, by legoizing the globe’s monuments.  In perhaps the most brilliant piece of the expansion of the park–or at least of Legoland’sof Miniland–painstaking attention to the replication of replicas from across the world scattered pell-mell as advertisements or decor for hotel chains on the strip lead the Lego engineers to create an identical juxtapositions of not only the Sphynx and pyramids at the Luxor, but Eiffel Tower (Paris), San Marco Belltower (Venetian) or Brooklyn Bridge (New York, New York), the amusement park version of America’s amusement park, which would have no doubt delighted Jean Baudrillard, if not prompted his composition of America.

The Strip in Las Vegas, NV, is, after all, the capital of simulacra so dizzyingly abundant that it seems designed to disorient either the patrons of betting establishments or by creating the appearance of unprecedented opulence by collecting the Old Wrold’s monuments and condensing them as if they might be experienced—even if they may often recall LEGO or Playmobil.

Tritone in VEgas

The sense of arrival at a site that is reproduced with such care across The Strip in real life assembles a dense signifiers of place in a surreally sequential fashion so that even if each seems a bit out of place, they are undeniably “there,” placing the visitors to their hotels before recreations of cultural monuments in a pleasurable pastiche, which collectively contribute to the sense of having arrived, and destabilize in just the right degree so that you are willing to buy into the idea of access to an unprecedented degree of opulence, walking under the grand chandeliers at The Venetian, and even taking a short gondola ride, while shopping amidst high-end boutiques of a recognizable sort—Bulgari; Tommy Hilfiger; Sephora—that promise social status within the other version of the Rialto, even if the compact construction of these monuments recalls Playmobil, both in their sense of remove from a temporal frame and in their lack of permanence.


When you check in to The Venetian, you are indeed welcomed by an expansive bird’s eye view of the actual Venice, whose riches seem spread before you, in a welcoming sense of momentary orientation—but which is vertiginous in its promise of access to accessible pleasure, suspension of a class hierarchy of socially stratified lifestyles, and promise of ready access to an imagined aristocracy, and openness of levels of social distinction.


The sense of access to a city that defines itself as a privileged preserve is almost an exercise in the artifice of assembling blocks.  Even if the curated Campanile of San Marco, Doge’s Palace, and Rialto bridge assembled at The Venetian are reproductions, as the hotel’s magnificent painted ceilings and faux majesty, there is an insistence that this is the new regime of the real that you are privileged to enter with no risk.   The facade of the faux marble Rialto includes its own an authenticating plaque, allegedly dating the construction of the replica—as the hotel lobby promises a world of gold.




The  Venice in Vegas even allow your eye to wander into a painted landscape while in the enchanted regime of its premises, by taking a gondola ride on its chlorinated blue waters into a painted scenery—



The improbable nature of such ready-made composites of rapid assembly seem to manufacture the stability of wealth, capital, and riches to which the betting floor might give you access.   Each collectively creates a mis-en-scene that places you on the verge of accessing the undeniable pleasure of coming into contact—much as you do, with less risk, or access to liquor, at the sober day lit version at Legoland.

For the Legoland Las Vegas provides its many visitors with a even denser visual treat that compliments the enticing architecture of The Strip, disorienting in the recognizable nature of the monuments it clusters into one site, each of which announces its value as a site of attaining dreams.


As if in confronting a series of ichnographic maps or bird’s-eye views of a specific groundplan, that renders buildings in elevated views, the illusion of recreation of space and place in Miniland foresakes actual prompts for spatial orientation, so much is it consumed by its own artifice as a Lego construction:  the recreation in plastic of neighborhoods that are part of the public imagination, or often provide familiar backdrops for film sets, provide a recognized sense of place even without much sense of geographic location.  But the openly block-by-block nature of its carefully assembled construction, posing as a make-believe place, provides a sense of arriving in a particularly tongue-in-cheek way.

Looking at the LEGO recreation of Las Vegas’ Strip in Carlsbad, one similarly is removed from a sense of place,—much like in any amusement park,—viewing a sequence of virtual places that match or recall the images stored in one’s mind’s eye, as much as an actual place:  the sequence of simulacra of the simulacra is the point.  The Las Vegas Miniland is indeed a costly innovation specific to Legoland California, and was rolled out as a distinguishing feature–an Americanization of Lego, as it were, as the geographical focus of makers of Miniland on American cities–rather than  European capital or third-world cities.

For this is the world of the market for Lego toys that the corporation seeks to address–and that it has decided to remake in, as it were, its own medium of multi-colored plastic bricks.

The Miniland ‘map’ contracts our world view to a set of buildings and monuments, and is reassuring as a collection  of all noted historical sites of a country priding itself as the site of greater famous locations and historical architectural constructions than any other. It’s no coincidence that one’s sense of a territory disappears in the Legoland amusement park, or seems to vanish; Legoland succeeds brilliantly in creating the uncanny sense of spatial disorientation and opulent abundance of the simulacrum that Las Vegas pioneered–and the simulacra of the simulacra is the ultimate  theme park, continuing but heightening the effect of Lego-versions of Star Wars figures, monumental Egyptian statues of the faces divinities, Camelot-like castles, Volvo cars, red roaring dragons, pirate ships and even people dressed up in full-body costume who pose as Lego mini-figurines.  One is even greeted in the Legoland hotel by an assembled bell boy in bright red plastic hues to increase one’s orientation:


Maps fit the play of Lego, reality, artifice, and plastic-brick assemblage in a perfect way that play the artifice of representation against the limits of their physical materials.  The spinning globe in Las Vegas in a weird way has its more staid Danish counterpart in the stationary globe over the gift shop beside the adventures that lead kids to discover signs in ancient Egypt, the rainforest, and finally the frozen North of Esquimaux, on a round the world’s climates in order to decipher secret clues in each of the diorama one moves through.  The Lego globe is the metaphor and illustration of where Lego can take you, and the confirmation of artifice of the colored block trumping any other imagination. One inspiration for the ichnographic models Miniland affords and the artifice of mapping that they imitate, might have arisen from the recent productive collaboration between the Lego folks and the innovative Copenhagen design firm Visual Maps, whose output of a variety of maps for the broadly construed category of theme parks may have inspired the growth of topical referents in Legolands, from Carlsbad to Malaysia to Windsor.  The dynamic iconographic images seem originally been devised for Copenhagen’s Tivoli gardens as a persuasive tool to order space for visitors that allowed them to survey attractions without depending on much text, and indeed reaching an international audience freed from a language-barrier.

“Visual Maps” may seem as tautological as you can get, unless something is lost in translation. But the apparent redundancy boasts about the innovative modeling of ichnographic views of the layout or ground plan designed in large part for the eight- to fifteen-year-old set:

Map Reader--Legoland:Visual Maps

The maps that result cover a large area with little sense of real distances, but creates a clearly differentiated park-map replete with the sort of eye-candy that will lure the young traveller on to a destination with limited awareness of the length of the trek involved, imparting enough resilience to arrive at the destination, and to serve as a subject of easy conversation if not a sort of souvenir:  the density of the Legoland map might even provoke a return visit, and encompass kids by cheerfully casting Legoland as an actual world, presenting the park as a microcosm to explore:

LegoLand Malaysia

The persuasive nature of the vibrantly colored florid images in which “Visual Maps” specializes suggest copious and abundant microcosms of the actual world, shown in vivid neon airbrushed colors that allow kids to visualize their destinations in detail, enabling them to recognize the spires of the bright red Camelot-like Castle as they approach:

castle legoland

There may be some irony in that these maps are designed in Denmark.  But the same concept of mapping used by Visual Maps lent itself to the nearby San Diego Zoo;  the map destined for similarly aged readers motivates them to cover a similarly daunting expanse by foregrounding coming attractions in realistic if dayglo hues:


Wildly out-of scale inset views similarly provide its readers with lures to entice them on along dotted paths as they navigate its dusty trails:

Pandas in SD Zoo Map

The distinctly upbeat color schemes of these maps are commensurate with goals that the map offers young readers.  Their abundance attracts younger visitors to further sites through the zoo, offering visual sustenance to spend more time at Legoland more than orienting themselves to its distinctive space or the imaginary micro-climates by noting either distances or by directions; the maps hold out tantalizing possibilities of the Pandas, Tigers, or Polar Bears who lie just around the corner or further down another path:

Polar Bears in SD ZOO

When visiting San Diego, I briefly entertained that a local culture of mapping led Visual Maps to create maps of big theme-parks filled with an abundance of sites of undeniable interest designed for geographically dispersed local tourist attractions, who faced a need to direct prompts their visitors to discover the riches dispersed in expansive tracts. While that’s a bit of a fantasy that comes out of limited familiarity with theme parks, it would be interesting to know the success of Visual Maps at recreating a persuasive sense of local abundance that fit and even informed local tourist economies.

The microcosms the maps invite kids to occupy and inhabit is in ways the counterpart to the artifice of an actual Lego globe, more filled with attractive visuals than an actual map.  In both cases, the map is removed from accuracy or exact claims of synthesis; the techniques of mapping less express shared practices of selecting or criteria of screening selective information than they are both designed to display their own spectacular artifice.  In both instances, the legibility of the map does not reflect familiarity with standards  that are held in common by their readers, but the different techniques of mapping call attention to the artifice of their own media.

A far cry, perhaps, from the more literary-themed parks of the past, embodied by Oakland CA’s 1948 Children’s Fairyland–whose storybook sets range from classic fairy tale from the boot where one once paid admission to the heavy dose of Lewis Carroll, via John Tenniel-inspired images evoking Alice in Wonderland, not only in its Merry-Go-Round, with a more multicultural dose from the Spider-Man Anansi.  If its grounds were a prime inspiration for Walt Disney’s own amusement park, the attractions that ask visitors to enter stories didn’t have a map for some time–its stories created places that set themselves apart from one another, rather than interlocked–the mapping of the complex’s attractions still suggests a site of storylines, as much as preparing the visitor with a coherent world-view



Filed under authenticity, Lego Globes, Legoland California, Simulacra, Theme Parks

2 responses to “Assembling Globes from Plastic Bricks: the Medium is the Message

  1. gb

    Very weirdly Borgesian

  2. So you, DB, never get free of mapping, even on vacation? But then, the non-places of San Diego and Vegas have no place, no theres there, except on the map? Another great post.

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