Assembling Globes from Plastic Bricks: the Medium is the Message

If the medium is the message, what happens when the medium is 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 at Legoland California is in fact a virtuosic assemblage of colored plastic pieces sure to catch your eye.

Legloand Globe

Why assemble a map from Lego that is five feet in diameter?  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:

Eric Harshbarger's Globe

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And the self-styled brick artist Nathan Sawaya took clear pride at his alternative Lego globe, extending his demonstrated productivity in his chosen medium:

world-globe-6

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?

Wally

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:

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.  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. It seems no 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:

Legoland_las_vegas_welcome 070329_legoland_hmed_8a.grid-6x2

In a place where the simulacrum is 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 conceit of the amusement park begs for the proliferation of simulacra of simulacra not only in Las Vegas, but in legoizing the globe’s monuments.  In perhaps the most brilliant piece of the expansion of the park–or at least of Miniland–the painstaking attention to the replication of replicas from across the world that are scattered pell mell as the 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 an epilogue to his America. Las Vegas is, after all, the capital of simulacra so dizzyingly abundant that it seems designed to disorient.

Tritone in VEgas

Legoland provides its many visitors with a even denser visual treat.

las-vegas-legoland

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.

Looking at the lego Vegas strip in Carlsbad, one 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 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:

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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:

SD ZOO MAP

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

FAIRYLAND

2 Comments

Filed under Eric Harshbarger, Jean Baudrillard, Las Vegas Strip, Lego Globes, Legoland, Legoland California, Nathan Sawaya, Theme Parks, Visual Maps

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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