Exploiting the Expected
First off, let me get this out of the way. For non purist builders working with non Lego parts (glue, paper, sticker and such), you can first skip to the bottom section, the Mixed Media Build, to qualify this piece. There is also a section on clones to better ground that aspect for those interested in such mods.
The purpose of this piece is to illustrate the unique power that a purist build offers. It is not to say that this type of building is superior but rather to point out the benefits to such a build. The basic point to which all this pivots on is as such. Excitement is built within the larger community when a moc takes the expected to unexpected territory.
General Purist Defined
There is no easy way to comprehensively define what purist building means. Brick Brothers has a good general definition though. "A Lego creation that does not include any customizations, such as decals, modified parts, or custom accessories from third-party vendors like BrickArms, BrickForge, and Big Ben Bricks." This sounds good to me. There are a few slippery details like sprues which are part of a few Lego pieces but not intended for use. My sense is that a reasonable level of intent should be applied. Was The Lego Group (TLG) intending this piece to be used in building or not? If not, the part in question – like a sprue – is more a legalistic excuse to use something Legoish rather than using a Lego piece. In the end though, that matter is usually a really trivial point.
What is Lego?
Most important to me is the question, "What is Lego?" I do not mean in the technical, legal sense but rather, what does Lego mean to the average person who views it. This, then, informs us as to what is expected of this medium called Lego. To most, it would be something like this:
- rigid plastic
- a system approach (studs and holes)
- imaginative builds using small units combined to make things
This is the expectation when people view Lego. They expect to see plastic Lego pieces built within the Lego system rules. Most everyone has, at one point or another, interacted with Lego and has a basic idea burned in their brain based on their repeated snapping together of these iconic plastic pieces. It is this expectation of what Lego is and what it generally delivers that a builder can exploit to the amazement of others creating a magical viewing experience. It is through mastery over this defined system impresses beyond other’s expectations.
While Lego is more than just plastic – there are strings, cloth (from capes, bedding and such), rubber bands, tubes and more – the iconic Lego material is plastic. The iconic method for building is the use of studs or, conversely, holes. Amazement is built on the extent that a moc can deliver on this impression. I have seen some builders who seek out non traditional Lego materials in building their mocs (capes, rubber bands and other cloth materials). My reaction is that they are clever uses of material, but they do not feel Lego. One can perhaps delight in the unexpected uses, but one looses the essence of Legoness. The special amazement one gets from a Lego look is then diminished.
So, let's take a look outside of Lego to help understand what is meant by this. Below we have a rock sculpture created by Shane Hart which was created with the use of balanced rocks (no artificial reinforcement of materials). The expectation (or hope) and amazement when we view this is that these rocks have been balanced with no foreign materials. We imagine just how impossibly difficult this must have been to create and how delicate and fragile this situation must be. The slightest touch, perhaps a gentle breeze, could topple them over and no more would be the sculpture. There is a tension to all this and it amazes.
Now, think for a moment how much less exciting these pieces would be to find that they are affixed with reBar and cement. The piece may still be interesting as a concept. But, in terms of execution, something critical is lost. All of a sudden, the piece becomes commonplace. It is now no longer a mastery over a medium, but rather a general craftsman’s skill put to use for a concept.
In short, the rocks below suggest an improbable circumstance (balancing), that, if true, is completely amazing. To the extent that the rock have not been balanced, but manipulated through use of foreign reinforcement, the piece fails to impress as strongly.
And so it is with Lego. We are all familiar with how Lego is supposed to look and work. When a moc has complied with this expectation of how it has been built and yet defies the expectation of what it can look like, we are awestruck. It is this delta between what we expect a Lego build to look like and what an artist has actually built – while complying within the system – that delights.
Knowing what people expect Lego to be (the first points above: rigid plastic, system, imaginative build), decisions can be made while building to exploit this to your advantage. By focusing on plastic materials (rather than cloth, etc) you set up amazement as the known plastic properties of Lego magically seem to defy expectations. Making a round wall out of bricks is one such instance. Sticking within the system by following stud and holes suggest a level of mastery over the set of rules Lego has created. This, as opposed to using glue, tape or even Lego rubber bands to hold pieces together. Unexpected uses of pieces add to a sense of imaginative building.
Generally, the clones that I have seen, fall into the category of thematic decor. Basically involving the detailing of minifigs like guns, helmets, flasks and such using plastic pieces that comply with Lego system (studs, holes, bars and such). This does not bother me so much as they do not change the nature of Lego. They are still plastic and do not add foreign or new functionality to how Lego works. One should declare the use of such materials in presentation, though. By declaring it, it does suggest (to the non Lego enthusiast) a type of cheat, which I believe does diminish amazement.
Changing the Nature of Lego
Altering the nature of Lego is where mocs fail to deliver the unique properties of Lego. Like the rock sculpture above, if the materials used do not follow the meaning of the form – in our case a Lego system build – the moc will lose its appeal. Materials, like glue and tape break the nature of Lego's system build approach. Destroying bits (cutting, melting, etc) break the nature of the original bit. Painting pieces break the nature of Lego's system of colors. Stickers break the nature of the additive properties of a build (that is, combining small things to describe the look of a thing).
Exceptions to this are when materials are used for the preservation of a moc, generally for public display or future sale. One cannot deny the need to reinforce in these situations. This is true as long as the materials are used for preservation rather than a solve for lack of a legal building methods. Whether glue has been applied to a piece or other structural materials – like steel – are used, it is an expected precaution that, I believe, the public would expect to protect against vandals, weather and exhibition travel. UV protection, such as sprays using in pieces found LegoLand Miniland – help maintain color steadfastness. Admittedly though, the UV protection tends to crack and peal which actually helps many pieces in that they look more realistic and weathered. This then does break a bit from a protection material to an unintended aesthetic effect.
Wear and Tear
As most have used Lego, we are all aware how wear and tear can effect pieces. Fading colors, bite marks, scrapes and scratches are a part of the Lego experience. I find this a reasonable exploit that does not take away from the known properties of Lego. My sense is that naturally occurring Lego deterioration is a reasonable expectation. To this end, I tend to buy old, worn and faded Lego which I mix into new pieces to add random texture. My favorites are yellowed white pieces. Again, the whole point to creating excitement withing the broader community is to make the unexpected out of the expected.
The UnLego Lego
Indeed, there are some instances where Lego has been unLego in their development of pieces. Such is the case with BURPs (big ugly rock pieces) and those bits which break the most basic Lego premise of using one's imagination to build. From the prefabricated roofs of Harry Potter, to stone printed walls of castles, these pieces take away from the amazement of a Lego build. This also applies to the premade trees from the older days. To the extent that TLG designs bits that diminish imaginative build, mocs which utilize said bits suffer from an imaginative anemia. While the immediate impression might be somewhat favorable from the detail, a closer look can quickly disappoint.
The Mixed Media Build
Just as in the art world there is a broad category called Mixed Media, so to does this apply to Lego. When foreign materials are used in building mocs, they no longer are Lego mocs but rather mixed media mocs, using Lego. Whether the materials are from model train building or other hobbies, the introduction of these materials interfere with the expectation of a Lego build. There is an awe that comes to knowing that beauty and complexity can be found within the rules and bounds set up by Lego. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with this approach, it is simply another approach out of the realm of Lego and into a mixed media realm.
There is no denying the freedom from breaking free from the rules and constructing outside of the Lego system with other materials. And no denying the merit of such pieces. They, however, must be looked at in a different way – not a necessarily better or worse way – just different. It is no longer a Lego piece but rather a mixed media one.