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.

Exploiting Expectations
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.

– Mike


Buffalorand said...

I am relatively new to the MOC world as as an organised concept though I have been building them without the moniker since the very early 70's (who hasn't once deconstruction of a set has begun, on purpose or by accident). The debate is a wonderful interaction for builders and while I am what I would call a purist, I do appreciate the use of Lego materials in MOC's (I have even created custom stickers for AFOL's to use in their shows but as yet have not used any myself). Your essay is a FANtastic read! For the record, I really do not like using the pre-printed and beyond-brick-formed pieces, even in sets; oh Lego Group, what mischief you have created with these elements! As for after-market custom pieces, the lack of quality often speaks for itself and should be avoided if a truely impressionable creation is the builder's intent. Regardless of ones approach, keep building and Play Well!

Katie said...

You have expressed perfectly what I have felt about the whole purity issue. I've even felt the same about capes and rubber bands and things like that. Cheese slope mosaics (and similar things) break away a bit from the expectations of LEGO, because they don't make use of the stud and tube connection. I think that's why some people have expressed a bit of criticism about it. But oh well; I love working that way.

I'd say more, but the kids are pestering me. ;-)

Mike Doyle said...

I think your cheese slope tension counts. What I struggle with is spilling pieces into areas for texture. Yours requires skill to make it work. Loose spills seems not in keeping with the spirit of Lego.

More than anything I think is this notion of the spirit of Lego. It's that creative endeavor which Lego has purposefully built into the pieces.

Todd C said...

It is a dangerous game, labeling others. Mr. Doyle, for example, could fairly be called a still-life photographer, in the sense that the two-dimensional representation of the MOC is the work of art, while the subject of the photograph is a transient arrangement of objects. None of this, of course, diminishes the quality or beauty of the art, nor the skill of the artist.

Mike Doyle said...

I'm not sure what you mean. That is, this article has nothing to do with labeling but rather exploring what happens with the viewer upon seeing a piece and knowing that it was made through a craft of Lego upon Lego. There is a special awe that comes from that.

In terms of labeling, yes, I don't know what to call what I do. I certainly am not a photographer, but the final product is a photograph. I wouldn't say I'm a sculptor, but some say Lego sculpture. That part is semantics that I don't care about.

When I speak of mixed media, I speak of the loss of this effect or awe one gets from knowing the craft was Lego upon Lego. One may gain something else in looking at such a piece, but it is a different feel one gets.

So it is knowing this that one can exploit this. For instance, by building rather than using premade Lego elements, etc.


Todd C said...


I am interested both in the "purist" label and in the implication that a MOC is somehow less impressive when it does not conform to the plastic stud-to-hole standard.

There are a number of lines you can draw to delineate what you believe is pure and/or amazing. Consider, for example, a LEGO hammock that was created by an official LEGO builder for placement in an official LEGO park. I think it's clever and adorable, and the fact that it uses real plants and string adds to the appeal.

In contrast, while your Three Story Victorian with Tree is a beautiful and impressive work made entirely out of plastic LEGO elements, you concede that the roof seams could use work, but that they're good enough for the photo. Does the fact that you tightly control the viewing experience in this sense take away from the amazement in seeing your model, or make your model less pure than one presented, warts and all, at a convention to be examined in person? (I don't know!)

You have taken a medium that has inherent limits in precision of detail and palette and created something that seemingly defies these limits. I believe your work succeeds and impresses partly by presenting a sizable work in a much smaller format. Some of the amazement was lost on me when I learned of the scale of the models. "Oh, that's how he achieves such intricate detail."

These are obviously philosophical questions to which there are no right answers. In some ways, it comes down to what the artist is trying to say: Are they presenting
"something created with LEGO", or are they presenting a work of art that should be experienced as is with no preconceived notions about what that kind of work should be or how it should be made?

Let me conclude by apologizing for my verbosity, and by assuring you that I bring up your work not to judge, but rather because it both presents interesting circumstances with which to frame this debate as well as allows you to consider these issues on a more concrete and personal level.


Mike Doyle said...


Thanks for your interest.

In terms of the hammock picture, I respectfully disagree with that. Fully immersing within a Lego built world would impress me much more then stringing this between two bushes. That is the problem I have when I visit Legoland. It fails to immerse me into their world as good as it could with the use of shrubs and water. Lego is plastic with unique Lego rules. That is their world. That is their brand. When I go to a world with their name on it, I want to live in it. That would amaze me. Unfortunately, they bury their works within a Disney- style manicured environment that detracts from the essence of Lego. That said, I still remain extraordinarily impressed with all that I see built by the masters. The presentation just fails to go as far as I believe it could.

In terms of your comment on my work, it was my second moc and I admit, I had (and still have) much to learn. Nonetheless, working large to present something smaller is nothing new to art and is the way I work. Like it or hate it, that's it. If Lego made smaller elements, I would take advantage of them. I do continue to learn new techniques to miniaturize the process though. Unfortunately, there is a specific Lego defined scale. Extremely high degree of detail has a bit to do with presentation here – building big and photographing.

Seeing in person is another matter, but does allow for this detail awe. It is the first view from afar where the piece looks small and detailed and then more true to the scale of the medium as one gets in close. Again, this is exploited in gallery presentations with the hanging of large pieces in large rooms where one can stand way back and see it in one way and come in closer to see another and then get back one again.

In terms of "no preconceived notions". I believe until Lego dies and folks have no experience with the medium years later, preconception is a fact. Nearly everyone has experienced it first or second hand. So, folks view the piece through their experience: an experience ground in the physicality of the product – rigid plastic – and the rules they are familiar with, which is primarily a stud and hole. This is the framework into which most adults enter this viewing experience.

One other thing to note. There are many more ways to impress than this article covers. This speaks towards just one. In an article I wrote called Lego Magic, I speak of a couple more of which there are even more presentation techniques to enhance the experience.

Thanks for the comments. It helps me to think things though.

Mike Doyle said...

I just reread what you wrote and in answer to your one question (that I missed) concerning how the piece would seem at a convention. The answer is yes, the piece would be diminished as it was not crafted everywhere to be viewed at more angles. Were I to create it with that experience in mind, I definitely would have worked harder to figure out how that part would work seen from more angles. I continue to work on this aspect so that the pieces could be 'more presentable'. In my last piece, I think I came pretty close with very few such 'blemishes'. It is something I keep in mind more and more while building.

Anonymous said...

Just browsed this site and this thread ... Lots of good points...
Reminds me of the subject - what is true Lego DNA and what is not.... a discussion that hopefully is also ever present in Billund. :-)

Thanks indeed for the inputs. :-)

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