“When children play with building blocks, they discover that they fit together, because they are square… Then, the child discovers that the blocks are empty, that the sides turn into walls, and that there is a roof and structure… That is when the child will indeed become an architect. Manager of voids and spaces, priest of geometry.”
Which building set results in the most original architecture? What type of modules should be designed, or at least selected, to kindle a passion for building in the most effective way? To stimulate the imagination, how many different basic elements are required and how many of each are needed? Must they be realistic or abstract? The architect and designer Marcel Breuer, a graduate of the Bauhaus school, did not specify this in his statements made in 1970. He did, however, suggest that the simplest bricks are likely to arouse ingenious sensitivity in children.
How does an artist discern the figure to be sculpted out of a heap of clay or a block of marble? Is it sensed in the stone’s veins, in bulges in the clay or is it instead found in the smoothest, most opaque surface? It is impossible to generalise but the figure, the Venus, Kouros or the Möbius strip are well and truly there, in the mass. Similarly, many impressive forms of architecture are already there, as potentialities, in the piles of disordered materials, in the tidiest building sets, in the most motley collections of bricks and in the infinite series of identical models. Aren’t the most beautiful castles built with playing cards?
From the primitive hut to the tallest contemporary skyscraper, from vernacular shacks to the most utopian constructions we could imagine, the international architecture landscape is there, as a potentiality, in the Building Sets Storage of the Palace of Typographic Masonry. Here, a surprising and diverse collection of building sets is stored. Thousands of models of bricks, tiles, steel tubes, window and door frames, beams and posts, glass and stone blocks, and a maelstrom of small bits of plastic. These different items have all been numbered, indexed and then stored in enormous cases intended for this purpose. As a result, we can compare this Building Sets Storage to a colossal printer’s type case – or maybe more appropriately to the type case of a colossal printer. Usually, everything is carefully organised. Yet on days of creative high tides, it looks like the Isola dei Giocattoli, the island of toys painted in 1930 by Alberto Savinio, brother of Giorgio de Chirico.
Not far from Lego bricks, Kapla planks or the small architectural paraphernalia by Vario, Fabro or Mobaco, a rather extraordinary sample is being conserved. A few yellow bricks, real full-scale yellow bricks. These were used by the French architect Robert Mallet-Stevens to model the outside cladding of the Villa Cavrois in Croix in Northern France in the early 1930s. The flattest bricks were used to tile terraces, the more angular to form the lintels, the solid bricks for the steps, the concave and convex bricks for the thick banister of the spiral staircase and the curve of the entrance hall, the thinnest for the general texture of the façades.
It was the last private villa of Robert Mallet-Stevens’ career. When, at the end of the 1920s, he began the project upon the request of Paul Cavrois, a rich magnate of the textile industry in the Roubaix area, the architect had already designed a villa for the couturier Paul Poiret, completed the Villa Noailles in Hyères and developed an entire alleyway in Paris. All these architectures appear to be imposing sets of white cubes. Art historian Myron Malkiel-Jirmounsky bore witness to this following his visit to the Rue Mallet-Stevens:
“Here, more than anywhere else, ‘cubist’ art is the basis of the new architectural movement, these ‘volumes’, of varying proportions […] are like a set of cubes, cylinders, trihedra, etc. The distribution of these simple and varied geometric forms demonstrates a wealth of imagination and invention, of a highly refined artistic taste.”
While the general outline of the Villa Cavrois is also similar to a colossal set of cubes, Robert Mallet-Stevens pushed this playful aspect even further still. Much to the discontent of the masons working on the site and also of modern-day conservators, the architect commissioned a local company, the Bonzel factory, to cast an original range of 26 bricks to cover all of these large reinforced concrete volumes as precisely as possible. Designed with great skill, these 26 bricks of slightly different sizes and shapes required painstaking assembly, under the watchful eye of the architect who was often present on-site.
26. This was the optimal number, the one which enabled Robert Mallet-Stevens to give his villa’s surface a fine texture, to cover it seamlessly in a skin with delicate scores, like the lines of a musical score or a school exercise book. Aptly, as Frank Lloyd Wright asked that the vertical joints separating the bricks of his Prairie Houses be painted to give a fluid effect, the French architect created his version of this idea and added to it by painting the horizontal joints of the façades in black. Some lines of joints run continuously all around the Villa Cavrois, spanning more than 200 metres!
This “modern castle”, as it was known at the time, is the only one of Robert Mallet-Stevens’ buildings to use bricks. The person who gave him the idea of such an original use of this material is, according to historians, not the American Frank Lloyd Wright but rather Dutch architect Willem Marinus Dudok who was behind the famous urban plan for the extension of the town of Hilversum. As with many modernist pioneers, Robert Mallet-Stevens, together with Paul Cavrois, visited this essential mecca, and more specifically the worksite of the Town Hall, in the winter of 1930. To make an unambiguous connection between his villa and the Dutch modernism which enthralled him, Mallet-Stevens brought back from Hilversum a sample of yellow brick with which he then created 26 models.
This number is meaningful. With so many model types, the architect was very literally giving himself an alphabet. He could express himself eloquently, invent a new architectural vocabulary, create his façades like a skilful scholar or a typesetter paying attention to the type colour.
The use of such a metaphor about the architect Robert Mallet-Stevens is justified. The Frenchman was undeniably a man of letters. From a young age, he drew, wrote and created the layouts for various graphic media – including children’s books.
“It is probable that the Mallet-Stevens archives must have maintained the memory of a rather verbose graphic artistic practice prior to the First World War, yet only a few scattered traces remain of this. They show the wide range of his activities which include forms of graphic arts such as posters and wallpaper patterns.”
This taste for graphic design and typography influenced his architecture to a great extent. In the many advertising and international exhibition pavilions that he designed throughout his life, the logos and letters turn into bricks, the slogans into posts, brands into lintels. With the 26 models of brick designed for the Villa Cavrois, the confluence of these two works was at its height, although it was hermetic, not as directly intelligible.
This is where another Dutch figure comes in: Hendrik Wijdeveld, graphic designer and editor of Wendingen – a Dutch architecture magazine with amazing page layouts. Trained as an architect, he saw metal type sorts as miniature bricks to be assembled. He tackled the composition of the printed page with the highly ingenious intuitions of a mason. As such, he is the father of “typographic masonry”, the first person to use this expression which has proved long-lasting. Unsurprisingly, Robert Mallet-Stevens was in contact with Hendrik Wijdeveld. This is shown in an article written in 1925 by the French architect in the second issue of Wendingen to be dedicated to Frank Lloyd Wright.
Since the recent restoration of the Villa Cavrois, this brick alphabet, initially difficult to see, as if it were diluted in the very thickness of the architecture, has been placed in full view. The 26 bricks are exhibited in old boxes from the wine cellar of this historical monument, alongside other building materials. Yet only those in the know would be able to see the tip of the iceberg of the Palace of Typographic Masonry’s Building Set Storage.
As Robert Mallet-Stevens was receiving Paul Cavrois’ commission, the artist Joaquín Torres García, known in particular for his work with the architect Antoni Gaudí, was mass producing boxes containing, not 26 models of bricks, but 26 quaint little architectural forms to help children to learn to read and write (Village and Abecedario, c. 1930). These mini-monuments – church, shop, tower, house, etc. – sculpted quite coarsely in wood, are each given a letter of the alphabet, displayed very clearly on the side. Writing a word automatically creates a charming village square – and vice versa.
The 26 wooden Sculptures alphabétiques (Alphabetical sculptures) created by the French graphic designer Paul Cox (1997) are much more abstract. With highly organic shapes, painted in bright colours, they are unlike typographical characters, building blocks and architectural models. In their very first box, however, they are arbitrarily placed in alphabetical order, once again connected to a specific letter of the alphabet. They look so much like a building set that one can only take them out of their box, handle them, assemble them and build with them. Or should we say “write with them”? Paul Cox, who likes secret codes so much, is confusing us here.
The Scatola di Architettura (Architecture box, 1945) created by Italian designer Bruno Munari only contains 7 different shapes reproduced in 6, 12 or 24 copies of rough lumber. These are called A, B, C, D, E, F and G due to their subtle resemblance to these letters. “Why not make an imaginary alphabet… fantastic, unpredictable, letters of all shapes and sizes, materials and colours, thrown happily into the air”… exclaimed the author of the famous libri illeggibili one day. This small wooden alphabet also calls for unbridled construction, free from any supervision. Admittedly, the manual that comes in the box suggests building an industrial warehouse, a gothic church, an indoor market, a volcanic observatory, a neoclassical palace, a residential building with lifts, a Nordic house, a courthouse, a pyramid, a community housing building or a scooter factory. Yet of course, all these models are given to be adapted, changed and improved upon. They are included simply under the pretext of getting to the very essence of architecture, the ABC of building. With these few items in their hands and a vivid imagination, users can reinvent the history of architecture in their own ways, giving it other directions, or starting from scratch.
Crystal Chain Case
Although made of coloured glass, the Dandanah building blocks (1919) designed by Bruno Taut do not work in a different way. From the outset, the construction models provided by the German expressionist architect are nothing like anything else. Taut was very clear on this, the idea was not to reproduce the existing but to circumvent it, to erect a “fairy palace”, a crystal Angkor, a world that draws its inspiration from the poetry of his friend Paul Scheerbart:
“Belt of clouds / Glass towers / Pyramids of yellow topaz and violet amethyst / Field of pearls: black with hints of pink / Sun-like cupola / Rings with light and dark blue dots / Silver towers / Light and dark green cubes”
This brick alphabet, once again, must be used to create an original, impenetrable language. Bruno Taut states this in a Crystal Chain letter, a secret epistolary correspondence between around ten German expressionist architects between 1919 and 1920:
“My sign language – to be the hieroglyph myself. From there come ‘building ideas’.”
The “Domino forms” by Hermann Finsterlin, who also took part in the Crystal Chain, break free from the vocabulary of blocks and bricks very clearly to suggest other construction methods: if 1 is a sphere, 2 an ellipse, 3 a prism, etc., then what would the domino 1|3 look like for example? These formal constrained hybrid shapes once again act as a fertile workroom for potential architecture at a time of great material shortages. Finsterlin then developed a surprising Stilspiel (1921-22), a style game which presents the major monuments of global architecture as various combinations and interweavings of solid geometric shapes.
These kits, most of which are very colourful, draw heavily on the imagination. They engage their users, especially children, to take a side-step, to add a little imagination, irrationality and even humour to these miniature constructions, to put the physical aspect of the materials into perspective, to break for a moment from the constructive reality of architecture and its highly suffocating restrictions. They ran the risk of making the serious corporation of qualified architects envious and forced them to question themselves.
In this respect, Wenzel Hablik, another German expressionist architect, claimed:
“Children! What magnificent materials our earth still has as ‘material for our building games’! Just think: We have rocks! Metals and diamonds! And many beautiful sands! And water! Fire and air! We can blow – suck – hit – bore – lift – press – smelt – and soon we shall also be able to fly! We can live in the air.”
In this regard, these mind-boggling building sets, while only enjoying limited distribution, are in direct contrast to the Anchor Blocks which, while clearly conformist, enjoyed great success.
Created in 1879 in Germany by the Lilienthal brothers and subsequently produced by F. Ad. Richter & Cie, these small building blocks made of compressed sand, dyed in the mass and varnished with linseed oil were surprisingly popular in the 1920s, first in Germany and then internationally. Hundreds of different collections were sold until the 1960s. Hundreds of children were forced to follow the assembly (and storage) plans obediently and with adherence to every detail. These plans were commissioned from highly academic architecture experts. Hundreds of classical and neoclassical buildings were constructed and demolished under the intimidating supervision of the symbolic figure of the architect, printed on the top of the boxes.
Mischievous youngsters must no doubt have tried to defy these strict rules at least once. One example is Buster Keaton who succeeds, in One Week (1920), in reinterpreting the assembly plan, nevertheless highly precise, for his new prefabricated house. Yet as excessively strict parents wanted to manage the careers of their descendants at all costs, and obviously failed in this endeavour, the Anchor Blocks, despite their clear intentions, resulted in only a small degree of vocation. Seldom do major architects celebrate the use of these extremely realistic toys.
Frank Lloyd Wright spoke emotionally about the much more abstract Fröbel “gifts” in 1957 in his Testament and once before this, in 1943, in his Autobiography:
“The smooth shapely maple blocks with which to build, the sense of which never afterward leaves the fingers: form becoming feeling. The box had a mast to set up on it, on which to hang the maple cubes and sphere and triangles, revolving them to discover subordinate forms.”
Moreover, the famous American architect built four houses using “textile blocks”, concrete cubes embellished with a geometric decoration which he designed himself to escape the ugliness of the perpends available on the market. This clear and long-lasting passion for building sets, encouraged by his mother, was then passed on to one of his sons. In 1920, John Lloyd Wright, also an architect, patented what was soon to become the most popular architecture game in the USA, Lincoln Logs, miniature modules inspired by the wooden log frame industry. In the 1940s, in an attempt to further encourage children’s creativity, he designed a second version of the set, this time radically more abstract and more geometric – Wright Blocks.
Not all architects were as fortunate as the Wrights to play with Fröbel gifts during their childhood and thereby to succeed in creating new and significant forms over their careers. Rigid programmes, tyrannical models, formatted thinking, speculation and deregulation all contributed to the drying up of the imagination. Many cities were in this way rendered mute, or at least less expressive. As a result, many city dwellers today “follow the thicks and thins of an urban "text" they write without being able to read it”. To break away from this, as suggested by French philosopher Michel de Certeau, one must climb up to the top floor of a high-rise building. From this vantage point, any town is once again a pile of small bricks, a humble building set. In 1968, the artist Claes Oldenburg, based in New York, who was particularly fond of these inversions of scales, experienced this and produced a sketch entitled City as Alphabet.
Here, very spontaneously, typographic masonry re-emerges. This ascent “transforms the bewitching world by which one was ‘possessed’ into a text that lies before one’s eyes. It allows one to read it, to be a solar Eye, looking down like a god.” As Michel de Certeau specified, “the complexity of the city readable, and immobilizes its opaque mobility in a transparent text”. A, B, C, D, E, F, G… Office buildings, museums, scooter factories … Many Scatoli di Architettura must have been opened to create this.