BEIRUT: LEGO can be a kid’s best friend. Since it was founded in the 1930s by the Kristiansen family in Billund, Denmark, this consumer good has allowed youngsters, no matter how clueless and unhandy, to feel the instant gratification of making stuff.
LEGO is more than just fun and games. At least one developmental psychologist (Edith Ackerman) has sung LEGO’s praises as “a unique building system that encourages children to give form, or expression, to their wildest ideas in the most rigorous ways ... The system offers endless possibilities.”
If it’s good enough for playschool, is it applicable to a city subject to the boom and bust of war, reconstruction and neglect? Can LEGO enhance urban aesthetics?
DISPATCH BEIRUT thinks it is. The street art collective, formed by Lea Tasso, a graphic design graduate from LAU, and landscape designer Pamela Haydamous, has created a number of temporary LEGO-based installations in various public spaces around Beirut – Hamra, Gemmayzeh, Mar Mikhael, and Ashrafieh.
“We have had some strange looks,” Tasso recalls.
“Once, some old ladies walked past. They thought we were just playing. They said, ‘Haram, people will steal your LEGO.’”
DISPATCH BEIRUT’s installations target areas of Beirut’s urban landscape that have fallen into disrepair. They’ve applied the Danish play toy to years-old fissures in walls and building facades and to the cracks, nooks, and crannies of weathered staircases.
“It is a form of restoration,” Tasso explains. “Our motive is to bring to life something destroyed either by conflict or general [neglect] using something that is both colorful and playful.”
The installations are evocative of bric-a-brac playfulness, but the poignant juxtaposition of the children’s building blocks with Beirut’s decaying facades highlights the city’s want of conservation efforts, heritage legislation and urban planning.
The fusion of childlike joviality with sardonic social commentary that arises from making street art from children’s toys is reminiscent of the engaged art of London-based “miniature street sculpture” artists Slinkachu and Isaac Cordal.
Slinkachu and Cordal’s work has included dioramas depicting children bathing in a discarded chicken tikka takeaway, riot police posing for holiday snaps in front of the Acropolis in Greece, and a couple studying an upright cigarette butt as if it were on display in an exhibition.
“The authorities are really careless when it comes to architectural planning. Buildings are collapsing,” Tasso says, recalling how the fall of a residential building in the Fassouh area of Ashrafieh in January left 27 people dead. “People are not looking after what we have.”
The duo decided to embark on its public art project after Haydamous discovered the work of German artist Jan Vormann, the originator of the Dispatchwork concept, while she was conducting research for her Master’s thesis in landscape design.
While attending a contemporary art festival in the Italian village of Bocchignano, Vormann had noticed that scant attention was paid to aesthetics in the restoration of perishing residences. A hole or fissure in a wall was simply filled with a rock of equal size, regardless of its color or shape. This practice rekindled the German artist’s childhood affection for LEGO.
Vormann has since created installations in a number of major cities, including Berlin, Amsterdam, St. Petersburg, New York, Barcelona and Venice. Like-minded artists and activists the world over have embraced Vormann’s initiative, united by a desire to offset drab urban settings with iridescent color. Locations in over 40 different cities – including London, Boston, Mexico City, Marrakesh, Sydney and Tokyo – have undergone LEGO-centric facelifts.
LEGO blocks have found favor elsewhere in the art world. In 2007, Lebanese-American artist Nathan Sawaya established “The Art of the Brick,” the first major museum exhibition in the U.S. to focus on the use of LEGO blocks as an art medium.
Since Sawaya’s reimagining of the children’s toy as medium, he’s been described as a surrealistic mash-up of French sculptor Auguste Rodin and pioneering Japanese video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto.
Jaye Moon has created numerous LEGO mini-house installations attached to the branches of trees in Brooklyn. Sebastian Bergne successfully created a functioning green house made entirely from LEGO bricks during the 2011 London Design Festival.
The next step for the Beirut branch of the worldwide Dispatchwork community is to establish a large-scale, permanent installation with the aim of encouraging public participation.
While bureaucratic hurdles must be overcome before such a project can be realized, the DISPATCH BEIRUT team is optimistic, having received assurances from Beirut’s recently opened LEGO store that it will provide the LEGO pieces required for such an installation, free of charge.
The agreement is “great publicity” for the LEGO store, Tasso acknowledges, but she observes with satisfaction that DISPATCH BEIRUT “will be given thousands and thousands of pieces [of LEGO for the project.] It’s a mutually beneficial agreement.”