Architecture in play: Intimations of modernism in architectural toys, 1836–1952
In the last two hundred years, architectural toys---blocks and construction sets---have echoed full-scale architectural experimentations. Architectural toys have provided evidence of the social and economic life of their period; they have reflected stylistic inclinations and incorporated technological changes in their 'systems of construction'. Designed by adults for children, architectural toys have presented an intersection between generations and a meeting point between pedagogy and means of production.
With the advent of industrialization, the four construction sets investigated---made of wood, stone, metal and paper---have indicated changing attitudes towards form, structure and permanence. Having surveyed the world, they have classified and divided the environment, providing tools to recreate its orders. Froebel's Gifts (1836) included a series of cubes, spheres and cylinders that were gradually broken down to smaller geometrical parts; Anchor Stone Building Blocks (1877) comprised hundreds shapes of miniature stones that yielded castles, forts and churches; Meccano (1901) and Erector Set (1911) included small metal girders that constructed bridges and skyscrapers mimetic of contemporary steel structures; while The Toy (1950) and House of Cards (1952), designed by Charles and Ray Eames, were lightweight, cardboard kits-of-parts that echoed methods of prefabrication.
Allowing for a large array of assemblies and connections, all case-studies also shared the breakdown of contemporary conventions of architecture. A structured dissection of natural formations was followed by the decomposition of known molds of space, to be replaced by light building parts, suggesting prefabrication and mobility gradually questioning the nature of the house. Thus, play with construction sets wavered between getting used to an existing reality while simultaneously performing the destruction of that same reality. Hence, the vision offered by the construction toy enacted persistently an image of collapse. Breakdown and collapse, construction and taking apart positioned architectural toys as tools that appeared to advance---at all times---the constant reevaluation of spatial design. Lightness of building materials, modularity, systematization and greater versatility were parts of an architectural language that the toys exemplified. In the intimacy of the domestic environment, eradicating formal habits and re-conceiving visual orders, architectural toys intimated notions of the modern.